Brazen Head Poetry Editor LIAM GUILAR is writing a Legendary history of Britain. Chapter One will appear in Long Poem Magazine in June 2021. This is Chapter Two from the story of Vortigern; Chapter Three will appear in the Summer issue. Further details about the Legendary history can be found at www.liamguilar.com
The story so far
In the fifth century, the Roman province of Britannia is now isolated from Europe. A combination of external threats, internal squabbling and two botched coups has left the Province on the verge of ruin.
But it was not only fornication that characterised this time,
but all the vices to which human nature abandons itself:
The people were abandoned by the Romans,
then led astray by vanity and error into a trackless place.After Gildas, De Excidio, etc. para 20-21
Chapter Two – A Man of Heart?
A Royal Funeral
…and the rain began to fall
on the polished armour of the honour guard
ornate, ceremonial and useless.
The wind mangling the bishop’s words
threatened to drag the flame from the torches
before they were touched to the pyre.
Vortigern in the place of honour.
You’re looking at the wrong man.
That shining burnished dazzle
is Adolf, Earl of Gloucester.
Breastplate’s modelled on a statue of Augustus
though which campaigns he’s fought in is a mystery.
He’s Magister Militum material.
Just ask him when you’ve got an hour or two.
Thinks his red cloak should be purple
and doesn’t care who knows.
He’d climb a dung heap
to crow above the competition
and call his stinking pile a kingdom
so he could call himself a king.
Vortigern the thin, the grey fox,
stands beside him. Primes inter pares.
Official speak to smooth the ragged fact
that nobody’s in charge.
They say that once this party’s over
the Vicarius will appoint his successor.
Look at the corpse of the King on the piled wood.
The senators in their windblown finest,
the priests and bishops, the civilian crowd
waiting expectantly for the spectacle.
Brigantes, Atrebates, Cats,
still scratching at old tribal sores.
You’d think four centuries of Pax Romana
would have softened the edges.
So you know we’re in for it my friend
the depth and spread and stink of it
when they’re so scared
they put aside their cherished
and try to work together.
Vortigern framed the elegy he’d deliver,
had anyone asked, and honesty were possible.
Let us now praise Constance the King
Ruler of Britain, Father to us all.
Before we light his funeral pyre
before the flames consume the corpse
let us rehearse his virtues:
Son of a murdered usurper,
dim-witted in council, lacking in wisdom
useless in battle, cowering behind a shield
he could barely lift.
When his father was assassinated
the council ripped him from the monastery
because he was a Descendant of Brutus,
last of the Trojans, ‘legitimate rulers of Britannia’.
Not caring that he was indifferent to the law,
despising the church, a drunkard at the feast,
a sly despoiler of other men’s women:
Incompetent, untrustworthy, dead.
His much younger brothers
bundled to Gaul
where their mother will school them
in the arts of resentment.
Now those old men facing the pyre,
will preside over the death throes of Britannia.
These are the Good Old Days
(Name your drug of choice,
power, land, office, sex,
before the evening’s out
someone will make an offer.)
After the incense and the ritual incantations,
after the prayers and the sermonising,
after the God of Love has been
importuned for military victory,
a party to celebrate these coming men:
friends to drink to their success
who’d known them all their lives
although they’d never met,
hoping to be remembered, hinting at
a son or protégé who might serve
in a minor capacity on their staff.
Then daughters, decorous and decorative,
well-briefed and drilled for the engagement.
Gloucester, good looking, single,
with the gift of the gab,
a tall figure circled by adoring females
pressing him with their attractions
while Vortigern is steered towards a corner
where members of the council
discoursed upon Britannia’s future.
These old men, hungering for clues,
competing for his gratitude,
or the revelation of a weakness.
(Name your poison, power, titles, office, sex,
if it’s too embarrassing, just hint at it,
someone, with a mainline to the source,
will make an offer before the evening’s out.)
They want to be his friend
despite their previous contempt.
Confident enough for hints, innuendo.
He’s not looking well, our aging leader.
The times do need a younger man.
Has a successor been appointed? No?
Walk around inside the pauses
and see the possibilities.
Implications dangling bait
for conspiracy or betrayal.
That’s not what I meant at all…
The council, the council must expand.
Of course, become inclusive, reach out
beyond the city walls, reflect the tribal
distribution, equality of representation?
We’ll need a leader everyone can trust
That rules out the Brigantes. And the Cats.
And the army? An imbalance in the leadership
to be addressed…Taken aside by senators,
passed around in a game of confidential whispers.
