Historical Cheat Sheet: 5th & 6th Century Britain — Arthurian/The Dark Ages
It’s tricky calling any period in British history as Arthurian. Authorities who date such eras look at the records of the day to determine the political leaders, and from this evidence eras are given their name. But Arthur, if he even existed, lived in the Dark Ages — and the Dark Ages are given their name because so very few written records survived that terrible period. The closest archaeologists have been able to come to pinpointing the real Arthur in written history is a shadowy figure mentioned second-hand — a war lord who worked with Ambrosius (a British leader who was barely a footnote himself). This was towards the end of the 5th Century.
Given that you want to write with as much verisimilitude as possible, if your story features Arthur at all you’ll want to aim towards this archeologically feasible date.
A quick snapshot.
Why are there so few records of the Dark Ages?
Up until the beginning of the 5th century, and for hundreds of years before that, Britain was a colony of Rome. Roman Britain was a civilized, peaceful cash cow that the occupying Romans milked systematically. They also left their mark on the place, contributing language (Latin), engineering (roads, drainage, fortified town walls, bridges, canals, Hadrian’s wall), culture (books, music, education, imported food), religion (Roman deities at first, and later, Christianity).
There were two Legions based in Britain, and the men intermarried with native Britons, or brought wives and families from Rome, settled down and lived as colonials for the next few hundred years. When the Roman Legions were pulled from Britain and sent back to defend Rome from the invading hordes, the bulk of the Roman colonial families stayed behind, clinging stoutly to their culture and heritage.
Throughout the Roman occupation, Wales and the territory north of Hadrian’s Wall (which later was to become Scotland) was left basically untouched. The native tribes that had possession of Britain before the Romans arrived pulled
back into these untouched areas during the colonization process. These, then, became the last pockets of Celtic culture, which were to stubbornly thrive right up until today.
For the century between the departure of the Roman legions and the explosive invasion of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the continent, Britain was a stewpot of dissension, lawlessness, famine and strife. Although nominally still a Roman possession, Rome ignored the island. The Celts, the only other remaining cohesive culture, had a traditional of oral history — therefore no-one was making any written records of the period.
There was no leadership to speak of, although the native Britons had a series of war leaders who tried valiantly to stem the steady flow of invading Saxons into Britain. The Saxons came for the excellent farming land, and the Legions were no longer there to protect the island. There is evidence of two of those leaders: Vortigern, and Ambrosius. Vortigern was a complete failure. He actually gave land to the Saxons, and the Saxon Shore (most of the south east coast of Britain) would plague future leaders for the Saxons now had a freely accessible beach-head to land their galleys.
Somewhere around the time of Ambrosius’ leadership there is a war duke, Arturos (Latin for Arthur), who for a short while managed to dam the flow of Saxons into the country almost completely. But his victory was short lived, and the Saxons and their kin flooded the country. Hence the language we call English (from Anglis) is actually developed from Anglo-Saxon dialects, and England (the land of the Angles) is the alternative name still used for Britain.
All of these dates are speculative, and open to debate.
AD 402 One of the two British legions is recalled to Rome for defence. The Sixth Victrix will never return to Britain.
AD 406 Contact between Rome and Britain is severed. The remaining Roman army in Britain mutinies and proclaims one Marcus as emperor, but he is immediately assassinated.
AD 407 Gatian is proclaimed emperor but lasts only four months. Constantine III is proclaimed, and withdraws the remaining legion to Gaul, to rally support for his cause. This is the practical end of the Roman empire in Britain.
AD 408 Without the Roman legions, Britain endures devastating attacks by the Picts, Scots and Saxons.
AD 409 Britons take matters into their own hands, expelling weak Roman officials and fighting for themselves.
A period of rule by petty tyrants follows.
C438 Possible birth of Ambrosius Aurelianus, scion of the leading Roman-British family on the island.
C440-50 Period of civil war and famine in Britain, caused by the ruling council’s weakness and inability to deal with Pictish invasions; situation aggravated by tensions between Pelagion/Roman factions. Vacated towns and cities in ruin. Migration of pro-Roman citizens toward west. Country beginning to be divided, geographically, along factional lines.
C441 Gallic Chronicle records (prematurely) that “Britain, abandoned by the Romans, passed into the power of the Saxons.”
C445 Vortigern comes to power in Britain.
AD 446 Britons (probably the pro-Roman party) appeal to Aetius, Roman governor of Gaul, for military assistance in their struggle against the Picts and the Irish (Scots). No help could be sent, at this time, as Aeitius had his hands full with Attila the Hun.
C446 Vortigern authorizes the use of Saxon mercenaries, known as foederati, for the defence of the northern parts against barbarian attack. To guard against further Irish incursions, Cunedda and his sons are moved from Gododdin in northern Britain to northwest Wales.
C450 In the first year of Marcian and Valentinian, Hengest (Saxon leader) arrives on shores of Britain with “3 keels” of warriors, and are welcomed by Vortigern.
