A GUIDE TO DEADLIEST BLOGGER POSTS

 

1609159 (1).jpgDeadliest Blogger’s historical articles organized in a chronological order, to help my readers place them in some sort of historical timeline.

A girlfriend once pointed out that it would be uber-useful to have a reference guide to all of the various pieces Deadliest Blogger has written over the years; placing each in it historical order. Well, for your convenience, here it is!

Here is a list of all of my historical pieces, placed within a chronological timeline:

ANCIENT WORLD

The Artwork of War – Heroes of Troy and Mycenae:

15th-12th century BC. Bronze Age Greek world, in the Age of Heroes.

 

 

05 Pyrrhus 2The 25 Greatest Commanders of the Ancient World:

1475 BC- 476 AD, Deadliest Blogger’s list of the greatest generals of the Ancient World.

 

 

SONY DSC

Spartans: Elite Warriors of Ancient Greece:

6th-4th century BC. First in a series detailing the history of the Spartans.

 

 

1417290-aGreat Warships of History: The Greek Trireme:

5th century BC. Our series on the great warships that influenced history focuses here on the trireme.

 

The Lion at the Hot Gates: Thermopylae 480 BC

480 BC. The Battle of Thermopylae

 

 

 

Greece is Save By Its Wooden Walls:

480 BC Battle of Salamis

 

 

1551560Spartan Invincibility is Destroyed at Leuctra:

371 BC the Spartans meet the Thebans under the military genius Epaminondas

 

 

Great Captains: Alexander the Great:

4th century BC, part of Deadliest Blogger’s series on the great generals of history.

 

Granicus: Alexander Takes the First Step Toward Greatness:

334 BC, Alexander the Great at the Battle of Granicus

 

 

Diadochi: Macedonian Game of Thrones:

321 BC-281 BC: the “Successors” of Alexander fight over the carcass of his empire; and establish kingdoms of their own. First of a series, each new installment linked at the bottom.

 

Armies of the Successors: The Antigonids:

4th-2nd century BC, an overview of the army of Macedonia after Alexander till the coming of the Romans. First in a series.

 

Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids:

4th-2nd century BC, overview of the army of the largest of the Diodachi kingdoms. Second in the series.

 

 

Armies of the Successors: The Ptolemies:

4th-1st century BC, overview of the army of the Ptolemaic Macedonian kingdom of Egypt. Third in the series.

 

 

Great Captains: Hannibal Barca:

3th century BC, Deadliest Blogger’s look at the man who shook Rome to its roots. Part of our series on the greatest generals in history.


Breaching the Alps: Hannibal’s Icy Ordeal:

218 BC, an examination of how and why Hannibal chose to bring an army across the snowy Alps to attack his Roman enemy.

 

 

Cannae: Hannibal’s Masterpiece:

216 BC, and Rome suffers one of its greatest defeats.

 

 

Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate:

3rd-1st Century BC: the Roman legion eventually replaced the phalanx as the dominant force on the battlefields of the Classical World. Which system was superior, and why?

 

 

Mad Kings and Maccabees: the First Hanukkah:

2nd century BC, Antiochus IV’s harsh policy of forced Hellenization ignites a revolution among his Judean subjects; leading to the first Hanukkah celebration.

 

 

Disaster In the Desert: Crassus at Carrhae:

54 BC, a Roman invasion of Mesopotamia leads to the death of Crassus.

 

caesar-bustGreat Captains: Julius Caesar:

1st century BC,  Deadliest Blogger’s look at the “noblest Roman of them all”. Part of our series on the greatest generals in history.

 

Terror in the Teutoburg Forest!

9, the Roman occupation army of Germany is ambushed in the depths of the Black Forest. The results were to have long-ranging effects on the future of the Roman Empire and Germany.

DARK AGES

Adrianople: Twilight of the Legions:

378, the Goths deal the Romans a historic defeat. But why was it such a catastrophe for the empire?

 

The Age of Arthur:

5th-6th century AD Britain. Were the legends of “King Arthur” and his Knights of the Round Table based on historical events and characters? First in a series.

