British Sea-Power in the Age of Arthur

Naval Warfare fromRomanus Virgilius Folio 77r
Naval battle as portrayed in the 5th century Virgilis Romanus MS. It portrays a classical sea battle but the ill dates to the time of Post Roman British sea-power.

The Brittonic Period–the fifth and early sixth centuries of Britain–was a pivotal period in British history and as such it remains the subject of much contentious debate; despite decades of discussion, for example, there is still no academic agreement as to the chronology or precise sequence of events for the Brittonic era.[1]  However, in recent decades a certain degree of consensus has slowly emerged among scholars that the cessation of direct Roman political control over the British Isles did not automatically spell the collapse of civilized life in the former diocese of Britannia and that some manner of organized Romano-British polity continued on after the cessation of Imperial control.[2]  While virtually all texts bearing on the period remain problematical and intensely debated, the archaeology of the era has begun to tilt more in the favor of continuity than any radical discontinuity in fifth century Britain.[3]

Similarly, many scholars have begun to question the whole ideology of the Anglo-Saxon Invasions, instead arguing for a more complex process of military recruitment, trade and immigration, which only in later stages devolved into outright conflict.[4] A few academics have even tried to make the case that southeastern Britain had already been German-speaking well before the arrival of the Romans, although this hypothesis remains an outlier.[5] Whatever model one may choose to reconstruct the events of fifth and early sixth century Britain, however, one important aspect of the era remains virtually ignored: Brittonic sea power and its relationship to the military and political events of the era.  Despite the voluminous literature relating to the Brittonic Period–the storied Age of Arthur–almost no one has discussed naval aspects of Post-Roman Britain.[6]  If discussed at all, it has generally been within the context of an assumed Saxon naval dominance of Britain and its seas during the whole of the fifth and sixth centuries.

Celtic Sailing Vessel based on Guernsey Ship, artist's reconstruction, Guernsey Museum
Both Celtic and Saxon style vessels may have been employed by British fleets in the Age of Arthur. Artist’s reconstruction of the Guernsey Ship

While no one questions the military importance of Saxon, Irish and Pictish sea power during this period, when it comes to the native British and their seafaring capabilities, a curious myopia affects English historiography.  It could be argued that, like the question of Arthur’s historical existence, there is no direct evidence for British seafaring for this period, much less of a Brittonic navy or fleet. To a certain extent this is a specious argument, for actual written documents relating to Britain contemporaneous to the fifth century are nearly non-existent. The written evidence that does survive consist of inscribed stones, mostly grave markers; a copy of the Aeneid believed to have originated from a British scriptorium of the period; and finally, later copies of material ascribed to St. Patrick’s authorship.[7]  Almost all other information exist either as transcriptions of the oral tradition or much copied (and thus corrupted) texts dating to the periods following; these later texts are subject to their own set of problems of accuracy or credibility. Yet the situation for Scotti, Picti and Saxons sources is the same or worse for this period: all these cultures were pre- or proto-literate and one must rely on transcribed oral traditions or later texts for evidence relating to their history as well.  Yet in all these cases, no one questions their seafaring prowess or the naval influence they wielded during this era.

lead ingots from plumanoch wreck
:Lead ingots with Celtic inscriptions recovered from the Plumanoch wreck, ca 5th cent AD

However, we do have some evidence for the existence of Brittonic naval capabilities, albeit much of it indirect. During the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Britain acquired the unfavorable reputation for being “fertile in tyrants.” In each case, these Late Roman usurpers of necessity had to make use of sea power to transport their armies unopposed onto the European continent. Control of the sea was thus a sine qua non for any British usurper attempting to seize the Imperial throne. The last such “tyrant” was Constantine III, who began his bid for power beginning in 405. Constantine nearly succeeded in his attempt, but he finally came to an ill end in 514.[8]

