Early Arthurian Britain – Barbarians at the Gates


When the Romans attempted to gain control of the Scottish highlands, they were met with strong resistance from a loose confederation of tribes. The Romans called them Caledonians, drawn from the Latin word they called Scotland. The Caledonians were Picts. The name Pict probably comes from picti, meaning “the painted ones,” after the way the Picts painted or tatooed their skin before battle. It has been speculated the Picts were related to the Celts, because the few remaining words of their language are place names that appear to belong to the Brythonic branch of Celtic languages.

Throughout the occupation, the Romans tried to subdue the Picts, but with inadequate troops, they were never able to complete the task. By the later part of the third century, the Picts grew increasingly aggressive. In the fourth century, several groups were identified, but it is not known what their relationships or connections to each other were. Likewise, though it is known that raids into lower Britain were intensifying, it is not known to what extent.


The Irish harassed Britain’s west shore for many years. Over time, the raiders appear to have established settlements along the coast. The most were located in South Wales, the Isle of Man and the Argyll area of Scotland. In spite of the settlements, raids continued. In the fifth century, St. Patrick wrote the king of Strathclyde a scathing letter, admonishing the king’s retaliatory attack on Ireland that carried off some of Patrick’s Christian converts.


Links between Scotland and Ireland existed even in pre-historic times. At some point in the fifth century and on into the sixth, Irish from Antrim, only twelve miles across the sea from Scotland, established a significant, permanent settlement in Argyll. The Romans called these Irish “Scots,” after the tribal name “Scoti.” The settlement was the basis for the kingdom of Dalriada. The Scots brought the Gaelic language with them, and from Dalriada it spread throughout Scotland north of the Antonine Wall.


“…a name not to be spoken!…hated by man and God.” These are Gildas’ words as he described the Saxons.

The Britons collectively called Germanic invaders “Saxons.” But true Saxons were only part of the group of Germanic peoples who settled in Britain and eventually created the country called England. Evidence has found that, besides Saxons from northern Germany, Angles and Jutes from what is now Denmark, Frisians from the Netherlands and Franks also joined the migrations and invasions of Britain. Other tribes that seem to have left traces include Alamanni and Swabians.

Historians have argued back and forth on how much of the Germanic settlement was merely migration or actual conquest. Archaeology supports both theories to a degree. Originally, they were tribal, like the Celts. The Romans never conquered their lands and even recruited some as auxiliaries in the army. In general, they appear to have been peaceful neighbors to the Roman empire on the continent until the fourth century, when overpopulation and pressure from the east forced them to cross south and west into the empire’s territory. It is also speculated that a shift in climate caused the seas to rise, flooding ancestral lands of the Saxons and other Germanic tribes and forcing them out.

When Roman rule withdrew from Britain early in the fifth century, Saxon raiders in the south, and Irish and Pictish in the north and west grew bolder. Although Saxon pirates and raiders had harassed the shore of Britain for many years, it appears they did not gain a foothold until sometime in the mid-fifth century when they began to be hired as mercenaries to counter Pictish and Irish raids. Hungry for land, it was the commodity offered and gladly accepted. But in time, it appears the Saxon mercenaries-turned-settlers grew out of their boundaries and out of hand, encroaching upon native Britons’ lands and seriously threatening the continuance of Britain’s native population.