I’ve been watching your career with interest
please don’t misunderstand of course we
The Brigantes, after all I was only joking.
Men who would have lost their lunch
at the thought of living in a hut
now sought security, identity, community,
in a rediscovered tribal heritage
they were busily creating for themselves
made attractive by ignorance and nostalgia.
As though ‘culture’ was a buried hoard
that could be excavated, reused untarnished
not made irrelevant by time.
Their bad jokes advance scouts of a civil war.
What do you call fifty drowned Brigantes?
A good start? One hundred Saxons? Not enough.
Soon they’d rediscover druid lore.
invoking hailstorms against their enemies.
There’d be rumours of strange rituals
in forest clearings, and murders for the right
to put on silly clothes and be ‘Archdruid’.
Men protective of their privileges
their rank, their wealth, their family histories,
so proud of their rhetorical skills,
how they were Romans first and Britons second.
Soon they’d be daubing themselves
and trading their sophistication for survival.
Lamps were lit, slaves ghosting between the diners.
Forced female laughter, twining around Gloucester’s voice,
erupted arrhythmically from the other corner of the room.
Vortigern was wondering how long he had to stay
until an older woman at his elbow said:
‘As if any of them cared.
Did they not see the empty streets?
The ruined houses?
We’ll all be dead within the year
and still they play the same old games,
betting long odds on a future
that ceased to exist before most of us were born.
I’ve heard you read? Do you study Caesar’s wars?
take notes on Onasander? Who’s your favourite author?’
The most accomplished actress
can be startled into honesty.
The Art of Love? She’s too surprised
to hide her disbelief.
Freed of obligations by the insult,
he laughs at her reaction.
‘’The Metamorphosis. A poem for our times.’
‘Everything changes, nothing stays the same’
‘So much changes; so little stays the same.
More accurate; less memorable.’
Next morning there would be a slave
outside his lodgings with a scroll:
or a rare copy of his favourite text
left discreetly on a table.
Name your poison?
He had nothing she could want.
They chatted about literature,
two educated diners waiting for Ovid
to come posturing through the doors
and scandalise the rich and bored
four hundred years too late.
‘At least’, she said, before she left,
‘one can choose how and when to die.’
After the ladies and the elderly retired
someone produced ‘the girls’:
courtesans who had been paid
or lesser daughters and more desperate wives.
These two men were poised
before the ladder’s upper rung.
When Survival’s on the auction block
you’ll bid with what you’ve got
even if your daughter’s splendid tits
might be your only asset,
hoping they’d be remembered
if one of these two men succeed.
The evening blurring into heaving flesh
scenes for a fresco on a wall in hell:
two prelates spit-roasting a German slave
the girl’s blonde hair incongruous
against the bishop’s bony knees.
A pretty face, well-practised,
In the amatory arts,
her manoeuvres mindlessly
but expertly performed.
The Matron’s words:
‘I will not watch my daughters
whore themselves to the barbarians.’
She’d call it family politics
and therefore no lost dignity
if she pimped them to a Latin speaker on the rise?
‘One can at least choose how and when to die.’
All evening she had sought for an analogy,
as though precision would validate her suicide.
The lights had faded, the room
a roiling sludge of limbs.
In the foul smoke of oil lamps
a different thinner face,
dark curls plastered to her forehead.
Shut eyed, languid, sinuous,
movements stuttering to her own satisfaction.
Her final version: ‘We’re players
who turn up to find the theatre
has burnt down, and no one’s left
to watch our well-rehearsed performance.’
He gathered up his clothes
stepped his way towards the door.
The bodies on the floor moved fitfully,
scum on the edges of a stagnant pool
shrugging as the ripples died.
Stepped out into the clarity of early morning.
He would not remember them.
There were far too many dead
already begging his attention.
Vortigern in London
The past’s a broken mirror
making the present looked deformed;
the crook backed limping child
of disappointed parents.
The age of iron rusted out,
our age of stone is almost gone.
Now comes an age of wood
where everything can splinter, rot or burn.
The horizon’s clear of smoke,
nor dotted by wheeling carrion.
But the city is dying into itself.
Here there was noisy spectacle.
Stone humanised by speech
now stone without story
is simply broken stone.
Your ancestors’ most sacred site,
or random spillage of disjointed rock.
This coin he’d rescued from the mud,
portrait erased; inscription illegible.
Behind him reeking tidal mud.
The wall he stands on killed the port.
Where his grandmother played
burnt timbers, blackened roofs.
The cart tracks overgrown.
This is what time will achieve
when no one bends a back against it.