While details of the makeup of the usurper fleets is unknown, we do know that the rank and file of the sailors would have consisted of indigenous seafarers, even if the officers commanding them might have been ethnic Romans. From later British tradition we know that these Roman usurpers were often viewed as British by the native population of Britannia.[9]  After Constantine III’s fall, continental sources fall silent about Britain; there is no evidence that the diocese of Britannia was ever re-occupied, while a great deal of circumstantial evidence indicates that, after Constantine, the Western Empire had but nominal control of most of Gaul and Hispania and, therefore, for the rest of the century a military conquest and reoccupation of Britannia was simply beyond the capabilities of the Empire.[10]  Whatever transpired in Britannia after Constantine would have happened under a native polity independent from Ravenna.


Brittonic Sailors with watchtower in background
Brittonic sailors wore “Venetian Blue” uniforms and their ships were clad in the same color, which blended with sea and sky as an early form of naval camouflage.

We do, in fact, have some direct evidence for the existence of British naval capabilities for the post Roman period.  The late Roman writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus included a section on naval affairs in his treatise on the Roman military.  The naval section of his treatise De Re Militari has rarely been translated, which may account for so few scholars being aware of his mention of British naval forces.  The passage is tantalizingly short, but it seems to reflect contemporary Brittonic affairs and not looking back to a previous era, as so much of Vegetius’ treatise does. While scholars may debate the precise date of the tome, the best estimates places it in the reign of Valentinian III; a date between 435 and 450 would not be unreasonable.[11]

Despite the paucity of contemporary evidence, there are a few Classical sources which bear indirectly on the subject and to late Roman naval affairs in general.  There also exists a large body of traditional accounts which relate to Brittonic Period seafaring and naval activities as well.  As with all traditional and folkloric material, these sources must be treated with caution; nevertheless, given the conservative nature of such traditions, much legitimate information may be gleaned from them.  Lastly, there is a growing body of archaeological and anthropological evidence which bear on the subject and which needs to be properly analyzed and interpreted freed from an anti-Brittonic bias.

Although Saxon naval abilities and capabilities are important for the history of the Brittonic Period, they constitute only a part of the overall subject; rather than view north German sea-power as a discreet topic isolated from the discussion of Brittonic maritime affairs, a better approach would be to see them as but an element in the larger context of general Brittonic (or British) maritime affairs. Even after the Saxon revolt, the best archaeological evidence indicates that the native British polity remained intact and still the dominant ethnic and military factor in the region; consequentially, its naval capabilities would have also remained largely intact and substantial.  In putting the admittedly fragmentary evidence together for this era, rather than viewing the indigenous folk of Britain as inherently weak and incapable of self-defense in the Brittonic Period, they should be viewed as active players in the history of their island and, despite the many challenges they faced, as being generally successful in their response to these challenges until at least the mid-sixth century.


Reconstruction sketch of Blackfriars 1
Reconstruction of the Blackfriars 1 vessel, built in the Celtic shipbuilding tradition.


More broadly, one should always keep in mind that the native folk of Britain and its adjacent isles throughout history were renowned as seafarers: as a corollary, unless there is positive evidence to the contrary, one should also posit them as skilled at naval warfare, eminently capable of both offense and defense at sea and that they were no less so during this initial era of British independence as they were in later periods.

One major aspect of Brittonic sea-power that has been overlooked or ignored is the fact of British expansion overseas during this period. It is well known that the Celtic British established colonies in northern Hispania and northwestern Gaul during this era and, moreover, participated in at least one direct military intervention into Roman Gaul during the fifth century.[12]  Such colonial expansion and military intervention required maritime capabilities and naval power of some considerable strength to carry out.  Even if details of these fifth and sixth century continental activities remain poorly documented, the mere fact of their existence constitutes proof of Brittonic naval sea-power for the period in question.  While much new research is needed and a reassessment of old archaeological and written evidence is called for, even given the current state of knowledge the role of sea-power in the history of Post-Roman Britain, and of Brittonic naval expertise in this history, should be regarded as a basic fact and not theory.

