5cee5ab2e41c57e4aa54a4ad13608c33Unique 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 twentieth-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 Nineteen here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)


Geoffrey of Monmouth states that Arthur was in the north, at Alclud, subduing the “Scots and Picts”. Alclud is obviously Alt Clut, the original name for Dumbarton Rock; the chief stronghold of Strathclyde. This meshes well with the scenario described here previously, in which Arthur is in the north fighting outlaws (the “Dog-Heads”) and Angle pirates near Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) at the battles of Tribruit/ Tryfrwyd and Agned Hill (Nennius’ 10th and 11th battles). News of Ælle’s invasion would have reached him there, likely before the Saxons crossed the Thames at Londinium ; a trading town, and traders are always willing to sell information in time of war to both sides. Word of the gathering of longships and warriors in Kent would not have gone unnoticed in any case; and the Britons in the south would have been laying in supplies and preparing for the worst.

Whether Arthur was still at Din Eidyn following the victory at Agned Hill (identified earlier as the volcanic rock known as Arthur’s Seat at Edinburgh), or had moved to Alt Clut in Strathclyde as Geoffrey suggests; he was in the north and had to cover some 450-500 miles (depending on location and route) as quickly as possible. Speed was essential!

This was an existential crisis of the first order. If Badon/Bath fell to the Saxons, Romano-Britain would be cut in two. Arthur’s own native kingdom of Dumnonia would be isolated, and a fatal blow struck to British unity.

Arthur picture

Losing no time, Arthur and his Combrogi (and perhaps some picked mounted men from among the northern petty-kings who owed him favors and allegiance) rode southward post-haste!

(To continue reading, go here!)

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Antiochus_IV_Epiphanes(3)In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like, to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee: “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.


(To read Part One go here)


In 168 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, was on the verge of accomplishing something no king of the House of Seleucus had ever come close to: the total defeat of their hereditary enemy, the House of Ptolemy and the conquest of Egypt. Where even the great Diadochi Perdiccas (general of and Regent for Alexander the Great), and Demetrius the Besieger  had failed; Antiochus, whose Army was camped at the River Eleusis on the outskirts of Alexandria, was poised to achieve.  More, his fleet and another army had landed in Ptolemaic Cyprus, and was swiftly seizing control of the island. The Ptolemaic Kingdom seemed on the verge of annexation to the Seleucid Empire. All this Antiochus had done against the will of the Rome, the arrogant arbiter of affairs throughout the Mediterranean; asserting Seleucid independence from Roman dominance in foreign affairs for the first time since his father’s defeat at Magnesia  in 190 BC.

His army was now camped outside Alexandria, prepared to enter the Ptolemaic capital in triumph….

(To continue reading, go here)

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At the dawn of the 20th century, Germany and France were already preparing for the war that would break-out in 1914. Following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, these two Great Powers spent the intervening 44 years preparing for a Franco-Prussian War redux. But each had analyzed their first encounter, and drawn very different conclusions as to how best to fight the next one.

The problem for the potential combatants was one of space and magnitude of forces available to both sides. There was too little of one and too much of the other.

The Franco-German frontier was only 150 miles long; from Belgium and Luxembourg in the north, to the Swiss border in the south. Because of the conscription system developed and implemented by both countries in the years since 1870, both sides had greater masses available to fill this frontier zone than ever before; creating a virtual wall of divisions from north to south.

Prussia_WilhelmII_1914_01_fullThe Kaiser inspects his troops on the eve of the Great War. All the Great Powers  had instituted universal conscription, with much of the male population of Europe enlisted in either regular or reserve formations.  This created massive armies, on a scale unseen. The Schlieffen Plan gave the Kaiser’s General Staff confidence that they had the means of defeating the French Army rapidly on the Western Front; allowing them to then shift forces east to meet the Russians.

To make matters worse for any offensive-minded theorists, both countries had spent a great deal of effort and treasure in creating fortress belts on their side of the frontier. Any attack across the mutual border by either promised to be a very hard slog indeed!

For the Germans, the problem was also one of time: they were facing a potential two-front war; with the possibility of Tsarist Russia throwing-in with the French out the outbreak of hostilities. But Russia was….

(Deadliest Blogger has moved. To continue reading, go here.)

