Bartaigne, Bertaigne, Bretaigne, Bretagne, Bretaingne, La Grant Bretaigne
Britain is the largest British island, including modern countries of England, Scotland and Wales. It is the kingdom most often associated with Arthur, though some authors – particularly continental ones – seem confused as to its location and boundaries. It is often difficult to distinguish between Britain and Brittany. The origins of Arthur are woven inextricably into the backdrop of British history in the fifth century. Briefly summarized, this history, from what we can piece together, is as follows:
Ordinary history tells us little about Britain before Roman times. Archaeology informs us that, before 2800 BC, the inhabitants were Neolithic hill farmers referred to as the Windmill Hill People. Then came the Beaker People who used copper and gold. These people may have been Celts. At some stage Celts able to use iron became the foremost people of the island, but it is difficult to say when they were actually established. The problem is discussed by M. Dillon and N.K. Chadwick. Julius Caesar landed on the island a couple of times but the Roman conquest actually took place in the reign of Claudius. Britian was eventually abandoned by the Romans and left to fend for herself against Picts from the north, Irish from the west and Angles, Saxons and Jutes from beyound the North Sea. The period of the historical Arthur would have been after this.
Rome came to Britain in the first century, uniting the island, pushing the native Celts into the hills of Wales and the highlands of Scotland, and establishing Roman customs and laws. For three hundred years, Rome and Britain were one and the same. During this time, there were occasional battles to be fought against barbarian Picts in the north, Irish raiders in the west, and Germanic pirates in the east. The island derives its name from the Priteni, the term the Picts used for themselves. The Roman province of Britain did not include Scotland (except for the Lowlands) though, in legend, Arthur, seen as the Romans’ successor, ruled the entire island.
In the late fourth century and early fifth century, the pax Romana collapsed. First, a succession of Brito-Roman generals broke from the western empire and invaded Gaul. The most illustrious of these were Maximus – who deposed Emperor Gratian in 383 – and Constantine III, who invaded Gaul in the first decade of the fifth century.
These aspiring usurpers of Britain were only part of Rome’s worries. The empire was already collapsing from within, and enemies were closing on all sides. Rome withdrew its military and administrative support for Britain in about 410. Britain was left largely defenseless, most of its warriors having been withdrawn to deal with the barbarian invasions of the continental territories, or siphoned away by Constantine III. Rome’s withdraw opened Britain to more frequent and devestating raids from its traditional Picitish and Irish enemies. It appears that a British high king, popularly called Vortigern, ruling sometime before 450, attempted an old Roman trick: the hiring of one group of barbarians to fight another. In this case, Vortigern employed Saxons (who may or may not have already settled in parts of eastern Britain) against the Picts. The Saxons grew in number and power, however, and they established permanent settlements on the eastern shores. Eventually, they revolted and attacked the British, with more and more of their kinsman arriving from Germany each year. The Saxons completed the conquest towards the end of the sixth century, and the remaining native Britons were forced into enclaves in Wales, Cornwall, and the north. The Saxons retained control over the island for about 500 years, until the Norman conquest in 1066.
It appears that in the late fifth century, the Saxon advances were checked, for a few decades, by a British resurgence, begun by a Roman descendant named Ambrosius Aurelianus. There appears to have been a battle called Badon which delivered a heavy blow to the Saxons and forced them to retreat to their settelements on the shore for twenty or thirty years, during which Britain was ruled independently by the British. Contemporary accounts show, however, that the British were unable to remain united, and that regional feuds allowed the island to fall to the English relatively quickly.
Arthur’s place – in legend, if not in history – belongs to the few decades (c. 460-520) in which the British were able to stop the Saxon encroachments. We find him named as the great British general at Mount Badon, and, as legend progresses, as the king of Britain during this temporary – and final – British revival.
Having married Laudine, Ywaine requests her permission to leave her castle and lands in order to “return to Britain” and make the round of tournaments. If it is not reading too much into a twentieth-century translation of a twelfth-century romance, this sounds as if “Britain” was understood as including only those territories actually governed by Arthur and his pledged vassals – of whom Dame Laudine was not one, cordial through their relations had become by the time Ywaine asked his year’s leave of absence.
Legendary historians claimed the country was first ruled by Albion, a giant. The career of Albion was delineated in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577). Geoffrey does not mention him, but says the giants predated men there. Subsequently, he says, the island was colonized by Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, and remained independent until Roman times.
Another tradition is found in the White Book of Rhydderch (fourteenth century. This says the country was first called Myrddin’s Precinct (Merlin), then the Isle of Honey and finally named Prydein (Britain) after its conquest by Prydein, son of Aedd. Geoffrey does not mention this tradition, but it may predate him. Aedd may be identical with the Irish sun god, Aedh. It was also said that Prydein came from Cornwall and conquered Britain after the death of Porrex, one of the successors of Brutus in Geoffrey. Geoffrey may have known of traditions concerning Prydein, but may have felt they contradicted his story about Britain deriving its name from Brutus. Irish tradition said that Britain derived its name from Britain, son of Nemedius, who settled there.