Warlords, War-bands, and Saints

Last time, I talked about the collapse of the old Roman order in Britain in the fifth century, and what we can reliably say about such an obscure period with so few written sources. (Although it is not a fashionable term, I do use the concept of the Dark Age, properly defined). For historians of Christianity, this is a matter of some moment because out of this world comes the whole world of the Celtic church of Britain and Ireland, with its titanic saints and scholars. These developments would be so important in building the spiritual and intellectual world of the Middle Ages, and reshaping the Christian West.


I described the general crisis of the mid-fifth century, with accumulating horrors of plague, famine, invasion, war and massacre. We may well wonder how people could even survive in these appalling circumstances, and how they could possibly reconstruct the old society they had known. The answer is that they just could not reconstruct, and did not. In modern times, survivors of catastrophe rebuild their cities and try to restore their economies, but that was simply not conceivable in this ancient time, given the rupture with old Roman patterns and trade routes. Even the coinage system no longer functioned, beyond what old Roman coins could be recycled, and that killed both trade and the artisanship on which it depended. Military threats and raids made it impossible to reoccupy the cities in anything like their old sense. Endemic plagues made urban life all the more inconceivable.

Some modern archaeology has pointed to fifth century habitation of some Roman cities. We can argue whether this was truly urban life, or whether some groups happened to have chosen a former urban site as a home, or even a fortress. In most cases, we can doubt whether urban life in any classical sense continued beyond 440. (But see below for one great exception or modification to this statement).

Generals and Warlords

During the fifth century, then, we see a radical shift in social organization, towards a world based above all on military values. The key idea was that of the warlord, and the war-band. As, by definition, this change happened in a world with little bureaucracy and few written records, it is hard to trace reliably beyond a plausible sketch. A man or family emerged as a distinguished war-leader, and he might have come from either Roman or barbarian backgrounds. (I have blogged elsewhere about the idea of the warlord, as it appears in countless societies throughout history).

The warlord secured a reliable fortified place, perhaps within one of the old cities, or more likely, a restored hill-fortress originally constructed in the Iron Age, of the sort that proliferated around Britain. He gathered around him a force of devoted followers, founded on principles of absolute personal loyalty, and espousing a code of military-based honor and good lordship. But followers also needed to be constantly rewarded by gifts, of money, treasure, or slaves. That demanded constant conflict and mutual aggression.

I quote the opinion of archaeologist Tony Wilmott, describing the situation in the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall, centers like Birdoswald (probably Roman Banna):

At Birdoswald, I would argue that the only change in the early 5th century was that the troops of the fort were no longer paid or supplied by central authority. The unit was still there, however, and … I suggest that the old system of official coercion might have been replaced by a symbiosis, whereby the territory from which supplies had been drawn as part of the Roman tax system continued to sustain the fort in return for the assurance of protection in troubled times. It may be that the kind of commander-patronus attested by the large commanders’ houses in the late forts continued to be an important figure as the 5th century went on. These men may have been of sufficient influence to become imperceptibly more like chieftains in control of warbands than Roman commanders. Such an idea would explain the use of the hall as a centre to the settlement. Birdoswald may have become the centre of a small petty kingdom indistinguishable from others with totally different antecedents north of the Wall, or to the west of Britain.

In describing these warlords, I offer the Wikipedia definition:

A warlord is a person who has both military and civil control over a sub-national area due to the presence of armed forces who are loyal to the warlord rather than to a central authority. … [In a modern context] Warlordism frequently appears in failed states, states in which central government and nationwide authorities have collapsed or exist merely formally without actual control over the state territory. They are usually defined by a high level of clientelism, low bureaucratic control, and a high motivation to prolong war for the maintenance of their economic system.

I say nothing about the ethnic origins of particular warbands, and if late Roman history was any guide, most fighting forces would have been extremely mixed, ethnically and linguistically. I doubt if warfare between British and Anglo-Saxon statelets or forces followed anything like modern national and nationalist lines – although Gildas certainly suggests deep racial/national hostility against the Germanic invaders.

Depending on the ethnic or cultural background of the particular society, individual warlords might aspire to more exalted titles, whether Roman or barbarian, royal or even imperial. Conceivably, some might have tried to restore the old pre-Roman tribal states and tribal hierarchies. Some writers believe this, but it is an open question.

The relationship between legitimate and illegitimate authority is a very vexed question, and one that is quite insoluble given our present knowledge. In some cases, warlords might have been adventurers or glorified bandits. In others, they might have held some authority from existing institutions, even as kings in their own right. Perhaps some boasted some Roman title legally obtained, as protector or magister militum. Kings might have acted like warlords, and vice versa. Over time, successful warlords might have become legitimate kings and founded dynasties. Others flamed out and vanished.