Late in this afternoon. A merchant ship
backlit by the golden river,
the slow drift of it at odds
with the frantic scurry of the crew.
The bridge has been maintained
but there are few ships on the Thames.
Few traders skirting down the coast,
fewer coming from the continent.
The evening is turning cold,
the city shrunken, huddled
against its inevitable night.
To his left on the hill,
the amphitheatre’s a piece of wall,
water glinting in the ponds
filling the robbed-out pits
between the piles of weed grown rubble.
There have been bad times before.
But the danger was no longer out there, beyond the walls.
It was in the civil men and women pretending
to be outraged by the new graffiti:
‘Romani non Germani! Britanni non Barbari!’
As though the idiots who daubed those words
didn’t have at least one grandparent
born somewhere in the empire’s furthest reaches.
Aurelius and Uther, fled to Brittany
after their father then their eldest brother
botched their coup, now proclaiming
they could trace their bloodline back to Brutus.
A standard move to add legitimacy and lustre
to a power addicted family on the make.
Ironic given Brutus was a Trojan immigrant
who slaughtered the indigenous inhabitants.
But when did logic play a winning hand in an election?
When a man like Constantine, caught in his lies,
shrugged and claimed the words he’d used
meant only what he wanted them to mean,
then law became impossible, and titles empty.
The steady rumble that replaced the traffic noise was fear.
Not just fear of incomers and raiders
fear of people who had once been neighbours
and were now ‘others’ to be hated.
Any other, anyone who was not a friend
and trust in friend and family was rotting
because when incompetence and talent
are equally dangerous, look to yourself.
One day he wouldn’t hear the assassin
or see the bowmen hiding on a roof
but he has heard Adolf of Gloucester,
coming along the wall.
Count of the Saxon shore.
Man Most Likely to Succeed.
Gloucester coughs, speaks.
‘He’ll see us now.’
It’s meant to be affable,
drinking buddy confidante.
‘What do you think he wants?’
Rude or reticent, it’s hard to tell.
He’s wondering why here?
The roads still spin out across the country
but it’s a long way from the danger zones.
An uncharacteristic nostalgia?
Or a final gesture of farewell?
No one alive remembered the Vicarius
in the days of his youth
His parties were notorious
for excessive decadence.
Perhaps that was nostalgia
for another fabricated past,
the court of Caligula and Nero
when any vice was possible
‘Why not’ sufficient reason
and ‘no’ was not an option.
He is dying without an heir.
He has outlasted Constantine and Constance
and sent the Boys to brood upon their rocky headland.
Word is, he’s going to choose.
Why else call the two contenders
for a private meeting?
Cain and Abel taking their offerings to God.
And we know how badly that turned out.
If you define your progress
by the titles you accumulate;
you measure your success
by your graded movement
along a string of words.
What makes them more
than complicated echolalias,
meaningless as infant babble?
Count of the Saxon Shore,
Magister Militium, Consul,
Vortigern, if pushed, defines success
as battles won, problems solved, lessons learnt,
might have asked ‘Heir to what?’
40 emperors in a hundred years
God for a month, then erased
like the portrait on the coin.
Council members shoaling from the building
form self-important, self-regarding groups
who nod to both the soldiers as they pass.
Overseers of the death of meaning,
Peddlers of cancerous euphemisms,
revelling in the endless crisis of definition
that passes for meaningful debate.
Still busy fighting over granddad’s privileges.
Pay attention now and watch how they react,
trying to pick the winner before the dice are rolled.
Some greet Gloucester. He’s done terrible things
to earn their gratitude. But he speaks when spoken to,
can be counted on to say the right things at the right time
and pay his dues when his debts are called.
Some acknowledge Vortigern.
See how wary they become?
He’s in no-one’s pocket.
But they all know he’s the silent go to man
when the shit’s on the fan.
In this tired world, titles and positions
are still the gifts of slack old men:
ancient relics twinkling in the wreckage
like stagnant ponds in the ruined amphitheatre
catching a fading sun.
But not this man, not Ambrosius.
He is the ghost of whatever made the Empire great:
devious, unpredictable and dangerous.
Authority regardless of his titles or his clothes.
Neither clumsy copy nor conscious fake,
the steady pilot who would face whatever storm
to bring the Ark to safety, with Noah’s indifference
to the millions drowning who were not on board.
They bend over a map of Britain.
Gloucester finding this foreplay tedious
wanting to hear the job is his
or know the details of their final test.
Ambrosius, between coughing fits.
‘We asked the Western Emperor for troops.
His Master of Horse tells us to look to ourselves.’
