The story so far. In the 5th century Vortigern’s attempt to hold the imperial province of Britannia together has been defeated, not by external enemies but by British rebels led by Vortimer, his eldest son. Vortimer is a devout Christian and has invited the Pope to send an embassy to restore the Church, and combat the Pelagian heresy. What follows is the second half of Chapter Ten. At Vortimer’s request, the Pope has sent an embassy to Britain to combat heresy, led by Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes.[i] The embassy finds Vortimer’s court shrinking, his rebellion a failure. The chapter begins with Vortimer’s death, by poison, then backtracks a few days. Rowena has arrived, seeking instruction in the Christian faith. You can find chapters 2-10a on the Brazen Head. The complete story has been published as A Man of Heart, by Shearsman UK (January 2023).
Lupus offers Rowena instruction in the Christian faith
Why should I love my neighbour
when he wants to rape me?
I do not think you love yours
when he burns your house, kills your friend,
uses your women, serves your children to his dogs.
I do not think you love him then.
You will not turn the other cheek.
You carry your pride like a glass bowl.
Your Jesus was no warrior king
but he said one perfect thing.
I was hungry, and you gave me food.
I was naked and you clothed me.
I was homeless and you sheltered me.
There are stories told amongst my people:
families, without weapons, seeking land
came to these shores. They were hungry,
naked, homeless, and your good Christians
let them scrabble in the waste land,
killed the weak, abused the women,
sold survivors into slavery
then went to church and prayed.
Germanus instructs Rowena in the Christian faith
We drift on a winter sea
in the middle of a hailstorm.
And your faith protects you?
No, that’s the pagan way.
The whining, selfish child
begging for new toys,
throwing good metal in a bog
to appease the local fog,
as though tree could think
or river grant a wish.
No, faith is the destination
that disciplines the journey.
Cattle are born, eat, shit, fuck and die.
You can live like that. But
reaching for the impossible
is what brings us closer to God.
And the fact of Incarnation,
gives the church the confidence
to lecture bandit kings on the Beatitudes.
A beautiful impossibility?
She could have smacked his face with less effect.
He had been thinking aloud
not expecting this girl to understand.
Before he could reassure himself
she’d fluked the answer she said;
Your faith is not a shelter in the storm
but a way of living through it.
He blinks her into focus
seeing a new species for the first time.
Rowena and Vortimer
She is ice underfoot.
A golden symmetry,
that aches his fingertips
as he resists the need
to reach and touch,
curve, fall and flare.
Stray hair across her cheek,
tightening his throat.
In another version of this story
they are friends and wary allies
helping his father rule the country.
In another version of this story
she is his queen.
But she is not smiling.
She scowls, because he is stupid,
because she asked a simple question:
‘Why do you hate my people?’
and his answer was inadequate.
She is ice underfoot.
But then she smiles, and rises
fills the goblet,
‘Leofue freond wæs hæil.
For þine kime ich æm uæin.’[ii]
Lips on the goblet’s rim.
Lips glistening with wine.
Their hands touch lightly,
Her breath on his cheek,
He drinks. ‘Drinc Hail.’
Kisses her on the mouth.
She steps back, smiling.
A child, pleased with herself.
Adolf and Vortimer
They are on the same page
singing to the choir
on a level playing field
where no one’s moved the goal post.
He’s there for you.
You’ve got his back
and the wine goes round.
Best friends forever,
veterans on a park bench.
And the wine goes round.
Vortimer waiting for the pitch
for the sudden swerve
this is Adolf, who admires
the Roman art of usurpation,
who thinks the Roman way’s
a zigzag path through shadows.
Words bend, mean only
what he wants them to,
‘devious’ a compliment
synonyms for stupidity.
So the wine goes round.
Knowing Adolf thinks he’s stupid
provides the King with clarity.
It rankles that he’s right.
They should have waited till the spring.
They’d all heard Gloucester’s stories.
Snowed in on The Wall,
roads you could swim over,
mud you could drown in.[iii]
But Katiger had stumbled over Horsa
and grabbed his chance at glory.
Both men had died.
The forces Gloucester
set to spy on Thongcaester
had heard the news of Horsa’s death,
thought the revolt was underway and charged the gates.
Beaten back, then annihilated.
The survivors of the southern Saxons
had made their way to Thongcaester.
The northern tribes had stood behind his father
and all winter raiders had brutalised the lands
of anyone who challenged Vortigern,
with the vindictive precision
of the Empire in its glory days.
In the west Gorlois was sitting on his hands
ignoring every summons and command.
They had claimed a victory.
How bright had been that morning.
The thrill of cheering crowds.
Hail King of nothing.
Hail nithing, King
south of Watling street
and east of Tamar.
Bags of heads.
Riders bringing sacks of heads,
spilling them in front of him,
‘til his steward said,
‘My lord, we’re running out of coins.’
Gloucester had warned him against the bounty.
Warned him that many of those heads
were once on British shoulders.
The purity of his intent;
to clear the pagans from the land,
so Christ might rule again,
polluted by self-interest.
How many private scores were settled?
How many family feuds resolved
under the banner of his leadership.
He’s seen the devastated homesteads,
the burning villas. He’d stood
in the groaning aftermath,
the smoking shambles,
and heard his father’s voice:
‘You can’t go hunting with untrained dogs.’
Only now he understands.
Soon Hengist will return
with thirty, fifty, sixty ships.
Baptise the woman,
he can’t play the pagan card.
But the card itself is false.
He wanted to establish
God’s Kingdom in this island.
A purified, united, church.
A people ruled by Christ’s example.
In your dreams child. In your dreams,
not in theirs. In theirs,
the endless whine of ‘What’s in this for me?’
Stripped of religious fervour,
his rebellion is mere peevishness.
