Most of Britain was under Roman rule for almost 400 years, but when the Roman Empire began to falter, the people of Britain were increasingly left to defend themselves. Sensing weakness and eager for the riches of Roman Britain, neighboring tribes -- such as the Saxons, Picts and Scots -- descended from all directions.

Barbarian Conspiracy

To the Romans, any culture sufficiently unlike theirs was a "barbarian" society. While the neighbors of Roman Britain may not have agreed with this characterization, they were certainly all warlike cultures. In the year 367, Roman Britain was devastated by what appeared to be coordinated mass raids by large numbers of Picts from the north of Hadrian's Wall, Saxons from Germany and the Scots from northern Ireland. These attacks were referred to as "the barbarian conspiracy," although no one really knows whether they were truly coordinated attempts at invasion or simply opportunistic raids by groups of warriors seeking to exploit Rome's growing weakness.

Mutinous Soldiers

The Roman general Theodosius was able to suppress the "barbarian conspiracy," but the raids continued with major attacks every few years. Some of the Roman soldiers stationed in Britain decided that their general, Magnus Maximus, should be the Roman emperor in 383. He invaded Roman Gaul from Britain, defeated and killed the emperor Gratian, and was slain himself in 388 without ever reaching Rome. In 401, Rome pulled out most of its remaining soldiers to defend Italy from invasion. When the British asked Emperor Honorius to send more troops back to defend them, he told them they were on their own.

Treacherous Mercenaries

By the year 407, there were no longer enough Roman soldiers left in Britain to defend it from continuing raids. Central government began to collapse, and local warlords began to found kingdoms of their own. One of these warlords, a man named Vortigern, is supposed to have invited two chieftains named Hengist and Horsa to settle on the Saxon coast with their own Jutish tribesmen, to help repel the raids of the Picts and the Irish. Instead, they informed the Angles, Saxons and Jutes that the door to Britain was open. By 446, much of southern Britain was in the hands of the Angles and Saxons.

From History to Legend

With the fall of Roman Britain, people clustered around the forts of local warlords for protection. The collapse of civic life was so complete that no coins were minted, London itself was almost abandoned and even the hill-forts of the ancient Celts were refortified for defense. The desperate struggle for survival in this era gave rise to new legends as the historical details were forgotten. Magnus Maximus, the general who tried to conquer Rome from Britain, was remembered in Welsh legend as "Maxen Wledig," and another warrior who commanded British forces against the Saxons may have inspired the legends of King Arthur.