Ancient harbor showing a variety of late Roman sailing vessels
Ancient harbor scene showing different types of late Roman vessels.


The task for the future, therefore, is to create a synthesis of the diverse material relating to the fact of British sea-power in the fifth and sixth centuries and present it in published form to an interested readership.  Such a coherent narrative may well be disputed in its details or in its conclusions criticized, but ultimately it is preferable to make the attempt rather than continuing to allow so important an aspect of the Brittonic era to remain unexamined and ignored.[13]

[1] The term Brittonic was first used by Chris Snyder to describe the distinct period following the Roman era but before Saxon ascendancy, when the native Britons and their culture flourished.  This phrase is used in preference to the pejorative “sub” Roman label, or to use the now contentious phrase “Age of Arthur,” which has been much disputed and made anathema to the Minimalist school of English historiography by Professor Dumville since the 1970’s.

[2] See Kenneth Dark, “Centuries of Roman survival in the West” British Archaeology, Issue no 32, March 1998, and Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity, 300-800 (Studies in the Early History of Britain) (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1994); Martin Henig, “Roman Britons after 410″ British Archaeology, Issue 68, December 2002.

[3] Christopher Snyder “Sub-Roman Britain an Introduction” Vortigern Studies (1997)

[4] See, for example, Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon archaeology” in N. J. Higham, Ed., Woodbridge Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge : Boydell Press, 2007) ; Also see Francis Pryor, “The Invasion That Never Was,” Episode 3, Britain AD: (BBC Channel 4, 2004); print edition: Francis Pryor, Britain AD, (NY: Harper Perennial; 2005).

[5] Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story, (London: Constable, 2006)

[6] The number of studies which consider Dark Age Celtic naval developments can be counted on one hand (assuming that hand has been subjected to multiple amputations).  See, for example, Bernard S Bachrach, “The Questions of King Arthur’s Existence and of Romano- British Naval Operations” The Haskins Journal 2, 13-28; although concerned with Germanic naval developments, John Haywood, Dark Age Naval Power: Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring Activity (London: Routledge, 1991) is also relevant; Geoffrey Ashe, Land to the West (NY: Viking, 1962) while mainly concerned with St. Brendan, disambiguated all the early Classical and Celtic references to seafaring in the western seas and therefore is of value, albeit marginally.  There is, admittedly, a voluminous literature on Saxon seafaring and ships, which discuss a number of issues related to the Brittonic Navy, but which are outside the purview of this present short essay.

[7] Robert Vermaat, “The Vergilius Romanus: the first British book? Vergil MS Vat. lat. 3867= Romanus” Vortigern Studies; David H. Wright, The Roman Vergil and the Origins of Medieval Book Design. (Toronto, Univ. of Toronto Press 2001); St. Patrick, “A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus”; Mark Redknap, John M. Lewis and Nancy Edwards Eds., A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculptures in Wales (Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 2007-2013) (three volumes).

[8] Michael Kulikowsky, “Barbarians in Gaul, Usurpers in Britain” Britannia, vol. 31 (2000), 325-345.

[9] See, for example, “The Dream of Maxen Wledig,” The Mabinogion, (Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Eds.) (NY: Everyman’s, 1949).

[10] Eric Morse, “Decade of Darkness; the Collapse of the Roman Army in the West” (AD 395-405) Royal Canadian Military Institute Lecture (Toronto, Dec. 23, 2014).

[11] Paul D. Emanuele, Vegetius and the Roman Navy, MA Thesis, (Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia, 1974), 28;  Nikolas Boris Rankov, in 2002, in the Proceedings of the XVIIIth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, attempted to dismiss the notion of British naval vessels, but Emanuele had already foreseen these arguments in 1974 and successfully countered them in his thesis.

