How old is English?




The outcome


Around 446-448, Vortigern, an old man now, resigned from the council (or was outvoted) and went ‘home’ in Greater-Wales. He knew he had failed as the split of the country now was apparent. The homecoming of Vortigern is closely related to the tale of the two dragons.

This is how the tale of the two dragons was told:
The tale is taken up by Nennius in the Historia Brittonum. The dragons remain at Dinas Emrys for centuries until King Vortigern tries to build a castle there. Every night the castle walls and foundations are demolished by unseen forces. Vortigern consults his advisers, who tell him to find a boy with no natural father, and sacrifice him. Vortigern finds such a boy (who is later, in some tellings, to become Merlin) who is supposed to be the wisest wizard to ever live. On hearing that he is to be put to death to solve the demolishing of the walls, the boy dismisses the knowledge of the advisers. The boy tells the king of the two dragons. Vortigern excavates the hill, freeing the dragons. They continue their fight and the red dragon finally defeats the white dragon. The boy tells Vortigern that the white dragon symbolises the Saxons and that the red dragon symbolises the people of Vortigern. If Vortigern is accepted to have lived in the fifth century, then these people are the British whom the Saxons failed to subdue and who became the Welsh.
I believe that the story of the 2 dragons was invented by Vortigern himself. That's how he must have explained why keeping unity in the country proved to be impossible. How can someone build a state (castle) upon unstable ground because 2 peoples (dragons in a cave under the building site) constantly quarrel with each other? Vortigern made clear that he had underestimated the political division of Britain. Later versions made Vortigern the direct object of the tale.

Exactly whereto he went in Greater-Wales (parts of the valley of the Severn were still under Welsh control) is not clear. A place in Herefordshire is well possible, although some sources place his domain in the western part of modern Wales. It is probable that he or his family had an important domain in Greater-Wales. Vortigern’s local presence was felt as an important political statement. The dissident Southwest Alliance must have thought that eliminating Vortigern would give a strong political signal to their (Welsh) allies. After all, Vortigern had presided the Council of London for a long time. He was London. Vortigern underestimated the danger. The Southwest Alliance eventually laid siege to his castle-farm and managed to kill him. This event is strong evidence for the hypothesis that a civil war was at hand and not a defensive war against the barbarian Anglo-Saxons.

Some say that ... twelve years after his death, somewhere between 465-470, the Britons , read Welsh, supposedly fought against the Anglo-Saxons in the battle of Wallop. The battle was supposedly indecisive and Vitalinus, son or successor of Vortigern, supposedly seemed to be compelled to start negotiations.

Wallop or how long did Ambrosius live?

-> Wallop leads to confusion and debate since ages.

Nennius wrote in his Historia Brittonum (AD 825): "And [from? during?] the reign of Vortigern to the quarrel between Guitolinus and Ambrosius, are twelve years, which is Guolopum, that is Catgwaloph (Wallop)"
Some authors place the battle of Wallop from the (start of the) reign of Vortigern (whose family name was probably Guitolinus or Vitalinus!), that is around 437. The original Latin sentence is confusing and says: during. A error of a copier can not be excluded here, but we have no proof for it. All to much historians have invoked scribal errors to make their statement hard. Mentioning both Vortigern and Guitolinus could be coincidental and the possibility exists that 2 different persons with the same name are mentioned here.

Nennius was the one who stated that the Adventus Saxonum happened in 428, in contrast to Bede who placed it in 446. We agree with Nennius' date. It is the most logical one.

If Ambrosius was present both in ± 437 (battle of Wallop, Nennius) and in ± 500 (battle of Bath as indicated by Gildas) then we have a problem: at Bath, Ambrosius would have been 83 years old, supposing that he was 20 years old at Wallop. But being just 20 and commander in chief is highly unlikely. Aetius (who won over Attila) was already an army commander when he was 29 years old and that was exceptionally young. So, taking Aetius as an example, Ambrosius would have been about 92 years old in Bath, if the battle happened no later than 500 which is far from certain. Average life expectancy in those days was no more than 40 years. Becoming 80 was a great exception, but being older than 80 and leading an army can be excluded. Army commanders used to move around by horse until the first World War. So, we can reject the idea that the same Ambrosius was present at Wallop and at Bath. And what about this Guitolinus-Whittling character?

