Procopius of Caesarea, a Byzantine historian writing in the 550s, describes in the fourth volume of his Gothic Wars, the island of “Brittia” and an attack by a jilted princess of the Angles residing there on the Warni near the mouth of the Rhine. Apart from being a pretty good story, this is one of the few accounts of Anglo-Saxons before the 7th century, taking place about a century after the initial migration of the Angles to Britain. It is approximately contemporaneous with the life of Gildas and, more excitingly, contemporaneous with the action imagined in Beowulf. A translation of the complete episode is given at the end of this post. Skip to translation.
The text, although written by a highly educated commentator, is problematic in a number of points. Firstly, it is not clear which if any country is referred to as the island of Brittia. Secondly, the location of the Warni does not match other accounts, which show them in Scandinavia and the Baltic. Thirdly, some parts of the story seem mythical, including the pestilential country across the wall, the prediction by the bird and the transport of souls across the sea, leading to doubts about the reliability of the rest of the account. These doubts have led to neglect of the passage as a source. I will try to show that closer analysis reveals that it is not as unreliable as it seems.
Where was Brittia?
Brittia, despite the confusion Procopius caused by placing it between Brettania (Britain) and Thule (Scandinavia), seems most likely to be Britain. Its inhabitants are Angles, Frisians and Britons, each with their own King, and it has a wall built a long time ago, which could mean Hadrians Wall. However, it must be said that the description of the wall, which runs north-south and has a pestilential zone on the other side, does not fit Hadrian’s Wall very well. Brittia could definitely be a name for Britain. The Anglo-Saxons called the inhabitants of Britain OE Bryt, Bryttas (cf German Brite), without an ‘n’. So a Germanic name for Britain based on their name would be Brit(t)land (c.f. OE Brytland, Wales), which would be Latinised as Brittia. This word is sufficiently different from the geographers’ Brettania/Brittania for a doublet to form which was understood as a different place.
So Brittia could simply mean Britain. However, there is another intriguing possibility. Almost directly opposite the mouth of the Rhine, although much further away than the 200 stades given by Procopius, lies East Anglia, on the east coast of Britain. Now East Anglia is (or was) almost an island, as it is surrounded by the Wash, the Fens, the Thames Estuary and the River Stour.
Sailors from across the channel may have believed it was an island. If so, they would have described is as lying between the continent and Britannia. The wall mentioned by Procopius might be a sea-wall separating the healthy parts of the “island” from the unhealthy Fens. (Evidence of Roman sea-walls in East Anglia)
If this is right, then in the 540’s East Anglia was populated by Angles, Britons and Frisians, each with their own King. Two centuries later, in the 8th century, St Guthlac said he was attacked by British dwellers in the Fens, so it is possible there was still an organised British kingdom a couple of centuries earlier. East Anglia is an easy sail from Frisia, so there could also have been a Frisian settlement. East Anglia in historical Anglo-Saxon times was divided into two distinct groups – the Norfolk (i.e. Northfolk) and Suffolk (i.e. Southfolk). Perhaps the origin of the two groups was that one was formerly an Anglian and the other a Frisian kingdom. At this early stage, it would in any case be natural for an isolated Anglian colony to describe itself as the Anglians of Brittia. Even if Brittia is taken as meaning Britain, it is still likely that the Angles involved in this story came from East Anglia, as this is the closest Anglian settlement to the mouth of the Rhine.
Who were the Warni?
Most of the area between the Rhine and the Baltic was occupied by the Saxons, (nowhere mentioned by Procopius), the Franks, the Frisians and the Slavs. The Frisians, whoever they were at that time, occupied the coast, but not as far south as the Rhine (that happened later). The Angles had mostly left and gone to either England or Frisia. The Thuringians were further inland than the Saxons, but their kingdom had already been destroyed by the Franks in 531. The Warni were apparently related somehow to both the Thuringians and the Angles, as there is a law code from the 9th century which purports to cover all three groups.
