This is Part 4 of LIAM GUILAR’s almost completed epic of Britain. Chapter One was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and Chapters Two and Three in The Brazen Head
The story so far: 449 AD in the Roman province of Britannia. The Legions have long gone and raiders and civil war are becoming endemic as central authority breaks down. The Vicarius, de facto ruler of the province, is dying and about to appoint his successor. There are only two candidates. Adolf of Gloucester has been sent North (See chapter three); Vortigern has been sent south to hire three shiploads of Germanic warriors who have arrived off the coast.
1. Old Friends?
What Vortigern wrote in his report
There are three ships,
60 fighting men,
They have a British Latimer 2
I have made the standard deal.
From London, along Watling Street towards Canterbury
in easy stages for his infantry. Crossing the Medway,
he had left his officers billeting the troops
ridden the short distance to this estate
for the comfort of time
spent with someone he could almost trust.
Aurelianus was old-school.
An imperial patrician of
Perhaps more honest than the rest,
but generations of his family
had enforced the rules
they were happy to ignore
then wondered why no one
respected their authority.
They had dissolved the distinction
between ‘legitimate behaviour’
and ‘corrupt self-interest’.
If he were appointed Vicarius,
that line was his to draw
and to enforce. But for now, imagine,
two old friends in an autumn evening
as the light softens and the air begins to bite.
In a tidy garden by the water feature,
sipping imported wine and reminiscing.
The abrupt shifts, unfinished statements,
allusions no one else would understand.
Aurelianus could talk the hind legs off a donkey
but retirement has made him garrulous.
‘I heard you freed the slaves on your estate.’
Vortigern waits for the verdict.
Aurelianus sips his wine
settles in his chair, brushing at the midges.
He was a very junior officer on this man’s staff.
First post, a favor owed to somebody,
a debt paid in another lifetime.
The neat patterns of tidy fields
fall to a distant line of trees,
sprinklings of huts, lazy,
innocent smoke from cooking fires.
Voices rising towards them.
Some of the huts are rectangular.
‘They’re calling you their new Stilicho.
Hardly a compliment.
Why are you heading south?
Adolf’s Comes Litotes 3 etc. etc.’
‘Did you ever fathom the Vicarius?’
‘No one has. I knew hard men
who stood their ground, outnumbered,
facing Attacotti …
…You’d think he was a bad dream
and then meet someone who was there and know that he was real.
No one’s threatened him since Locrin was in nappies.’
‘A minor irritation. Swatted,
with your co-operation,
if rumors are to be believed.
‘I didn’t kill him.’
‘The difference between you and Gloucester?
He wants the title; you want the job.’
Aurelianus pours more wine and waits.
‘I’ll say it if you won’t. He’s competent.
He’d make a fine quartermaster.
But well-meaning, hard-working, ordinary’s not enough.
Men who thought that power and influence
were theirs by right of birth or wealth,
who went to the right schools and joined the right clubs,
could rule the province when it ran itself
and competence was irrelevant. But now
they’re learning how inadequate they are
and talent, skill and application, regardless
of the family’s history, are what’s required.
Extra ordinary times highlight just
how ordinary our leaders are.
There was a time a clumsy oaf like Constantine
could rule the creaking province
and you and I, young Gorlois, Adolf, the Vicarius,
we’d sweat and bleed to make it work.
I saw a bridge collapsing once.
Dust first, then random bricks,
then a pillar, then the whole thing went.
The bricks are loose. It’s only time
before it all comes tumbling down.
The Vicarius will name you his successor.
The question is, will you accept?’
‘Only fools pick fights that they can’t win?’
‘Someone has to hold the pass.’
You have Germans on your estate?’
‘Hard working men.
I hear you’ve learnt their language.’
‘No. I followed your example.
I give them land for service.
So many days a year to work my fields,
a pig from the litter, honey from the hive.’
‘And if the land you offer them
happens to be on the wrong side of that tree line?’
‘My estates spread. If my neighbors object…’
‘Your Saxons fight well.
No magistrate to hear complaints?’
‘Magistrates, yes. Magistrates with clout, no.’
‘There is no longer Greek nor Jew, slave or free?’ 4
‘All that bollix about Britain for the Britons.
Any man who rolls the dice, leaves his home,
and braves the crossing, recommends himself.
