‘Just’ War and Martialism in Dark Age Britain
Dark Age Britain has been remembered as a time of great chaos and constant war. After the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 AD, taking the stability of their imperial structures and large armies with them, the patchwork of remaining British kingdoms descended into a fight for supremacy and the Roman defenses no longer held at bay the raiders from the north. Then came the Germanic tribes from the Continent - who have come to be known as the Anglo-Saxons - bringing further chaos, uncertainty, and violence to the people of Britain during these so-called “Dark Ages”.
But was the post-Roman era in Britain really as violent as historians once believed? The more we learn about the history of Dark Age Britain, the answer becomes increasingly unclear. Was the Anglo-Saxon invasion a bloody and ruthless process of conquest as once perceived, or was it a gentler process of settlement, integration, and adaptation? The evidence is not clear, but if we take a closer look at some of the surviving remnants of British “ Dark Age ” society, we may find important clues.
The Britons deploring the departure of the last Roman legion, a watercolor by Edward Henry Corbould. ( Druid Reborn )
The Descent into Darkness in Dark Age Britain
It is certainly true that there were dark times in Britain after the Romans left. The large-scale desertion of heavily-populated Roman towns caused a major economic downturn as agriculture and other major industries declined over the first few decades after 410. The arrival of the Romans centuries earlier had shattered any harmony that existed between the British tribes, and whatever unity had been created by imperial rule with the pax Romana disappeared as soon as the Romans withdrew, giving way to infighting between the smaller Brittonic kingdoms.
Hardly any written sources survive from this period. Most of the evidence remaining to us is archaeological, and of the sources we do have, very few are actually written by Britons from a Brittonic perspective. As a result, some scholars have declared this era of Britain’s history irretrievable. While archaeological evidence does give us insight into the cultural activities and practices of a society, it cannot reveal the true nature of the social contexts, political structures, and ideologies surrounding and governing these activities. However, from the few sources we do have we are able to retrieve some sense of what post-Roman British society looked like.
Despite the disappearance of imperial infrastructures, the British kingdoms appear to have maintained Roman models of administration and governance as part of their ruling strategies. The Romano-British elites maintained the Roman villa lifestyle they had become acclimatized to, and archaeological evidence confirms they continued to dress and decorate their homes in the Roman style.
The Church in Britain retained a firm tie to Rome and also maintained Roman systems of administration and governance within Church structures. From written evidence in Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae , we can also see that British military and diplomatic strategies were based on Roman models. Vortigern’s treatment of Saxon emissaries is Romanesque, and his use of Saxon mercenaries against the Picts resembles the Roman use of barbarian foederati in their armies.
It is also clear from the evidence that post-Roman British society was a martial society, meaning that warfare was a part of power and leadership, and kings were first and foremost military leaders. War was a force for foundation in this period. A good warrior could establish himself in power and earn social status through victory in battle, and in turn the people would expect their rulers to be competent warriors. Skill in warfare it seems was not enough to qualify one for leadership on its own however, if we look closely at Gildas’ writings.
After the departure of the Romans, Britain descended into in-fighting between smaller Brittonic kingdoms, an era referred to as Dark Age Britain. ( zef art / Adobe Stock)
What Was a “Just” War in Dark Age Britain
More than possessing a certain military prowess, British leaders in this period were expected to pursue warfare and violence only in the name of a worthy cause. War-mongering was not encouraged, nor was fighting for selfish reasons or those judged to be “unjust”. The concept of “just” war developed in Dark Age Britain as a means of describing causes deemed worthy of fighting for. Gildas is very clear about what kinds of war he considers just, and those he considers morally execrable, which can be presumed as reflective of general societal attitudes to some extent.
Virtually the entire point of the De Excidio is to lament the loss of Roman imperialism. The consequent moral degradation is what he declares to be the “ruin” of Britain. In his view, any rebellion against Roman imperialism is condemned as unjust conflict, because Gildas firmly believes in the ascendency of Roman rule. However, he also considers the civil wars between the British kings which followed the collapse of Roman rule in Dark Age Britain to be morally corrupt. Gildas denounces the British princes and kings who engage in “frequent plunder and disturbance…of harmless men: avenging and defending… for the benefit of criminals and robbers.”
