03 September, 2010

The Anglian Tower, York

The ‘Anglian Tower’ is a small stone tower in the north-west wall of the Roman legionary fortress at York. It is near the west corner, about 60 m north-east of the surviving Multangular Tower at the west corner. The name ‘Anglian Tower’ was bestowed when the tower was opened for public display after the 1970 excavation, but it owes more to confidence than evidence, since the tower itself is not securely dated. What do we know about it?

Picture from Wikipedia under Creative Commons licence


The Anglian Tower was first discovered in 1842, when a route was being constructed through the city defences to allow access to St Leonard’s Yard (Tweddle et al 1999, p. 216). It had been buried inside an earth bank that had been constructed on top of the original Roman defences. A later re-excavation was carried out in 1970.



The Anglian Tower is rectangular, about 3.6 m by 3.1 m, and the standing remains are about 4.7 m high (Tweddle et al 1999, p. 189). The walls are 0.45 to 0.6 m thick, (Tweddle et al 1999, p. 251). It has two doorways, one in each side, supported by simple arches. The original roof was replaced by a brick vault in the nineteenth century (Ottaway 2004, p.142).

The front of the tower is set into a shallow cut in the top of the Roman fortress wall, and the back wall of the tower stands on the Roman rampart (Ottaway 2004, p.142).

The tower is constructed of roughly cut and shaped blocks of oolitic limestone (Ottaway 2004, p.142). This is a different type of limestone to the magnesian limestone used to construct the Roman walls, and the masonry technique is also different.


The 1970 excavation did not find any direct dating evidence associated with the Anglian Tower (Tweddle et al 1999, p. 189). The date range for the tower’s construction is book-ended by stratigraphy:

  • Since the Anglian tower stands on top of the Roman defences and is inserted into a cut in the wall, it must post-date the construction of the Roman wall;

  • The Anglian Tower was buried inside an earth rampart strengthened with rough stonework, which was constructed on top of the Roman defences. So it must pre-date the construction of this rampart.

The walls of the Roman legionary fortress at York were rebuilt and repaired at several stages in the life of the fortress. Projecting towers like the Multangular Tower are more commonly seen in later Roman military architecture of the later third and fourth centuries, like the Roman shore forts in Britain. So on stylistic grounds York’s Roman walls have sometimes been dated to the early fourth century, perhaps associated with the Emperor Constantine (the Great) who was proclaimed Emperor by his troops in York in 306 AD. However, the abundant pottery in the associated rampart consistently dates to the late second or early third century (Ottaway 2004, p.75). On the basis of the pottery, Patrick Ottaway considers that the defences had been rebuilt in stone and the Multangular Tower constructed by, or shortly after, the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (193 – 211 AD), perhaps to mark the Emperor’s stay in York in 208-211 (Ottaway 2004, p. 75).

The stone-reinforced earth rampart on top of the Anglian Tower contained a few sherds of eighth- to ninth-century pottery (Ottaway 2004, p.142). A plausible context for its construction could be as a refurbishment of the defences at around the time the Vikings took York in 867 (Tweddle et al 1999, p.189).

So, these indicate that the Anglian Tower was built at some time after the completion of the Roman stone walls in the early third century (or possibly the early fourth century), and at some time before the stone-reinforced earth bank was constructed in approximately the middle of the ninth century.


The Anglian Tower is built of blocks of oolitic limestone. This stone occurs in flat slabs, and is found in the North York Moors north of York and in the Yorkshire Wolds east of York (Ottaway 2004, p.53-54). It was commonly used in Roman York but mainly in the Roman colonia (civilian city) on the west bank of the River Ouse. A different type of limestone, magnesian limestone, was used extensively in the Roman military fortress. Magnesian limestone is a higher quality building stone than oolitic limestone because it can be cut in any direction and to any size and shape, and is the limestone used to make the facing blocks for the surviving stretches of Roman fortress wall. It comes from the Tadcaster area, west of York.

The other notable feature of the stone used to build the Anglian Tower is that it appears to have been freshly quarried. It is not re-used stone from earlier Roman buildings. In this it contrasts sharply with later buildings such as York’s medieval churches, some of which were almost entirely constructed from re-used Roman stone (e.g the tower of St Mary Bishophill Junior, built in the eleventh century; Ottaway 2004, p.151).