Already his supporters
have started to remove themselves,
deaf to summons or instruction.
Come spring he will not have an army worth the name.
They’ll scatter it like leaves before a gale.
The wine is a peace offering
as Gloucester tries to save them both.
Avoiding the topic of The Woman,
he’s making an effort,
trying not to be abrasive
but water’s wet and why
this foolish boy can’t see it
is a mystery beyond his patience.
There’s a limit to the number of ways
you can explain something:
‘Without coin or office,
your only reward is land.
If you give that to the church,
how will you reward your followers?’
‘The weightier matters of the law,
are judgement, mercy, faith.’
‘The only choice you have
is whether to survive or perish.
Power has its own logic.
You can no more
change this system
than you can push a cart and sit in it.
We live in the world,
not a cloister. Friends and enemies
will judge you by your actions.
Your intentions are irrelevant.’
And the wine goes round.
‘Germanus led an army,
more than once.
He’s run a province.
We could ask for his advice.
We should listen.
We could learn.’
Bit late for that, thinks Gloucester.
‘A bit too ostentatious don’t you think:
the hair shirt, the hard bed,
the hand-ground horse food?’
Soon his failure will be obvious
He will be Vortimer Nithing.
And he cannot face his father,
on the field of battle, or later,
after his inevitable defeat.
What is left to him,
except the Roman Way
for the defeated rebel general?
Best friends forever,
two lads on the piss.
You’ll buy the hangman’s drink
before he snaps your neck.
Find the Pagan Woman
It’s dark and Germanus,
is flapping between the buildings,
like a giant moth, until he finds the scribe.
‘Boy, where is the woman?’
‘She has lodgings by the gate.’
‘Go to her now. Tell her she must leave:
immediately. It is no longer safe.
Tell her to get out before the gates are shut.
And tell no one where you go or where you’ve been.
Or that I’ve spoken to you. Go!’
The job not the title
He dreads their silence
it disrupts logic, qualifies sense,
suggests the worst while saying nothing.
‘For your skill with words
you will join the Papal mission
you will travel to Britain.
You will record everything,’
said his superior.
He had accepted, thinking
the place was his by right
of skill and knowledge.
Only now he understands,
it was curse not compliment.
They picked the one that no one liked;
the one they could afford to lose.
Germanus had confronted Gloucester
Who has to lean forward to hear him,
thinking of the breeze
coming in over gilded water.
‘The British Lords have been in council
and through them God has spoken.
They will ask Vortigern to return.’
Before Gloucester can object.
‘God sees through you, knows
your pride and your ambition
No service, humility, compassion.
There is no Roman order
without Roman discipline.
No discipline without obedience.
Who follows someone who will not follow?’
Gloucester says nothing.
The Papal embassy is leaving,
The Boys are on the move
and they have the Pope’s support.
Germanus to the scribe
‘We go north,’ said Germanus,
‘to confront the heretics.
We will visit the shrine
of the blessed Martyr Alban.
And then that pause.
‘You will go west, to Gorlois.
Give him this. Tell him,
we admire his loyalty.’
‘Your time with us is over.’
The scroll he’s holding
is shaking. Terror is eating
the sentences inside his head.
‘Gorlois has need of skills like yours.
If not, stay west, find a community.
Seek God in prayer and silence.
In these alarming times…’
‘In these alarming times
So many die, nobody notices
unless they’re royalty.
One more body by the road
won’t interest anyone.
The west is safe.‘
People invest the past
with qualities they feel
are lacking in the present.
But for once in history,
those Empire days
really were that golden.
The sea was calm,
the sun was rising
the crew preparing
for the channel crossing.
They had cremated the King,
ignoring his demented order
to bury his head overlooking the coast,
convinced no raider would bother the island
while he kept watch.
‘So?’ said Lupus, standing at the bow,
enjoying the breeze, the gentle rocking of the ship,
the promise of an uneventful passage home.
Germanus watches the crew securing the last of the cargo.
Admiring the easy way they go about their tasks.
‘So, we confounded heresy.
And The Boys are on the move.’
The nearest sailor moves away.
No one has come to see them off.
Messengers had been sent north,
seeking Vortigern to offer him the crown.
‘I’ve met The Boys, and they can’t win.
Though they’ll reclaim the island,
they might stop Hengist, not his people.’
‘They have outlived their time.
Cheating your way to power,
only works while there are rules
and the other players follow them.’
Slipping their moorings,
the sail, cracks, grows taut.
The ship pitches then steadies
into an easy forward movement.
The grey walls of Porchester shrink,
slipping off their starboard bow.
Moving out into the Solent,
the breeze strengthening.
‘The last legion left from here.
Roma Fuit. Urbis conciditatus.[iv]
These proud, sniveling rebels.
refusing to be ruled
but whining to the Empire
help us, save us, pity our distress.
We who do not understand obedience,
who will not pay the asking price.
Mouth Christians who forget their God.
He has not forgotten them.
He will fall upon this generation
and his wrath will be remembered
til the rocks melt.’
‘Then we’re agreed,’ said Lupus. ‘Britain is doomed.’
‘Oh no,’ said Germanus, turning
to look back at the mainland
and the white chalk slash in Portsdown hill.
‘The Church is safe. We did what we set out to do.’
[i] Germanus of Auxerre is the most ‘historical’ of all the characters in this story. He did exist and he did travel to Britain to combat heresy in 429. His miracles, described in the first half of this chapter, are in the Life of Saint Germanus, written down in the late 5th century. Typically for the Legendary History, the chronology is wayward. If Hengist landed in 449/450 he arrived twenty years after Germanus had left.
[ii] See the Wassail ceremony in Chapter Six
[iii] See Chapter Three
[iv] Rome is no more, the city is ruined. I can’t find the source of this quotation.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head