Usurpers Two: How Britain became a Haven for Rebels from the Classic European Superstate
The Count of the Saxon Shore continues his saga of the First Great Brexit – from the Roman Empire – and fostered the forerunners of Nigel Farage
In the last column we looked at Caruasisus, the first in a series of usurpers, of late antiquity Brexiteers, and how a ten-year period of ‘taking back control’ ended in chaos with London saved from destruction by a task force led by Constantius, the new head of the European superstate.
Constantius died in Britain and his son, Constantine, was declared emperor in York by the British legions in 306 AD. This military people’s vote was ratified after much campaigning on the Continent, and Constantine the Great went on to expand the European project eastwards, whilst making Christianity the official religion on the way. It’s worth remembering that the Roman Catholic Church (and the Eastern Orthodox one, for that matter) started in Yorkshire.
Maximus achieved an almost UKIP like status in British folklore, long-remembered by the Celtic tribes he left behind
But another legacy of Constantine was the notion of this island as a power base for usurpers (with his example there was much to gain after all). And in the late 4th century, with a deepening crisis on the European mainland, Britain became an offshore haven for ambitious opportunists.
In 383 AD Magnus Maximus, a Spanish general stationed in Britain, was elected emperor by another unofficial referendum by the legions. This usurpation was driven by the resentment at how the declining central authority of Rome was draining the resources of this much-neglected province on its periphery. There’s evidence that Maximus tried to establish some kind of independence, devolving power to regional tribal foederati. But this was done so that he might secure his own imperial aspirations. He soon crossed the Channel with his army, in pursuit of the bigger prize.
He achieved early success, gaining control of Gaul and Spain. But his attempt to take Italy failed and he was defeated and killed in Aquileia in 388 AD, with the troops, auxiliaries and supplies he had brought from Britain gone forever. As is often the way the consequences of this enterprise were the very opposite of its supposed intent.
But Maximus achieved an almost UKIP like status in British folklore, long-remembered by the Celtic tribes he left behind. In Galloway and Wales he is cited in early genealogies as a founding father to many feudal dynasties. In the Welsh legends of the Mabinogion a highly idealized version of his story appears as Breuddwyn Macsen Wledig or ‘The Dream of Emperor Maximus.’
A contradictory symbol of imperial power, he becomes, in a fractured post-colonial Britain, a wistful reminder of that great European project we had once been at the heart of.
Some early British historians, however, were not so kind to Maximus. Gildas, writing some 150 years after the event, clearly saw his efforts as mere asset stripping. ‘After this Britain is robbed of all her armed soldiery, of her military supplies,’ he laments, ‘and of the flower of her youth who followed the footsteps of the tyrant never returned.’
By now the Empire was entering its endgame, with the instability and ambivalence of Britain as part of its problem. And there were to be more usurpers that we’ll come to next time. The question was: would Britain leave Roman Europe or simply be abandoned by it?