Well, it's difficult to tell... Anyhow, Wallop was not mentioned by Gildas nor by Bede, so its importance must have been negligible... The whole affair could simply have been an failed attempt of land-grabbing by a greedy local proto-English lord, probably called Whittling, and a defender called Ambrosius who could have been the father of the son Ambrosius, the victor at Bath. After all, the upper-class was a very small world in Britain in those days.... and more Ambrosius are attested around that age. The name must have been highly fashionable for a while.  The whole battle could have involved 50 men on both sides. Let us not forget that during the Anglo-Saxon times a group of 120 men was called an army !

The Southwest of Britain had become independent of ‘London’. The lords of the Southwest Alliance had formed their own council that challenged the legality and authority of ‘London’. 'London' had broken with the Roman Empire, hence reason enough to be 'not legal'. The Southwest Alliance managed to build their own army, probably a combination of former Roman elements, including Welshmen and other troops from Brittany (Armorica in Gaul). Ambrosius Aurelianus was probably present in Wallop, but too young to be the commander in chief.

Ambrosius would later (around 500) win as commander of the Welsh army the battle of Bath, stalling the Anglo-Saxons for some 50 years.

Letter to Agitius


Gildas mentions a letter, a plea for help, to Agitius, who was at that moment "consul for the third time". There is a general consensus amongst historians that Aetius was meant. The career of Aetius, master of Gaul, victor over Attila, is reasonably well attested. He was consul for the third time in 446. This places the letter in the same year. But not all adds up: Gildas clearly mentions the letter before the Adventus Saxonum. Gildas gave no dates, but relates nevertheless events in a chronological order.

Three interpretations are possible:

(1) The classic one: the letter was written in 446. The only unsolved problem is its position within Gildas' text. Gildas made some mistakes in his text earlier, but in general his chronology is good.
(2) Agitius is not Aetius. This places the letter somewhere between 407-428. The question of course is then: who was the man?
(3) Agitius is Aetius, but Gildas confused consulship with the title magister militum (commander in chief of the Roman army). Young Aetius was appointed magister militum in 425. He would become consul in northern Gaul in 444, about 20 years later. The function of consul was merely an honorific one, and during the Empire, consuls had little power. A consul could quite simply not decide to send help. The power Aetius had in 446 was not derived from his consulship, but from the fact that he was the magister militum at the same time.

This makes the following scenario plausible: In 427 a proposal was made in the British senate to legalize the Anglo-Saxon guards. Some members of the council were opposed, but a compromise was agreed that at first a request for help would be send to commander Aetius. This was the last attempt to obtain help from Rome. If he refused, then they would agree with the proposal for little other possibilities were left.
In 427, Galla Placidia ruled as regent the Empire. At that moment, Flavius Aetius was master militum for the third year. He had already acquired quite a prestige, hence his exceptional position for his age (31). He must have had a lot of influence at the imperial court. The fact that emperor Valentianus was still a child made Aetius the obvious person to address a plea for help.

Aetius refused to help the British. As soon as his answer was known, early 428, the British senate voted the legalizing of the Anglo-Saxon guards. The Adventus Saxonum became a fact.


What the Anglo-Saxons meant for Britain

Eventually, many decades later, the wealthier, more numerous, eastern side of Britain would gradually win the civil war. They adopted the Anglo-Saxon label as their own as they had introduced them gradually into their upper class. This empowered the original eastern upper-class. The destruction of the Southwest Alliance became inevitable as they became increasingly divided amongst themselves. Later, the Welsh would recuperate the tale.

The first Anglo-Saxon wave came on purpose: they were invited, work and income was promised. Those first Anglo-Saxons were merely males and soldiers. The later (mainly 6th century) migrations had a somewhat different background: the alternative ways to the south of Europe were largely blocked since the beginning of the 6th century. The Franks had by that time a firm grip upon former Gaul and passing though or migrating into ‘France’ became suicidal. The very presence in England of Anglo-Saxons simply attracted others. Migrating to England was one of few possibilities left for the quest for a better live. This later migrations happened more with women and children. They had little influence upon the British political situation.

The interpretation of the events in the 5th century leads us to the conclusion that the Anglo-Saxons should not be considered as ‘conquerors’ or ‘oppressors’ in the east of Britain. They mainly reinforced the local upper-class with military power and effectively organized a local defense system.

This allowed the introduction of a ‘softer’, less distant social system. The reason was that the fear for the lower-class diminished. Self-confidence within the upper-class grew as they became more and more capable of defending themselves. The new generation was trained as warriors by the Anglo-Saxon guardsmen. The young heirs became knights. This lead to more contact with the 'commons'. They commenced to rule more ‘amongst people’. This too is an argument that makes me believe that the Anglo-Saxons did not impose their language.