The Case of Wroxeter

One of the classic archaeological sites of the era is at Wroxeter, the old Roman city of Viroconium, once the fourth largest town of Roman Britain. It sheds fascinating light on the processes described here. By the fifth century, the Roman city was finished in its old urban sense, but it developed a whole new life that we can only begin to understand. For a while, the basilica and bath-house were used as a grain store, but things then changed with a “great rebuilding” in the century or so after 450. The basilica was renovated, and many new timber structures were built, largely following Roman models.

Critically, there appeared an impressive hall, likewise following the old Roman styles, and complete with a portico, but again, built in timber. It is a classic illustration of the idea of Dark Age survival on Classical foundations. It was probably also the last Classical building erected in England before the Renaissance. But what should we call this? A neo-Roman fortress? A medieval hall? A Welsh chieftain’s llys (hall)? Even Arthur’s Camelot itself? (And yes, I’m sort of kidding about that last one). On a personal note, I recall being at a lecture in Cambridge c.1971 where Philip Barker, head of the Wroxeter excavation team, was describing that hall and some of the early discoveries from the site. The audience of archaeology faculty and students was stunned. The room was so quiet you could have heard a paradigm drop.

Also making Wroxeter radically different from other sites were the methods by which archaeologists had explored it, techniques that now sound very standard, but which were quite revolutionary in the 1960s. In earlier times, archaeologists would come to a Roman city, designate a limited area, and dig trenches, carefully noting and recording the finds at each stratum they came to. You could then reconstruct the floor plans of the buildings, and connect them by a process not unlike the game of Battleships. Wroxeter was different, because of a preference for what we might call breadth over depth. The excavators here did not dig trenches, but instead stripped the top layers over a very large surface. They noted finds, and then stripped the next surface below that, and so on. Let’s call it the lasagne approach. In consequence, they were able to identify long lost surface markings that otherwise would have gone wholly unnoticed, including the light footprint of timber houses, and in one case, the track of the last cart that would have crossed a dirt road some 1500 years ago. That allowed scholars to see the final phase of Roman Wroxeter in a way that would have been wholly lost otherwise.

So a question arises. As we have it, Wroxeter looks quite unique on the post-Roman map, but is that just because of the archaeological process applied here? Suppose that such methods had been applied to other cities like Cirencester, or York, or St. Albans, or even London? Even to make that remark points to the futility of the question. Of course you could not, as those towns have been reused intensively for centuries, in a way that would utterly destroy all those light features hiding just below the surface. The Wroxeter excavation was possible only because it did not become a thriving later city.

So were the post-Roman town and “hall” at Wroxeter unique in Britain, or would something like that have existed at every Roman town around 500 or so, maybe including London itself? We can never know.

Just who restored the site at Wroxeter, and lived in that hall, and what was his status? Would this have been a king or tyrannus? Again for what they are worth (a phrase I will use repeatedly), according to the Welsh genealogies, Vortigern’s own family had connections with the region. Alternatively, around 540, Gildas names five kings or tyrants, and if they are named in some kind of geographical order, as many think, then that would logically place a king called Cuneglassus roughly in the Wroxeter area. But we honestly don’t know.

Power and Ideology

Whoever the new elites were, their aspirations and pretensions were reinforced by every possible means of symbolic power – in clothing, buildings, adornments, weaponry, funeral arrangements, and especially the praise of literary figures, of poets, bards, and genealogists. Think of it as early medieval soft power. Display might be formalized in special gatherings, and a culture of feasting. Imported treasures carried a special symbolic weight, in showing the global context in which the warlord operated. From the fifth century through the seventh, we regularly find sites across the British Isles marked by the possession of imported Mediterranean pottery, and sometimes coins. Most were the residences of warlords and chieftains, but others were monasteries or episcopal centers.

One author on the British warlords in this era is Stuart Laycock, who was inspired by his observations of the Balkan crisis he witnessed as an aid worker in the 1990s. That might indeed offer some instructive analogies.

Among the many things we do not know about the various warlords is the geographical scale on which they operated. If you had a lord in Wroxeter, say, how far afield might he have operated? In modern terminology, how far could he project his power? We can draw some telling lessons from later eras. We have well-documented evidence about the 630s, and the struggles among three leading kingdoms: Mercia in the English Midlands, Northumbria in northern England and southern Scotland, and Gwynedd in north west Wales. The kings of each realm marauded freely over its rivals, and armies traveled far across middle and northern parts of Britain, fighting battles deep inside enemy territory. In the 680s, a Northumbrian king used ships to raid Ireland, and launched an invasion deep into Scotland. It is likely that warlords of the 480s (say) would have been just as mobile and interventionist, especially as the old Roman infrastructure of forts, roads, ports, and way-stations would have been far more intact than it was in the seventh century.

