In the year 469 (or 470) a large Celtic British army under the leadership of a king called Riothamus was defeated in a battle in Gaul (now France) by the Visigoths under their king Euric. Who Riothamus’s Britons or Bretons were, where they had come from, what they were doing in France and where this battle was actually fought will be the subject of a forthcoming essay. Some serious historians have even suggested that Riothamus was the legendary British King Arthur, although I doubt it. What is clear is that after their defeat at the hands of the Goths the British survivors retreated to Burgundy. They were never heard of again. But why Burgundy?
The Burgundians had crossed the Rhine into Roman Gaul along with various other Germanic tribes in 406. They settled on the Roman left bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe. They seized Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. The Roman emperor Honorius later legitimized their land grab and made them official allies or mercenaries, called foederati. Despite this official Roman status, the Burgundians continued to make raids into the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. Exasperated, the Roman general Aëtius called upon his Hunnish mercenaries for help. Although much is still obscure, probably in two engagements in 436/7 Aëtius and the Huns nearly exterminated the Burgundians under their king Gundahar (Gunther).
The contemporary Iberian chronicler Hydatius wrote: “The Burgundians, who had rebelled, were defeated by the Romans under the general Aëtius.” Prosper of Aquitaine, another contemporary, and closer to the events, wrote: “Aëtius crushed [Gundahar], who was king of the Burgundians living in Gaul. In response to his entreaty, Aëtius gave him peace, which the king did not enjoy for long. For the Huns destroyed him and his people root and branch.”
It is alleged that King Gundahar/Gunther and 20,000 Burgundians were slaughtered by the Huns. Gundahar was succeeded as king by his son Gunderic. These events became the kernel of the great German Nibelungenlied epic which so inspired Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas.
Following their defeat Aëtius allowed the surviving Burgundians to settle in Savoy, with a capital in Geneva. In 451 the Burgundians helped Aëtius and his primarily Gothic army defeat Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, a decisive event in European history. Following the defeat Attila withdrew and never threatened Gaul again.
In 455 the Burgundians, under Gunderic and his brother Chilperic, accompanied Theodoric’s Visigoths to Spain to fight the Sueves on behalf of the Romans. After their return Lyon became the Burgundian capital in 461.
So by 469 the Germanic Burgundians, with their capital now in Lyon, were still Roman allies. The Visigoths however had by this time repudiated any nominal allegiance to the Roman Empire and were trying to extend their hegemony further north from their kingdom of Toulouse.
Here we can introduce the description of the battle between the British and the Goths in 469/70. It comes from the History of the Goths written by the sixth-century Gothic Roman bureaucrat Jordanes:
Euric, the king of the Visigoths, observing the frequent changes of the Roman princes, attempted to seize the Gauls for his own. Anthemius, the Emperor, receiving intelligence of this, immediately invited the aid of the Britons, whose King Riothimus, coming with twelve thousand by way of ocean, and disembarking from his ships, was received into the city/state of the Bituriges. Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them leading an innumerable army, and fighting for a long time, overcame Riothimus, the king of the Britons, before the Romans had joined company with him. Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized Auvergne, a city of Gaul…..When Euric, as we have already said, beheld these great and various changes, he seized the city of Arverna (Clermont- Ferrand), where the Roman general Ecdicius was at that time in command. He was a senator of most renowned family and the son of Avitus, a recent emperor who had usurped the reign for a few days–for Avitus held the rule for a few days before Olybrius, and then withdrew of his own accord to Placentia, where he was ordained bishop. His son Ecdicius strove for a long time with the Visigoths, but had not the power to prevail. So he left the country and (what was more important) the city of Arverna to the enemy and betook himself to safer regions.
As this report makes clear, Riothamus and the British survivors of the defeat at the hands of the Goths retreated to Burgundy because it was ‘confederate with the Romans’: ‘Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans.’
What became of these British is not known. Some suggest they returned to Britain (if Riothamus was either King Arthur or another Romano-British chieftain such as Ambrosius Aurelianus,). Others think they might have returned to Brittany. To be honest we don’t know. Maybe they were even granted lands in Burgundy and blended into the local mix of Gallo-Romans and Germanic Burgundians?
The question remains: why had the defeated British fled to Burgundy? Of course Burgundy offered a safe haven because the Burgundians like the British were Roman allies opposing the threatening Goths. But geographically Burgundy only makes sense if the location of the British defeat at the hands of the Goths took place at a place from where it made more sense to retreat to Burgundy (possibly to Lyon) than it did to flee north to the comparatively safe British settlements in Armorica (now called Brittany).
I will explore these issues in a forthcoming article. Here I would just like to point out that in the mid-sixth century British Celts were intimately involved in the battle for the future of what is now France.