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The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain

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The ‘Dark Ages’ were ‘dark’ only because we lack extensive (or in some instances, any) historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

TLP blog“Initially, this era took on the term “dark” . . . due to the backward ways and practices that seemed to prevail during this time. Future historians used the term “dark” simply to denote the fact that little was known about this period; there was a paucity of written history. Recent discoveries have apparently altered this perception as many new facts about this time have been uncovered.

The Italian Scholar, Francesco Petrarca called Petrarch, was the first to coin the phrase. He used it to denounce Latin literature of that time; others expanded on this idea to express frustration with the lack of Latin literature during this time or other cultural achievements. While the term dark ages is no longer widely used, it may best be described as Early Middle Ages — the period following the decline of Romein the Western World. The Middle Ages is loosely considered to extend from 400 to 1000 AD.”  http://www.allabouthistory.org/the-dark-ages.htm

For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other.  The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people.  When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east.  To a certain degree, it was just more of the same.  The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is nowWales andEngland—for about five minutes.

From Gildas:

As the Romans went back home, there emerged from the coracles that had carried them across the sea-valleys the foul hordes of Scots and Picts. … They were more confident than usual now that they had learnt of the departure ofthe Romans and the denial of any prospect of their return. So they seized the whole north of the island from its inhabitants, right up to (i.e. as far south as) the wall (presumably Hadrian’s). A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them, but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground.

From contemporary accounts in 411:

Zosimus

They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britainand some parts of Gaul to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica, [Emap (7)] and other Gallic provinces, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted. The revolt of the provinces ofBritain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

Fastidius — letter to a widow in Britain

We see before us many instances of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are being judged at the present moment, and denied this present life no less than the life to come. This is not hard to understand, for in changing times we expect the deaths of magistrates who have lived criminally, for the greater their power, the bolder their sins. … Those who have freely shed the blood of others are now forced to shed their own. … Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air. Others have been individually torn limb from limb. Their judgements killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children, leaving them bare and beggared … for they plundered the property of the men they killed. But now it is their wives who are widowed, their sons who are orphaned, begging their daily bread from strangers.

http://www.cit.griffith.edu.au/~s285238/DECB/DECBbestest.html

It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions fromEurope.  This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups.  Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

445:  In the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, the English came to Britain.

Bede

449:  The British consulted what was to be done and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations. They all agreed with their king Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation. … The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

449:  Martian and Valentinian assumed the Roman empire(actually in 450) and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed inBritainin a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them.

Nennius

453:  But Hengest was an experienced man, shrewd and skilful. Sizing up the king’s incompetence, and the military weakness of his people, he held a council, and said to the British king “We are a few; if you wish, we can send home and invite warriors from the fighting men of our country, that the number that fight for you and your people may be larger.” The king ordered it be done, and envoys were sent across the sea, and came back with sixteen keels, with picked warriors in them. In one of the keels came Hengest’s daughter, a beautiful and very handsome girl. When the keels had arrived, Hengest held a banquet for Vortigern, and his men and his interpreter, whose name was Ceretic, and told the girl to serve their wine and spirits. They all got exceedingly drunk. When they were drinking Satan entered Vortigern’s heart and made him love the girl. Through his interpreter he asked her father for her hand, saying “Ask of me what you will, even to the half of my kingdom”.

http://www.cit.griffith.edu.au/~s285238/DECB/DECBbestest.html

It’s important to point out that Welsh literature, language, and culture flourished during the Dark Ages.  Much of the material in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Black Book of Camarthen date to this time.

 

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Vortigern? Who was he again?

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Vortigern was a King of the Britons who is remembered for welcoming the Saxons into Britain during the dark ages and then being unable to get them to leave.

This site:  http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artwho/who.htm would very much like to rehabilitate Vortigern.  He has extensive information on this site.