[12] For Britonia, see: Simon Young, “Britonia, The Forgotten Colony” History Today, Vol. 50 Issue 10 (Oct. 2000); Antonio Garcia y Garci­a, Historia de Bretona (Lugo: Edita Servivio /Publicacions Deputacion Provincial, 1999). For Brittany, see: Joseph Loth, Emigration Bretonne en Armorique du Ve au VIIe siecle de notre ere (Paris: Picard, 1883); Leon Fleuriot, Les origines de la Bretagne, (Payot, 1980); John Morris The Age of Arthur, Chapter 14, 249-260. On Riothamus and his campaigns in Gaul, see Geoffrey Ashe The Discovery of King Arthur, (London: Guild, 1985), 53-56; Morris, Age of Arthur, ibid; Dane Pestano, “Riothamus and the Visigoths” Dark Age History blog, August 21 2011.

[13] See Christopher K. Coleman, Britain’s Best Bulwark; Celtic British Naval Power in the Brittonic Era (forthcoming).



What’s the Matter with the Matter of Britain?

Dueling scholars engaged in "close textual analysis"
Dueling scholars engaged in “close textual analysis”

What’s the Matter with the matter of Britain?  I dare say quite a bit, apparently.

While stories of King Arthur, his knights and various and sundry other personalities from fifth and sixth century AD Britain have been circulating for a millennium and a half now, there is no more consensus as to what happened, how and in what order than when scholars first started to seriously study the period.  While I have been interested in the subject since boyhood and have delved into the scholarly literature dealing with the period for more than a score of years, I am remain what would be classed in the category of dilettante scholar.  Of course, such an appellation might justly be applied to a number of other scholars who have worked beyond the pale of academia, such as the esteemed Edward Gibbon, Sir William Flinders Petrie, or, more relevant to the present discussion, Geoffrey Ashe, to name but a few.

While it may be flagrant hubris on my part, in this and following entries on this site I will try to straighten out the Gordian Knot which the period following the Roman occupation and prior to the ascendant period of English hegemony has become.  In the words of the late great President Lyndon Johnson, the time has come to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.

Sub Romans engaged in mortal combat.
Sub Romans engaged in mortal combat.

If this blog rattles a few academic cages in the process, so be it; if we succeed in shedding fresh light on the history of the era, so much the better.  I certainly cannot foul things up any worse than the present state of scholarship in the field seems to be.  This is not to imply that there are not many brilliant minds at the work in the field, men and women who have forgotten more about the subject than I shall ever learn and whose credentials to weigh in on the issues far outshine mine by light years.  It is just that since the mid seventies, there has been no genuine progress in our overall understanding of the era’s history, no coherent model around which one many organize the myriad facts and artifacts.  There is not even a consensus about the chronology of the era.

This is not to say there have not been many excellent technical studies, monographs and narrow focus analyses done in that time; moreover, there has been a great deal of progress in the archaeology of the period, as techniques have improved and some false a priori assumptions been discarded (at least by some archaeologists).  But archaeologists require an agreed upon chronology and coherent historical model upon which they may organize their voluminous finds.  This was a situation which plagued Near Eastern archaeology for many years, until Egyptologists finally straightened out the chronology of the successive pharaonic dynasties and the concomitant material culture associated with them, which in turn allowed Syro-Palestinian and Mesopotamian archaeology to also get their affairs in order.  To be sure, there is no shortage of putative chronologies floating about; every book on fifth century Britain, or dealing with King Arthur (or denying him) has one.  As a rule, no two writers share the same chronology, nor are any of these putative chronologies reliably tied to the better known and more certain chronology of continental Europe at the time, the crucial century which witnessed the fall of the Roman Empire.  Like I said, a mess.

As an symbol of how contentious the Matter of Briton has become, there is also no consensus even when it comes to what to name this period.  Now nomenclature is really the least of the problems, but it is symptomatic of the divisiveness which plagues the study of the era.

