Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!
This is the Eighteenth-part of our discussion of Britain in 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”; the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain.
(Read Part Eighteen here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)
A GATHERING OF WOLVES
Winston Churchill, in his splendid “History of the English-Speaking Peoples”, wrote: “Of all the tribes of the Germanic race none was more cruel than the Saxons”. In their first devastating wave of invasion in the 450’s, they created such a record of slaughter that this episode in British History became known as the “Saxon Terror”. Though slave-taking and trading was a lucrative business throughout the world in this (as in most) periods of human history, for whatever reason the early Saxon attacks on Britain were distinguished by rapine and wholesale slaughter on a scale not seen in early “barbarian” invasions of the Roman Empire and its former territories. Only the Huns built up a greater reputation for bloody-minded ferocity.
Mid-summer 516 A.D. saw Anglo-Saxon warbands arriving daily in the Thames estuary; a gathering of wolves come to serve under Ælle, the Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda (“Briton Ruler”). These were harsh men in a notably harsh age, come to partake in the rapine of western Britain; the Celtic realms Arthur (and before him Ambrosius Aurelianus) had long warded. This was to be a final reckoning, as Ælle aimed at laying the Celtic Kingdoms of the west under the Saxon sword once and forever.
Rowing up the Medway, these daily-arriving sea wolves landed at Durobrivis (“Stronghold-By-The-Bridge”), the former Roman fortress-town that once warded the Medway crossing. In the heart of the Kingdom of Kent, its “Saxon” (Jute) rulers had shortened its name to “Robrivis”. The Saxon chronicler Bede would mistakenly claim that this version of the town’s name came from an otherwise-unknown Saxon warlord, Hrofi’s, fortified camp: calling it “Hrofes-cæster; which would in the fullness of time morph into the name it bears today, Rochester.
Here the “great army” of Ælle gathered in camps pitched in the sunlit meadows that lined the Medway River; warriors from throughout the north arriving daily. Warbands of Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Danes, Gotar, Norsemen, and perhaps even a ship’s crew or two of Svear (Swedes); each in their own camp, each led by their own eorls and chieftains. Some were men native to Britain, whose fathers (and in some cases grandfathers) had settled in the eastern portion of the island in the days of the last Romans, or when Vortigern led the Britons; as “foederati”, mercenary military settlers. Others, landless adventurers in search of new lands or merely crews of Viking freebooters, came from across the sea in response to rumors of war and rich plunder to be had under the standard of the Bretwalda.
For those Anglo-Saxon warriors native to Britain, this was “war to the knives”; a final accounting for generations of blood-feuds with the hated “Welsh”. As for those others from across the cold North Sea, these were merciless Viking reivers: a pack of hungry wolves, they had come to feast upon the carcass of Roman Britain!
As long summer days dragged on, idle warriors ate, drank (beer and mead were favorites of Germanic/Scandinavian warriors), diced, wrestled, boasted, fought duels, and abused the Briton slave girls who served them. All the while new shiploads (“keels”) of warriors arrived to join in the despoiling of Britain. It is likely that no such force had ever gathered in Britain before under a single Germanic leader.
King Ælle and his South Saxons likely camped at the center of this bivouac, beneath his horse-skull standard. These were Ælle’s own red-handed thegns and ceorls; veterans of many battles and bloody massacres. Adjacent to theirs was the camp of the Men of Kent, the white horse banner of the House of Hengist waving in the summer breeze. These were the heirs of the men who had followed Hengist and Horsa, first of the Saxon warlords to carve a kingdom off the back of Roman Britain. Now they followed Hengist’s son (or grandson), Æsc/Oisc Big Knife. He was second only to the Bretwalda himself among the chiefs of this savage host.
By August this “Great Army” was ready to move. No account of these events gives us numbers for the combatants on either side. But it is likely that this gathering of warriors from throughout the north numbered not less than 3,000 (and would not have exceeded 10,000). Ælle ordered the camp struck; and the Saxon host set out along the decaying Roman roads, westward, towards the heart of the hated “Welsh” kingdom of Dumnonia.
