Religion and the Barbarian Conspiracy

Christianity in Roman Britain

Britain seemed to be mirroring the trajectory seen in the Roman provinces on the continent, particularly northern Gaul, in terms of the spread of Christianity. This new faith likely made its way to these regions through Eastern Mediterranean traders or soldiers stationed there, although its adoption was gradual. At the Council of Arles in August 314, the first significant council in the Western Roman Empire, Britain had a stronger representation than northern Gaul, with bishops from London, York, and possibly Colchester, in contrast to just one from Rouen. Notably absent were bishops from major Gallic cities like Paris, Tours, Orléans, or Soissons, which would later emerge as key ecclesiastical sites. In both Britain and Gaul, the early Christian community was a modest group, primarily urban, under the governance of a bishop-led hierarchy, yet it played a minor role in the broader provincial society.

By the end of Constantius II’s rule in 361, the British Church, despite being less affluent and organized than its counterpart in Gaul, was making steady progress and remained staunchly orthodox. The Council of Cologne in 346 highlighted the growing roots of Christianity in cities like Amiens, Sens, Soissons, and Orléans in Gaul, evidenced by their newly appointed bishops. Although there’s no direct equivalent in Britain, the Council of Serdica in 342/343 noted the British Church’s loyalty to the Nicene Creed and its support for Athanasius, reflecting a commitment to orthodoxy praised by Hilary of Poitiers in 358. At the Council of Ariminum in 359, British bishops, despite criticisms, accepted the emperor’s offer to cover their travel expenses due to their genuine poverty, highlighting their difficult financial state.

This perception of poverty might be challenged by archaeological finds indicating the existence of wealthy Christian communities in Britain around 330-360. The Water Newton (Durobrivae) treasure, discovered in 1975, showcases a rich collection of Christian silver, suggesting a prosperous Christian presence. The inclusion of sophisticated liturgical phrases on some items indicates an advanced level of religious practice.

The merging of Christian and pagan themes in treasures like those from Water Newton and Mildenhall, and the adaptation of traditional religious motifs in Christian art, such as the mosaics from Hinton St. Mary and Frampton, suggest a form of Christianity that integrated rather than outright rejected pagan practices.

By the time of Constantius II, Christianity had made significant inroads in both urban and rural settings in Britain, as indicated by findings like the Chi-Rho marked lead tanks, which were likely used in Christian rituals. The existence of Christian cemeteries with specific orientations further attests to the growing Christian communities.

Despite Julian’s brief pagan revival, the tolerance policy of Valentinian I allowed for the continuation and expansion of Christianity, with figures like Martin of Tours actively combating paganism in Gaul. This period saw Christianity becoming the dominant faith in many parts of the Western Roman Empire, displacing traditional pagan worship.

The visit of Victricius to Britain around 396 to meet with British bishops underscores the close ties between the Christian communities in southern Britain and northern Gaul, despite the apparent slower spread of evangelizing zeal in Britain. The absence of widespread missionary activity, the emergence of a Christian parish system, and the eventual decline of Christian structures in places like Silchester (Calleva Attrebatum) hint at the complexities and varied pace of Christianity’s establishment across the empire.

Romano-Celtic Paganism

The resurgence of Romano-Celtic paganism in Britain after Julian’s reign is often considered a significant factor in the religious landscape of the period. Indeed, this seems largely accurate, especially when compared to other parts of the Empire where Valentinian’s reign merely delayed the decline of paganism. In Britain, however, this era saw a notable increase in pagan activities, as evidenced by the extensive complex at Lydney, which was popular among both the elite and the general populace, as indicated by the vast number of offerings found there. Other sites like Woodeaton and Frilford also revealed substantial evidence of continued and even renewed pagan worship, with thousands of coins and votive items uncovered, dating primarily from the Constantine-Valentinian period.

These findings suggest that Romano-Celtic paganism had a strong foundation and enjoyed widespread support in Britain, a phenomenon not seen in other parts of the Empire during Valentinian’s reign. The popularity of these pagan cults, which focused on harvest and healing, may have been bolstered by their continuation of traditions familiar to the local population since pre-Roman times. Temples constructed on sites revered since the Iron Age, like those at Hayling Island and Uley, underline a revival or sustained tradition of Celtic religious practices.