Dark Age Britain would be good; except that many scholars argue, with some justification, that the period following the Roman occupation was not dark at all, only our knowledge about it.  Still, I find the term of some use, since it leads us to compare the situation in Britain (and Europe) to other periods which have suffered analogous political and economic downturns which lasted for extended periods.  That such periods of contraction often set the stage for subsequent periods of fluorescence in no way diminishes the usefulness of the concept.

How about Sub Roman Britain, a term much favored by the minimalist school, among others?  Well, first off, sub means “below,” so, was this period which following the Roman era below or above?  Certainly in the archaeological record, the stratigraphy of finds from this period (assuming archaeologists are willing to recognize them) would be above those of the Roman era.  Historically, the era is also after the Romans, so how is that “sub.?”  So, if anything, logically it should be the Supra Roman era.  Moreover, Sub Roman Britain has an implied connotation of inferior, which, if you are down on Celtic culture and history in general, as many minimalists seem to be, might be appropriate the people living in the British Isles after the Romans (ostensibly) left really a “sub” species of the human race, as the term implies?.  I do not.

Then there is the less pejorative Post Roman Britain; fair enough, if you want ignore the great amount of continuity from Roman Britain in both material culture and society that many scholars argue for the era.  It is certainly better a term than Sub Roman, and for the majority who eschew the historical reality of Arthur, it is a convenient circumlocution.

With mention of He Who Shall Not Be Named, we come to the most hotly debated, yet most appropriate, name for the era: The Age of Arthur.  Arthur is the central figure of the era, tales of whom have been told and retold for some fifteen hundred years.  Arthur as a historical personage is problematical, no question; yet he dominates the era, rightly or wrongly.  But one historical school, led by one dominant historian, whom I gather has extraordinary talents in the area of excoriation and ridicule, as well as linguistics, has written, ex cathedra it would seem, that the leading personality of the age is to be banned from the history books.  He has succeeded in making Arthur an anathema—and the previously respected Welsh historian John Morris with him.  Archaeologist Leslie Alcock has been spared Morris’s fate only by retreating into “agnosticism” (as one writer described it).  If we obey this excommunication by one historical school, then Arthur of the Britons—and The Age of Arthur—must be “rejected from our histories.”  Ring the bell, close the book, snuff the candle: Arthur is officially a non-person.

So what should we call it?  David Dumville and his minions would prefer to wipe the slate clean, as it were, and just leave the fifth century—or most of it–a blank.  Failing that, they prefer to refer to the period as Sub Roman.  As I gather their attempt at chronology, nothing much happened until the 440’s and precious little after and then came Gildas and the sixth century.  Of course by focusing in on negative assertions, they neatly avoid having to prove any assumptions of their own, some of which are quite dubious when analyzed.  Celtic sources in general and Oral tradition and folk memory in particular are to be ignored and only the “reliable” texts of the period not on the proscribed list to be used—mainly, I take it, Gildas and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.

If this period is indeed “Sub Roman,” then Sub-Britons, by extension, must be those Celtic speaking untermensch who somehow skulked about the Roman ruins for a time, grubbing for worms and slugs or picking grains of wheat out of horse dung for food, occasionally coughing “gollum, gollum,” during that nondescript interlude between the exit of the Romans and the time when “real” civilization began again—i.e. the English history of the English people.  After all, doesn’t Bede virtually say as much?  There was no Arthur, no Celtic revival—but then also no educated upper class Briton named Patricius who brought Christianity to the Irish, who in turn revitalized Western Civilization in the ensuing centuries.

In fairness, the minimalist do have a legitimate point; the Historia Britonum, Skene’s “Four Ancient Books,” and above all Geoffrey of Monmouth, not to mention the innumerable hagiographies and lesser texts bearing the on the period, all are unreliable or faulty in some fashion.  But if one were intellectually honest, so too are the Minimalists’ favored texts, Gildas and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.  None of the written sources relating to the period should be regarded as truly reliable.  We will go into specific sources in later blogs, but suffice it to say that the surviving texts are all copies of copies that were written a minimum of a century or so after the events described—and often poorly at that—not to mention the authors’ agendas, stated or implied, and so they are all bound to be problematical to some degree.