 

Attila is Stopped at the Catalaunian Fields:

451, the “Scourge of God” invades the Western Roman Empire; and is stopped at Chalons!

 

 

belisarius-2Belisarius at Darus:

530 and the Eastern Roman general Belisarius wins his first great battle against a far larger Persian army. His use of interior lines and field works is a text book case study in generalship.

 

 

1432785aDark Ages Elite: The Bucellarii of Belisarius:

6th-early 7th century, the Eastern Roman army is transformed by the methods of Belisarius, which experiment began with his own household regiment. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.

 

Great Warships of History: Byzantine Fire Dromon:

7th cent, the Eastern Romans create a revolution in naval warfare with a flame-throwing weapon mounted on their nimble galleys. Part of our series on the great warships.

 

Dark Ages Elite: Caballarii of Charlemagne:

8th-9th century, the armored cavalry elite of Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire become the genesis of the Medieval paladins. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.

 

The Vikings: An Enduring Fascination:

793-1066: “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us!” A brief look at the Vikings, and why they continue to fascinate us to this day.

 

 

England is Born at Bloody Brunanburh:

937, the grandson of Alfred the Great becomes the first king of a united England.

 

 

Dark Ages Elite: The Jomsvikings:

10th-11th century elite Viking brotherhood. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.

 

 

Carnage at Clontarf: Ireland’s Darkest Day:

1014 and Brian Boru, faces a coalition of enemies. The Battle of Clontarf was a Pyrrhic Victory, which ended Ireland’s one chance to unit into a single, powerful kingdom.

 

 

Dark Ages Elite: Anglo-Saxon Huscarls:

11th century, following England’s conquest by the Danes under Canute the Great, the English thrown was guarded by an elite body of Anglo-Danish warriors: the Huscarls! Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.

 

1408160Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Norman Knight: 11th-12th century, the Norman knights were the most feared heavy cavalry in Europe. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.

 

 

1066: A Bloody and Momentous Year

The year 1066 could be called the Year of the Three Kings. The events culminated in the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings.

Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Varangian Guard:

11th-14th cent, the Byzantine emperors are guarded by an elite body of Northmen, Rus, and Englishmen. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.

 

Manzikert.jpgThe Terrible Day: Disaster at Manzikert:

1071 and imperial Byzantium suffers a terrible defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks; and Anatolia begins the transformation into “Turkey”.

 

 

MIDDLE AGES

22853_Otto-IThe 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages:

475-1453, Deadliest Blogger’s list of the greatest generals of the Middle Ages.

 

 

 

The Crusades: A Politically Incorrect View:

    1095 – 1204 and tens of thousands of Christians marched east to liberate the “Holy Land” from its Muslim conquerors. A multi-part series on the history of the Crusades.

 

Myriocephalon: the Byzantine Resurgence Comes to a Disastrous End

1176, the Emperor Manuel Komnenos leads the last great army of the Byzantine Empire into Turkish territory to recover the lost lands of Anatolia. In the ravines and passes of Myriocephalon he is ambushed.

 

The Knights of France Defeat the Power of the Empire at Bouvines, 1214

Philip II “Augustus” establishes France as the premiere power in Western Europe and the chivalry of France as the greatest fighting men in Christendom.

 

 

Great Captains: Chingis Khan:

13th century AD, Chingis (Genghis) Khan unites the peoples of Mongolia and creates the world’s largest land empire. Part of our series on the greatest generals in history.

 

Legnica: The Mongol Terror Reaches Poland:

1241 and the northern thrust of the Mongol invasion invades Poland. There they meet the armies of Poland and Bohemia.

 

 

 

End of the Caliphate: The Mongol Sack of Baghdad:

1258 and the greatest city in the Islamic World is captured and pillaged by the advancing Mongol horde. In its ashes the last Abbasid Caliph is put to death.

 

Clash of Titans: Tamerlane at Angora, 1402

The Ottoman Turkish Sultan Bayezid the “Thunderbolt” engaged the invading army of Timur the Lame, the last great Mongol conqueror.