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In 334 B.C., Alexander son of Philip, third king of Macedon to bear that name, was only 21 years of age. But while young, Alexander was already a proven commander; prepared to begin his storied career as one of history’s greatest commanders and conquerors. But he would have to survive his first trial of arms against the forces of the Persian Empire, in what would prove his more perilous battle!

Philip II, that wily statesman and gifted general who had subdued Greece and forged a Hellenic alliance against Persia, before being struck down by an assassin’s blade; had raised his eldest son, Alexander, to lead in his footsteps. From Philip, Alexander had learned the arts (and sciences) of war and kingship; and so confident was Philip in his preternaturally gifted son and heir that he had entrusted to Alexander command of an army, and regency of the kingdom, when Alexander was only 16 years old.

The boy had won his first victory in battle that year, leading the Macedonian home guard against Thracian hill tribesmen of the southern Balkans (and founding there a Macedonian colony, Alexandropolis; the first of the many cities named for himself he would leave in his wake throughout his short but spectacular life ). Soon after, Alexander had commanded his father’s elite heavy cavalry at the Battle of Chaeronea; where the southern Greek states were finally brought to heel and forced to accept Macedonian leadership.

Upon Philip’s death in 336 B.C., Alexander was proclaimed king by the Macedonian army. His first two years was spent securing his father’s gains. Campaigning successfully first against the ever-restive Illyrians to the northwest of Macedon,  he then had to respond to a revolt by the allied Greek states to the south. He responded by storming the most dangerous of the rebel cities, Thebes; the brutal destruction of which shocked the other Greek states into submission.

His base secured, Alexander marshalled his forces for the great enterprise his father had envisioned: a war of retribution against Greece’s ancient enemy, the Persians.


Alexander bid farewell to Macedon in 334, leaving Amphipolis in April at the head of an army of just under 37,000 men. Marching east along the northern Aegean coast, Alexander arrived at the narrow Hellespont (Dardanelles), the narrow straits that separate Europe from Asia, in May. While the mainbody of the army was ferried across, Alexander and a picked guard sailed down the straits to Troy. As he came ashore, he cast a spear; symbolically claiming Asia to be “won by the spear”. It was an ancient challenge, and it was now for the Persians to refute his claim to ownership.

1 - Alex at Troy

After holding athletic games at Troy, and sacrificing at the tomb of his ancestor and role-model, Achilles, Alexander rejoined his army and prepared to move against the Persians. South of the plain of Illium the rich Greek cities of the Ionian coast were barred to him by Mount Ida; whose passes were guarded by Persian troops. Learning that the main Persian awaited him on the plains of Zeleia to the east, Alexander instead moved northeastward; both turning the Ida position and seeking battle with Persian field forces.

The army of the local Persian satraps (governors) were commanded by a Greek mercenary general, Memnon of Rhodes, appointed by the Great King, Darius III  (who was still in distant Susa, one of the three Persian royal residents). Memnon knew well how formidable the Macedonians were in battle, and had urged the satraps to adopt a scorched earth policy and avoid battle. But jealous of Memnon’s promotion by the Great King to command them, these proud nobles refused his advice as cowardly; and moved directly to oppose Alexander’s invasion.

Granicus river

At the River Granicus Memnon’s army awaited the Macedonian’s advance. Here the river was stony and its banks steep. Alexander would have to attack the Persians in a prepared and very difficult position. Arriving at the opposite bank, Alexander and a small group of trusted officers surveyed the position, and the Persian forces waiting beyond the river. Parmenio, his most senior general, warned him of the difficulty of traversing a fast-moving stream; of fighting their way up a slippery river bank to gain the top; and of fighting against the superb Persian cavalry, for centuries acknowledged as the best horsemen in the world, who would be showering them with javelins as they attempted the crossing. Despite these warnings, the headstrong Alexander ordered his soldiers to the attack. They would do so without hesitation, trusting to their king and commander and to their own skill in battle.


This army which followed Alexander to Asia had a special bond of trust with their young but immensely capable king. Alexander had grown up among these hard, proud men; who under Philip had seen victory over every foe,  from the Danube to the Gulf of Corinth. Alexander had played in their barracks, mimicked their drills, knew many of them by their names. He was their mascot, their touchstone, their “Golden Boy”. One, Cleitus the Black, was brother to Alexander’s nursemaid; and now commanded the Bodyguard (Royal) Squadron of his elite Companion heavy cavalry. There was a special familial bond between Alexander and his soldiers; and never in history has an army enjoyed a closer relationship with their general (and King), or he with them.