Our knowledge of Vortigern comes from some early sources.  Gildas, who wrote a moral history of Britain, states, around 540 BC:  “At this meeting, the council invited the Saxons in three keels from Germany, as a counter to the threat from the Picts in the north. This is followed after some time by a conflict over the annona (payment in kind), after which the Saxon federates devastate the country. Vortigern, who may have been named by Gildas, is not portrayed by Gildas as a sole ruler, or a High King if you will. He rules together with a Council, which Gildas blames equally for the disastrous policy concerning the invitation of the Saxons. Maybe looking at him as a ‘first among equals’ would be more fitting his actual position at that time. In all, Gildas’ view of the Superbus Tyrannus is almost positive; though he is judged careless and lacking foresight, he is called infaustus (unlucky), which is very mild considering Gildas’ views on the Saxons and the hindsight he had on the disaster that resulted from the Tyrannus’ policies.”    http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artwho/who.htm

From Nennius, writing in the 10th century:  “The Historia Brittonum recounts many details about Vortigern and his sons. Chapters 31–49 tell how Vortigern (Guorthigirn) deals with the Saxons and Saint Germanus of Auxerre. Chapters 50–55 deal with St. Patrick ; Chapters 56 tells us about King Arthur and his battles; Chapters 57–65 mention English genealogies, mingled with English and Welsh history; Chapter 66 give important chronological calculations, mostly on Vortigern and the Adventus Saxonum.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vortigern

“To the old monastics, Vortigern and his Saxons were viewed as yet another scourge inflicted upon Britain.  Worse than Arianism, Pelagianism, and persecuting pagan emperors, his reign was the crowning point of the ultimate evil let loose upon the Britons, i.e. the Saxons.  These Saxons persecuted the people and devastated the church, far more thoroughly than any previous Roman Emperor!  Ironically enough, it was the veryoffensiveness of his crimes that caused the old chronologers to record and preserve records of his rise to power and the coming of his Saxon mercenaries!”  http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/articles/clerical.html

It’s hard to get a handle of the man beyond this.  From the other side, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions Vortigern.  It “provides dates and locations of four battles Hengest and his brother Horsa fought against the British in southeast Britain, in the historic county of Kent. Vortigern is said to have been the leader of the British in only the first battle, the opponents in the next three battles variously called ‘British’ and ‘Welsh’—which is not unusual for this part of the Chronicle. No Saxon defeat is acknowledged, but the geographical sequence of the battles suggests a Saxon retreat and the Chronicle locates the last battle, dated to 465 in Wippedsfleot, the place where the Saxons first landed, thought to be Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle presents the year 455 as the last date when Vortigern is mentioned.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vortigern

There is some thought that Vortigern might be mentioned on the Pillar of Eliseg, found near Dinas Bran in Wales:  “. . . the monarchy . . . Maximus . . . of Britain . . . Concenn, Pascent, Maun, Annan.† Britu son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, daughter of Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillar_of_Eliseg

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Dinas Ffareon (Dinas Emrys)

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Dinas Ffareon is an Iron Age hill fort near Beddgelert which overlooks Lyn Dinas in Snowdonia. It is one of the more remote castles in Wales and “it was here that King Lludd ab Beli buried the two dragons which fought each other, as told in the Welsh epic the Mabinogion.”

Later tales (Nennius’ and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s among them) tell of King Vortigern retreating back into Snowdonia and choosing Dinas Ffareon as the place to build his fort.

Unfortunately for him, each night the ground was shaken such that the fort fell down. The King’s advisors stated that a fartherless child had to be sacrificed in order to stop the fort tumbling. Myrddyn Emrys (Merlin) and Emrys Wledig (Ambrosius Aurelianus) come into the story as well.

“Merlin prophecised that the Red Dragon represented the Britons and the White Dragon the Saxons and that the event meant that the Britons would be victorious over the Saxons. The Celts tended to refer to leaders as dragons (draig) so one could also read it as meaning the leader of the Britons being victorious over the leader of the Saxons, something which came to pass through Uther Pendragon and then Arthur himself.”

http://www.wyrm.org.uk/ukdracs/dinasemrys.html

http://www.caerleon.net/history/geoffrey/Prophecy1.htm

Dinas Ffareon, now Dinas Emrys (renamed, of course, for Merlin), sits atop a rock that is one of the strongest, natural fortifications in Wales.  The remains of the medieval stone fort, possibly built in the 13th century by either Llywelyn Fawr or Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, still top it.  Underneath, stones date to the Iron Age.

Modern archaeology reveals: “Dinas Emrys was occupied to some extent in the late Roman period, but that rough stone banks around its Western end are later. They were poorly built of stone two or three times and took strategic advantage of natural crags. Still less substantial walls were also discovered to the north and south. Broken sherds of Eastern Mediterranean amphorae, Phoenician red slip dishes and a pottery lamp roundel featuring a Chi-Rho symbol indicate that these features do indeed date to the 5th and 6th century.”
http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/archaeology/emrys.html
http://www.castlewales.com/dinas_em.html