Three inferences can be drawn from the stone used to construct the Anglian Tower:
  • At the time it was built, Roman York was not yet regarded as the giant stone quarry it became in the Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval periods. Either the Roman buildings were still in use, or they were still respected, or whoever built the Anglian Tower lacked the technology to demolish them safely;

  • Whoever built the Anglian Tower did not use the same materials or construction techniques as the Roman military had used to build the fortress defences, implying a break in construction methods. This in turn could imply that the necessary knowledge had been lost, or that access to the Tadcaster quarries was no longer possible, or a change in fashion, or some more prosaic reason such as a builders’ merchant happening to have a load of oolitic limestone ready to hand at the time of construction;

  • Whoever built the Anglian Tower had sufficient knowledge of stone construction methods to build a sturdy tower – it hadn’t fallen down by the time it was buried in the overlying ninth-century earth rampart - and sufficient resources available to obtain the stone and carry out the construction. They also regarded York as sufficiently important to be worth the effort of building the tower.

A late Roman date is consistent with the lack of re-used stone in the Anglian Tower, since the fortress buildings would presumably have still been in use and would not have been available as a convenient stone quarry. ‘Consistent with’, rather than definitive proof, since the Roman army did not invariably use freshly quarried stone for military construction; it re-used stone from redundant structures at other locations, such as the walls at Chester and the fort at Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall. The rather rough construction technique may argue against a late Roman date, since one might have assumed that the late Roman Army would have been able to produce a more refined tower for its premier northern fortress. However, this could be explained by haste or the absence of the engineering corps elsewhere. There were plenty of crises in Late Roman Britain that could have provided the context for a rushed repair, or for the army to have been stretched very thin and needing to bodge up a repair with any semi-skilled or unskilled labour they had to hand.

A date shortly after the end of Roman administration, perhaps in the fifth or sixth century, is consistent with the coarse building technique and the change in materials, as the engineering skills of the Roman military may well have been partially or wholly lost when Constantine III took most of the army stationed in Britannia to Europe in his (unsuccessful) bid for the top job in 408. There is no reason to assume that Roman York was instantly deserted when Roman government ended in Britain. Quite the reverse; Honorius’ letter in 410 telling the civitas capitals to ‘look to their own defences’ implies that there was still a layer of local or regional government in place. York would be a logical centre, since it had defences and was at the hub of road and river transport networks. It probably also took a while – perhaps several decades – for people to decide that the Empire was not going to come back this time, and during this period the city authorities may well have tried to maintain Roman political and material structures for as long as possible. The Anglian Tower could be regarded as a direct response to Honorius’ command by whoever was in control of post-Roman York, perhaps using a civilian building contractor in the absence of a military engineer. A post-Roman date could also be consistent with the lack of re-used stone. If whoever was in charge in York when the Anglian Tower was built derived their authority – or claimed to derive it – from the preceding Roman military or civil administration, that might contribute to a reluctance to rob stone from Roman buildings, either through respect for Roman structures or through a fear of getting reprimanded for it if/when Roman government was later restored. It’s worth remembering that Britain had been part of breakaway Empires several times in the preceding century or two and that central Imperial control had always been restored sooner or later, frequently to the detriment of those who had been, or were perceived to have been, on the opposing side. In the early to mid fifth century there may well have been no obvious reason to expect it to be any different this time.

A date in the Anglian period, say from the late sixth or early seventh century onwards, is also possible. We know from Bede that York was under the control of the Anglian kings of Deira in 627 when Eadwine of Deira chose to have himself and his court baptised there (Bede Book II Ch. 14). Whether York was a regularly used royal centre or whether the baptism was a one-off visit to a prestigious but little-used ruin is not known. If York was a significant royal centre, repairing the defences would be a logical thing to do. The primary building material in early (‘Anglo-Saxon’) England was timber (which does not mean that buildings were necessarily unsophisticated, as discussed in an earlier post on timber architecture), which at first sight might appear inconsistent with a stone-built tower. However, Bede tells us that Eadwine began to build a stone church in York at some date after 627, and that the church was later completed by his nephew Oswald at some date between 634 and 642 (Book II Ch. 14). So the Anglian kings of the early seventh century in York had access to masonry technology for building churches, and could presumably have used the same technology in other applications, such as repairing the defences. The use of oolitic limestone would also be consistent with this, as the sources for oolitic limestone in the North York Moors and the Yorkshire Wolds are in Deiran territory and may therefore have been familiar to the Deiran kings or their officials – although I wouldn’t read too much into this as the oolitic limestone was also familiar in Roman York. The lack of re-used stone may be an argument against an Anglian date, as there must surely have been at least some derelict buildings in the city by then. However, Bede tells us that Eadwine used a Roman-style standard (Book II Ch. 16). If Roman heritage was seen as a source of authority or legitimacy, there may have been a reluctance to show disrespect by using Roman buildings, however dilapidated, as a stone quarry. There may also have been a reluctance to disturb the ruins either on grounds of superstition (who wants to risk annoying a vengeful ghost?) or practicality (collapsing arches and unstable foundations can make demolition a risky business).