 

 

Slaughter in the Mud:Henry V at Agincourt:

1415, young king Henry V of England renews the 100 Years War by invading France. In the muddy fields of Agincourt a tired and hungry English army is brought to bay by a pursuing force five times its size. On St. Crispin’s Day Henry’s wins a miraculous victory.

 

A Most Sanguinary Affair: Bloody Towton: 

1461, the greatest battle of the War of the Roses, and the largest ever fought on English soil.

 

Richard III’s Short Reign Ends at Bloody Bosworth:

1485, and the War of the Roses ends with the defeat of Richard III.

 

RENAISSANCE

The 25 Greatest Commanders of the Renaissance: 1453-1650, Deadliest Blogger’s list of the greatest generals of the Renaissance.

 

 

Marignano, Battle of Giants, Ends the Myth of Swiss Invincibility:

1515, King Francois I of France defeats the hitherto invincible Swiss to contest the rule of Northern Italy.

 

panipat_main-bMughal: “The Tiger” Founds an Empire at Panipat:

1525, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane defeats the Sultan of Delhi and founds the Mughal Empire.

 

 

Battle of Nagashino, 1575

The ambitious and capable Oda Nobunaga defeats the hitherto invincible Takeda samurai with a force of trained matchlock-armed peasants and the clever use of field fortifications. 

 

Great Warships of History: Korean Turtle Ship:

1590s, the Japanese invasion of Korea is thwarted by revolutionary iron-clad “Turtle Ships”. Part of our series on the great warships.

 

Gustave_Adolphe_at_Breitenfeld-Johann_Walter-f3706497The Lion of the North Roars at Breitenfield:

1631, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden leads the Protestant forces to victory over Tilly and the Imperial Catholic tercios.

 

revenge-2Great Warships of History: Revenge, Race-Built Galleon:

16th cent, the English lay the foundations for naval supremacy with a revolutionary ship design. Part of our series on the great warships.

 

huss
The Last Hurrah of the Winged Hussars:

1683, the legendary Polish cavalry broke the Siege of Vienna and saved Europe from the yoke of Islam.

 

18th – 19th CENTURY

Great Warships of History: The Ship of the Line:

17th-19th cent, the battleships of the Age of Sail. Part of our series on the great warships.

 

 

fritzGreat Captains: Frederick the Great:

18th century AD, the career of “Old Fritz” is examined in another installment of our series on the greatest generals in history.

 

article-0-183b67b900000578-145_640x816Great Captains: Napoleon Bonaparte:

Late 18th-early 19th century, another in our series on history’s greatest general.

 

 

 

Sabres in the Snow: Murat at Eylau, 1807!

Marshal Murat saves the day with one of history’s greatest cavalry charges.

 

Napoleon’s Last Campaign: 1815

Deadliest Warrior takes a deep dive into the Waterloo Campaign in this multi-part series.

 

80da27526558cac0321c1ee30fece812_f803“Old Hickory” Breaks the Thin Red Line at New Orleans:

1814, the British gambit aimed at seizing the mouth of the Mississippi River is thwarted by Andrew Jackson’s rag-tag force at New Orleans.

 

alamo-213 Days of Glory: the Alamo, 1836

The Battle of the Alamo is examined in detail.

 

gandamuck-2Massacre in the Passes: Elphinstone’s Disaster: 1842

The First Anglo-Afghan War leads to one of Britain’s most humiliating defeats.

 

220px-sir_harry_smithA Perfect Battle: Harry Smith Smashes the Savage Sikhs at Aliwal

1846, First Angl0-Sikh War.  Sir Harry Smith fights the perfect battle and defeats a larger Sikh army.

 

 

 

Great Captains: Nathan Bedford Forrest

1861-1865, the career of America’s “Wizard of the Saddle” is examined in this installment of our series on history’s greatest generals.