Dumnonia was the southernmost of the Celtic British kingdoms. It was a wealthy realm, maintaining trade ties with the continent through Brittany and with the Mediterranean through the Bay of Biscay. We have postulated earlier in this series that Arthur held lands in the western portion of the kingdom (Cornwall); though he was not the king of Dumnonia. The Saxons, settled in the southeast of Britain, were hereditary enemies of the Dumnonian British. With Arthur in the north, the moment was ripe for Ælle of Sussex to “put-paid” to this enemy on his doorstep.
Attacking Dumnonia made good strategic sense. It was closest British kingdom to the Saxon’s area of settlement in south Britain. Geographically, it could be isolated from the other Celtic kingdoms to the north by a drive to the Severn River estuary (today the Bristol Channel). This is in fact the strategy employed by the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex nearly a century later, in the campaign that led to the victory at Deorham in 577.
The operational target of Ælle’s host was the former Roman resort city of Aquae Sulis, nestled in an Dumnonian valley of the Avon River. Its name meant the “Waters of Sulis”, an old pagan Celtic goddess once worshiped in the British West Country. Under the Romans, the natural hot springs had developed into a Roman bath complex. But in post-Roman Britain it was known simply as Bath.
Nennius, the 9th century Welsh chronicler, states that Bath was known to the post-Romans as Badon. The syllable th in early British was indicated by a dd, which because of a lack of standardization in spelling was often rendered as a single d (or ð). Thus Bath was spelled Baððon or Baðon; pronounced “Bathon”.
It was to Badon, this quite Roman town slumbering beside the Avon, that Ælle and his rapacious horde now marched. It was here that his “final solution” to the Welsh problem would be decided, and the future of Britain determined.
BADON: THE LOCATION
Many locations have been suggested as the correct location for this, the 12th and climactic of Nennius’ Twelve Battles of Arthur as Dux Bellorum. Though I believe Bath, Somerset to be the correct location, here are some of the candidates suggested by others:
Some scholars (including Winston Churchill ) have suggested Liddington Hillfort near Swindon, in Wiltshire. This site is well situated astride the junction of the Roman road connecting Calleva (Silchester) to Corinium (Cirenchester); and the ancient Ridgeway, in use continuously since the Iron Age. However, Liddington was well within the zone of Saxon settlement by the early 6th century, and with Saxon settlements on either side was unlikely to have been occupied by a British garrison in this period.
Bardon Hill in Leicestershire is another candidate. Local legend claims the honor, having Arthur and his Cymbrogi perched upon the heights, charging down upon the advancing Saxon army. A nearby field is called Battle Flat, where local stories say Arthur’s horsemen broke the Saxon forces. The same legends claim that the dead were buried at nearby Billabarrow Hill. Placing Badon Hill at Bardon is attractive in that it places the battle right in the middle of the island; within the “debatable lands” between the two races. However, it makes little sense for a Saxon army from south of Britain to march northwest, toward Gwynedd (presumably), with British Dumnonia right on their western doorstep!
Bowden Hill, a conspicuous summit in West Lothian, has been proposed by those proponents of a “northern Arthur”. This location falls apart for the same reason the “northern Arthur” theory does: how, reasonably, can a battle fought clearly against and to stop Saxon aggression in the south of Britain (where the Saxon, as opposed to Angle kingdoms and holdings were all located) be placed in the Scottish lowlands? Are we to believe that Ælle and Oisc marched or sailed their forces into Lothian to attack Gododdin; when their hereditary and closest enemy, British Dumnonia, was so close at hand?
Badbury Rings in Dorset is a more plausible candidate. It is in the south of Britain, warding the southern route into Dumnonia. It was an Iron Age hillfort, and would likely have been occupied by a garrison; keeping an eye on Cerdic and his nearby West Saxons. Of all the candidates other than Bath, it has the strongest claim.