On the basis of the available evidence, the Anglian Tower could have been constructed at any time between the late Roman period and the ninth-century Viking conquest. A reasonable case can be made for late Roman, post-Roman or Anglian construction. All are plausible, none is definitive. You can take your pick.

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.

Map links
North York Moors


Rick said...

I wonder about the military aspects of the tower. Apparently it was not a replacement of an earlier structure, but a new addition to the fort, which could imply something about anticipated threats or a changed defensive plan.

For example, early medieval rulers who possessed an ex-Roman fort might have to defend it with far fewer troops than the original design anticipated, and reconfigure the place accordingly. (Isn't one major medieval castle rebuilt from just one corner of a Roman fort?)

Of course, this sort of analysis doesn't help much with dating, because similar constraints would have applied at any time from c. 450 to c. 800. I'll guess that the 9th century earth rampart has to do with the Vike threat.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Interesting tower, that one. There are not many buildings in Roman towns post-dating the Romans that don't use Roman buildings a quarries. Except maybe in those cases where existing buildings were adapted, like the basilicas and baths that became churches.

Carla said...

Rick - it's quite close to one of the Roman interval towers, and there's a suggestion that the Roman tower might have become unsafe due to subsidence and that the Anglian Tower may have been intended as a replacement. Which raises the question of why not replace/rebuild/repair/shore up the Roman interval tower rather than build another one a bit further along the wall? Perhaps fixing the subsidence would have been difficult or time-consuming and building another tower was quicker. However, it also raises the question of whether the Roman interval tower would have been a weak point in the defences if it was structurally unsound enough to need a replacement; in which case one would think a capable commander would have done something about that first. So I'm not entirely sure I buy the idea of the Anglian Tower as a replacement, but it's a possibility. It's quite a modest structure to imply a change in defensive plan by itself, although of course we never know whether other evidence hasn't survived or hasn't come to light. It certainly seems likely that a post-Roman ruler would have had trouble finding enough troops to man the defences of a full-scale Roman legionary fortress. (Although, that said, there is a theory that someone in the sixth century had a serious go at restoring the command of the old Dux Britanniarum under central control from York - insert theories about high kings called Arthur of your choice - and if that were so the resources available to central command might have been very considerable).
Assuming numbers were small, they wouldn't necessarily have had to man the whole circuit to be effective. The defenders could reasonably expect that the enemy army also wouldn't be large and wouldn't have siege engines, so maybe the threat was also smaller and could be countered with a smaller defensive force and/or by use of militia forces. How many men you need to defend the place probably depends on what you expect to defend it against. In the 930s a group of Vikings installed themselves in Chester, which was an even bigger Roman fortress than York, and presumably they must have felt that they had enough troops to make use of it, even if they were fewer in number than the legion it was designed for.

The Vikings took York in 867 (which implies that they thought it was worth taking), and that's a plausible context for the earth rampart and its ninth-century pottery. As far as I know, there's nothing to say whether was built by the Northumbrians in a (failed) attempt to defend against the Viking threat, or by the Vikings repairing the fortification they'd just captured so they could hold it against further attack, or a bit of both.

Gabriele - Yes, adapting existing structures happens, very reasonably. There was presumably a good reason not to re-use the Roman buildings as a quarry in this case; either they were off-limits for some reason (still in use or sacrosanct), or it was easier to get fresh stone. There may be some totally prosaic and random reason, like a builders' yard just happened to have brought in a load of stone for some reason (maybe some considerable time before the tower was built) and it was used because it was readily to hand. Either could have applied at any time. What would be very interesting would be to find the remains of the early Anglian stone churches mentioned by Bede and see whether they re-used Roman stone. Not much chance of that, unfortunately!

