This is the ninth-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!

But who was Arthur?

Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.

(Read Part Eight here; or start from the beginning here!)


If King Arthur was indeed an historical character, we must place his life somewhere between the last decades of the 5th century, and the first decades of the 6th. He is roughly contemporaneous with Fergus Mór, the first Scot-King of Scotland; and with the Scandinavian heroes Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki (whose saga enjoys many points of similarity with the legends of Arthur). He occupies a place as leader of the British resistance against the Anglo-Saxon invaders following Ambrosius Aurelianus (mid-to-late 5th century) and before Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), in the 540s.

The name “Arthur”, itself, is the subject of some debate.

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Courage is the foundation of victory – Plutarch, “Themistocles”

To retreat is impossible, to surrender is unthinkable! – Janos Hunyadi, at the Battle of Varna, 1444

If you lose your ensigns, cornets or flags, do never lose sight of my panache (white plume); you will always find it on the road to honor and victory. – Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV of France) to his captains before the Battle of Ivry


Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base. – Gen. George S. Patton, Jr

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Race-built_galleonBeginning in 1570, English ship designers began designing and building a sleeker, faster, more seaworthy type of galleon known as “race-built”. Their name derived from their “raced” or razed (removed) fore-and aft-castles; relics of the Middle Ages when boarding was the primary tactic in naval warfare. While the galleons of their rivals, the Spanish and Portuguese, still had tall fore-and-aft-castles; these race-built galleons gave English captains tremendous advantage in maneuverability and handling.

Designed under the direction of Sir John Hawkins, these were a revolutionary design. Lower in the water, with greater length in relation to their beam (broadest right at the waterline, unlike earlier Galleons), it was a more stable, weatherly, capable of sailing faster and closer to the wind than any previous ship of the same size. It was armed with a larger and more homogenous compliment of guns than other contemporary Men-of-War; giving it superior firepower and a longer range capability than any ship it faced. (English naval gun carriages and recoil systems were superior to that of their contemporaries, as well.) This combination of speed with firepower would become a hallmark of English ships for centuries to come.

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With Laye Haye Saint taken and Ney decimating Wellington’s center with close-range cannon fire, Napoleon decided upon a  final push. A last roll of the dice, committing his Imperial Guard reserve to breaking Wellington’s faltering center.

(To read Part Nine, go here. Or, to read this series from the beginning, go here)

Turning to Ney, he ordered him to prepare to lead forward 9 battalions of the Old and Middle Guard against Wellington’s center. These, formed in battalion carré ( massive squares, each side 3 ranks-deep), each battalion echeloned right. Between each battalion were horse-guns of the Imperial guard. Behind and supporting the advance would be the Imperial Guard cavalry.

Napoleon kept the two senior battalions, the 1st and 2nd of the 1st Foot Grenadiers Regiment,  in reserve, guarding his person at La Belle Alliance. Ney’s attack force would be supported by every other infantry brigade not actively in combat: the men of Reilly’s and D’Erlon’s Corps; battered by a long day of bloody fighting, but heartened by the appearance of the Guard advancing. In the past, this had always been a harbinger of victory, committed when the enemy was near to breaking. The Guard had never known defeat….

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“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!” – Bettany Hughes, writer/historian.

(For Part Two, go here)


In the century following the Persian Wars, Sparta would find herself enmeshed in a long fratricidal struggle against her erstwhile ally, Athens.

These two leading Greek cities could not have been more different.

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Physically, Athens was a great cosmopolitan metropolis. Its public buildings, such as the Parthenon crowning the lofty Acropolis, were the wonder of the Ancient World; and still amaze today. Sparta, by contrast, was but a collection of villages. Its public buildings were modest, and Sparta left us no lasting stone monuments of any note. Athens was defended by great fortress walls; Sparta’s “walls” were the spears and shields of its scarlet-cloaked warriors. Athens is remembered for its philosophers and playwrites. Sparta is remembered for the simplicity and hardness of its men and the conditions under which they chose to live (“spartan”); and their pithy, sarcastic brand of humor (“laconic”). Sparta produced no Socrates or Sophocles; it produced men like Leonidas and Brasidas.