Brent Knoll, a high hill in Somerset, also has a claim. It sports an Iron Age hillfort, and
at first glance appears an attractive candidate. However, it lies southwest of Bath, near the Bristol Channel/Severn Sea. To reach it, a Saxon army would have to by-pass British-held Bath, leaving it defended in their rear. Not only would this make no tactical sense (a British force in Bath would be able to harass their rearguard, not to mention cut off their supply and communications with their homes in the east) it would make no strategic sense: Aquae Sulis/Bath was a strategic target of value; the remote Brent Knoll hillfort was not.
Proponents of Brent Knoll have proposed a scenario in which a Saxon seaborne force, sailing up the Bristol Channel and landing on the nearby coast, could have marched inland to besiege the hillfort. While the Anglo-Saxons were a seafaring people, and such a campaign by a raiding force of Vikings would at first glance make some sense; all accounts agree that the resulting battle was decisive (and fatal) for the Saxons; the effects being felt for generations. It therefore could not have been a struggle involving only a relatively small raiding force.
Launching a seaborne invasion by a large army in this manner would have been a logistical and strategic nightmare. The whole of southwestern Britain was held by the British; every port and anchorage denied to the Saxons by British strongholds. Along the way, British fleets were active, most particularly that of the Visigoth-turned-Briton, Theodosius/Tewdric; petty-king of southwest Cornwall. Why attempt such a risky naval strategy, when the simpler and more logical alternative of simply marching west along the Roman roads was both available and safer?
Interestingly, though, Geoffrey of Monmouth has the Saxons using a modest version of this strategy: landing from the sea at Totnes, in Devon; a shorter and more “doable” voyage. From there he has them devastating the country as far as the Severn Sea; ultimately laying siege to Bath.
Which brings us back to Bath as the most likely candidate for the battle.
First, Bath lies in a strategic position amidst the Cotswold Hills, astride the Fosse Way. Its capture would sever the land route north from Dumnonia to the British kingdoms of Cumbria/Wales and the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”): the British kingdoms of Elmet, Rheged, Strathclyde, and Gododdin. Secondly, Bath was a place of some significance. Though its size at this date is unknown, it was likely a large and prosperous town; the well-known “baths of Badon” bringing “tourists” and visitors from throughout Celtic Britain. These factors would make it such an attractive strategic target that the Saxons would attack it again in 577, some sixty years later. Interestingly, of this later attack on Bath, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the town “Baðanceaster”: obviously the Saxons thought of it as Bathon/Badon. Finally, as noted above, Geoffrey of Monmouth cites it as the location of the battle, perhaps drawing on older Welsh sources, now lost.
THE SAXON APPROACH
It has been long established that Saxon (and later Danish Viking) forces used the Roman roads whenever possible; calling these “heerpaths” (“heer” being the Germanic word for ‘army’). From Kent to Deva ran the first of these, Watling Street. It was along this well paved road that Ælle’s fearsome host now set out.
There were three ways to approach the West Country from Sussex or Kent:
- From the northeast, via the Fosse Way. This road runs from Lindum/Lincoln in east-central Britain, to Isca/Exeter in the southwest. In Arthur’s day, it transversed the “debatable lands” of what would later be the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia (whose name derives from the English word for “Border Folk”; meaning the border lands between the British and the Anglo-Saxons). Utilizing this route would entail following Watling Street northwest, passing by or through Londinium and crossing the Thames; then marching west along, Akeman Street, the connecting road to the Fosse Way. While not the direct (or obvious) route, this could be turned to advantage, gaining strategic surprise. It also would allow Ælle to gather the Anglo-Saxon settlers north of the Thames; particularly from those small settlements (“burhs”) within the “debatable lands”, and late-comers from the Angle settlements to the north.
- From Londinium, a road ran southwest to Calleva (Silchester). This otherwise-unnamed extension of the Port Way was known in the later Dark Ages as the “Devil’s Highway”. From Calleva, connecting roads ran due west directly to Aquae Sulis/Badon. This route had the advantage of being the most direct. We don’t know if the towns and forts of Wiltshire at Liddington Hillfort, Cunetio, etc were in British hands or abandoned; but the presence of Anglo-Saxon pottery and gravesites during this period hint that this area was (at the least) within the “debatable lands”, dotted with Saxon burhs. Advancing along this route would allow Ælle to collect these warriors as he advanced.