They are recorded in Widsith as the Wærne, who were said to be ruled by Billing. Their original territory may have been on the Baltic near Rostock, in the area of the river Warnow, as they are placed there by Ptolomy. Right next to the Angles. This area was taken over in the 500s by Obotrite Slavs. A Saxon noble family with the same name, the Billungs, retook control of what might have been their ancestral homeland, the Billung March, much later in the 10th century. It is possible that around 550 the Warni had territory along the Rhine between the Franks and the Frisians, as described by Procopius, as they may have already left Mecklenburg to the Slavs and no other group is recorded as occupying that area at the time. The fact that Hermegisclus seeks to “strengthen” his kingdom may imply that they had not been in the region long.
At some stage after this, the Warni became subject to the Franks, then in 595, they revolted and were decimated. Source: Chronicle of Fredegar -French However, the survival of the Billung clan indicates that some of their rulers survived among the Saxons.
Whoever the Warni were, we know by the name of the young king that their language was closer to Frankish and Saxon than to Gothic. A Gothic king with what seems to be the same name around 400 AD was called Radagais (Radagaisus), without rhotacism of the final ‘s’, whereas the young King’s name is Radiger, with rhotacism, as in English and German.
When did the war take place?
This story of the war between the Warni and the British Angles takes place during or shortly after the reign of Theudebert 1 (533- 548). The book by Procopius in which this passage appears covers events up until 552. The subsequent chapter mentions the death of Germanus, which took place in 550. So the events could have taken place any time between 533 and approx 550. Most likely it took place toward the end of the reign of Theudebert 1, before 548.
Hygelac, the predecessor of Beowulf, was killed on a raid not far from the mouth of the Rhine in either Frisia or Francia in 516. This is based on his being identical with a King Chlochilaicus, said to be a Dane, who was killed by the Franks. The name Chlochilaicus is almost certainly an error, as this name does not occur anywhere else, whereas Hygelac is well attested as a name. Hygelac’s nephew Beowulf takes the throne not long after and has a long reign of nearly 50 years, so is imagined as a contemporary of these events.
The Angles and the continent.
Either way, this is a story of a war between British Angles and the continental Warni over a marriage alliance. In Procopius’ story, the Angles do not have names. This makes it more likely that the tale transmitted to the Byzantines by the Franks originated with the Warni, rather than with their local Angles. The East Anglian ruling family were known as the Wuffings. We know the name of Kings of East Anglia (possibly mythical) from around this time called Wehha and his son Wuffa (after whom the Wuffings were named).
The betrothal shows that the British Angles still had interests on the continent a century after they moved to England. The story suggests that they were involved in continental territorial politics, presumably involving the Franks, the Saxons and the Frisians. They were a maritime power and, if we are talking about the East Anglians, their ships were perhaps based at Ipswich, in the neighbourhood of the 7th century royal burial at Sutton Hoo.
The story of the boats taking the souls of the dead to England might not be entirely fiction. It could be a story made up by the locals to cover up and protect smuggling operations. The fact that the coastal folk pay no tribute to the Franks points to a sort of no-mans-land situation where smuggling would flourish. It is also a spooky parallel to the ship burial at Sutton Hoo.
This story is an important early example of close contacts between Anglo-Saxon England and the continental Germans. These connections continued throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. We know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that there were Frisian mercenaries in Alfred’s employ in the 9th Century. The Frisians, whose language was very similar to Anglo-Saxon, had a monopoly of coastal trade between the 6th and 8th centuries. They traded both with Scandinavia and England. They would have been an important vehicle in transmitting cultural material, including stories and poetry between the continent and England.