For the fifth century AD, there is really only one known document which actually survives from Britain: the Virgilius Romanus, now residing in the Vatican Library.  Although at least one scholar would like to posit it to the eastern Roman Empire, most academics, I think, are willing to concede it is of British origin.  It is a copy of the Virgil’s Aenead—and while it has some nice pictures which are of some use insofar as costume and technical aspects of the era, it contains no text relevant to the history of Arthurian (excuse me, Dark Age/Post Roman/Sub/Supra ) Britain.  To give you an idea of how bad the situation is for the Arthurian era, compare it with Assyriology.

In Assyrian history, by contrast, there survives a virtual mountain of texts, written contemporaneously with the events they describe, carved in stone or written in indelible baked clay, even including the personal correspondence of the kings in question.  That there has not been a major synthesis of Assyrian history since Olmstead is not for reliable lack of source material, more’s the pity, just lack of will.

A Savage Rabbit doing away with a rival thesis at a scholarly conference.
A Savage Rabbit doing away with a rival thesis at a scholarly conference.

Another phrase to describe the period after 410 AD has come to my attention as well and while it is not widely used, it too has its merits.  The Brittonic Period encompasses that period after the withdrawal of Roman authority to the final triumph of the Saxons toward the end of the sixth century.  Chirs Snyder (Snyder 1998) has suggested this term, not only because it lacks the pejorative sense of the others but also because it focuses our attention on the Britons, who otherwise get lost in general surveys of Roman and medieval Britain. The period between 410 and 577 is not a void and it should not be treated as such.  While there is much to recommend Chris Snyder’s term, it has yet to attain widespread usage.  Hopefully this may change.

Perhaps, to paraphrase a former head of the Federal Reserve System, maybe we should “call it a banana.”  I think not, however.  In following blogs I shall alternately refer to the era under consideration alternately as the Brittonic Era or Period, Post Roman Britain, Dark Age Britain or the Age of Arthur, or perhaps a few other terms as I see fit.  Perhaps none of them is entirely accurate or correct, but they will do for now.  I am, in any case, more concerned with chronology than nomenclature.

In following articles on this site we will try to bring to bear approaches to the Matter of Britain that have either been rejected or ignored to elucidate the fifth and early sixth centuries.  This may include varieties of comparative approaches, using methods has by political scientists (for example Brinton Crane), anthropologists (Robert McAdams) and Orientalists (Henri Frankfort, Thorkild Jacobsen) who have previously used those techniques to illuminate aspects of other periods and cultures, some highly literate, others proto-historic.  In surveying much of the historical argument about Arthur and the few written sources for the period, scholars seem to be singularly sequestered within their own bailiwick.

Similarly, events transpiring within the Roman Empire during the same period are not irrelevant in assessing events in Britain.  Analogy to contemporaneous behavior within the empire I believe are relevant in assessing later traditional accounts relating to fifth century events in Briton by both the Britons and their enemies.  There was a small body of water separating Post Roman Britain from continental Europe, not an ocean; yet to judge by the works of some English historians of this period, one would think the Atlantic intervened between the two bodies of land.  Other criteria which lately seem to have been more observed in the breech than the observance are worth employing in regard to studying the “Matter:” common sense, for one; Occam’s Razor for another.  More of that anon, however.

This is all a bit rambling, admittedly, but in trying to establish a general framework within which we shall discuss future topics, some summarization is warranted.  Future entries will hopefully be more specific and narrower in focus.  We aim to sort out at least some of the issues in these entries.  I have been working on several longer studies relating to the Age of Arthur, one dealing specifically with chronology, and others dealing with other neglected but important aspects of the period.  One would hope that, in time, those specialized studies will find proper venues in print.  If not, so be it; the reader may have a good laugh at my expense.

CKC Hic Fecit

Copyright © 2015