- The sea route was also an option: sailing past the Isle of Wight and landing on the Dumnonian coast between Dorchester and Exeter. As noted above, this is how Geoffrey of Monmouth had the Saxons come; landing at Totnes and marching north to Bath, devastating the countryside as they went:
“ [the Saxons] went on shore at Totness. No sooner were they landed, than they made an utter devastation of the country as far as the Severn sea, and put all the peasants to the sword. From thence they pursued their furious march to the town of Bath, and laid siege to it.” –History of the Kings of Britain
However, it is doubtful that there would have been sufficient naval transport for so large a horde. Though some of Ælle’s warriors may have come from across the North Sea, the bulk were second generation settlers, farmers and landlords; unlikely to have possessed ships of their own.
All factors considered, the second, direct route is the most likely.
Londinium, much shrunken since its days as capital of the Roman province, was likely an “open city”; a merchant port used by northern traders (the presence of large amounts of Mediterranean pottery in Cornwall indicates that more “civilized” traders from the former Roman lands chose to trade with their civilized British counterparts in the west of the Island rather than with the untrustworthy Saxons in the east, through Londinium). Surrounded by Saxon settlements, it was unlikely to contain a hostile British garrison; and yet we have no record of it falling to the Saxons earlier. Therefore an accommodation with the newcomers is likely.
Ælle’s forces passed Londinium, crossing the Thames there or nearby; then pushed west. At Staines, the horde would re-cross the Thames along the “Devil’s Highway”/Port Way. Moving southwest, the Saxons would reach Calleva, some 36 miles away, in a matter of days (an army of this size likely traveled at a relatively slow pace, perhaps making 10 miles a day).
Calleva Atrebatum had once been a prosperous Roman town; civitas-capital of the Atrebates tribe. Calleva is not unusual of the various Roman cities of Southern Britain in being abandoned shortly after the end of the Roman era. While no one knows exactly when the city was abandoned or why, the most likely time and reason was as a result of the “Saxon Terror” in the mid-5th century.
Gildas, the 6th century monkish chronicler, records the fate of Romano-British towns in the face of the “Saxon Terror”:
“(the Saxon “fire”) devastated all the neighboring cities and lands, and did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean.”
Of the towns, such as Calleva:
“…all the columns were leveled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side. Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses…”
This is a vivid description of the aftermath of pillage and despoliation. This was the likely fate of Calleva Atrebatum. When Ælle’s savage horde marched past in the late summer heat, it was but a ghost-haunted ruin; the still unburied skeletons of its citizens entombed under the scorched and fallen masonry.
From here the Saxons took the connecting road west to Badon/Bath, 65 miles to the west; moving on to Cunetio, on the Kennet River by modern Mildenhall. This former Roman fort-turned-market was also abandoned, likely at the same time as Calleva. Crossing the river, the Saxons were now only 35 miles from their target.
Three kilometers northeast of Badon/Bath, the connecting road Ælle’s force was traveling (the modern “High Road”) reaches the Avon River. Here, at Bathford, the road bends northwest and crosses the Bybrook River, a tributary of the Avon; before joining the Fosse Way as it descends a ramp-like spur of the Bannerdown plateau. From here, the Fosse Way travels on to Bath. But as it does it passes through a mile-wide choke point between the Avon and another high mound: Solsbury Hill.
Made somewhat famous by the Peter Gabriel song by the same name, Solsbury Hill rises 625 feet above the Avon. Atop its heights is the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort. However, there is no evidence that it was refortified during the post-Roman period.
As Ælle’s forces passed by its shoulder, the old warlord may have ridden to the top. From its heights, the view of the surrounding countryside is spectacular. Less than two miles to the southwest his prize lay before him: Badon!
NEXT: ARTHUR AND THE BATTLE OF BADON HILL