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Adventus Saxonum
Michael Veprauskas discusses the Saxon Invasion of Britain

The date of the arrival of the first Germanic settlers in Britain is a matter of considerable debate.  It is, however, critical, for dating key events between the departure of Roman authority in 410  and the arrival of the Christian mission of St. Augustine in 597.  Examples of these events include: Vortigern's rise to power and the length of his reign; his dealings with Ambrosius; the Saxon revolt; the coming of Arthur and Badon itself.  This Germanic influx is known historically by the Latin phrase "Adventus Saxonum", the coming of the Saxons.

The Venerable Bede

The first attempt at dating the Adventus Saxonum, was by the noted ecclesiastical writer and historian, Bede.  His History of the English Church and People is exactly that.  In addition, he gives a historical summary of what was to become England based on the records available to him. Completed in 731, it is a primary source for early events in the making of England.  Not only a scholar, Bede can also be credited for introducing some remarkably modern concepts in his approach to history.  He was fundamental in popularizing the Anno Domini (A.D.) method of dating, in our day taken for granted.  He identified his sources, both oral and written, and was selective in his use of them.  Whenever possible, and desirable, he fleshed out some of his more scanty primary sources with other material. A good example of this is his treatment of Gildas' De Excidio Brittaniae.  Let us take a look at the scattered references regarding the Adventus Saxonum found within in his History.

In chapter 24, where a chronological summary of his book is presented, under the year 597 (the arrival of Augustine and his Christian mission) he says:

"These teachers arrived in Britain, roughly 150 years after the coming of the English."1

This gives us 447 as the time of their arrival.  Elsewhere, when describing events surrounding the baptism of King Edwin in 627, Bede says Edwin:

"... received the faith and regeneration by holy baptism in the eleventh year of his reign, that is in the year of our Lord 627 and about 180 years after the coming of the English to Britain."2

Here again, we arrive at the year 447 for the Adventus.  A third computation is found in the section concluding a summary of the state of Britain "at the present time", i.e. 731:

"This is the state of the whole of Britain at the present time, about 285 years after the coming of the English to Britain, in the year of our Lord 731."3

Based on the above, the year 446 is calculated for the Adventus Saxonum, consistent with the previous two dates.  Turning to the main body of his History, where coming of the Saxons is actually described we find:

"In the year of our Lord 449 Marcian, forty-sixth from Augustus, became emperor with Valentinian and ruled for seven years.  At that time the race of the Angles or Saxons, invited by Vortigern, came to Britain..."4

Bede's chronology is off by one year here as the actual date for Marcian should be 450.  The joint rule of Marcian and Valentinian was from 450-455, during which time the "Angles or Saxons" arrived.  This sequence is repeated again in the chronological summary at the end of Bede's History and also in another work called The Greater Chronicle found as an appendix in some translations of the History.

"449 Marcianus and Valentinianus ruled as co-emperors for seven years.  In their time the English came to Britain on the invitation of the Britons."5
 
"4410 Marcian and Valentinian (ruled for) seven years.  The people of the Angles or of the Saxons came to Britain in three long ships..."6

The second date uses the Hebraic system of dating by Anno Mundi, where events are dated from the "Creation of the World".  Again, we arrive at a minimum date of 449 (which should be 450), and a maximum date of 455, as Valentinian actually died in 455.

The reason for the apparent discrepancy, 446-447 vs 450-455, lies in the two primary sources Bede used to date the Adventus.  The first relies on Gildas' De Excidio, in the section were an appeal made to Aetius is recorded:

"So the miserable remnants sent off a letter again, this time to the Roman commander Aetius, in the following terms:

'To Aetius, thrice consul:  the groans of the British.'

Further on came this complaint:

'The barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two kinds of death, we are either drowned or slaughtered.'

But they got no help in return."7
 
A knowledgeable historian of Roman times, Bede knew the 3rd consulship of Aetius began in 446, and so he reasoned that the Adventus must have occurred after this appeal, that is c.446-447.  The second set of dates, 450-455, derived from a strong Kentish tradition that their dynasty had been founded during the joint rulership of "Mauricius and Valentinian".8 This Kentish source is alluded to in the preface of Bede's History, and is apparently identical with the one used in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle many years later.  It has been pointed out that this tradition was strong enough to resist the written authority of Bede,9  for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives "Mauricius" instead of  "Marcian", who was the actual Eastern Emperor at the time.  Bede silently amends Mauricius to Marcian in his work, much like he corrected Gildas' "Agitius" to "Aetius".  It is likely that the Kentish tradition, as received by Bede and the compilers of the chronicle, confused the Emperor Marcian with the later Emperor Maurice Tiberius Augustus.  The latter was Emperor during Augustine's mission to Kent in 597.

With a date of 449 (450) established for the Adventus, Bede further estimates the battle of Badon as occurring 44 years after this event, or in 493 (494).  This is based on his interpretation of Gildas' "forty-four years"10 as occurring after the Adventus itself. 

"Thenceforward victory swung first from one side and then to the other, until the battle of Badon Hill, when the Britons made a considerable slaughter of the invaders.  This took place about forty-four years after their arrival in Britain: but I shall deal with this later."11

Geoffrey of Monmouth appears to have taken the entry for the Battle of Camlann, in the Annales Cambriae,  as occurring 93 years after the Adventus Saxonum.  In the Annales Cambriae, Camlann is listed under the year XCIII or 93.  By adding the 93 years to Bede's date of 449, we get 542 - the year of Geoffrey's Camlann.12

Later English writers, for example, William of Malmesbury and the composers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, generally follow the initiative of Bede in their dating of events.

Next: Adventus Saxonum Part Two

Footnotes:

  1. Bede, History of the English Church and People, Book 5, Chapter 24.

  2. Bede, History of the English Church and People, Book 2, Chapter 14.

  3. Bede, History of the English Church and People, Book 5, Chapter 23.

  4. Bede, History of the English Church and People, Book 1, Chapter 15.

  5. Bede, History of the English Church and People, Book 5, Chapter 24.

  6. Bede, The Greater Chronicle,  year 4410.

  7. Gildas, De Excidio Brittaniae, Section 20.

  8. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, (Parker Chronicle), year 449.

  9. Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain,  p. 109.

  10. Bede, History of the English Church and People, Book 1, Chapter 16.

  11. Gildas, De Excidio Brittaniae, Section 26.

  

    Michael Veprauskas 2001. All Rights Reserved.