C457 Death of Vortigern. Vitalinus (Guitolinus) new leader of pro-Celtic Pelagian faction. Battle of Aylesford (Kent) in which Ambrosius, along with sons of Vortigern, Vortimer and Cateyrn, defeat Hengest for the first time.
C458 Saxon uprising in full-swing. Hengest finally conquers Kent, in southeastern Britain.
C458-60 Full-scale migration of British aristocrats and city-dwellers across the English Channel to Brittany (the “second migration”). British contingent led by Riothamus (perhaps a title, not a name), thought by some to be the original figure behind the legends of Arthur.
C460-70 Ambrosius Aurelianus takes full control of pro-Roman faction and British resistance effort; leads Britons in years of back and forth fighting with Saxons. British strategy seems to have been to allow Saxon landings and to then contain them.
C465 Arthur probably born around this time.
C466 Battle of Wippedesfleot, in which Saxons defeat Britons, but with great slaughter on both sides. Mutual “disgust and sorrow” results in a respite from fighting “for a long time.”
C466-73 Period of minimal Saxon activity.
C470 Battle of Wallop (Hampshire) where Ambrosius defeats Vitalinus, head of the opposing faction. Ambrosius assumes High-Kingship of Britain.
AD 473 Men of Kent, under Hengest, move westward, driving Britons back before them “as one flees fire.”
AD 477 Saxon chieftain, Aelle, lands on Sussex coast with his sons. Britons engage him upon landing but his superior force drives them into the forest (Weald). Over the next nine years, Saxon coastal holdings are gradually expanded in Sussex.
C485-96 Period of Arthur’s “Twelve battles” during which he gains reputation for invincibility.
AD 486 Aelle and his sons overreach their normal territory and are engaged by Britons at battle of Mercredesburne. Battle is bloody, but indecisive.
C490 Hengest dies. His son, Aesc, takes over and rules for 34 years.
C495 Cerdic and Cynric, his son, land somewhere on the south coast, probably near the Hampshire-Dorset border.
C495 Cerdic and Cynric, his son, land somewhere on the south coast, probably near the Hampshire-Dorset border.
C496 Britons, under overall command of Ambrosius and battlefield command of the “war leader” Arthur, defeat Saxons at the Siege of Mount Badon.
C496-550 Following the victory at Mt. Badon, the Saxon advance is halted with the invaders returning to their own enclaves. A generation of peace ensues. Corrupt leadership, more civil turmoil, public forgetfulness and individual apathy further erode Romano-British culture over the next fifty years, making Britain ripe for final Saxon “picking.”
C501 The Battle of Llongborth (probably Portsmouth) where a great British chieftain, Geraint, King of Dumnonia, was killed. Arthur is mentioned in a Welsh poem commemorating the battle.
AD 508 Cerdic begins to move inland and defeats British king Natanleod near present-day Southampton.
C515 Death of Aelle. Kingdom of Sussex passed to his son, Cissa and his descendents, but over time, diminished into insignificance.
AD 519 Kingdom of the West Saxons (Wessex) founded with Cerdic its first ruler.
C530-40 Mass migration of Celtic monks to Brittany (the “third migration”).
AD 534 Death of Cerdic. Cynric takes kingship of Wessex.
C542 Battle of Camlann, according to Annales Cambriae. Death (or unspecified other demise) of Arthur (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth).
Most stories date the end of the Dark ages, and the beginning of Anglo-Saxon England (early medieval) from this battle, for opposition to the Saxons invasion and the consequential settling of England in huge numbers had all but disappeared.
The way of life during the Dark Ages
Describing how people lived in this period is an act of educated speculation.
Because Rome had been the dominant force for so long, it is a fairly safe assumption that much of the Roman culture persisted well into the century. But invading armies and lack of leadership meant that no matter which culture dominated at the beginning of the century, the rest of the period is one of steadydisintegration, to the point where there was no dominant culture — indeed, apart from the Celts, most of the other races on the island (tribal Britons, Romano-British colonials, Saxons, freed slaves from the continent, a smattering of Bretons from Brittany) began to merge their cultures — freely borrowing from each other in a simple effort to survive.
Romano-British schools were taught by teachers who were usually artisans with another trade, because teaching didn’t pay that much. They were required to provide the school house, which was often a corner of their building of trade.
Children provided their own wax slates, inks, papyrus.
School was taught in Latin, but most Romano children spoke Celtic from day to day. Most girls were not taught — it was too expensive and considered a waste on girls. Boys were not taught singing/instrument playing — that was considered fit for salves only (and girls!).
The school year began in March after the annual holiday of Minerva — the special goddess of school children. Every ninth day was a holiday. Even after Christianity took root this date was still observed.
Rich families considered it a tragedy for more than one daughter to be born. Girls were taught to dance, sing, play the lyre, and do beautiful embroidery. They learned from their mother how to cook, spin and weave, and how to run a household. Also how to direct slaves. By 14 they were considered ready for marriage. Marriage was arranged.