The iron core of this force was the superbly trained and experienced 12,000 strong phalanx; a force the like of which the world had never yet seen. Armed with the 15′ long sarissa, a heavy two-handed pike, these could advance rapidly in a variety for formations, presenting their foe with a bristling hedge of pikes [1]. The men of the phalanx were called  pezhetairoi (“Foot Companions”), and were recruited from the stalwart free yeomen of Macedonia.


Supporting the phalanx’s right flank, and forming a link between this and the cavalry, were the hypaspists. These were an elite force raised by Philip, in three battalions of a thousand men each (one of which was the Agema, the royal foot guards). A highly trained and versatile force, these could fight as fast-moving heavy infantry in open battle; or as elite light infantry in mountain terrain. The armament of the hypaspists has long been disputed by scholars; but this author believes they fought as pseudo-hoplites in open battle, armed with spear; and as a heavy peltast in their light infantry role, utilizing spear and javelin [2].


Member of the Agema of the Hypaspists, the Macedonian Foot Guards

If the phalanx was the anvil upon which an enemy was broken; the hammer was provided by the 1,800 man “Companion” (Hetairoi) heavy cavalry. Comprised of the sons of the Macedonian nobility (as well as “new men”, adventurers who had come in Philip’s time to find their fortune), these were among the best horsemen in the Greek world; only the Thessalian horse challenging their claim to be the finest cavalry in Alexander’s army. Armed with a 12′ lance (xyston), these were a hard-charging shock force; despite riding with neighter stirrup nor saddle! Aside from the Companions, Alexander’s Macedonian cavalry included 600  prodromoi (scouts), armed like the Companions with a lance; but lacking the full armor [3].

These Macedonian troops were augmented by allies and mercenaries from Greece and the surrounding Balkan tribes: The infantry were  7,000 Greek allied heavy infantry hoplites, and another 5,000 professional Greek mercenaries (hoplites and lighter “peltasts”); 7,000 Thracian and Illyrian light infantry, mostly armed with light javelins; and 1,000 elite Agrianian javelineers and Cretan archers. The Macedonian cavalry were augmented by 1,800 superb Thessalian heavy cavalry, 600 allied Greek horse, and 300 Paionian and Thracian light horse.

The army created by Philip and which followed Alexander to Asia was a well-integrated combined arms force of cavalry and infantry, light troops and heavy. It also included engineers, surveyors, and surgeons; muleteers and grooms, saddlers and blacksmiths, armorers and weapon-smiths. Dismantled in the baggage train, ready to be assembled on site, was a superb siege train of bolt and stone throwing machines, as well as the parts hardware necessary for the rapid construction of siege towers and battering rams.

This was perhaps the first “modern” army in European history.


While surveying  Memnon’s forces drawn up along the steep opposite bank of the river, Alexander’s keen eye noted that in their deployment the Persians had made a fundamental mistake.

The Persian army included in its numbers some 20,000 Greek mercenary hoplites. These had been recruited by Memnon from men who, like himself, were blood enemies of the Macedonians or their policies [4]. Drawn up in a deep-ranked phalanx and armed with long thrusting spears, these would have been the ideal troops to defend the river bank. But possessed of an excess of bravado and despising the Greeks as mere “hirelings”, the proud Persian nobles refused to wait in reserve and give “pride of place” to the Greeks. So again rejecting Memnon’s wise counsel, the Persian cavalry (numbering another 20,000) were drawn up along the lip of the river’s eastern bank.

Alexander leading the Royal Squadron across the river; artwork by Pablo Outeiral

Deciding immediately to take advantage of his enemy’s faulty disposition, Alexander ordered his forces to deploy for battle. Placing his heavy phalanx in the center, with light troops and cavalry on both wings, Alexander began the battle with a diversionary attack on his left. This was followed by a special assault force, commanded by an officer of the Companion’s named Socrates, composed of cavalry and light infantry, assaulting the Persian line on his right-wing; attempting to gain purchase atop the steep river bank.

With the Persian left-wing thus tied down, Alexander then crossed with the bulk of his Companion cavalry. The phalanx and his hypaspists also began to cross; but the nature of the terrain slowed their advance, and the battle was to be decided by cavalry alone.