According to Gildas, the concept of just war is tied to Christian morality. In his view, the corrupt violence of these rulers is indicative of their ungodliness, making them tyrants:
“despising the innocent and lowly, they to their utmost extol to the stars the bloody-minded, the proud, the murderous men.”
As a result, “they make wars, but the wars they undertake are civil and unjust.”
Engaging in just war made a leader worthy of power, not just because of their ability as a leader but by virtue of moral ascendency. Gildas sees these British rulers as both morally deficient and also lacking in the necessary military skill. He criticized the Britons as “an unwarlike but faithless people,” who are “neither brave in war nor in peace faithful.” “Completely ignorant of the practice of war” they are thus reliant on outside assistance to defend themselves.
The Saxon “Invasion” of Dark Age Britain
There is one kind of war that the sources universally agree is just - defending oneself against invasion. In the 5th century, Britain found itself beset by invaders from all sides. Taking advantage of the Roman army ’s exit, rival tribes from the north and across the sea in Ireland, the Picts and Scots, began to raid the Britons with renewed vigor. Struggling to defend themselves amongst the upheaval of their society, the Britons were forced to seek help from external sources.
According to Gildas, the Britons first tried to ask the Romans for help, but the Romans abandoned them. The king, Vortigern, who appears to have been some kind of “overking” of the British tribes, instead decided to employ mercenaries to supplement their defenses from the Germanic tribe, the Saxons. The Britons had no sea defenses, and so it was good strategy to employ the Saxon warriors who were not only seasoned fighters but also experienced seamen. Contrary to the written sources, archaeological evidence suggests this was not in fact the first arrival of the Germanic tribes and that some had already settled in Britain.
It is not clear how the Anglo-Saxons transitioned from being mercenary auxiliaries to hostile invaders. There are conflicting versions of the story in both contemporary and later sources: some cast Vortigern as the villain, betraying the Saxons by reneging on their contract and causing the Saxons to forcefully take what was owed to them. Others claim Vortigern was simply a weak king who made a fatal mistake by inviting the far stronger Saxons to his land and allowing them to take over. Whichever version you believe, the arrival of the Germanic tribes sparked almost two centuries of hostilities with the Britons, eventually ending with Anglo-Saxon domination of Britain.
Although the invasion has been characterized as bloody and brutal in the written sources, archaeological evidence suggests that it was actually less of a violent process and more one of integration and adaptation. Gildas found parallels between the Saxon invasion and the behavior of fire:
“Blazed from sea to sea… and as it devastated all the neighboring cities and lands, did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island… all the settlements brought low with the frequent shocks of the battering rams; the inhabitants, along with the bishops of the church, both priests and people, whilst swords gleamed on every side and flames crackled, were together mown to the ground.”
His bloody and brutal account of the Anglo-Saxon raids ends with the slaughter or enslavement of the British peoples, those who did not flee the island altogether, but there is no archaeological evidence to support such large-scale decimation of the Britons.
The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons was hardly peaceful, it created further turmoil in an already turbulent time in Britain’s history. A new class of warrior elites emerged and competed with the British for land and resources, so hostilities were inevitable. However, historians now believe that the Anglo-Saxon “conquest” was more a slow process of absorption, with the British choosing to intermarry with the Germanic settlers and assimilate into their newly-established order while the Anglo-Saxons took over as the main rulers.
Heroic ideals and the importance of warrior culture remained after the departure of the Romans. ( wickerwood / Adobe Stock)
The Role of War in Dark Age Britain
While the invasion of the Anglo-Saxon tribes in Dark Age Britain may have been more peaceful than originally thought, the martial aspect of British society remained and so warfare continued to have an important role to play. The evidence of epic poetry that survives from early Anglo-Saxon society, the most famous example being Beowulf, shows how the importance of heroic ideals and the social status of warriors carried over into the new British society.