As for the women, they’re a race apart.
If I were younger, I’d have me a Saxon wife.
The sons we’d breed. How are your boys?’
‘Vigilant, on the coast, with troops,
watching the new arrivals.’
‘That wasn’t what I meant.’
‘They’re bringing them to Canterbury.’
‘You’ll stay the night? No? Of course not.
You’ll be there when the first man stumbles out to piss.
Which is as it should be.’
Torchlight, patient horses, patient grooms.
‘I’ll lend you a guide if you’ll send him home.
What’s left of the army will follow you
unless you put it on a ship to France.
You are the best man for the job.
There’s a rumor in the fields.
South of here they’ve called the county out.
An armed mob moves on Thanet.
You’ll meet them on the road.
You cannot reason with a man
who thinks ten thousand Saxons landed.
Ask him how many ships that would require
show him three keels pulled up on the sand
he’ll still call you a liar and claim
you hid the rest by sleight of hand.
Don’t bet on their obedience.
Deference has been replaced with calculation.
We’ve lived to see the end of institutional authority.’
2. The job not the title
Said the man expanding his estates.
And if that were the last time that they met?
He thought of things he didn’t say,
wondering if they needed to be said.
Some debts lack their vocabulary.
And if that were the last time that they met?
Or if they met again as enemies?
Take the title, become the title.
The obligations of the office
before friendship or desire?
Overhearing the soldiers in the column
as they crunched their way south-east
in perfected order of march.
Yes Ma’am, he tells her memory 5
I did take notes. I studied hard,
and learnt from men who knew their trade.
His officers about their business,
until the scouts returned and put an end to banter.
A mob in the road.
Britons, with farm implements,
rusty swords and hunting spears.
No match for a German warband.
A pot-bellied old man shouting at him in a reedy bellow:
‘A thousand Saxons pillage Thanet.
The county’s out and armed
we go to slaughter pagans.
Ride with us!’
‘There are three ships: sixty men.
They have come in peace.’
Spears and pitch forks twitching,
like reeds in the wind
as they ebbed towards the riders
then recoiled from the levelled spears.
The wide boys at the back began to chant
the usual obscenities and physical impossibilities.
Your father was a traitor too!
He never met his father!
His mother outdid Messalina.
She never knew which bean made her fart.
The mob seethes,
growing coherent in its shoaling.
stones starting to rattle and ping
as the men behind him tightened their ranks.
A spear wobbled towards him from the back.
Softly, for the form of it,
knowing nobody could hear.
‘This is your last warning:
obey the law, go home.’
The mob surged forward.
He shouted the necessary words.
Bugger meeting on a beach and pandering to pagans.
Vortigern and his staff arranged the reception as a set of signs:
nothing ornate, redundant, nothing ramshackle or improvised.
Everything tidy, trim, bright, like a well-honed killing edge.
Turned out in battle order. We are fighting men,
we strike a deal; wealthy enough to pay,
strong enough to crush you without effort.
Vortimer, his eldest son,
riding beside the walking Saxons.
They stack their spears.
He notes their care,
the bright, honed points,
their polished shields,
The knives that name them
are to be left outside.
these were not the shabby discards time had spat up on a beach.
These were fighting men who didn’t need to strut.
With an army of these men he can hold the Northern Border
and use The Wall for landfill.
‘Who are you?
You are not the usual dregs
washed up on these shores.
Unless my eyes deceive me,
these are front-fighters
battle scarred and tested. These men
have stood their ground.’
‘I am Hengist, son of Wictgils,
son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.
This is my brother Horsa son of Wictgils,
son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.’
‘Who does he worship?
We are Christians here.’
‘I don’t care who he worships
if his god has a special hell
for men who break their oaths.
Where are you from?’
‘We have no home. We seek a lord
who will reward our service.’
‘Without a lord or land
a man is nothing to your people.
If you are exiles, speak now
and do not hide your crimes.’
The translator hesitates.
‘Exactly what I said,
and nothing more.’
Like little knife cuts.
This Hengist does not flinch.
‘Fierce, unrelenting tribal warfare
interrupted by long, bitter winters.
The sea rises, pushing us towards the Franks.
The Franks push us towards the rising sea.
So we drew lots and those who lost stayed home.