The Persian horse was determined to throw the Macedonians back into the river; the Macedonians equally determined to gain purchase atop the bank. The Persian cavalry were armed with javelin and sword; while the Macedonian Companions were lancers. In the fierce fighting along the river bank, the longer reach of the Macedonian lance aided them in pushing back their Persian opponents. Fighting their way up the muddy embankment, the Companions gained the top, using their lances two handed, aiming at the faced of the their Persian opponents and driving them back. Once atop the far bank, Alexander’s squadrons began to expand their hold, spreading to the right.

Fresh Persian formations now charged Alexander’s force, where the young king was conspicuous in his silvered-helmet, adorned with three white plumes; fighting in true Homeric fashion in the front ranks. The young king and his immediate entourage suddenly found themselves assailed from all sides.

The Persian counter-attack was commanded by Mithridates, son-in-law of the Great King. Alexander speared him through, unhorsing and killing him. But while the king was so occupied, he was approached from his opposite side by Rhoesaces, brother of Mithridates; who cut down at Alexander’s head (with sword or perhaps with a saddle axe), shearing away one of Alexander’s plumes and renting his helmet; and delivering a wound to the king’s head. Though partially stunned, the King nevertheless turned and speared him through as well. At that moment a third noble (it seems certain that these high-ranking Persians had sworn an oath to slay the young king), Spithridates, came up behind the stunned Alexander. As he raised his sword to deliver the death blow, Cleitus the Black saved the future conqueror (and changed history) by hacking off the Persian’s upraised arm with his razor-sharp machaira!

Alexander’s heroic example no doubt fired his troops, who pushed the Persians back and soon routed them altogether. Memnon’s Greek mercenaries, drawn-up on a ridge to the rear, were surrounded and killed. Bitter enemies of Macedonia, they were treated by Alexander as traitors to the Hellenic cause, and offered no quarter.

This was Alexander’s first battle victory over the Persians. It would take two more, along with several hard-fought sieges, before Alexander would complete the conquest of the Persian Empire; and earn the title of “Great”.  But Granicus was perhaps his most dangerous battle, and though he was nearly killed of several other occasions, in none of his great battles was he so close to death.  Only Cleitus the Black’s timely intervention prevented Alexander III of Macedon from becoming a mere footnote in history; the vainglorious son of a great father!

Here is a dramatic presentation from the History Channel (produced by my friends at Morningstar Productions).

For more on Alexander the Great, check out Great Captains: Alexander the Great 

  1. For a more detailed examination of the Macedonian phalanx, and the Greek hoplite phalanx that opposed them as mercenaries at Granicus, read my article,  “Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate“.
  2.  As stated, the armament of the hypaspists is hotly debated. Some have claimed that they were armed just as the pezhetairoi of the phalanx, with the sarissa; and that the distinction between the two was more one of role than armament. Certainly the fact that after the death of Alexander the veterans of the hypaspists, renamed Argyraspides (“Silver Shields”) at the time of the Indian campaign, fought in the Wars of the Diadochi as a phalanx; fives weight to this theory. But during Alexander’s battles, where in the open battle their role was to provide the mobile link between the fast-moving Companion cavalry strike force and the phalanx, it seems highly unlikely for them to have been armed with the cumbersome sarissa. This is a debate that will go on until the unlikely event that some more conclusive evidence, heretofore undiscovered, is revealed.
  3. The prodromoi’s role as scouts and flankers would eventually be made redundant by the inclusion of Iranian and Dahae light horse into Alexander’s army following the conquest of Persia. By his Indian campaign, the prodromoi were merged into the Companion; presumably being issued additional body armor.
  4. Both Philip and Alexander controlled the Greek city-states by supporting one political faction within the city against its rival. Philip patronized the oligarchical factions; while Alexander tended to support the democratic faction (at least in the Greek cities he liberated from Persian rule in Ionia). In all Greek cities under Macedonian domination (which were all of those north of Sparta, who obdurately refused to kowtow to Macedonian hegemony) anti-Macedonians were exiled. As nearly all Greek males of the property owning classes were trained  to serve in the ranks of the city’s hoplite forces, these exiles tended to take up the profession of arms. Much prized in the Mediterranean world for their steadiness in battle and superior fighting quality, Greek hoplite mercenaries had become the infantry backbone of all later Achaemenid  Persian armies. During Alexander’s campaigns against the Darius, these Greek mercenaries were the most dangerous and committed foes he faced.
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With the popularity of such films as “Alexander”, “300”, and its sequel “300: Rise of Empire” a broader audience is being introduced (sometimes for the first time) to the warriors of ancient Greece. These films are generally poor educational tools, leaving the audience with many misconceptions; and often more questions than answers.

