How old is English?



[1] I can't help myself to compare that situation with the modern position of Britain in the European Union. Many other members have the impression that Britain behaves halfhearted about Europe. The Britons want the advantages of Europe, they wish to keep their influence, but they are not prepared to give up their national currency, for instance. Are they in or out? That's the question.

411 AD (the beheading of Constantine III) is the last 'secure' date we have. The next important event is the Adventus Saxonum (when the Anglo-Saxons arrived). We don't know for sure when this happened. Many modern historians believe it happened in 428, the classic date however is 446. Between 406 (departure of Constantine III to the continent) and 428 are 21 years, between 406 and 446 are 40 years (referred to by Nennius as '40 years of fear'). It is thought that little happened during this period. Except for the continuation of the raids. The short period, or early date is therefore to be preferred. It's unlikely that the British population remained sitting ducks for 40 years. The real waiting time was in fact a bit shorter. Constantine III died in 411. Talks about making the hiring of Anglo-Saxons official started probably in 426. Thus, Britain waited for some 16 years before taking measures.




Honorius decides not to decide


What Honorius did was unprecedented: he told the British officially to defend themselves. The emperor no longer took responsibility for Britain. Defending the empire and assuring its security was the main task of the emperor. This was not quite a declaration of independence, as Britain had in theory to pay taxes. The purpose of those taxes was to pay the legions which had to defend the borders. So Britain now had to finance its own defense and had to contribute to the defense of the rest of the Empire. It would not receive protection from the Empire in return. With this declaration, the legal status of Britain became a real problem. Was Britain still a part of the Empire as the emperor himself had declared not to care any longer for the province? A possible legal interpretation, could be that Britain was no longer a part of the Empire! [1]

This seems harmless enough, but it wasn't. Because of that legal problem, Britain could be considered a nation foreign to the Empire. Continental local authorities now had the opportunity to subject British merchandise to (heavy) import taxes. As local politicians always are strapped for cash, it is likely that the interpretation was often applied. The people who had financed Constantine III were on the whole merchants who had hoped for more free trade, exports and profit. Trade with the Continent would now stop completely. The import taxes meant a serious price handicap. For some of Constantine's supporters, this meant ruin. Honorius had confirmed Britain's real position within the Empire: half in, half out. He punished the British traitors for supporting Constantine III. Britain had maneuvered itself in a difficult position.

Without the support of the Roman legions, however, the whole of the tiny British upper class soon could have a problem with the ‘commons’ and on top of that the Welsh families had to face their east-British counterparts.

Times were grim, partly because of the decline of Empire, partly because of continuous bad weather. The decline of the Empire during the 4th century had increased the economic crisis e.g. in Cornwall where the tin mines had provided wealth for the local Welsh lords. The poor weather conditions caused crops to fail for several years and famine occurred in Britain (cp. Gildas), Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, etc, all wet and cold countries. Driven by misery, those people organized pillage expeditions on the British mainland. On the Continent, the same bad weather triggered the ‘Great Migrations’. In Britain, people sometimes rallied against their lords as people often do in difficult times. Gildas wrote that after the failure of Maximus Magnus the British had formed some kind of a local militia to combat the incursions. He added that this 'army' was totally ineffective in restoring law and order, accusing the Britons of cowardice. The problems were only solved when the official Roman army came to rescue the isle. But the legions were unable to stay, so the raids quickly resumed. Gildas also accused the Britons of 'increasing criminality', probably referring to local rebellions, the looting of the country by the British population itself, with or without help of foreign enemies. Of course, the sharp division between rich and poor did not help.

All this caused the import of the more capable Anglo-Saxons by the rich eastern landowners who were most threatened.

The British senate must have been stunned by Honorius' decision. For centuries Britain had been a loyal part of the Empire. It's just that recently Britain had been not so loyal. It is probable that many lords (mainly in the southwest, which used to be the export region) simply couldn't accept the idea of 'independence'. Who would now legally rule Britain? A complete culture collapsed. There was confusion all over the place. Many lords already rebuffed the legality of the London senate (taxes!). Central authority crumbled. In an attempt not to worsen the situation, the senate must have decided to await Honorius' death or demise. Maybe his successor could be convinced to revoke Honorius' unfortunate decision. Conservative as always, any alternative for the Empire remained inconceivable for Britain.

That chance came in 423 when Honorius died. His eventual successor (Valentian III became emperor in 425 - he was 6 years old. His mother, Galla Placidia became the real ruler. She was supported by the emperor of the eastern Roman Empire) but was not the strong person the British had hoped for. The return of the Empire to Britain became doubtful.

It was now clear that Britain had to decide about its own future. Waiting time had been very costly and was now over. The British lords revived the senate at London and began to discuss their future.