Rick said...

Subsidence must be especially hard to deal with, because any reinforcement is liable to subside as well. And demolishing the tower might risk bringing down part of the wall itself. (Whereas if it comes down on an attacking enemy, so much the worse for them!)

So the best option might have been to decommission the old tower in place, and build a nearby replacement to cover the sector.

I forgot that you made the same point about small garrisons and extensive defenses back when you posted about Chester. You only need a watch along most of the circuit, since a peer enemy can only attack along one sector.

If you're doing new engineering work, that is a different consideration, and you probably concentrate new work around key targets.

Is this something new about York and a sixth century centralizing command there? I know there's a northern thread to Arthurian speculations, but this sounds like a whiff of substance.

Carla said...

If I remember rightly, the nearby Roman tower had started to detach from the wall, which might well have been a complicated problem to repair.

The revival of the Dux Britanniarum command isn't a particularly new theory, it's been around a while. I think it was originated by Ken Dark, and I certainly came across it in his books (there's a snippet about it here, scroll down to the 4th para from the end). He doesn't make any link to Arthur, as far as I know - that was my comment that anything involving any sort of co-ordinated military activity immediately looks like fodder for a High King... I wonder if anyone has used it as the basis for a King Arthur novel? I don't read enough Arthuriana to know. Rosemary Sutcliff placed her Artos in North Britain, memorably at Trimontium, but that was well before the theory appeared, I think. I'll have to fish out Ken Dark's book (which I've lent to someone, so don't hold your breath) to see if he explicitly connects it to York, or whether I just inferred that from the name of the command. The Roman Dux Britanniarum was based at York, or at any rate the first unit listed under his command in Notitia Dignitatum is the Sixth Legion, which was based at York, so logically if a successor was consciously trying to revive a Roman military structure one might expect them to try to revive the old HQ if possible, if only for the prestige value.

Rick said...

Did you mean to link something, a snippet in a fourth para? :-)

Dark hardly has to mention Arthur, does he? Any credible claim of authority across former (to us!) Roman Britain evokes Arthur. It strikes me as rather donnishly delicate of him, refusing to play Captain Obvious.

A Roman Arthur has picked up steam in the popular culture, doing battle with Celtic Arthur, and Dark's arguments are likely part of the mix.

Turning him into a Welsh hero was perhaps not unlike turning Charlemagne into a crusading champion of Christendom.

Carla said...

I'm rather in favour of donnish delicacy :-) I certainly prefer it to the school of narrative non(?)-fiction that doesn't distinguish between facts, inference and speculation. I don't know what happened to the link: let me try again, and here it is in plain text for you to cut and paste if all else fails: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba32/Ba32feat.html
Scroll down to the article headlined "Centuries of Roman survival in the West", and the mention of a revived Dux Britanniarum is in the paragraph beginning "There are even hints..." which is about the 4th from the end.

The Welsh story Culhwch and Olwen is supposed to date from the 11th century (the date is based on linguistics that I'm not qualified to comment on), and in that tale Arthur appears as a great High King with a court at Celliwig in Cernyw (Cornwall) (location unknown) and a band of famous warriors, including Cai, Bedwyr and Gwalchmai (later to become Sir Kay, Sir Bedivere and Sir Gawain). Assuming the date is correct, this story predates Geoffrey of Monmouth and has at least some of the recognisable elements of the familiar legendary Arthur - a great king, a group of famous warriors - so Arthur as a hero of western Britain goes back quite a way. It's interesting that although the story survives in two Welsh manuscripts and was therefore presumably told in what is now Wales, Arthur's court is located outside Wales, in Cornwall (unless there were places in what is now Wales called Cernyw whose names have been lost). This may be a straw in the wind suggesting that the historical Arthur (if there was one) was based in a territory that wasn't part of medieval Wales.
There could have been several historical figures whose adventures eventually merged into the legendary King Arthur, so the 'Roman Arthur' and 'Celtic Arthur' schools of thought could both be partially right. (What freedom a near-total lack of evidence brings!). The medieval storytellers may have had a similar exhilarating freedom from facts, and consequently developed an 'Arthur' who happened to suit their audience at the time - a process that's still happening today.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I looked in my picture files but for some reason (could have been a group standing in front of it and not moving) I didn't take a shot of the Anglian Tower when I was in York. Should be a reason to get back, right? :)

Got a somewhat larger tower on my blog instead.

