UNDER Roman rule every class in Britain flourished except the peasant proprietors. The large estates grew at the expense of small holdings; the free peasant was in many cases bought out, and became a tenant farmer, or a proletarian in the towns. Many peasants supported the Anglo-Saxon invaders against the landed aristocracy.1 Otherwise, Roman Britain prospered. Cities multiplied and grew, wealth mounted;2 many homes had central heating and glass windows;3 many magnates had luxurious villas. British weavers already exported those excellent woolens in which they still lead the world. A few Roman legions, in the third century, sufficed to maintain external security and internal peace.
But in the fourth and fifth centuries security was threatened on every front: on the north by the Picts of Caledonia; on the east and south by Norse and Saxon raiders; on the west by the unsubdued Celts of Wales and the adventurous Gaels and “Scots” of Ireland. In 364–7 “Scot” and Saxon coastal raids increased alarmingly; British and Gallic troops repelled them, but Stilicho had to repeat the process a generation later. In 381 Maximus, in 407 the usurper Constantine, took from Britain, for their personal purposes, legions needed for home defense, and few of these men returned. Invaders began to pour over the frontiers; Britain appealed to Stilicho for help (400), but he was fully occupied in driving Goths and Huns from Italy and Gaul. When a further appeal was made to the Emperor Honorius he answered that the British must help themselves as best they could.4 “In the year 409,” says Bede, “the Romans ceased to rule in Britain.”5
Faced with a large-scale invasion of Picts, the British leader Vortigern invited some North German tribes to come to his help.6 Saxons came from the region of the Elbe, Angles from Schleswig, Jutes from Jutland. Tradition—perhaps legend—reports that the Jutes arrived in 449 under the command of two brothers suspiciously named Hengist and Horsa—i.e., stallion and mare. The vigorous Germans drove back the Picts and “Scots,” received tracts of land as reward, noted the military weakness of Britain, and sent the joyful word to their fellows at home.7 Uninvited German hordes landed on Britain’s shores; they were resisted with more courage than skill; they alternately advanced and retired through a century of guerrilla war; finally the Teutons defeated the British at Deorham (577), and made themselves masters of what would later be called Angle-land—England. Most Britons thereafter accepted the conquest, and mingled their blood with that of the conquerors; a hardy minority retreated into the mountains of Wales and fought on; some others crossed the Channel and gave their name to Brittany. The cities of Britain were ruined by the long contest; transport was disrupted, industry decayed; law and order languished, art hibernated, and the incipient Christianity of the island was overwhelmed by the pagan gods and customs of Germany. Britain and its language became Teutonic; Roman law and institutions disappeared; Roman municipal organization was replaced by village communities. A Celtic element remained in English blood, physiognomy, character, literature, and art, but remarkably little in English speech, which is now a cross between German and French.
If we would feel the fever of those bitter days we must turn from history to the legends of Arthur and his knights, and their mighty blows to “break the heathen and uphold the Christ.” St. Gildas, a Welsh monk, in a strange book, half history and half sermon, On the Destruction of Britain (546?), mentions a “siege of Mons Badonicus” in these wars; and Nennius, a later British historian (c. 796), tells of twelve battles that Arthur fought, the last at Mt. Badon near Bath.8 Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100?–54) provides romantic details: how Arthur succeeded his father Uther Pendragon as king of Britain, opposed the invading Saxons, conquered Ireland, Iceland, Norway, and Gaul, besieged Paris in 505, drove the Romans out of Britain, suppressed at great sacrifice of his men the rebellion of his nephew Modred, killed him in battle at Winchester, was himself mortally wounded there, and died “in the 542nd year of Our Lord’s incarnation.”9 William of Malmesbury (1090?–1143) informs us that
when Vortimer [Vortigern’s brother] died, the strength of the Britons decayed, and they would soon have perished altogether had not Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans, … quelled the presumptuous barbarians with the powerful aid of the warlike Arthur. Arthur long upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war. Finally, at Mt. Badon, relying on an image of the Virgin which he had affixed to his armor, he engaged 900 of the enemy single-handed, and dispersed them with incredible slaughter.10
Let us agree that it is incredible. We must be content with accepting Arthur as in essentials a vague but historical figure of the sixth century, probably not a saint, probably not a king.11 The rest we must resign to Chrétien of Troyes, the delectable Malory, and the chaste Tennyson.