To defend against the raids from the Saxons, Picts and Scots, High King Vortigernos made a fateful decision, following the pattern of Rome to hire Saxon foederati. When the diocesan council refused to pay them as agreed, however, the Saxons rose up, beginning a war that would ravage the island, end Vortigernos’ reign, and mark the beginning of the end for Britain.
For many centuries, the Romans had enlisted the aid of barbarian warriors by offering them lands in return for service. This, combined with the Romans’ conceit that they did not have to deal fairly with barbarians, had led to many of the empire’s troubles. Many of the barbarian hordes the empire faced, including the one that Alaric had led to sack Rome in 410, consisted of former federates who had fought for Rome faithfully, but Rome had decided not to pay. For all his preaching of a new Britain, Vortigernos’ downfall came from the Roman traditions that he could not break.
The Belgic king Elafius operated a wealthy shipping operation with the continent. He had many Saxons in his service and even spoke their language. He persuaded Vortigernos to hire Saxons as foederati against the Picts, and introduced him to the Jutish brothers Hengest and Horsa. Hengist became Vortigernos’ magister militum, as Stilicho had been to Honorius. In return, Vortigernos promised him the kingdom of the Cantiaci, behind the king’s back. This not only served to pay his federates, but it positioned fierce Jutish warriors to discourage any attempt by the Romans to retake the island, and as an added benefit, put them very close to Gaius Ambrosius Aurelius, his rival in Londinium.
Hengist proved quite effective in defeating the Picts. The Picts were then ruled by the famous King Drust, who “lived for a hundred years and fought a hundred battles.” Many of those battles he fought against Hengest and his Jutes. The Picts launched maritime raids on Britain, but the Saxons proved adept at naval warfare and marine attacks. They intercepted Pictish raiders at sea and met them at the beachheads. They waged war against the Picts for years, striking into Pictland itself.
While the Jutes put the Britons’ enemies to flight, the king of the Cantiaci pleaded for Ambrosius’s help. The success Hengist won against the Picts made him very popular with the other civitates, though, especially since they did not bear the cost. Their pressure made it impossible for Ambrosius Aurelius to cancel the deal outright. Instead, he did everything he could to disrupt the Jutes’ settlements. He harassed and held up supplies going into “Ceint,” as the Jutes called it, disputed every parcel of land he could, and generally made life for the Jutes as difficult as possible.
While Vortigernos began to dedicate his efforts towards the administrative, political and military needs of the island, his son Agricola pursued a more religious vocation, preaching the Pelagian gospel throughout Britain. Ambrosius Aurelius wrote to his friend Germanus of Auxerre, asking for help. A Gaulish assembly of bishops approved his mission.
Germanus landed at Portus Adurni, and traveled first to Venta Belgarum, capital of the Belgae. Even though he was close to Vortigernos, King Elafius was also a pious Christian, and had heard tales of Germanus as a holy man. His son, Caradoc, had lost the use of his arm in an accident. He brought the boy to Germanus and asked him to heal him. Germanus touched Caradoc’s arm, and he found he could move it again. Because of that miracle, the boy took the named Caradoc Strongarm.
At Londinium, Ambrosius Aurelius hosted a debate between Germanus and Agricola, which Germanus won handily. Ambrosius had further plans with his friend, though. The former governor had some military experience, and had brought some soldiers with him. Some of the Jutes had become agitated enough to try raiding into Ambrosius’ territory. Germanus led a skirmish against one of these raiding parties, recorded as the “Alleluia Battle.” Germanus’ soldiers used “Alleluia” as a battle cry. It echoed through the valley, creating the impression of a far larger force, putting the Saxons to flight.
Vortigernos persuaded Hengist to forgive the incident by declaring war against Ambrosius. That civil war ultimately led to the Battle of Wallop, in which Ambrosius Aurelius died. Vortigernos took his infant son, Ambrosius Aurelianus, into his own household. Fearing the growing power of Flavius Aëtius in Gaul, Vortigernos used the child in an exchange of hostages with the Patrician.
However, the civil war made it difficult for Vortigernos to keep up his bargain with Hengist. When he failed to deliver the promised supplies, Hengist decided that the long suffering of his people had not simply been because of Ambrosius’ personal meddling; rather, Vortigernos himself had betrayed them, and hidden behind Ambrosius out of fear. In fact, Hengist decided, the Britons could never be trusted to deal in good faith. In response, he turned his soldiers in force against the British.
Over the next ten years, Vortigernos managed to fight back the Jutish raids, and contain Hengist within Ceint. He made an attempt to retake Ceint, but it ultimately proved futile. From his foothold in Ceint, Hengist could now terrorize the coasts of Britain.
To the west, the Irish took advantage of the Britons’ wars to seize more territory. With his hands full with the Saxons, Vortigernos employed more foederati: this time, a Votadinian chieftain named Cunedda ap Edern, the grandson of Paternus, an ally recognized by Magnus Maximus with a Roman military rank. Vortigernos offered Cunedda land in northern Wales if he could remove the Irish settlers.
Years later, Ambrosius Aurelianus returned to Britain as a grown man. Vortigernos feared that he might seek revenge for his father’s death, but instead, he joined the fight against the Jutes. Vortigernos made him magister militum of the British forces before he died of old age. Ambrosius succeeded him, declaring himself the rex Romanorum of the Britains.
|425||Bishop Vitalinus becomes High King Vortigernos.|
|428||Vortigernos enters an agreement with a Frankish warlord named Hengist, making him his magister militum and employing him to fight the Picts under King Drust.|
|429||Germanus of Autissiodorum makes his first visit to Britain.|
|437||Ambrosius Aurelianus is born.|
|439||The civil war between Ambrosius Aurelius and Vortigernos ends with the Battle of Wallop. Ambrosius Aurelius is killed, and the infant Ambrosius Aurelianus is sent to Flavius Aëtius in Gaul.|
|440||When it becomes clear that Vortigernos will not uphold his bargain, Hengist rebels.|
|446||The Imperialists make an appeal to Aëtius, who sends Bishop Germanus of Autissiodorum on a second visit to Britain.|
|455||Battle of Aylesford. Vortigernos leads the Britons against Hengist and his brother Horsa. Horsa is slain in battle.|
|457||Battle of Crecganford. Hengist and his son Æsc win a battle against the Britons very near Londinium, inflicting heavy losses. Vortigernos is forced to acknowledge the kingdom of Ceint.|
|465||Battle of Wippedesfleot. Ambrosius Aurelianus returns to Britain with an army and attacks the coast of Ceint. Several British leaders are slain, but the battle on Ceint’s eastern coast helps contain the kingdom. Vortigernos names Ambrosius his magister militum.|