Meghan said...

Fantastic! This is so interesting, and I love the picture which allows me to really take in the history.

Rick said...

This time the link worked. I have read some of this before, probably thanks to you, because I remember the late survival of Roman house amenities at Whitley Grange.

Celliwig, natch, is where I stole the capital of Lyonesse, Kelliwick. Its west gate is Hammersgate, i.e. Emrys' gate. (I wish I knew enough linguistics to know whether the derivation is plausible.)

Both Arthurs may indeed be partially true, to the degree that either is. Like Justinian, the last Roman emperor or the first Byzantine, depending on which modern stereotype you choose.

I could pick a nit or two with Dark, as I'm sure some more qualified have done. The re-occupation of forts formerly used by the Dux Brittaniarum, rather than other Roman forts, could be a matter of military exigency, facing the same threat corridors.

That doesn't negate the broader point: Someone was re-commissioning multiple Roman fortifications in a systematic way.

But what was the part of the Saxons/English in all this. Not individuals; we've talked before about the possibility of an English Stilicho. But late Romans in general surely had a stereotype of 'Germanic barbarians,' and the Welsh still call the English by the Roman-era term for Germanic pirates and troublemakers in general.

And the English became Romanized hardly at all, to the point where we are writing in English, not a Romance language.

Carla said...

Gabriele, Meghan - I thought I had a shot of the tower from a while ago (film camera, not digital - that long ago :-)) but I couldn't find the print to scan when I was posting this. Fortunately Wikipedia had this one available; which I think is probably clearer than the one I took anyway :-)

Carla said...

Rick - For what it's worth, there are some place names in southern England with the element Ambres-, which is supposed to derive from Ambrosius (of which the Welsh version is Emrys). Ambres- to Hammers- doesn't look too far a stretch to me. Anyway, Lyonesse is your creation and you can make up its linguistic rules all you like :-)

Indeed, and another, related, possibility that occurs to me is that the fortifications in the Dux Britanniarum command in Notitia may have been the ones most recently in use, which in turn may have meant they were in the least bad state of repair. Another wrinkle is that dating in the 5th-6th centuries can be tricky due to the relative lack of clearly dateable artefacts. E.g. the timber halls at Birdoswald post-date the late fourth-century coin found under the floor, but whether by a few years, a few decades, or even a century or two, is up for grabs. So this makes it hard to tell the difference between a simultaneous reoccupation, or a piecemeal and localised re-use according to local whim and circumstance, which need not require any central authority. What you can say is that someone (could be plural) found Roman forts in North Britain worth occupying in the centuries after the end of Roman rule. A conscious attempt to revive (or continue?) a Roman command structure is consistent with that, but so are many other explanations. As usual.

As to where the English or proto-English fit into all this, possibly rather more centrally than one might at first imagine. The view of Germanic 'barbarians' may have differed in different parts of Britannia. Gildas certainly despised 'Saxons' (though bear in mind that Gildas despised everybody, with the possible exception of Ambrosius). As his is the only contemporary account, it's easy to assume that his attitude is representative of the whole population, but that may or may not be true. Gildas is usually placed in the wealthy villa-owning landlord economy of what's now south-west-midland England, say somewhere near the upper Bristol Channel. This was an overwhelmingly civilian economy. In contrast, in what's now northern England the Late Roman Army was a major (dominant?) component of the economy, maintaining the garrison troops stationed along Hadrian's Wall, its various supply bases and in York. The Late Roman army on Hadrian's Wall recruited Germanic troops, some of whom rose to very high rank (a late fourth century Dux Britanniarum had a Germanic name). That may have given rise to a different attitude to Germanic people in this region (or at least to those of them who served in or worked for or supplied the army). There may not have been much of a distinction between 'Roman' and 'Germanic' within the military and its associated traders and suppliers. No doubt the common language was Latin, but other languages may have been in use alongside, and the balance may have shifted over time. Federate troops (hired by Vortigern or whoever) would fit into this picture fairly easily, continuing a long-established situation of Germanic soldiers fighting for Roman authorities in Britain but under slightly different terms. Seen in this light, if someone did attempt to revive a Dux Britanniarum command in the 5th or 6th centuries, who's to say whether it could just as easily have been a descendant of a Germanic federate with a romantic view of his ancestors' role in the Late Roman Army, as a descendant of a Roman politician or local aristocrat (or indeed a descendant of all of them, depending on intermarriage among families with different kinds of power).