‘There’s rumours that the Huns are on the move.
A half a million men. Attila claims the empire
his by right of promised marriage to Honoria.
If even half that number enters Gaul
the Western Empire’s gone for good.’
‘In Britannia Secunda our writ no longer runs.
We summon them and they refuse.
North of the Humber the cities are abandoned,
two bad harvests and constant raiding have brought famine.
They have begun to squabble for the scraps.
A few armed men, a bit of wall, a tribal hill,
a man’s reach might stretch to the tribal boundary.
There’s no tax collection, so no distribution.
So many starve.’ (More coughing)
‘Picts from the north, overland
through the ruined gates of the wall.’
‘Some of those Picts are Britons painted blue.
They think it best to hide themselves.
Soon they will forgo pretence.’
Why this might be significant
is lost on Gloucester who continues:
‘Irish slavers down the western coast.
Germanic pirates in the east and south.
If we go east, the west is burnt
If we go north they sack the coastal towns.
Strike and run and be long gone
before a rider brings the news
We need three legions, at the most.’
But no one laughs.
They remember their grandfather’s stories.
How the forts stapled law and order onto the wilderness.
The map still shows the roads
linking fort to town, town to port,
port to other towns and other forts
on and back across immensity to Rome.
Well-kept roads loud
with merchants and soldiers
messengers, supplicants, embassies
crunching the heartbeat of empire.
‘We are like a goodwife swatting spot fires,
growing weaker with each victory.
Either we train a national army
or recruit more mercenaries.
One will take time we do not have.
The other, when the pack’s too big
the dogs turn on their master.’
The awkward map confirms their lack of options.
Adolf: conversational, exploratory.
‘You’ve heard the rumour of the legion
that was left behind?’ Vortigern waits,
wondering what revelation is at hand.
‘If they retained their discipline
they will have instructors.’
No revelation, no solution
just the gambler’s dream of the winning card.
‘Limitanei gone native?
Somewhere along which wall?
There were so many forts and marching camps.
and even if we had the time,
we’d never find them all.’
Did the old man change his mind
or had he planned what happened next?
He turns to
‘If you think it’s worth the risk
after our envoy has delivered his messages
take whatever men you need.
Take Eagles too, and trumpets,
search out your fathers’ uniforms.
Appear to them as Roman as they were.’
Gloucester thinks he is the organised man.
A lover of maps, a maker of lists.
Now caught by this unexpected switch,
trying to impress with plans he’s making on the fly.
‘I’ll head to Lincoln, there to meet my scouts.
…we’ll take the inland road.
From York’….and Vortigern, unimpressed, lost interest.
Three thousand men? How could they be hidden?
Garrisons along the wall had gone native,
and whether you called the garrison commander
Tribune or King made little difference.
Everyone who’d been that way
had met such useless bastardised communities.
When Gloucester left
the old man, staring at the map
keeps Vortigern waiting.
It’s easy for a map to lie.
These forts have long since ceased to function.
The roads are overgrown or braided to confusion.
This is a tidy memory of a dead world.
Not even accurate when it was made.
‘Your father-in-law was my good friend.
He and your father were both honest men:
hard working, loyal, at a time
when all those qualities were out of fashion.’
‘My father-in-law lead an army against the Empire
and left this island undefended.’
‘Your father-in-law led an army
against corruption, greed and inefficiency.
He planned to hold the Rhine and make Britannia safe.’
‘He thought he would look good in purple.’
‘Resentment is an easy hand to play for very little profit.
Three Saxon ships have landed on Thanet.
They’re asking to be taken into service.
Go there, you’ve dealt with them before.
Use your judgement. Offer the usual conditions.
They might be more useful than a phantom legion.’
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head
9 thoughts on “Britannia in peril – an extract from an epic”
This important work recalls Francis Brett Young’s “The Island” (1944) and Maurice Hewlett’s “The Song of the Plow” (1916) (the latter author also of “Brazenhead the Great” !).
Incidentally, I have several hundred books of English literature and history that deserve a good home or suitable library where they can actively serve intact a patriotic as well as literary purpose after my death (I am 81 years old with bone cancer). Some idea can be gained from the online Bibliography Any takers or suggestions?
Write to me at Logria House, Holway Road, NR26 8HN.
Accidental omission: “online Bibliography for The Royal Society of St George”.
I hadn’t heard of Francis Brett Young’s ‘The island’ but I have found a good second hand copy here in Australia. It’s a second reprint from 1945. Some of the pages haven’t been cut….But thank you for the suggestion.
That is an impressive reference library, I hope you find a good home for it.