You will be our Lord.
We will astonish you.
And we will see our families again.
I have my name and sword.
I will keep both bright
and earn your gratitude.’
As if that were sufficient.
Later Vortigern thinks
one culture’s arrogance
is another’s confidence.
He’s met this type before:
one more tribesman on the make
one more thug who kills,
and lets the paymaster decide who dies.
Who wants whatever the Empire has to offer.
But this man, this Hengist, is impressive.
There’s something godlike in his certainty.
If his self-confidence is tinged with madness
it’s the kind that founds dynasties and crumples empires.
The past begets us,
then grows old as any parent must.
Comes a time it cannot offer shelter.
Cannot satisfy our restless need
for whatever tomorrow calls to us.
It becomes the parent standing at the door
watching us set out on our own.
A private audience.
The map is still rolled out across the table.
Mad as a cut snake
and twice as vicious,
the Vicarius is folded into a high backed chair;
a skull balanced on a bundle of fine cloth.
Word is, he’s got less than weeks to live.
‘You took the oath to serve:
For the ashes of my fathers,
and the temples of their gods.
You gave your word,
under the watchful gaze of your ancestors
as custodian of their tarnished honour.
You stand by it?’
The Vicarius almost smiles.
Perhaps he winces,
old age raging his joints,
and twisting his mouth.
‘Of course you do.’
The old man starts to cough,
doubles and shakes,
a man beaten by time.
‘He’d have wasted his time
playing with the Empire’s carcass
rebuilding towns we can’t live in
maintaining roads that lead
nowhere we need to go.
What will you do?’
Poisoned as any half-expected chalice.
But there’s no time to say,
take this cup away from me.
‘The Saxons and Picts don’t worry me.
They’re a military problem.
The legions were victorious while they held their line.
Now that line is broken,
so many little princelings who’d rather claim a dung heap
than work their corner of a mighty empire.
Who don’t care if their kingdom falls tomorrow
as long they‘ve been ruler for a day.’
‘Talking won’t save you.
You can lay out all the reasons
for co-operation. Explain
why they always win if they’re united.
And still they will refuse.
Splintered, word will spread,
is spreading even now.
This is no longer Ynys y Kedeirn 7
The land is good, the Britons weak. Soon
three hundred ships, not three will land.’
‘Even now the Picts are gathering.’
‘Gloucester didn’t mention this.’
His voice has the dirty edge of a blade
the executioner doesn’t clean.
‘He saw empty villages
met with no resistance,
assumed they were afraid of him.
The women and children
head to the heather
while the men are gone.
They know what we know.
Once they cross The Wall
there’s nothing to oppose them.
The princelings have to choose:
join in or be destroyed.
This is their moment.
If they succeed,
they’ll swarm over the midlands.
Death and misery on a scale
no Briton’s seen since Boudicca trashed London.‘
But Vortigern isn’t looking at the map.
The wind behind him mutes the stench
of so many unwashed bodies
but doesn’t dim the shaking
cacophony of their howling voices
as they race towards his waiting ranks.
Discipline beats numbers every time.
His voice, calm, saying, ‘Hold your lines.
Hold your lines and you can’t lose.’
The Saxons proud of his centre to break the first assault.
Afterwards, his horsemen in pursuit.
The horrors of a routed army,
hunted down ‘til the beasts of battle,
so glutted on their favourite food,
lie down and refuse to move.
Then the work of devastation
until there comes a day when no dog barks
between the stone wall and the turf.
‘We have a month before they move.
an inauspicious moon demands
their priests’ attention.
We’ve summoned the leaders of the North.
The messengers will bring them,
or their replies, to Lincoln.
I’ll meet Adolf and his soldiers there.’
‘Those who don’t respond?’
‘Once the Picts are defeated
these tyrants are no match for us.
Not one can field an army worth the name.
Most of them have twenty, fifty men at most.’
‘After you defeat the Picts,
take this Hengist and his men,
find the kinglet furthest north
who refused your call,
slaughter his people,
devastate his ‘kingdom’.
Become a terror to your enemies
and your friends’.
‘They make a wasteland and call it peace?
‘Fear, the rack and a well-stocked gallows
‘A frightened man is never loyal.
If he thinks you’re weak, or threatened,
he’ll run or rip your heart out.