Rick said...

Hammers for Ambres does seem like a pretty easy shift, especially when the referent is a victorious king - Charles Martel is not parallel, but is suggestive.

As for how much linguistic freedom I have, that is a big question! On a purely logical level the chance that people in the not-quite-Britain of a parallel world would speak English is nil to begin with. But like FTL drives, fantasy linguistics should seem plausible even if it really isn't.

Tolkien set a very intimidating standard on that score!

Back to real Britain. Does any late Roman writer have much good to say about 'Germanic barbarians?' I imagine that received elite opinion regarded them all as troublemakers, even if the facts on the ground were much more complicated. Gildas was hardly breaking new ground ideologically.

And the proto-English for their part do not seem to have been much impressed by Brito-Roman elite culture, since they did not assimilate enough to stick. Individual proto-English people might have lived in villas and the whole nine yards, but so far as I can tell early English elite culture went its own way almost entirely.

Their opinion of the Roman military might have been different! Notably the one thing the early English did retain was the idea of a Bretwald.

Carla said...

Not to mention Edward I 'Hammer of the Scots'. You could perhaps give a similar by-name to the ancestral Emrys of Lyonesse - I assume he successfully hammered his enemies? - to reinforce the derivation of Hammersgate. Not all readers will necessarily 'get' Emrys=Hammers.

Regarding the language, whatever language(s) is/are spoken in Lyonesses, you have to 'translate' all of them into modern English for a modern English-speaking reader. It doesn't necessarily imply that the language(s) of Lyonesse bear any resemblance to modern English. Tolkien set a very high bar on linguistics, to be sure, but then for him the languages came first and the world and characters were secondary, a way of providing a setting for the languages.

Good question, and that brings us back to something we've touched on here before; what exactly did ethnic labels like Roman, British, Saxon, Pict mean at the time? Possibly not what they mean today. Gildas, writing in educated Latin, may look like a Roman writer to us, but he draws a firm distinction between Romans and Britons; the Romans are an external people who periodically come to Britain, sort out its defences, and go away again. Similarly, his 'Saxons' are external; there's no mention of any Germanic soldiers who were already living in the ex-Roman province or who had served in the late Roman army. Did he just not mention them, or did they not count as 'Saxons'?

It seems that early English society, like the contemporary Brittonic society of Y Gododdin, was a heroic culture with a military aristocracy. To some extent that may be more or less inevitable in the aftermath of the break up of a complex interconnected economy into smaller self-sufficient fragments; he who controls the most, or the most effective, armed men gets the biggest share of the fragments. It may be possible that the idea of some sort of overlord was retained from a memory of the Roman provincial organisation, an idea that the fragments had once been joined together and could be so again. The Roman-style theatre segment excavated at Yeavering is interesting in this regard.

Rick said...

I forgot about the Hammer of the Scots. But I don't always regard things like Hammersgate as something for readers to 'get,' save maybe the geekiest. It is more internal flavoring, the sort of thing Tolkien did so extremely well.

Indeed those terms had a different meaning to Gildas. I think early writers generally took 'Romans' in a somewhat literal way to mean people from Rome, not as shorthand for 'Romanized,' as we tend to use it now. Of course they knew that many 'Romans' had never set foot there, but they still associated Roman-ness with the city itself.

But I did not know about Gildas and 'Saxons,' and that is interesting. No doubt that was how Romanized landowners 150 years earlier saw things, when the 'Count of the Saxon Shore' was supposed to keep them in hand.

Perhaps Gildas would say that the Saxons showed up, the Romans left, and things went to hell in a handbasket; the Saxons are still here, the Romans haven't come back, we're all still in the handbasket, and it is getting pretty hot.

And he might have had some vague idea that the 'Saxons' could and should pack up their household goods, get back in their boats, and go back where they originally came from.

But he was not advising his audience on what specifically to do about 'Saxons.' He was berating them for failing to do anything effective about the whole handbasket thing.

Since he was having no success finding 'good' Britons, he spent no effort pondering the possibility of 'good' Saxons.

And Bede would say that that encapsulated the failure of (what we call) post-Roman Britain, that it did nothing to convert the English.