From their Persian Wars (499–449 BC) till the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) the Greek hoplite phalanx was the dominant battle formation of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Against Persians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans this compact formation of armored Greek warriors (supported by small numbers of light infantry and cavalry) triumphed. At Chaeronea, however, the Greeks met a superior tactical system: the Macedonian. While the Macedonian Army was a well-balanced, combined-arms force of light and heavy infantry and cavalry (as were most Greek armies by this time, though to a lesser degree) it is the Macedonian phalanx that revolutionized warfare for the following century-and-a-half, superseding the earlier Greek hoplite phalanx. The Macedonian phalanx, in turn, dominated the battlefield until the coming of the Romans; who fought in a very different formation, utilizing a markedly different tactical system: the legion. The Romans defeated armies relying upon phalanxes at nearly every encounter; and with the growth of their empire the phalanx as a tactical system largely disappeared.

Polybius and Livy examined the differences and advantages of each tactical system in depth; and they were MUCH closer to the events than we are, so their opinions should be given due weight. Based upon their analysis and that of other sources as well, we will briefly compare and contrast the three dominant tactical systems of the Classical World; from the Persian Wars to the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic Kingdoms.


It is important to understand that the Greek hoplite phalanx, which defeated the Persians at such battles as Marathon (490 BC) and Plataea (479 BC) was a formation consisting of citizen-soldiers. They fought primarily as “heavy” infantry: closely-ordered, fighting at close-quarters with spear or sword. These citizen-soldier heavy infantrymen of the Greek city-state (polis) are referred to as a hoplites (men-at-arms)…

(To continue, go here)

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Henry V leads the original “Band of Brothers” to a bloody triumph against all odds on Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with meShall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

The St. Crispin’s Day speech, which the Immortal Bard places in the mouth of his hero, King Henry V of England, is one of the great battle speeches in history. Though likelyShakespeare‘s invention, it brilliantly portrays a young, inspiring commander attempting to hearten his starving and dispirited Army; in desperate straights as it faces battle against a superior force. Whatever (if anything) Henry may have actually said that fateful morning in October is lost to history. But what is not lost is how he, and his tiny force of desperate men, stood firmly on the muddy field of Agincourt and defeated five-times their number of the flower of French chivalry.

Henry V (center), and as portrayed by Lawrence Oliver (L) and Kenneth Branagh

Soon after coming to the throne in 1413, the 26 year old Henry proclaimed his intention to renew the century-old Plantagenet claim to the crown of France, casus belli of the Hundred Years War; now dormant for a generation. This was a particularly audacious move, in that France had defeated the English and largely driven them from France in the previous century; and were widely considered a much stronger kingdom. However, the King of France at this time, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of madness (a trait he would perhaps pass on to his grandson, Henry VI of England). As often when the monarch is weak or infirm, powerful nobles had maneuvered to fill the power vacuum the king’s incapacity created. Factions had come to blows, and France was a nation whose nobility were divided against each other.

Henry, whose own claim to the English throne was questionable (his father had usurped the crown from his weak cousin, King Richard II), understood that nothing unites a nation like a foreign enemy. The glorious victories of Edward III and the Black Prince in the previous century were not forgotten; and many an Englishman of all classes in society had benefitted from the pillage brought off from frequent campaigns across the Channel. What Henry needed to cement the loyalty of his subjects was a successful campaign against the hated French; and to gain a reputation as a warrior king.

Map depicting area of Henry’s 1415 campaign; from the estimable Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt”

On 11 August, 1415 Henry crossed to Normandy to begin a grand raid across northern France, following the same strategy Edward III and others had used before. However, a short and successful raid was not in the cards. Henry’s first target, the port town of Harfleur, at the mouth of the River Seine….

(To continue reading, go here.)

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1 Sutton Hoo

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!)


Winston Churchill, in his splendid “History of the English-Speaking Peoples[1], 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.


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 [2]) 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.


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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[3]

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!


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