The Justinian plague had a devastating yet unequal effect on Britain in the 6th century. The Romano-British kingdoms which still traded extensively with the remnants of the Roman Empire fell victim to the plague en mass. While some of the English were affected, many thrived because their continental trade was via the German and Slavic river systems to the east.
The Justinian Plague in England (535 – 656 AD)
Lugubri divortio babarorum
“The lugubrious divorce of the barbarians”
Those three words succinctly summarise Gildas’ opinion of post-Badon Britain. Arthur had won. The English were contained and in fact many were crossing back over the channel to found Saxony. Britain was divided, however. The British never re-conquered the English lands of Hampshire, Sussex, Kent or East Anglia. The English and British were divided, divorced from one another.
The division of the British and English in Arthurian Britain
David Keys believed this divorce to be so strong, so irreconcilable that the two never met or interacted let alone traded. The British traded with Amorica, with Iberia, and the remnants of the Roman Empire. The English traded with their kin in Frisia, Denmark, Germania, and Sweden. This is how, through many hands and forms, Sri Lankan gold ended up beside a road between Ipswich and Sutton Hoo. Between the port and the burial place of kings.
Archaeological evidence has shown virtually no trade between the two populations. There were strong boundaries between the two peoples including vast woodlands such as the Weald and the New Forest. Woodlands, the Wash, and extensive wetlands made East Anglia a virtual island. Further north the Middle Angles and Lindsey ran as far west as Watling Street. Above them, the English centred on the Humber estuary as well as in pockets of Bernicia.
This meant large swathes of the lands of the Iceni, Trinovantes, Cantiaci, Regini, Coritani, and Belgae were now in English hands. This is in addition to fragments of other areas such as possible lands of the Atrebates, Parisi, Brigantes, and the Durotriges.
The two sides hated one another. Gildas states so divorced were the two peoples that British pilgrims could no longer visit holy sites in the East.
Evidence of the Justinian Plague in Britain
This division led many to believe that the British were subject to the Justinian plague whereas the English were not. The British traded directly with the Roman Empire, such as it was, so it makes sense that the plague would reach them. But can we really believe the English never succumbed to it?
The Anglo-Saxon chronicle only makes mention of two solar eclipses in 538 and 540. It does not mention any plague. That’s all we have from the English. All we know is that Cynric kicked off the second English rebellion against the British in 552 to by defeating the British at Salisbury.
However, we do know, thanks to writers such as Procopius, that the sky darkened across the world for 18 months in 535-36. This is backed up by dendroclimatological data from tree rings which show poor growth during this period. Some sources in Britain and France speak of it raining blood while Irish annales speak of a great famine in 538.
Now is a good time to bear in mind a pattern – catastrophe, famine, and plague in that order. Some climate event triggered by the Sun, the Earth, or an asteroid ruins the crops, which in turn leads to famine. This weakens people and opens the door to mass death from diseases.
Evidence abounds of severe weather – cold weather, big storms, floods, and so on. Crops failed. Famine arove. Then came the plague. We know of some of the victims too – King Maelgwn of Gwynedd succumbed to the plague in 547. So did at least seven important people in Ireland including Finnia, Moccu, and Mac Tail.
Around this time, two great British trading ports – Tintagel and Cadbury Congresbury, both filled with Mediterranean wares, became deserted. They were not alone. Ports and settlements across the west dwindled or were abandoned entirely. This include Maelgwn’s seat of power, Dinas Emrys and his port, Deganwy. It also included the Irish ports of Garranes near Cork and Loughshinny near Dublin. In addition ports in Dumnonia fell such as Mothecombe, High Peak, and Grambla. This wave of abandonment moved inland too. The market of Wroxeter, capital of the Cornovii/Powys, fell out of use and the city shrank in size.
Did the plague find its way into British stories?
David Keys raises an important question regarding the plague. Why was there no folk memory of it? It’s almost the opposite of the great flood myths and of Biblical stories found in the Old Testament. In those the archaeologists insist there is no evidence despite growing to the contrary. However here there’s apparently no historical evidence to support the archaeological evidence. Or is there?
Do you know of the Holy Grail? Yes, these stories date to the Franco-Norman romances of Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes. Yes, they are of the 12th to 15th centuries leading all the way up to Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, but they may reflect a long oral tradition. A long kept folk memory. However, there is a non-Arthurian source too – the 11th century Welsh epic, The Mabinogi.