The paganism of the English does stand out, because wasn't the late Roman army institutionally Christian? I would have expected federate troops to absorb the identity, however tenuous they were about doctrine.

Carla said...

It works on two levels, both as a little 'aha!' moment for the geekier readers who spot the references, and as internal 'flavouring' for everyone else.

Gildas talks about the arrival of the Saxons in Book II ch. 23 of De Excidio, and there it seems absolutely clear that he saw them as a people who arrived by sea from somewhere else.

Have you met the theory that 'Saxon Shore' referred to the coast where Saxons lived, as opposed to the coast that Saxons attacked? I don't have the linguistic expertise to say whether the original Latin indicates one meaning rather than another. The modern English phrase (which was presumably chosen by the translators for good reason) can carry either meaning.

Gildas always reminds me of modern "country going to hell in a handcart and it's all the fault of immigrants/ scroungers/ corrupt politicians/ immoral and idle population (delete as applicable)" columnists. I assume you have them Stateside as well? Some things never change.

Good question about the religion of the Late Roman Army. Emperor Julian was promoting polytheistic paganism in the 360s, and Christianity was declared the 'official' Roman religion in about 390 by Theodosius. So paganism had been officially tolerated after a fashion up until 390 or so, and presumably it would have taken a while for it to disappear from the Army altogether. One of the barrack blocks at Birdoswald acquired a rounded end in the late 4th c and is sometimes interpreted as a possible church, but even if it was, that doesn't necessarily mean that none of the soldiers practised a different religion, perhaps while also paying lip service to Christianity. Raedwald in the early seventh century was quite happy to honour Christian and pagan gods equally (to Bede's horror!) and he probably didn't invent the idea. Federate troops or mercenaries, working for the Late Roman Amry or its post-Roman successors but semi-independent, might also have retained their own religion regardless of the official religion of their employers. Religion, language and ethnicity don't necessarily co-sort.

Rick said...

Yes, subtle references have a dual function.

Saying that the world is going to hell in a handbasket seems to be a fairly timeless human trait. Gildas has plentiful company. We certainly have plenty of it in the US.

I know nothing of Latin nuance, but on the face of it, Litus Saxonicum seems as ambivalent as 'Saxon Shore,' and could equally well be taken either way.

I may be tripping over some chronology. When did the Goths mass convert (nominally) to Arian Christianity? The Franks under Clovis did not become nominal Catholic until c. 496. So perhaps the mass conversions of Germanic peoples on the continent happened only after Britain was already separated from the Empire.

But whatever element of prestige, or whatever, led Goths, Vandals, and Franks to adopt Christianity, apparently did not operate in Britain. The proto-English did not necessarily 'reject' Christianity; perhaps they simply ignored it.

Carla said...

Good question re the Goths. I tend to lose track of their various subdivisions. Some of them certainly converted to Christianity in the late-ish 4th C. I would expect there was plenty of contact back and forth across the North Sea between eastern Britain and Scandinavia, Germany, the Low Countries and northern France, but possibly less with Central Europe and Italy because of the geography.

There may have been a similar prestige motive but operating later, in the late sixth and early seventh century. Aethelbert of Kent may have been attracted to Christianity in part because of the power and wealth in glamorous Merovingian France just across the Channel (his in-laws), and this may also have applied in the other kingdoms up the east coast that converted after contact with Kent (East Angles [first time round], East Saxons, Deira).

Regional and temporal variation means that any or all could be true at different times and places; prestige in some places, disinterest in others, deliberate rejection in others. Martin Carver has a theory that the Sutton Hoo ship burial was a deliberate rejection of Christianity, a statement along the lines of: "we can be just as rich and powerful without Christianity or the French, thank you".

Mary Garrison said...

For the dating of the multangular tower, see now Paul Bidwell, 'Constantine and Constantius at York' in Hartley, Hawkes, Henig, Mee, Constantine: York's Roman Emperor, pp. 31-40.

Excavations at the site of Gamzigrad in Dacia Ripensis uncovered tower remains most similar to York's multangular tower, presumably designed by the same architect. Gamzigrad perhaps overseen by Galerius with intention of it being his retirement home. Date frame ca. 293-305. Hence this bet evidence so far for likely date of multangular tower.

Carla said...

Mary Garrison - Hello and welcome! Many thanks for the information and the reference. So that is consistent with the dating on stylistic grounds (early 4th C), rather than with the pottery in the rampart (early 3rd C).