The mess we’re in proves that.’
‘Unreason frightens you. It always has.
A man who’s wrong and disregards the facts,
short sighted, blinded by self-interest,
acts knowing that his actions are disastrous.
You might as well talk philosophy to your horse.
Don’t be misled by eloquent historians
who make the past seem rational.
Don’t think that your intelligence
will solve the problems you encounter.
You have to deal with people as they are.’
‘Better a dead friend than a live enemy?’
‘Yes. [Cough] Emphatically, yes.
‘There has to be a better way.
When Gwendoline ruled this island,
a woman, with a baby at her breast,
or a man, with the red gold in his bag,
could walk the length of Britain unmolested 9
‘…That old fairy tale.
Kill Gloucester before he murders you.
Then purge the council and the senate.
Survive or perish. That’s your only choice.
If you decide to rule, power has its logic.
You can no more change this system
than you can push the cart you’re sitting in.’
In the early morning light,
on the inland wall,
now looking north,
London at his back.
His position ratified
by a wary council.
The old man’s pyre
Could he have had the clarity
to understand his world was gone?
The ideology that held the empire; gone.
Comfort and sophistication; gone
and none of it was coming back.
For the next five centuries,
tiny kingdoms and their tyrant kings,
scrapping each other with armies
that would have made a Caesar laugh:
‘Surely they’re not serious?’
His map torn up to make a jigsaw,
the tiny pieces ‘kingdoms’
with their ragged edges
lines of rivers, ridges, roads.
Glued together, then re-torn
as violent men compete,
for the right to strut a short day
as King of the Breadcrumbs.
In their draughty barns,
with their mead and alliteration
their imperial fantasies
their beautiful books and demented priesthood
whose love of learning and their God,
will give them strength to lecture
killers about a God of Peace.
He watches his soldiers prepare to march,
and Hengist’s men accumulate untidily.
The road leads straight to Lincoln
to the mustering of his army.
There will be more than he expected
and less than he wanted.
But they will come to his name
not to some ornate Latin title
that would once have activated
a well-drilled, dutiful response.
What’s left is personalities,
rivalries, irrational animosity.
In place of public servants,
working for the public good
asking ‘what’s in it for me?’
With greed its own event horizon,
and a life defined by its fulfilment
or frustration. Loyalty and obedience,
replaced with automatic calculation:
weighing effort against cost.
The empire was expert in legalised brutality;
whips regulation length, tortures itemised.
Four hundred years and not one independence movement?
After it stacked the corpses of its enemies
possessed their lands, erased their way of life
it offered their descendants the benefits of Empire.
From Persia to The Wall the grandchildren
of those it killed queued up to out-Rome Rome.
Beyond greed and fear, there are better reasons for obedience.
Britannia stood or fell on their discovery.
In retrospect, and there’s 1500 years of it,
it’s obvious he must lose
but he stands on the inland wall,
that faded coin in his hand 11
planning to save his province.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head
- ‘The Legendary History’ is shorthand for the history of Britain that was being told in the 12th century. These chapters began life as an attempt to understand the version told in Laȝamon’s Brut. The Legendary History cannot be reconciled with modern understandings of the history of this period. Improbabilities, anachronisms and contradictions abound. I have not tried to tidy them up
- In Laȝamon’s time a latimer was a translator, the term is anachronistic here
- Count of the Saxon Shore. The Saxon Shore would include the area Vortigern is heading towards, while Gloucester has been sent North
- Vortigern is misquoting St Pauls’ letter to the Galatians
- See Chapter Two, ‘A Man of heart?”, The Brazen Head – ((https://brazen-head.org/2021/02/28/britannia-in-peril-an-extract-from-an-epic-of-britain/
- See Chapter Three, ‘Adolf of Gloucester goes to the Wall’, The Brazen Head – https://brazen-head.org/2021/06/09/adolf-of-gloucester-goes-to-the-wall/
- ‘The Island of the Mighty’
- Vortigern is quoting Tacitus ‘quoting’ Calgacus, an enemy of Rome
- Gwendoline’s story is told in A Presentment of Englishry, Shearsman, 2018
- What can a man do but try? From Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain too sets out on an impossible quest and holds himself to an impossible standard
- An imperial coin worn smooth which he found in Chapter Two