Implications for Anglo-Saxon literature
The tales contained in Beowulf and other material such as is found in Deor, Widsith and the Ingeld legends would have been circulated by scops who travelled around both on land and sea seeking patronage. The existence of a distinct poetic language in Old English points to this kind of transmission. Such a specialist language could serve travelling scops as it would be acceptable to larger groups speaking different dialects. A moment’s consideration of known facts demonstrates that material must have been brought from the continent. If the death of Hygelac is dated to 516, the action in Beowulf was imagined as occurring after the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon migrations. So the material was not brought with the original settlers. In order for the poem to have been recorded in England, the material must have been carried there by story-tellers from the continent. The important part played by seafaring tropes in Anglo-Saxon poetry (eg the Seafarer) also points to a strong connection between literature and sea-travel. So the milieu for “ur-Beowulf” should be regarded neither as Scandinavia, nor England alone, but an Anglo-Frisian “sprachraum” on both sides of the North Sea. Including, perhaps, the Warni.
There is an important school of thought which holds that Beowulf was composed in East Anglia to celebrate the death of an early 7th Century king Rædwald. Rædwald lived only a couple of generations after these events.
Cultural exchange with the Warni would have formed part of the relationship established by the marriage. The Warni were destroyed in 595, during Rædwald’s lifetime. It is quite possible that some elements of the Warni ruling group, including scops, ended up in the court of East Anglia, taken in by their relatives by marriage. The story of their fight for freedom and destruction by the Franks would have certainly resonated on the other side of the Channel. And echoes of it may have made their way into Anglo-Saxon song and story.
Text: Procopius Gothic Wars Book IV, chapter xx
Note: This is substantially the translation by H. B Dewing. However, the names have been amended to better reflect the original.
“At about this time war and fighting sprang up between the nation of the Warni and soldiers who live on the island called Brittia ; and it came about from the following cause. The Warni dwell beyond the Ister River, and extend as far as the northern ocean along the river Rhine, which separates them from the Franks and the other nations who dwell in that region. Now among all these nations which in ancient times dwelt on both sides of the Rhine river each people had its own particular name, but the whole group was called in common Germans. The island of Brittia lies in this part of the ocean not far from the coast, being about two hundred stades off and approximately opposite the mouth of the Rhine, and between the islands of Brettania and Thule. For while Brettania lies to the west about in line with the extreme end of Hispania, separated from the continent by a distance which at the least is about four hundred stades, Brittia is towards the rear of Gallia, that side namely which faces the ocean, being, that is, to the north of both Hispania and Brettania. And Thule, as far as men know at any rate, is situated towards the extremity of the northern ocean. But the description of Brettania and of Thule has been set down by me in the preceding narrative. The island of Brittia is inhabited by three very numerous nations, each having one king over it. And the names of these nations are Angili, Frissones, and Brittones, the last being named from the island itself. And so great appears to be the population of these nations that every year they emigrate thence in large companies with their women and children and go to the land of the Franks. And the Franks allow them to settle in the part of their land which appears to be more deserted, and by this means they say they are winning over the island. Thus it actually happened that not long ago the king of the Franks, in sending some of his intimates on an embassy to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, sent with them some of the Angili, thus seeking to establish his claim that this island was ruled by him. Such then are the facts relating to the island that is called Brittia.
The Warni, not long ago, were ruled by a man named Hermegisclus. He, being eager to strengthen his kingdom, had made the sister of Theudibert, ruler of the Franks, his wedded wife. For his previous wife had died recently, having been the mother of one child, Radiger by name, whom she left to his father ; and he sought a marriage for this child with a maiden born in Brittia, whose brother was then king of the nation of the Angili, and had given her a large sum of money because of his wooing. Now this man, while riding with the most notable of the Warni in a certain place, saw a bird sitting in a tree and croaking loudly. And whether he really comprehended the bird’s voice, or, possessing some other knowledge, simply made a mysterious pretence of comprehending the bird’s prophecy he at any rate immediately told those with him that he would die forty days later. For this, he said, was revealed to him by the pronouncement of the bird. “Now I,” he said, “making provision that you should live most securely and at your ease, have related myself with the Franks by taking from their country the wife who is now my consort, and I have bestowed Brittia upon my son by betrothal. But now, since I expect to die very shortly, and, as far as this wife is concerned, I am without issue male or female, and my son furthermore is still unwed and without his bride, come now, let me communicate my thought to you, and, if it should seem to you not without some profit, do you, as soon as I reach the term of my life, put upon it the seal of your approval and execute it. I think, then, that it will be more to the advantage of the Warni to make the alliance by marriage with the Franks than with the islanders. For the men of Brittia, on the one hand, are not even able to join forces with you except after a long and difficult journey, while the Warni and Franks, on the other hand, have only yonder water of the Rhine between them, so that they, being very close neighbours to you, and having achieved an enormous power, have the means ready at hand both to help you and to harm you whenever they wish; and they will undoubtedly harm you if the said marriage alliance shall not prevent them. For men naturally find a neighbouring state’s power, when it surpasses their own, grievous and a most ready cause of injustice, for a powerful neighbour may with comparative ease secure causes of war against his neighbours who are doing no wrong. Since, then, the facts are these, let the island girl who has been wooed for this boy be given up by you, and all the money which she has received from us for this purpose, let her retain as remuneration for the indignity, as the common law of mankind has it; but let my son Radiger be married to his own stepmother thenceforth, just as our ancestral law permits us.”
