Getting to grips with Brexit no 1 (410 AD)

Brexit no. 1 … circa 410 AD

in Big Issues

Pissed-off Toff reviews the events leading up to our first Brexit, back in 410 AD, and wonders what the similarities are with Brexit no. 2 … which might or might not happen on the twenty-ninth day of this month.

I have been making an effort to become less ignorant about the early history of our isles, in particular the periods before and after Britain ceased to be part of the Roman Empire. The date traditionally given for this event – although it was in fact a non-event (of which more later) – is 410 AD, after which Roman Britain entered what again is traditionally referred to as the Dark Ages.

It’s a tricky period to study, if only because of one’s own preconceptions. I had always imagined that in 410 AD the Romans had suddenly thought: “Right! The game’s up for Britannia!! We’re pulling out!!!” This certainly, is the impression given in many history books. “The legions left for Rome in 410,” says a manual I have dug up from prep school days. “[In 410] the last two legions departed,” writes the historian and TV presenter Simon Schama in his three-volume History of Britain … and in this I fear he is wrong, because by 410 Britannia was already bereft of troops.

Only a few days ago, while trying to make sense of this period, I had a eureka moment … a revelation so blindingly obvious that I couldn’t think why I had not seen it before. Forget today’s Brexit, I thought. The real Brexit took place sixteen centuries ago, when Britain’s effective – though never formal – departure from the Roman Empire shaped our history for ever, paving the way for the creation of Anglo-Saxon England. 

What, then, happened in those years before 410, when our distant ancestors, of Celtic origin with a small Romano-British elite thrown in, faced what was, in retrospect, one of the most momentous turning-points in British history, easily on a par with the Norman invasion of 1066?

The legions left for Rome in 410.” WRONG!!

As I write, half a dozen history books are open in front of me, their pages covered in scribbled notes. The earliest account I have read dates back to about 545 AD, and was written, in Latin, by Gildas, a monk residing in what is now called Wales. Modern historians are rather dismissive of him; wrongly, in my view, since he is the major primary source for this distant, confusing and at times almost unknowable period in our island story. Otherwise, I rely on respected modern accounts, including Norman Davies’ formidable tome The Isles: A History, and Winston Churchill’s four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, a work which grows on me increasingly.

* * * * *

In the middle of the fourth century Britannia was a prosperous, well-ordered place and an established part of the Roman Empire with her own resident legions to protect her. Following the definitive Claudian invasion of 43 AD (which came almost exactly one century after Julius Caesar’s two exploratory incursions in 55 and 54 BC), there were four of these legions, each about 5,000 men strong: the 2nd, the 9th, the 14th and the 20th. In time, however, the garrison decreased in numbers. By the year 150 AD there were three legions in Britannia, not the former four. It seems, also, that troops were withdrawn from Britain to deal with the civil war of Magnentius (350-351); this despite the fact that from the third century onwards the raids of Saxon pirates were an increasingly pressing concern. 

The year 367 was particularly disastrous, with a concerted assault on the province by various Saxons, Picts and ‘Scots’ (confusingly, scoti or scotti in Latin, but Gaels or Irish in modern parlance), and it required the intervention of Count Theodosius with his Roman troops to restore order in 368 before he rushed off to deal with other emergencies on the continent. 

A shadow now falls over Britannia, under constant threat from barbarians and, more than ever, dependent for her security on the presence of the legions. If one were to choose a date for the beginning of the end for Roman Britain, it would most likely be 367 AD.


Comparing notes

In 383, the supreme commander in Britain, a Spaniard called Magnus Maximus, proclaimed himself emperor, established himself securely in Gaul and Spain, and in so doing denuded the island province of many of its essential garrisons. According to both the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus and Gildas the monk, these soldiers never returned. “After this, Britain is left deprived of all her soldiery […] and of the flower of her youth, who went with Maximus but never again returned,” writes Gildas in his polemical tract De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britannia). Maximus lasted for five years, before being defeated by the emperor Theodosius I, son of the Count Theodosius who had relieved Britain in 368.

