British Identity After the Withdrawl of Rome

Mosaic of a Roman villa in the Bardo National Museum. Image is public domain. Source: Wikimedia commons.

It’s a crisis of identity every country that has ever been ruled by another faces when gaining it’s independence. Who are we without imperial ties? This was a question no doubt on the minds of the generations of Britons who lived between the withdrawal of Rome around 410 AD and the rise of the Saxons around 600 AD. This is also the time in which I have placed Arthur and Guinevere, so it’s a question I, and my characters, have thought a lot about.

Bearing in mind that we have very few records for this Dark Age/early Middle Ages time period, this is a tough question to answer. Scholars have, until recently, ignored this time period, skipping from Rome to the Saxons, as though the time in between means little. But it meant a lot to the people who lived it. Many historians subscribe to the theory that almost immediately after the withdrawal of Rome, the native Britons returned to their pre-Roman way of life. This is due, in part to the writings of foreign historians like the Greek Zosimus who wrote of a Saxon attack on Britain in 409, “They reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some the Gallic peoples to such straits that they revolted from the Roman empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, and reverted to their native customs” (quoted in Synder, 81).

Recreation of a Celtic roundhouse, National History Museum of Wales, 2007. Image is public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A few days ago I was watching a mini-series on PBS called Michael Wood’s Story of England: Romans to Normans. I don’t know anything about Wood – I’m sure he’s a great historian – but the show made it seem like the Celts went directly from Roman rule back to the round houses and comparatively primitive lifestyle common before Boudicca led her revolt.

I’m not a historian (yet), but I find it difficult to believe that after 400 years of Roman rule, the Celts would abandon Roman influences so quickly. Yes, the money from Rome dried up, as did the imperial protection. I’m sure some, if not most, of the ruling class fled. It’s natural, as Synder states, that the Britons would have “reverted to native laws and local rulers” (82). That’s the system they knew and could live with. It’s also the reason for the myriad of civil wars that preceded the unprecedented moment when someone – possibly Arthur – united the Britons against the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon.

But just because the post-Roman Celts reverted in some ways to their tribal traditions doesn’t mean the population of Britain immediately became uncivilized. Rome brought great feats of architecture, technology and organization to the British tribes. The Britons of the time were used to a certain standard of living and, like any of us, likely would have done what they could to preserve it. I’m sure Roman villas were reused, some technologies were kept (although we know that by the late 5th century the baths at Aque Sullis were already in decline, though the town continued on for some time) and some people clung to the Roman ways. Even as tribal rulers reoccupied the Celtic hillforts, many Roman towns and forts continued to be centers of power.

So in the end, we have no clear answer to how the Celts self-identified after Rome departed. Until archeology gives historians a clearer picture of the time, we will have only speculation. But comparing that time period to other post-imperial cultures, it seems likely that the people were of a mix of mindsets. Some probably clung vehemently to the Roman ways, while others were happy to shake off the yoke of the empire and embrace the tribal identity of their ancestors. While a third group was likely somewhere in between, whether for the sake convenience and maintaining their chosen lifestyle or in an attempt to find peace in the middle ground. And in my books, you’ll find characters on all ranges of the spectrum, trying to survive and thrive in a world their ancestors likely never thought would come to pass.

What about you? What do you think life was like for the people of Britain after the Romans left? What theories have you heard or read? What do you think history tells us?

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Sources:

The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder
Michael Wood’s Story of England: Romans to Normans