The persistence and even resurgence of such paganism likely acted as a counterforce to the spread of Christianity in Britain, though it was unlikely to reverse the overall trend toward the new faith seen elsewhere in the Empire. However, the ‘barbarian conspiracy’ of 367-369, a crisis unique to Britain and marked by widespread devastation and societal upheaval, posed a significant challenge not only to the Christianization process but also to the economic stability of the province.

Growing divide between the wealthy and the working classes

The late Constantinian era had been a time of prosperity for Britain’s landowners, marked by the proliferation of large villas. Yet, this prosperity was not universal, with a growing divide between the wealthy and the working classes. The massive grain shipments to the Continent in preparation for Julian’s campaign, along with the Pictish and Saxon raids, exacerbated these tensions.

The Barbarian Conspiracy

The coordinated barbarian invasions of 367, described as a ‘barbarian conspiracy,’ brought the province to the brink of anarchy, reminiscent of the crisis during Boudicca’s rebellion. Despite initial setbacks, Valentinian’s prompt response, culminating in Count Theodosius’s successful restoration of order, underscored the Empire’s ability to recover. Yet, the archaeological evidence does not uniformly indicate a widespread disaster attributable to the conspiracy, suggesting that the impact was more localized and possibly concentrated in areas like the Fens, which were economically significant and densely populated.

Ships capable of navigating the Nene’s slow currents suggest that Saxons could have easily traveled upstream, implicating them in the 367 defeat of the Count of the Saxon Shore, potentially settling old scores. Collaboration with local rebels would be essential for transforming regions, which had been vital grain suppliers to the Continent less than a decade earlier, into areas of extreme famine.

Recent archaeological investigations in north-east Northamptonshire hint at local unrest. For instance, a damaged Christian font found at the bottom of a well within a settlement at Ashton was intentionally destroyed, mirroring the fate of another Christian tank discovered in a well at Caversham. An aisled building at North Lodge Farm, Barnwell, was demolished around 360-370, with its final Roman occupation phase being of inferior quality, suggesting it was an estate depot destroyed possibly during a raid. Nearby, a pond yielded a hoard of lead fragments, seemingly loot discarded by raiders as described by historical accounts. Additionally, evidence of fire damage and small-scale looting at South Lodge Farm further indicates turmoil.

In this context, Christianity’s presence appears ambiguous. The burying of treasures like those from Water Newton and Mildenhall might have been unrelated to the barbarian conspiracy, yet the timing suggests a period of insecurity around 367-369 as a plausible cause. The deliberate destruction of Christian liturgical items, such as the lead fonts, points to hostile actions against Christianity.

By around 360, the Christian Church was advancing significantly, aligned with mainstream Christian doctrine, liturgy, and art. However, post-360, its growth in Britain slowed compared to its rapid expansion on the Continent. Britain lacked major Christian sites, and the Christian leadership in Britain did not match influential figures like Martin of Tours in Gaul. Christianity persisted in Britain but failed to impact the broader population as anticipated. Minor Christian structures found at pagan sites, like Uley, do not compare to the grand early Christian basilicas emerging across the Continent. The church at Richborough, built around 350 and possibly used as long as the fort remained active, stands out as a rare example.

Interestingly, when Germanus of Auxerre visited in 429 to address Pelagianism, he did not call an episcopal council, indicating a lack of a strong Christian episcopal presence. By the late Roman period, Christianity in Britain maintained connections with Gaul and had some intellectual and urban support, but it largely failed to engage the rural majority.

The period of 367-369, marked by the ‘barbarian conspiracy,’ appears to have been a tipping point, damaging rural Christianity’s momentum at a critical moment when paganism and Christianity were competing for influence. Christianity’s association with the imperial system and the villa-owning elite may have hindered its ability to overcome this crisis. As a result, when the Anglo-Saxon invasion intensified in the 440s, the Christian Church in Britain lacked the cohesion and influence to serve as a unifying force, unlike its counterpart on the Continent.