This was the second time that a commander in Britain had declared himself emperor. The first time, it had been Carausius, in 286 AD, and imperial Roman authority had only been restored by Constantius Chlorus (later emperor as Constantius I), who invaded Britain in 296 and defeated Carausius’ successor Allectus.

Twice, therefore, in less than a hundred years, the commander of Britain had challenged Rome. In the same period, the threat from the barbarians had required the campaigning presence in Britain of three Roman emperors and one of Rome’s greatest generals: Constantius I and his son Constantinus I (‘the Great’) from 305 to circa 307; the emperor Constans in 342-343; and Count Theodosius in 368. It is difficult not to imagine that by the end of the fourth century the Roman emperors on the continent regarded Britain as something of a headache … just as the modern emperors in Brussels do today.

No sooner had Theodosius I dealt with Maximus, than Britannia was overrun by more barbarians in 396, and had to be rescued by Stilicho, Rome’s all-conquering general who was himself half-barbarian. This done, Stilicho returned to the continent, taking a further part of the island’s garrison with him, just as Maximus had a generation before. No doubt some of the soldiers he pulled out of Britain took part in the Battle of Pollentia in 402, when Stilicho defeated Alaric the Goth before going on to defeat another barbarian invasion led by Radagaisus in 405-406. In any case, none of these troops ever returned to Britain.

By the turn of the century, therefore, successive withdrawals of armed forces had severely weakened the province’s defences … this at a time when the barbarian threat was growing by the year. For Roman Britain, the end was near. As Norman Davies puts it: “In December 406 a vast horde of Vandals, Suevi and Alans poured over the frozen Rhine into Gaul in an unstoppable flood, effectively cutting Britannia off from imperial assistance.”

The next year, in 407, the Roman commander in Britain, backed by what remained of the army there, declared himself emperor as Constantine III. Let Winston Churchill describe what happened next. “Instead of protecting the island,” he writes, “[Constantine] found himself compelled to defend upon the continent the titles he had usurped. He drained Britain of troops and, as Magnus Maximus had done, set forth for Boulogne to try his fortune.” He was in the end captured and executed, and none of the troops who had left the island with him returned.

At a time when the outside world was ever more threatening, Britain was therefore defenceless. “By the beginning of the fifth century all the legions had gone on one errand or another,” writes Churchill, “and to frantic appeals for aid the helpless Emperor Honorius could only send his valedictory message in 410.” From now on, Honorius told the British, they would have to look after themselves. Indeed, Honorius had quite enough problems of his own, and in that same year Rome was sacked by the Goths under Alaric, while – famously – the feeble emperor fed his beloved chickens in his palace in Ravenna.

* * * * *

That was our first Brexit, back in 410. However, no matter how momentous the long-term consequences turned out to be for Roman Britain, it is unlikely that many people at the time imagined quite what a turning point this was. Nor was it comparable to the Brexit which we face today.

If, on 29 March of this year, Britain leaves the European Union, it will be a conscious decision and a formal break with a fledgling Brussels-based empire which just over half our nation considers to be oppressive and alien to our interests. But in 410 AD it was quite different. Firstly, the vast majority of the Romano-British viewed the emperors in long-established Rome not as oppressors, but as protectors. Thus their appeal to Honorius. And secondly, Britannia never formally left the Roman Empire. 

The magisterial Norman Davies puts it well. “Britannia was neither evacuated, nor stormed, nor ceded by treaty,” he writes. “It was left to its own devices for a temporary period which, in the event, turned out to be permanent.” Put another way: after Brexit no. 1 in 410 AD – an event which was more of a non-event than an event – Britain drifted off into the bloodshed and insecurity, terrible but formative, of what we now call the Dark Ages. 

So does a second Dark Age await us if ever we say goodbye to our rulers in Brussels? Or a new age of independence and prosperity? That, as someone once said, is the question …

PS: This piece updated and corrected since when I first posted it.