Rulers of that earlier time must also have had good access to shipping, because that is the means by which many Celtic British migrated overseas to what became Brittany. Those pan-British Isles, pan-Insular, dimensions would be critical to understanding the spread and flourishing of Christianity across Britain and Ireland (and Brittany) over the following two centuries.

The Age of Warlords

With that warlord model in mind, I turn back to the story of the fifth century crisis as told by Gildas. He describes the general crisis and horrors of the 440s, followed – very surprisingly – by a major restoration of British/Roman military power, led by figures like Ambrosius Aurelianus. This revival would have occurred between (say) 450 and 480, culminating in the decisive defeat and containment of Germanic forces at the end of the century. The warlord/warband structure might well have been emerging long before that, but would have been constrained by the survival of sub-Roman political structures, and urban-based institutions. After the 440s, the model would have come into full flower.

It was during that time that some ambitious king or general felt the situation was stable enough to invest in building a whole new settlement within the site of old Roman Wroxeter.

Gildas is very sparse on the historical names that he cites, mainly because they are not germane to his purpose. But we can identify some other successful British warlords at this time. One of the oddest stories concerns the British general Riothamus, who around 468 actually led forces to support the Roman Empire in the West, by invading Gaul and fighting the Goths. The Gothic historian Jordanes wrote that “Euric, king of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent change of Roman Emperors and strove to hold Gaul by his own right. The Emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Brittones for aid. Their King Riotimus [Riothamus] came with twelve thousand men into the state of the Bituriges by the way of Ocean, and was received as he disembarked from his ships.” The campaign was a disaster, but the fact of organizing and launching it is an impressive tribute to some kind of British recovery – not to mention the possible survival of Roman values and ideologies.

Undoubtedly historical, Riothamus surfaces in some theories as one prototype of King Arthur, although Ambrosius might also have contributed something to that image. Personally, I favor the idea of a separate historical Arthur, if only on the basis of his unusual Roman name.

At least in later legend, Arthur was associated with a particular battle that I would now be more confident about dating than in previous years – which is not necessarily to say it had anything to do with Arthur. As I have noted before, Gildas writes of a decisive victory over the Saxons at Mons Badonicus, which later chronicles associate with Arthur. Reputedly, “Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors.” Gildas also offers a date for this triumph, which has something to do with 44 years. Unfortunately the text of this passage is clearly corrupt. A reasonable consensus is that Gildas originally said something like that the battle occurred 44 years previously, and he knows this very well because that was the year he was born. But 44 years before what?

Scholar David Woods has argued that Gildas is referring to a great dark cloud over the land, which he took to be an apocalyptic sign or portent. That meshes well with a real recorded historical event, namely a volcanic cloud that crossed the earth in 536-537. Assuming that this is correct, then that is the point at which Gildas was writing, and that 44 years before that would place Mons Badonicus in 493. If that is correct, that gives us one of the extremely rare hard dates that we possess for major political events in fifth/sixth century Britain.

To get an impression of events and conflicts in the larger Western world in the 490s, look at the career of the Roman Emperor of the time, Anastasius.

Besides Arthur, other curious names surface in odd corners of histories and chronicles, where they point to long-lost legends. In one Welsh source, we hear almost out of nowhere that likely in the 460s or 470s, Ambrosius Aurelianus struggled against one Guitholin at a place called Guoloph, which is apparently Wallop, in southern England. Twelve years after the reign of Vortigern, one very Roman-named figure was thus fighting another: Guitholin is the same as Vitalinus. We have no good idea where these stories are coming from, nor why they seemed so important to the particular chronicler, Nennius. But he regards this battle as a turning point worthy to be used as a milestone for dating other key events. For what it is worth, plenty of legends suggest strong rivalry between the families of Ambrosius and Vortigern, and the name Vitalinus appears in Vortigern’s genealogy. Perhaps Ambrosius was fighting a family faction loyal to his predecessor. Different scholars vary enormously on how far they treat these events as historical, and even more so in the dates they assign them.

Patrick’s Foe

One other British warlord figure was Coroticus, who is usually associated with the fortress of Dumbarton, in modern Scotland. Probably in the 450s, he organized a raid on Ireland, resulting in many deaths and the taking of slaves. We happen to know about this because his victims included Christian converts and followers of the British missionary Patrick, who denounced Coroticus in furious words that are among the very few original texts that survive from the British Isles during this whole century. Significantly, the worst charge that Patrick can levy against Coroticus is that he is no Roman, an insult that only makes sense if the warlord claimed to follow Roman values.

By the time we get to Gildas’s own time, in the mid-sixth century, we have a list of kings and kingdoms, though the dividing lines between warlords and kings in any more respectable sense is hard to trace.

Patrick’s bitter relationship with Coroticus suggests one form of church-state interaction – or rather, saint to warlord. I’ll expand on this, as a means of approaching the early medieval church, and especially in its Celtic forms.


I have posted my working bibliography here.

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