Even before Beowulf, heroic poetry from the 6th and 7th centuries give us important insight into how British society was developing at the time. One of the most famous pieces surviving from this period is Y Gododdin , by the Welsh bard Aneirin. It is hard to trace the poem’s origins, as it was likely transmitted orally in many different forms before being written down. There are therefore two extant versions, but it was likely composed between the years 580 and 640.
The poem chronicles the defeat of the Gododdin tribe (called the Votadini by the Romans) and their allies at a place called Catraeth (possibly located near Catterick in modern-day North Yorkshire) and reads as a collection of elegies for their warriors who died heroically in battle. Aneirin paints a glorious picture of a sweeping battle between huge armies that carried on for several days of slaughter and bloodshed:
“In jollity men gather’d for Gododdin
O mighty force approaching certain doom
There swords in silent slaughter shall slay in shortest order
Form stillnesses pillar’d by the mighty laws of life!
Those men had march’d on Catraeth neath the sun
Whose host's most fearsome foes shall pierce the peace
Ten thousand seek three hundred’s overthrow
Where, crimson-chrism’d under lances dancing,
What gallant, manful war-post fearless held
By Mynyddawg Mwynfawr & his braw men.”
It must be remembered however, that it is in the nature of epic poetry to exaggerate the circumstances of the battle in order to make the heroes’ deeds appear respectable. In fact, the evidence fairly unanimously agrees that major pitched battles such as Aneirin describes were highly unusual in this period. By Aneirin’s time, the Anglo-Saxons were well-established in Britain and would not have been undertaking major conquest, although some individual kings may have been more ambitious, attempting small-scale conquest locally.
The post-Roman era was actually characterized by an avoidance of war, in keeping with the Roman military strategies set out in the early 5th century by a writer known as Vegetius. These principles outline the key tactics of plunder and ambush, encouraging an appreciation for surprise and cunning rather than all-out battles, which were considered far too risky and less likely to yield good results as victory in major battles was rarely decisive.
Warfare continued to have an important role to play in so-called Dark Age Britain, as evidenced by epic poetry such as that of Beowulf, seen here. ( Public domain )
The Line Between Britons and Anglo-Saxons Blurs
What becomes apparent when closely examining Aneirin’s poetry is that by the 7th century the distinction between Briton and Anglo-Saxon had become blurred as the two merged together into one coherent society. The Anglo-Saxons did not segregate themselves from the British apartheid-style, but rather as intermarriage brought the two disparate elements together, political alliances and power relations became less characterized by race or ethnicity and more by the individual quality of a leader. Brave, successful warriors were accorded higher respect and status, earning loyalty as well as military support to solidify their power, and their armies were of a more ethnically composite nature.
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The same applies to the Gododdin and their enemies at Catraeth. Aneirin speaks of how the Gododdin and their allies gathered at their fortress of Dun Eidyn (modern-day Edinburgh) under their Guledig (a war leader of several united tribes) to march on Catraeth, and that they were “the tribal pride of Prydain [Britain] wide array’d.”
It has been suggested however, that there were warriors of Anglo-Saxon descent among them from the kingdom known as Linnuis or Lindes, and that a mistranslation of the Middle Welsh version of the poem has erased this particular piece of evidence. Although the “Angles” are cast as the villains in the poem, as the enemies of the Gododdin, it is more than likely that they were also assisted by local British allies who were subservient to the more powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia which fought at Catraeth.
Warfare was very much a part of British society in the centuries following the Roman era , and as a martial society the British valued strong warriors and military leaders. However, there were social standards governing war-like behavior, and the idea of “just” war was an essential part of how these early Britons made war and kept the peace. It was once widely perceived that the war-like natures of these martial societies, including the Anglo-Saxons, meant that this era of Britain’s history was generally more violent and chaotic, but while it is true that the era known as Dark Age Britain was a period of upheaval and turmoil, it is becoming clearer to us that they were not in fact more violent. For this reason, historians are steering away from using the term “Dark Ages”, as we now know it is a misnomer.
Top image: Dark Age Britain is the name given to the post-Roman era, remembered as a time when British kingdoms descended into a fight for supremacy. Source: Stanislav / Adobe Stock
By Meagan Dickerson
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