Friday, September 27, 2013

The Groans of the Britons

by Richard Denning

The title of this post might suggest this will be a political piece about welfare cuts or tax rates but whilst it is indeed about dark and terrible time in our history it is not about current times. This article is about the end of Roman Britain and the appeals by the inhabitants for help against the ravaging Picts and Scots and Saxons that plagued their lives.

Weakening the defenses

The path to the final abandonment of the province of Britannia by the Romans is a long one. In the mid-4th century the Roman Empire was under increasing pressure from encroaching Goths and Persians. This was therefore a very bad time for a civil war. Alas Rome suffered from many civil wars in the decades to come. This particular one between a certain Constantius and the usurper Magnetius was horrifically bloody. One particular battle in September 351 called Musa Major on the Danube led to over 50,000 casualties. These losses crippled the Roman Empire. Successive emperors began stripping the remote provinces. This included Britain.

The Great Conspiracy

By 367 Britain's defenses were weak. In the winter of 367, the Roman garrison on Hadrian's Wall rebelled. They allowed Picts from north of the wall to enter Britannia. At the same time, Irish tribes and Saxons from Germania landed in a coordinated invasion. The Roman garrison, fed up by being abandoned, had thrown in its lot with the barbarians, hoping for a cut of the pie. This invasion crippled Britannia. The loss of life and destruction was catastrophic.

In 368, a Roman expedition was sent to crush the invasion. Swift and bloody reprisals drove the barbarian tribes back home. The Roman rebels were executed and order restored. A young officer in this expedition was a certain Magnus Maximus who was about 33 at the time. He returned to Britain in 380 and became a pivotal player in the events that would lead to the final abandonment of Britannia.

Maximus the Usurper

On arriving back in Britain, Maximus first defeated a Pict and Scot invasion. He was popular with his troops whilst the Emperor Gratian had fallen from favour because of perceived favouritism to Iranian Alan tribes. The British garrison proclaimed Maximus as Emperor. In 383, Maximus lead 3 legions out of Britain into Gaul which he conquered. He then set up his court in Trier. Britain, in the meantime, was in effect defenseless. Maximus tried to conquer the rest of the Empire but his luck ran out, and he was captured by rival Emperors and executed in 388.

The three appeals

Gildas, the 6th century British cleric, wrote a book called "The ruin of Britain" in which he mainly portrayed these events and what followed when the Saxons came to Britain as divine punishment on the Britons. His account is therefore biased. He does, however, give us an idea of the times. We now have a Britain in effect devoid of troops with the exception of the garrison at Hadrian's wall and small numbers of soldiers. Maximus had taken the legions away and soon the Picts and Scots were on the way.

The First and Second Appeal

The Britons could not defend themselves and appealed to Rome. The first appeal may have occurred at some point in the 390's. The letter went to Rome, not to Maximus in Trier, so we know it was after 388 when Maximus was dead.

"Owing to inroads of these tribes and the consequent dreadful prostration, Britain sends an embassy to Rome, entreating in tearful appeals an armed force to avenge her ..."

Soon after the death of Maximus, the Emperor in Rome sent a legion back into Brition to defeat the Picts. They must have left Britain again soon for a few years later the Britains were forced to appeal for more military aid against the attacking enemies.

According to Gildas:

"Again supplicant messengers are sent with rent clothes and heads covered with dust. Crouching like timid fowls under the trusty wings of the parent birds, they ask help of the Romans, lest the country in its wretchedness be completely swept away."

Again this appeal led to a response. In the period 388 to around 402, Rome sent two major expeditions north into Britain and helped repel the Scots, Saxons, and Picts. This, however, was the last help the province would get.

The Receipt of Honorius

In 402, the garrison of Hadrian's wall was recalled due to increasing pressures by the Goths and Vandals. Around this time we have the last evidence of minting of Roman coins in Britain. In 406, the Vandals stormed across a frozen river Rhine and assaulted Gaul. Fearful that they would be next, the Britons dispatched a certain Constantine with what remained of the Roman legions to try and stem the barbarian flow. Constantine declared himself the western Roman emperor and initially drove the Vandals back but in the end he failed to stem the flow.

Rome was by now itself under immense pressure, and the Emperor Honorius took the radical step of forever abandoning the province of Britainia. In 410, we have a record of a letter to the Britons called the Receipt of Honorius. In this he addressed the leaders of his city in Britain and directs them to look to their own defense. Rome would never again claim dominion or offer any protection over this province.

The final appeal: the Groans of the Britons

The Britons then were left to defend themselves. The Picts and Scots continued to assault Britain. A generation later there was one last call for help from Rome. In 446, a letter is written to a consul called Agitius. Gildas again records this:

"To Agitius, in his third consulship, come the groans of the Britons.... The barbarians drive us upon the sea, the sea drives us upon the barbarians. By one or the other of these two modes of death we are either killed or drowned."

There is no record of any response to this final appeal.

Hired Help

449: According to tradition Hengest and Horsa lead the first of the Saxons to Britain

Rome had, it seemed, abandoned Britannia. So Britannia turned elsewhere for aid. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records an event that would have a massive impact on the future of Britainia:

A.D. 449. This year ...Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. The king directed them to fight against the Picts; and they did so; and obtained the victory wheresoever they came. They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land. 

And the rest - as they say - is history.


Richard Denning is the author of the Northern Crown Series of historical novels set in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. He also visits schools and local historical societies giving lectures on the early Anglo-Saxon era.


  1. I love this period in history. Thanks for an excellent article.

  2. A very informative post Richard. Thanks for sharing. It takes me back to the days when i had a real interest in this period before the later AS period grabbed me. I'd really love to know how Ambrosius Aurelianus fits into this time.

  3. Ambrosius Aurelianus is supposed (according to Gildas and later Bede) to be of Romano-British stock and of decent from "those who wore the purple" meaning either Male Imperial family members OR the senior military class. He may had succeeded Vortigern as a high king, rallied the Britons and inflicted some defeats on the Saxons in the 470's and 480s - a generation before the possible Arthurian era which was circa AD 500. So he belongs to the very early Saxon period.


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