These tales refer implicitly or explicitly to a wasteland – to the desolation of cities and farmlands across late Arthurian Britain. Furthermore the Annales Cambriae refer to Arthur’s death in a great, mass death known as the mortalitas. Indeed, Arthur suffers a wound to the groin in these stories, a region of the body where the plague’s buboes grow. These symbolized or were linked to the wasting of the land.
Did the plague cause the Second English Rebellion?
And the English broke the Welsh thereafter. After Cynric took Salisbury the West Saxons surged northwest. They largely ignored Dumnonia for the moment, but instead went for the seat of British power – Cirencester, which was then known as Corinium. In 577 they took it and split Britain in half. The Middle Angles and Mercians pushed westward into Staffordshire and Warwickshire, the Hwicce went into Worcestershire and Gloucestershire from the north, the Deirans and Bernicians formed Northumbria, and London fell to Middle Saxon tribes.
Only Powys centred on shrunken Wroxeter, Elmet in Yorkshire, Dumnonia, Dent, Rhegend, parts of Bryneich, and pockets such as the British in the Chilterns survived for a while. Elmet would fall in 616, Wessex ate into Dumnonia’s eastern lands, Rheged fell to British treachery and later merged with Northumbria.
DNA evidence of English plague victims
In recent years, the Max Planck Institute along with Tartu University in Estonia, have begun looking for DNA and genomic evidence of the Justinian plague. They wanted to build on previous studies which identified the plague as Yersinia Pestis.
Still in its early stages, the Max Planck study has done DNA studies into 21 archaeological sites spread across England, Spain, France, and Germany. Overall their endeavors have thus far found the genomes of 8 variants of Yersinia Pestis. They also found similarities of behavior with the Black Death in that both plagues showed significant genomic deletions within the same areas of code.
The significance of Edix Hill
The important site for us, however, is Edix Hill. This is the one and only site so far studied in Britain. It’s an English burial site active, according to radiocarbon 14 dating, between 500 and 650 AD. There are 149 known burials there and so far the Max Planck Institute have assessed 15% of them – approximately 22 bodies. Of these, 4 of these individuals died from the Justinian plague.
So yes, some of the English died from the plague, but it ravaged Europe for 200 years, so this is not surprising. The question is when did these four people die? If it was in the mid-6th century then it’s proof the English and British did interact. However, if it is later then it’s not so surprising because the conquest of western Britain opened the English up to the plague.
Furthermore, let’s look at where Edix Hill is. It lays southwest of Cambridge near the village of Barrington, which is not far from Bassbourne. I believe Bassborne to be the site of one of Arthur’s 12 battles according to Nennius – the battle of River Bassus. However, more importantly Cambridge at this point in history was a border region between the East Anglians, who had not yet united into a single kingdom, and the Welsh of Verulamium (St. Albans) who were known as the Waeclingas by the English.
A border town contracting the plague is no surprise. If similar results are found in populations more removed from the British, say deeper into Norfolk, Suffolk, or perhaps in other kingdoms such as Kent, that would be more of a game changer. It would certainly mean that Gildas’ hate for the English had led him to overestimate the division of the British from the English during this period.
So to summarize, we have evidence of a total divorce between the English and the British from Badon in 495 until around 550. After that we have the conquest of the British by the English yet signs of cooperation – the royal lines of Rheged and Bernicia merged around 600 AD while in the 7th century the Mercians and the British of Powys and Gwynedd tag teamed Northumbria.
The British of King Arthur won a decisive victory yet half a century later were utterly devastated. Something had happened to the world which killed the British en mass including Arthur and Maelgwn.
Gildas survived and blamed humanity. As climates change and natural catastrophes occur, it is the want of some people to blame humanity. It was so for the flood, for the asteroid impact which destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and so it is today in our post-mini ice age of mild warming. So it was in the 6th century Britain.
The new findings of the Max Planck Institute are encouraging for showing the division of the British and English was not as finite as Gildas insisted. However, we need more data to get a clearer picture in the instance of Edix Hill. Either way, we cannot dispute the fact that the English thrived after the plague hit Britain whereas the British withered. So terrible were the British loses that it was keenly felt by their poets for a millennia, including the poet lamenting the death of King Cynddylan in 656:
Gone are my brethren from the land of the Severn
Around the banks of the Dwyryw
Sad am I, my God, that I am still alive.