So he spoke, and on the fortieth day from the pronouncement he fell sick and fulfilled his destiny. Then the son of Hermegisclus, after taking over the kingdom of the Warni, by the will of the notable men among these barbarians, carried out the counsel of the dead king, and straightway renouncing his marriage with his betrothed, became wedded to his stepmother. But when the betrothed of Radiger learned this, she could not bear the indignity of her position and undertook to secure revenge upon him for his insult to her. For so highly is virtue regarded among those barbarians, that when merely the name of marriage has been mentioned among them, though the fact has not been accomplished, the woman is considered to have lost her maidenhood. First, then, she sent an embassy to him of some of her kinsmen and inquired for what reason he had insulted her, though she had neither been unfaithful nor done him any other wrong. But since she was unable to accomplish anything by this means, she took up the duties of a man and proceeded to deeds of war.
She accordingly collected four hundred ships immediately and put on board them an army of not fewer than one hundred thousand fighting men, and she in person led forth this expedition against the Warni. And she also took with her one of her brothers who was to assist her in settling the situation, not that he was holding the kingship, for he was still living in the position of a private citizen. Now these islanders are valiant beyond any of the barbarians we know, and they enter battle on foot. And this is not merely because they are unpractised in horsemanship, but the fact is that they do not even know what a horse is, since they never see so much as a picture of a horse on that island ; for it is clear that this animal has in no time lived in Brittia. And whenever it happens that some of them on an embassy or some other mission make a visit among the Romans or the Franks or any other nation which has horses, and they are there constrained to ride on horseback, they are altogether unable to leap upon their backs, but other men lift them in the air and thus mount them on the horses, and when they wish to get off, they are again lifted and placed on the ground. Nor, in fact, are the Warni horsemen either, but they too all march on foot. Such, then, are these barbarians. And there were no supernumeraries in this fleet, for all the men rowed with their own hands. Nor do these islanders have sails, as it happens, but they always navigate by rowing alone. When they came to land on the continent, the maiden who commanded them, having established a strong stockade close by the mouth of the Rhine River, remained there with a small number, but commanded her brother to lead forward all the rest of the army against the enemy. Now the Warni at that time were encamped not far from the shore of the ocean and the mouth of the Rhine. So when the Angili reached that place, marching swiftly, the two armies engaged in combat with one another, and the Warni were defeated decisively. And many of them fell in this struggle, while the entire number of those remaining, together with the king, turned to retreat, and the Angili, after keeping up the pursuit for only a short distance, as is customary for infantry, retired to their camp. But the maiden rebuked them when they returned to her and inveighed most vehemently against her brother, declaring that nothing worthy of mention had been achieved by the army, because they had not brought her Radiger alive.