 

Zulu: Death and Redemption in the African Sun

1879, Britain’s Zulu War opens with disaster and a desperate victory as Deadliest Blogger examines the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

 

A “Most Savage Battle”: Abu Klea, 1885

The British battled the Dervishes in the Sudan.

 

 

 

20th CENTURY

Juramentado: Moro Suicidal Assassins:

Early 20th century, Muslim assassins terrorize the Philippines and give the English language the term “run amok”.

 

 

Germany’s Schlieffen Plan: A Study in Economy of Force

1914, the outbreak of WW-I and the Germans develop a brilliant plan to defeat France in months and end the war in the west. What went wrong?

 

Great Captains: George S. Patton, Jr

 1940-1945, the life of America’s greatest WW-II battle commander is examined.

 

 

Great Warships of History: The Bismarck

1941, Germany’s greatest warship threatens Britain’s supply line and leads the Royal Navy on a merry chase! Part of our series on the great warships.

 

The Devil’s Guard: Hitler’s Waffen SS

 1935-1945, and examination in multiple parts of Hitler’s elite combat force, the Waffen SS.

 

Great Warships of History: The Yamato

 World War Two, part of our series on the great warships.

 

MISC ARTICLES

God Sides With the Big Battalions

An examination of some of the principals of war, force multipliers, and the danger of relying upon small elite forces.

 

Top Ten Generals in American 

Deadliest Warrior’s list of America’s greatest wartime leaders.

 

Deadliest Bloggers’ Greatest Quotes on War: Part One

Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Two 

Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Three

Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Four

Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Five

 

“History Bites”: The Fork, “a Hateful Vanity”

A “bite-sized” look at history.

 

“History Bites”: Son of a Gun

A “bite-sized” look at history.

 

If World War One Were a Bar Fight!

 

 

 

If World War Two Were a Bar Fight!

 

 

 

 

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR, PART NINETEEN: TRIUMPH AT BADON

 

1584871.jpg

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 Nineteenth-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!)

ARTHUR RETURNS SOUTH

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; see Part Seventeen), 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!

1584870.jpgThis 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.

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! At a controlled canter, a cavalry force can safely travel 60 miles in a day; and somewhat more if able to change mounts. Arthur’s mailed Combrogi likely rode the largest horses available to a Roman heavy cavalryman (15 – 16 hands); and such horses were in limited supply. This said, if we assume that Arthur’s men were able to change mounts, traveling the excellent paved Roman roads, a week’s hard riding  would bring him to Bath.

There were roughly two routes by which Arthur could ride south, on either side of the the Pennines, the spine of hills that run through the center of Britain. The likely route he took was the eastern one, which would take him south of the Wall into the British kingdom of Elmet and through Eboracum/York. Following mainly Dere Street as far south as Yorkshire, where it joined the Roman Ridge Road near Eburacum. At modern Templeborough in South Yorkshire, Arthur would have switched to Icknield Street; which finally joined the Fosse Way near modern Bourton-on-the-Water, in Gloustershire.

Now a picturesque Cotswolds town on the River Windrush (“the Venice of the Cotswolds”), in Roman times this was the site of a Roman posting station, and the small village that had grown up around it. From here, Arthur was but 51 miles from his destination. It was here, perhaps, that he received the ominous confirming news:  Badon was invested and under siege!

THE SIEGE OF BADON

Ælle and the Anglo-Saxon forces arrived before Badon/Bath in late August. He would have found the countryside deserted, the local Britons having fled the area or taken refuge in the town. As his army moved into position around the place, cutting it off from outside contact, the Bretwalda would have called a war council of his chieftains. Together, they would consider the best way to take the town.

1584859.jpgAll Roman cities had defensive walls. The normal pattern was a rectangle, all the streets laid out in a regular grid of right-angle streets. The defenses consisted of a masonry circuit wall supported by towers at regular intervals. In many (but not all) cases, small bolt-throwing machines, scorpions, were mounted upon the towers or walls.

Bath/Badon was no exception.

1584860.jpgExample of a fortified Roman gateway.