Chalk to whiten neck and forehead, red ochre for lips and cheeks, powered antimony or ashes to darken eyebrows. Hot tongs to curl hair. Hair was always long and parted in the middle.
Bright yellow cloak, white wool tunic, flame-colored veil. The ceremony was held in front of the family altar. There were ten witnesses, five from each family.
Male, horseback. Female, either a gig (two wheels, two ponies, seated three people), or the really rich used litters carried by four slaves. Armed slaves accompanied the family for safety.
Towns and cities
Towns were walled. Most towns had a forum, basilica (town hall & law court). Shops opened onto streets. Almost everyone in towns were lawyers — Romans respected the law.
Plays and pageants were held in the forum or open arenas with wooden or stone benches.
Public baths were a major form of entertainment. Heated floors. Men and women undressed in different rooms, and walked through a series of five rooms, which got hotter and hotter until the sweat dripped off them, which they then scraped off with a sickle-like knife, and oiled themselves with light oil before immersing themselves in the bath-proper. The baths had restaurants, meeting rooms, exercise rooms.
A country villa
Country villas were large, covering the size of two hockey rinks. Constructed of stone, they were covered in stucco (lower half), and wattle and daub (upper half). The roof was covered in red curly tiles. Outbuildings (stables and barns) used thatched straw roofs.
Villas were often sited on the side of south facing slopes to catch the sun. Coincidentally they often had a good view.
They had large gardens.
They used very little furniture. Mostly folding stools and cushions, large chests with locks. Sometimes they had cupboards attached to walls. Men reclined on couches at the dinner table. Women and children were allowed to sit on chairs with no backs, and use an occasional table to hold their food.
Bedrooms: Bedrooms had more furniture. There were stools for children to climb into bed, chests, shelves and cupboards. The beds were very high.
Windows had glass from the third century onwards.
One wing of the villa was the slaves’ quarters, and had a separate entry.
Villas and houses were heated by the hypocaust: this was a system consisting of a central wood-burning furnace which sent heated air under the raised floors of the building, to emerge into individual rooms via vents. The furnace(s) were also used to heat water for the family baths.
Most of the public rooms had painted figures of gods and goddesses on the walls, and mosaics on the floor in various patterns, or pictures.
Large lands were attached to the average country villa. The family would have tenant farmers, who paid tribute in cash or kind for the use of the land. There was also one or two small industries (what are called cottage industries in contemporary times) — tannery, pottery, tile-works, brickworks, or a mine. Some villas were sited close to clay or coal sites.
Slaves went to markets in the nearest town. When ships came in with a load of exotic overseas goods, wives would go to market and take the children on an outing.
Food and cooking
Stoves: stone with hollow depressions for tinder. Most food was fried — rarely baked.
Romans used herbs extensively. They ate a wide variety of imported, often exotic food from the far reaches of the empire.
Dried fruits like sultanas and raisins were commonly available. Also apples, pears, cherries, plums and blackberries. Fresh fish, dried and salted fish, shellfish and oysters were also common. The common meats included beef, mutton, pork, chicken, ducks. Delicacies for feasts etc included venison, wild boar, hedgehogs.
Preparation: Boiled or fried, mostly. Smothered in herbs, spices, nuts, honey and wine. Three meals a day, the evening meal was held just before dark. The evening meal was the main meal. Breakfast: Small round loaves from wheat, water wine. Lunch: Light. Salad, leftovers. Evening: Savoury porridge, fruit, nuts, cheese. Hot wine in winter. Everyone drank wine, including infants.
Wool and flax were the most common materials. Cotton was used for ship sails.
Fabric was spun and woven, taken to the fullers to be cleaned, then bleached; combed and brushed, then sewn. Dyed before weaving. Dyers used chiefly berries, leaves and roots and could produce most colors. The royal purple came from a sea snail (molex).
Everyone wore tunics. Women could have pleats. Women wore mantles; men, togas. The mantles and togas were kept in place with a shoulder broach, or nothing. Sometimes the men belted their togas. Pants or loincloth beneath. In winter they would wear two or three tunics for warmth. Rich and poor alike wore the same tunic to bed as they wore during the day.
Timeline of Arthurian Britain
Yorkshire, past and present: a history and a description of the three ridings of the great county of York from the earliest ages to the year 1870; with an account of its manufactures, commerce, and civil and mechanical engineering. Volume II. Thomas Baines. Published by William Mackenzie, London.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Various versions are available, including public domain copies at archival sites. (Try The Gutenberg Project). Print copies have the added benefit of including explanatory notes and pictures of artefacts from the period.
Growing up in Roman Britain C1979 Frances Wilkin, BT Batsford Ltd, London
The following novels deal with and present a fairly accurate political picture of the period:
The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment and The Wicked Day, all by Mary Stewart, published most recently by Coronet Books.
The Pendragon Catherine Christian © 1978, Pan Books, London
Tracy Cooper-Posey © 2003. Cannot be copied or distributed without permission.