She then selected the most warlike men among them and sent them off straightway, instructing them to bring the man captive without fail. Then, by way of carrying out her mission, these men went about searching that whole country thoroughly, until they found Radiger hiding in a dense wood; then they bound him and took him back to the girl. So he stood before her eyes trembling and expecting to die instantly by the most cruel death; she, however, contrary to his expectations, neither killed him nor inflicted any other harm upon him, but by way of reproaching him for his insult to her, enquired of the fellow why in the world he had made light of the agreement and allied himself to another woman, and that too though his betrothed had not been unfaithful. And he, seeking to defend himself against the charge, brought forward the commands of his father and the zeal of his subjects, and he uttered words of supplication and mingled many prayers with his defence, excusing his action by the stress of necessity. And if it was her will that they should be married he promised that what he had done unjustly in the past would be repaired by his subsequent conduct. Now when this was approved by the girl, and Radiger had been released from his bonds and received kind treatment in all other matters, he straightway dismissed the sister of Theudibert and wedded the girl from Brittia. Thus did these events take place.
Now in this island of Brittia the men of ancient times built a long wall, cutting off a large part of it ; and the climate and the soil and everything else is not alike on the two sides of it. For to the east of the wall there is a salubrious air, changing with the seasons, being moderately warm in summer and cool in winter. And many people dwell there, living in the same fashion as other men, and the trees abound with fruits which ripen at the fitting season, and the corn-lands flourish as abundantly as any ; furthermore, the land seems to display a genuine pride in an abundance of springs of water. But on the west side everything is the reverse of this, so that it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even a half-hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy this area as their own. And, strangest of all, the inhabitants say that if any man crosses this wall and goes to the other side, he dies straightway, being quite unable to support the pestilential air of that region, and wild animals, likewise, which go there are instantly met and taken by death.
Since I have reached this point in the history, it is necessary for me to record a story which bears a very close resemblance to mythology, a story which did not indeed seem to me at all trustworthy, although it was constantly being published by countless persons who maintained that they had done the thing with their own hands and had heard the words with their own ears, and yet it cannot be altogether passed over, lest, in writing an account of the island of Brittia, I gain a lasting reputation for ignorance of what takes place there.
They say, then, that the souls of men who die are always conveyed to this place. And as to the manner in which this is done, I shall presently explain, having many a time heard the people there most earnestly describe it, though I have come to the conclusion that the tales they tell are to be attributed to some power of dreams. Along the coast of the ocean which lies opposite the island of Brittia there are numerous villages. These are inhabited by men who fish with nets or till the soil or carry on a sea-trade with this island, being in other respects subject to the Franks, but never making them any payment of tribute, that burden having been remitted to them from ancient times on account, as they say, of a certain service, which will here be described by me.
The men of this place say that the conduct of souls is laid upon them in turn. So the men who on the following night must go to do this work relieving others in the service, as soon as darkness comes on, retire to their own houses and sleep, awaiting him who is to assemble them for the enterprise. And at a late hour of the night they are conscious of a knocking at their doors and hear an indistinct voice calling them together for their task. And they with no hesitation rise from their beds and walk to the shore, not understanding what necessity leads them to do this, but compelled nevertheless. There they see skiffs in readiness with no man at all in them, not their own skiffs, however, but a different kind, in which they embark and lay hold of the oars. And they are aware that the boats are burdened with a large number of passengers and are wet by the waves to the edge of the planks and the oarlocks, having not so much as one finger’s breadth above the water ; they themselves, however, see no one, but after rowing a single hour they put in at Brittia. And yet when they make the voyage in their own skiffs, not using sails but rowing, they with difficulty make this passage in a night and a day. Then when they have reached the island and have been relieved of their burden, they depart with all speed, their boats now becomig suddenly light and rising above the waves, for they sink no further in the water than the keel itself.
And they, for their part, neither see any man either sitting in the boat with them or departing from the boat, but they say that they hear a kind of voice from the island which seems to make announcement to those who take the souls in charge as each name is called of the passengers who have come over with them, telling over the positions of honour which they formerly held and calling out their fathers’ names with their own. And if women also happen to be among those who have been ferried over, they utter the names of the men to whom they were married in life. This, then, is what the men of this country say takes place. But I shall return to the previous narrative.”