 

 

Roman Bath (Badon)

While the Saxons were unsophisticated in the arts of siegecraft (what the Greeks called poliorketica) they had three relatively effective ways of capturing such strong places when necessary.

The first method was merely to surround the town or fort, and prevent the defenders from being resupplied from the outside. Given time, most places could eventually be starved into submission. This tactic, though, was a double-edged sword. The Saxons (like most “barbarian” armies of the Dark Ages) had at best a rudimentary grasp of logistics. A “barbarian” army on campaign lived off  pillaging the surrounding countryside. When an area was picked-clean, the army perforce needed to move on or starve (along with the surviving locals). Sitting down to a lengthy siege risked running out of food supplies even sooner than the defenders within the town/fort; who, unless  taken completely by surprise or at the end of a long winter, likely had emergency supplies stockpiled for just such occasion. (At Aquae Sulis/Badon the town fathers would have had ample time to lay in supplies in anticipation of Ælle’s coming.) Finally, given the poor hygiene and sanitation of Germanic barbarian armies in general and the Saxons in particular, camp pestilence was an even greater threat than enemy weapons! (It should be remembered that up till the 20th century more soldiers perished on campaign from disease and sickness than from wounds.)

The second way of eliminating a fortified British town or hillfort was simply to occupy the neighborhood near a British town, establishing burhs. From these, the Saxons could harry the countryside, killing  or taking-off the peasants who worked the fields that fed the town. The Saxon ceorls would set up their own farms around their burhs, putting British peasants to work as thralls. Meanwhile, these bad neighbors would periodically raid the nearby town and its environs, making normal life so untenable that the town’s citizens would in time move away to more hospitable places (usually to the west).  By this tactic many of the towns of Roman Britain had been forced into abandonment or surrender.

1584866.jpgSaxon burh (fortified village)

The last resort was simple battery and escalade. Ladders would be set against the circuit wall, and battering ram put to the town’s gate(s). Fierce Saxon warriors would swarm up their ladders, belt-axes or the deadly knives from which their name derived in hand. Man-for-man, these fierce warriors were more than a match for any town burgher or part-time militiaman. And if the gate was battered down, the Saxons would raise their shields overhead and swarm through the gatehouse as arrows, stones, and boiling liquids were hurled down upon them.

1584864.jpgStorming a Roman fortified town in this crude, straight-forward fashion could result in terrible casualties to the attacker. Such a tactic would be used only when no other was available, or time was an issue.

Now, at Badon, time was the issue.

Ælle and his chiefs would know that the “Welsh” must soon react, particularly the nearby petty kings of Dumnonia. We have no idea from the scant accounts of Badon who were defending the place. We can assume the townsmen and perhaps the local militia. But even that much is pure conjecture. It is not unlikely, though, that at least some of these local Dumnonian lords may have rushed trained men of their own “Teulu” (household warriors) into the town at news of the Saxon approach.

But the full levy of Dumnonia would have been called up, and perhaps mustering at Cadbury Castle hillfort, some 30-plus miles to the south.  This ancient Iron Age hillfort had been refortified during this age and was likely the stronghold of a Dumnonian warlord. It would have been a natural place where the semi-professional warbands of the local lords and the militia levy of Dumnonia would gather to prepare for the relief of Badon. Its name comes from its possible founder as a stronghold in the late 5th/early 6th century: Cado. The name Cadbury means “Cado’s Fort”.

1584867.jpgSouth Cadbury Castle hill fort, Somerset

Geoffrey of Monmouth gives an important role in his account of events to “Duke Cador of Cornwall”. This character may well have been based upon the very real Dumnonian leader, Cado ap Erbin (or ap Geraint or Gerren), petty-king of a region of north Devon and perhaps “High King” of Dumnonia. As with his brother (or possible father) Geraint, he is closely associated with Arthur in the Welsh sources [1]. Both are named in the 6th century elegy on the Battle of Llongborth (describing the battle where Geraint may have been slain) and in the 6th century Life of St. Carantoc. Of all the petty-kings who were contemporaneous of Arthur, these two are the only ones we know for certain by name.

