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Thu 18 July 2019
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The Count of the Saxon recalls the first book to record the timeless British refrain – ‘things aren’t what they used to be’.

There’s a general sense of decline on all sides of the political debate at the moment, that Britain is slowly but surely falling apart. But the Count of the Saxon Shore can reassure you (if that’s the word) that it was forever thus. After all, the very first history of this country to be set down by a Briton was entitled De Excidio Britanniae, or On The Ruin of Britain, so there’s always been a substantial dose of pessimism in our culture.

The author of this liber querulus or ‘complaining book’ was Gildas, a monk writing just over a hundred years after the final Brexit from Rome.


Roman Ruins, Virginia Water – Romantic Landscape using Roman stones from the ruined city of Leptis Magna in Libya
© Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The author of this liber querulus or ‘complaining book’ was Gildas, a monk writing in the second quarter of the sixth century AD, just over a hundred years after the final Brexit from Rome. He reports that the British soon regretted their independence from the European superstate and that the once proud Leavers became Remoaners par excellence, issuing this plea to the mainland:

To Agitius, thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.

‘Agitius’ is generally thought to be Flavius Aetius, a military leader in the Western Empire, sometimes called ‘the last of the Romans’ with the reference to being consul for the third time dating the message to around 446 AD. Now Aetius was a very able commander and something of a tactical genius. He might have been able to help the Britons sort out the Picts and Scots and so on. It was just that he was dealing with a slightly bigger problem at the time: Attila the Hun.

So the British resorted to a federal system, using migrant labour from that collection of Germanic tribes that were to become the English. Gildas is heavily critical of this policy as well, likening it to inviting: ‘wolves into the sheepfold.’

There’s something very familiar about his attacks on a political elite, taking a supposed ‘anti-establishment’ stance whilst spouting an essentially reactionary rhetoric.

As you can imagine On the Ruin of Britain is mostly doom and gloom. Some see Gildas as a radical as he excoriates the ruling class of his day. ‘Britain has kings, but they are tyrants,’ he declares, ‘she has judges, but they are wicked.’ But his tone is all very ‘hell-in-a-hand-cart’, with biblical references and apocalyptic warnings. And there’s something very familiar about his attacks on a political elite, taking a supposed ‘anti-establishment’ stance whilst spouting an essentially reactionary rhetoric.

What chimes with much of populist opinion in Britain today is that Gildas was also writing in a post-colonial period. It’s just that his position was as one of the once colonized rather than vice versa. It brings to mind Hardeep Matharu’s excellent recent article in these pages about how immigrant communities’ love-hate relationship with Empire effects their attitudes to Brexit Power is a peculiar thing, particularly when it’s in decline.

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The English, despite their federalist roots, so often seem happier with dominance or subservience rather than anything that seems like an equal footing with other nations. Unless we can do something about that we’re condemned to carrying on a long tradition of musing on the ruin of Britain.

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