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Independence and a Celtic Revival in Britannia

Roman military legions evacuated Britannia in the late 300s and early 400s, while the western half of the Roman empire was still standing but falling apart, the Visigoths pushing to Hispania and the Vandals into North Africa. In Roman-ruled Britain many had favored everything Roman. Townspeople spoke Latin, drank wine, wore the Roman toga and enjoyed Roman baths and dinner parties. But around two-thirds of the people lived outside of the towns, spoke no Latin and worshiped Celtic gods – in a country that was still half forest, shrub and marshy wasteland. And with the withdrawal of the Roman military, Celtic nationalism arose. Power passed to local, Celtic military leaders and Celtic aristocrats. These aristocrats supported a Celtic warrior named Vortigern (Vortiger, or Vortigen) – a Christian of Pelagian persuasion. Around the year 425, Vortigern began extending his influence, and he became the strongest force in Britain, ruling from Wales to the channel coast in the south. Pelagian Christians spread their influence, while orthodox Catholics in Britain held their ground and remained in contact with church leadership on the continent.

It was in the 400s that a tribe from Ireland called Scots, or Scottie, with others from Ireland were migrating across water to what today is called Wales and to the north of Hadrian's Wall, today called Scotland. Vortigern defeated those Scots who attacked England from enclaves in Wales, and he battled the Picts, who attacked England from north of Hadrian's Wall. For help against the Picts, Vortigern turned to Anglo-Saxons who had settled along England's east coast. He gave the Anglo-Saxons more land and a treaty, and for eight years the Anglo-Saxons fought the Picts according to their treaty obligations, and the Anglo-Saxons defeated the Pict invaders. Then negotiations over Vortigern's payment to the Anglo-Saxons broke down, and the Anglo-Saxons attacked Vortigern's army. The result was a terrible but indecisive battle at Aylesford in 455 (the same year that Valeninian III was assassinated and Rome was sacked for a second time).

After the battle at Aylesford, the Anglo-Saxons continued a campaign of pillage and slaughter against the Celts. Then came the greatest series of Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain to date, as Angles, Jutes and Saxons on Europe's continent were running from the Huns. Vortigern's power evaporated. But unlike the people in Gaul and Hispania (who were passive or accepted the presence of German authority) local Britons felt they had much at stake and vigorously resisted invasion.

War between the Britons and the invaders continued with the passing of years. Trade and markets broke down. Slaves escaped, and estates were left in ruin. Those towns that were too well-fortified for the invaders and had water became places of refuge while other towns declined with their supply of food. With England weakened by war, the Picts renewed their invasions southward across Hadrian's wall. And the Anglo-Saxons continued their forays westward, massacring and pillaging their way to the sea that separates Britain from Ireland, while the Celtic Britons fled into the hills, or into Hispania, or across the channel to Gaul.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.