Angels, Fools, and Tyrants: Britons and Anglo-Saxons in Southern Scotland, AD 450-750

By Chris Lowe | Go to book overview

Petty Tyrants and Foolish Priests

'Britain has kings, but they are tyrants…
Britain has priests but they are fools.'

So wrote Gildas, a British priest, in his diatribe De Excidio Britanniae ('The Ruin of Britain'), written around the middle of the sixth century. The title 'Angels, fools and tyrants' draws together influential ideas about the relationship of the Britons and the Angles as presented by Gildas and taken up later by the historian Bede. Gildas' view was that, after the Roman withdrawal around AD 410, when the Britons were told to look to their own defence, there were the British 'tyrants' who were too lazy to resist the advances of the Scots and Picts from the north. They invited the Angles and Saxons into their country as mercenaries to protect them, in much the same way as the Romans had employed them earlier. However, they ended up fighting against them and against each other in a series of protracted civil wars. Then, there were also the British 'fools', the corrupt priests. Such condemnation by a Briton of his fellow priests suited Bede's purpose well for he had very real political reasons for presenting the British Church as having failed his heathen forefathers through their unwillingness, faithlessness and apparent lack of interest in converting the pagan Angles. Gregory, later pope, is said to have first encountered the Angles at a slave market in Rome. On asking after the race of some fair-faced, young,

heathen slaves, recently arrived at market from Britain, and on being told that they were called Angles (Angli), Gregory is reported to have said: 'Good, they have the face of angels (angelt), and such men should be fellow-heirs of the angels in heaven.' Gregory, as pope, was to be the moving force behind the Augustine mission of 597 to convert the English.


The works of giants

The Ruin

Splendid this rampart is, though fate destroyed it,
The city buildings fell apart, the works
Of giants crumble. Tumbled are the towers,
Ruined the roofs, and broken the barred gate,
Frost in the plaster, all the ceilings gape,
Torn and collapsed and eaten up by age.
Anon: The Exeter Book

The evocative Old English poem, 'The Ruin', is a reflective description of a Roman city, most probably Bath. There was no northern English poet to reflect upon the nature of the remains that would have been evident at places like Carlisle, Cramond, Inveresk or, of course, the Antonine and Hadrianic Walls themselves. It is easy, however, to picture the poet's 'public halls with lofty gables', the noisy bath-houses and the 'many mead-halls filled with human pleasures'. Equally, we can picture the red curved roof shedding its tiles and the piles of rubble of which the poet speaks. These are familiar and detectable to archaeology. It is less easy, however, to people the city with its wealth of silver, gems and treasure, and the poet's host of gleaming, goldadorned heroes, 'proud and flushed with wine'. The post-Roman inhabitants of 'The Ruin' come down to us as the 'meadnurtured', 'mail-clad' and 'gold-torqued' warriors who are commemorated in the early British poem known as Cododdin and those

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