In the 6 th century A.D., Britain was facing invasions from all the northern barbarian tribes (Bede). To combat these invasions, King Vortigern invited the Saxons into Britain and promised them land and clothes to help the British repel the invaders (Nennius). This proved an error in judgment, however, as the Saxons, upon forcing the northern barbarians back into their own lands, laid waste to the British (Bandonicus). Historians from the 6 th -8 th century consider the massacre of the British by the Saxons retribution from God for the British’s corruption exemplifying that religion was the most powerful force in the middle ages.
The most reliable source on the ruin of Britain comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, which was written approximately 200 years after the conflict. Of the sources I found, he is the only one who details why the British were thought corrupt. According to Bede, the English became wealthy with grain after they drove out the Irish and the Picts in the early 5 th century. Their newfound luxury led to “cruelty, hatred of truth, and love of falsehood” and even the Christians were “addicting themselves to drunkenness, animosity, litigiousness, contention, envy…” and were “…casting off the light yoke of Christ” (Bede, Ch. 14). Gildas, an English historian who lived through the Saxon invasion, simply called the reigning King Vortigern a “proud tyrant” (Bandonicus, Ch. 23) while Nennius, an “unrestrainedly inventive” historian claims King Vortigern married and had offspring with his own daughter angering the local clergy (Nennius, Ch. 39). Given these descriptions, it is clear that the majority of the English people were living outside the order and doctrines of the church and thus it is understandable why the historians, who were deeply religious themselves, would feel as if the British deserved punishment by God.
Whether or not God was responsible for the destruction of the very un-Christian-acting British, the Saxons first came to England in 3 ships by invitation of the king “like wolves into the sheepfold”. “Their motherland finding her first brood thus successful, sends forth a larger company of her wolfish offspring which sailing over, join themselves to their bastard born comrades” (Bandonicus, Ch. 23). This comes from Gildas and he is clearly no fan of the Saxons invading his land as he goes on to say the Saxons are the “germ of iniquity and the root of contention [and they] planted their poison amongst us, as we deserved…” (Bandonicus, Ch. 23). This important thing to note is Gildas is genuinely convinced that the English deserve this ruin. The Saxons may be the absolute worst in his opinion, but that does not change the fact that in his mind the British deserve the absolute destruction he goes on to describe in great detail. Bede goes one step further and compares the Saxon’s attack with the Chaldeans taking Jerusalem. He considers the warfare “God’s just revenge for the crimes of the people” (Bede, Ch. 15) and seems to revel in the British’s suffering at the hands of “God” working through the Pagan Saxons. This comparison and mindset shows how ingrained the Christian doctrine was into the web of society in the middle ages.
Additionally, it appears the British put up very little of a fight. While it is likely the British simply did not have much of an army left at that point in time, it is also possible that the people, like the historians, believed their fate to be deserved and dealt by God. Bede even remarks that the Saxons plundered and burned from east to west “without any opposition” (Bede, Ch. 15). And Gildas remarked that the people cried out to God: “Thou hast given us as sheep to be slaughtered” (Bandonicus, Ch. 25). Sheep do not rise up and fight against their slaughterers; they simply allow it to happen. And so it was with the British. Nennius outright tells the reader that the British were mowed over not because they lacked might but because God willed it saying, “And let him that reads understand, that the Saxons were victorious, and ruled Britain, not from their superior prowess, but on account of the great sins of the Britons: God so permitting it” (Nennius, Ch. 45). This line of thinking from the three historians has left modern historians in a bit of a jumble as they try and determine why exactly the British fell since in modern times “God wanted it to happen” is not an acceptable answer. In the middle ages however, religion was the most powerful force they knew and “God wills it” was a perfectly acceptable answer.
The Saxons did not completely wipe out the British, however, and those British who were left in a small corner of the island understood their destruction to be the hand of God, began putting their faith back in the church, and under the guidance of Ambrosius Aurelius revived what would become England once the Saxons returned home. And, as expected, the historians again give all the credit to their Lord for the resurgence of the British. Gildas says the remnant British were “strengthened by God, calling upon him with all their hearts… that they might not be brought to utter destruction… and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory” (Bandonicus, Ch. 25). Giving none of the credit to Ambrosius Aurelius, who, as the child of a Roman elite couple and apparently the last Roman in England, was the leader and general throughout much of the struggle to reclaim the land which the Saxons had taken (Bede, Ch. 16).
These three historians, Bede, Nennius, and Gildas, though they vary in reliability and century, were all monks, as was the tradition for any educated man in the middle ages. Therefore, they were keenly within the throws of the church and its ideals, spouting its message and documenting the most accepted doctrines of the middle ages. This message being, apparently, that everything is the Lord’s doing. Get destroyed? You sinned. Experience victory? You put your faith in God as you should have. And this idea was whole-heartedly believed, at least by the monks, and likely by the people too. The Saxon’s defeat of the British is not the only example of defeat being attributed to God’s punishment, however, it is a resounding one. Religion was, without a doubt, the most powerful force in the middle ages and through religion, leaders could compel and control their people to put up with and go through with just about anything.
Bandonicus, Gildas. Concerning the Ruin of Britain . 540 A.D. Trans. J. A. Giles. Six Old English Chronicles . London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848. Ch. 23-25. Print.
The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Hook 1
. Comp. Alexander Pyle. 731 AD. Ch. 14-16.
Internet History Sourcebooks
. Fordham University: The Jesuit University of New York, 1998. Web. 19 July 2016.
Nennius. The History of the Britons . 8th Century. Trans. J. A. Giles. Six Old English Chronicles . London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848. Ch. 31, 36-45. Print.