Sparta is remembered only for its invincible warriors, the Spartans, and their immortal stand at Thermopylae.

spartaAncient Sparta

Athens was a democratic state, where every issue of governance and policy was voted upon daily by the (male) citizens. Meeting on a rocky outcropping beside the Acropolis, overlooking the city’s agora, all Athenians so interested could come and hear or take part in the oratory; could vote on any and every decision of the day. It was a system that allowed maximum civic participation; but put no constitutional restraints on the emotional whims of its constituents.

Sparta, on the other hand, was a constitutional monarchy, in which policy was administered by the annually elected ephors; laws were made by a senate (Gerousia) composed of elderly Spartans, and ratified by a polling of all Spartiates 30 years or older.

(Of the two systems, Sparta proved the more enduring, surviving for nearly 500 years with little internal strife. Athenian democracy was short-lived, lasting less than two centuries and interrupted by periods of demagoguery and tyranny.)

Militarily, the two greatest powers in Hellas could not have been any more different, as well…..

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1 baye aIn the 11th century, no warrior stood taller than the knights of Normandy. Esteemed as the most dangerous heavy cavalry in Europe, the Normans ventured forth from their northern French duchy to carve out realms from the Scottish Lowlands to the Euphrates River. Either serving as prized mercenaries in foreign service or following the banners of their own intrepid leaders, the devastating charge of Norman cavalry gained victory on a myriad of battlefields.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 876 a Viking chieftain named Rollo arrived in northern France, raiding along the Seine Valley. The origins of this leader are disputed. He is claimed by both Denmark and by Norway. The most likely identity of Rollo is found in Norwegian and Icelandic sources, where he is called Ganger Hrolf (Hrolf, “the Walker”, so-named because he was reputedly too tall to ride a horse), a son of Rognvald Eysteinsson , Earl of Møre in Western Norway.

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These sources say that Rolf was forced to leave Norway by the new (first) king of that country, Harald Fairhair. Arriving in France, he spent decades campaigning with other Viking bands till, in 911, the French King Charles the Simple bought him off by ceded to him a domain situated around the town of Rouen; in return for Christian baptism and homage as a vassal of France. This grant of land became the germ of the Duchy of Normandy…

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This is the Eighth-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!

But who was Arthur?

Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.

(Read Part Seven here)


The last quarter of the 5th century was a grim time for those who looked to Rome, and the model of classical civilization it represented.

In 476, Romulus Augustulus, the teenage Western Roman Emperor, was forced to abdicate his throne by Odoacer; leader of barbarian feoderati in Italy. The Western Emperor had long been a figurehead, with true power residing with the Magister Militum (“Master of Soldiers”); a position held in the 5th century largely by one Romanized-Barbarian officer after another (Flavius Aëtius being the chief exception).

Romulus had himself been placed on the throne by his father, Orestes, one of these Romanized German commanders. Odoacer killed Orestes, and seized the Emperor in Ravenna.

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The boy-Emperor’s life was mercifully spared; Odoacer granted him an estate in Campania and a life-time pension. But Romulus was the last to hold the title of “Western Roman Emperor” (Belisarius, the great Byzantine commander in the next century, would be offered this diadem and title by the Ostrogoths). Odoacer went on to rule Italy thereafter as “King”; and as an autonomous vassal of the Eastern Empire.

Few in the West likely noticed, much less cared. By this time, the provinces that once comprised the western half of the Roman Empire had been for some time under the control of various “barbarian” powers. Gaul was divided between the Franks in the north, the Burgundians in the east, and the Visigoths in the south; with an ever-shrinking Roman successor state (ruled by Syagrius, a noble Romano-Gaul who still bore the title of Magister Militum per Gallias) in the north-central portion of the province; and the British territory of Armorica/Brittany. Spain was divided between this same Visigoth kingdom (centered still in Aquitaine), and the German Suevi. North Africa, once the breadbasket of the Western Empire, was now a militant and piratical Vandal kingdom; centered on the former provincial capital of Carthage.

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Of the former provinces, only Britain fought on, resisting Germanic occupation.

There are cogent reasons why of all the Western Imperial provinces Britain alone maintained its independence and identity….

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