Early Arthurian Britain – The House of Constantine

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In the early fifth century, Gaul was overrun by the Alans, Vandals and Sueves. Britain, nearly devoid of Roman troops and not hopeful of replacing those who had been redeployed to the continent, greatly feared the invasion would continue on across the Channel. In response, Britain began to elect her own emperors as a way to unify her defenses. The first two to be elected were quickly murdered. The third became Constantine III.

Constantine, like his predecessor Magnus Maximus, took troops out of Britain to help in Gaul. After some success, he bestowed the title of Caesar on his eldest son Constans. Constans, along with a British general, Gerontius, were sent to Spain. Gerontius betrayed Constantine and Contans by backing another usurper and inciting the barbarians to attack Constantine. By 411, both Constantine and Constans had been murdered.

According to contemporary sources, Constantine was considered a tyrant and his actions had a horrendous impact on Britain. Zosimus, a Byzantine historian, recorded the barbarians had “reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some of the Gallic people to such straits that they revolted from the Roman empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, and reverted to their native customs.” In 410, Honorius sent letters telling Britain’s cities to defend themselves.

Another Byzantine historian, Procopius, wrote that Rome was no longer able to regain Britain as a province after Constantine’s usurpation. From that point on, Britain was ruled by “tyrants.” The term is unclear as to what it actually referred, but it is conjectured to be a title like “lord” or even “prince.” Assuming the tyrants were the emerging warlords whose lands evolved into the various kingdoms and subkingdoms mentioned in the second section of this lesson, the term actually may have been an equivalent to “king.” It also could have been a reflection of how supporters and dependents perceived their overlords.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, Constantine was Arthur’s grandfather and Constans his uncle. Curiously, in spite of Zosimus’s and Procopius’s writings, Constantine and his son were considered tragic heroes. Geoffrey erroneously called him Constantine II and made him the brother of Aldroenus, King of Brittany. He landed at Totnes with two thousand men and freed the island from barbarian invaders. He was crowned king at Silchester, then married and had three sons, Constans, Ambrosius, and Uther. Constans was given to the church in Winchester and became a monk. Ten years later, a Pictish servant murdered Constantine. The heroic story Geoffrey purports is likely one of the blatant inaccuracies he is accused of writing. His characters are probably historical, but their actions contradict more reliable historians.

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