It was Cado/Cato who now likely called up the men of Dumnonia to the relief of Badon. However, the entire levy of Dumnonia would take weeks to fully muster. Time which the defenders of Badon didn’t have.

Ælle was preparing to storm the town, using his massive numerical advantage before succor could arrive from the south or west. The first two days his warriors sat before the town would  have been spent in cutting timber for ladders and for a ram. On the third day, these assembled, the Saxons moved into position.

1584868.jpgWe can recreate a likely scenario: the Saxons attacked in the early morning, at first light rushing the walls. Some no doubt were cut down by fire from the defenders on high. Once at the base of the fortifications, their ladders were raised, while crude rams hammered at the northern and western portals (the eastern wall was warded by the River Avon). The fighting would have been savage and desperate. Though in such assaults the attacker always took disproportionate casualties until gaining a lodgement atop the walls or breaking in a gate, the shear size of Ælle’s army made the end a foregone conclusion.

Badon seemed doomed.

However, before the Saxons could sweep over the battlements or batter-in the gates, help arrived from a wholly unexpected direction, from the north.

Arthur had arrived at Badon, and the dragon standard waved in the Saxon’s rear, atop Solsbury Hill! Or, as it was known locally, Badon Hill (Mons Badonicus).

Approaching Badon (Bath), Arthur would have come along the Fosse Way as it descended down the ramp-like spur of the Banner Down towards the Avon valley. Turning west off the road, he and his band would have ascended the steep slopes of Badon Hill, known today as Solsbury Hill.

Here were the remnants of an old Iron Age hillfort. From here, Arthur’s few hundred Combrogi could survey the Saxon host below, safe from sudden and overwhelming assault; while in a perfect position to threaten Ælle’s line of communications to the east.

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The stage was now set for the Battle of Badon Hill, the last of Nennius 12 Battles of Arthur. But before laying out a plausible description of the battle, let us reexamine the forces and leaders involved.

THE SAXONS

According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle,  Ælle was the first king to be called Bretwalda (“Britain Ruler”). While more a “first among equals” than a true king of all the Anglo-Saxons, he likely had the auctoritas to call a great number of the disparate Saxon kings and warlords to his standard when required. The army he brought to Bathon was undoubtedly one which included warbands from all of the Saxon (and possibly Angle) “kingdoms” in Britain.  It must have included a great number of the Anglo-Saxon warriors of Britain; in that its defeat proved decisive, stopping (and in fact pushing back) the Saxon advance in Britain for sixty years. Clearly, no small affair.

The core of Ælle’s host was composed of the elite warriors of his own household, his gesith (what the Roman writer Tacitus called a “comitatus”). Every Germanic warlord maintained a retinue of young “hearth warriors” who ate, slept, and fought beside him. In peace time he drew from their ranks his trusted officials, who helped him govern his lands. In battle they served as his elite professional frontline troops; the tip of the spear when formed in wedge, or the front ranks of any shieldwall. These pledged men would die before deserting their lord. Ælle’s three sons, Cissa, Cymen and Wlencing likely fought beside their father as well; though the eldest and heir, the Ætheling Cissa, may have had a smaller gesith of his own.

The “gesith” of a great chieftain such as Ælle may have numbered as many as 300 proven warriors. Later Scandinavian kings and jarls maintained such bodyguards, called hirðmenn/hirthmen; their numbers ranging from just thirty to sixty men for a jarl to as many as several thousand for a wealthy and powerful king such as Cnut the Great.[2] Most Anglo-Saxon chieftains in this earlier, poorer period would have had much smaller retinues; perhaps based upon the “keel”, or ship’s crew of between 30 and 60 men.

1589184.jpg

Anglo-Saxon chieftain or member of gesith; and Saxon ceorl. (Art by Jason Pope)

Along with the professional warriors of his household, Ælle would have brought the levy of free-born Saxon farmers (ceorls) of his own realm, Sussex (Kingdom of the South Saxons). In later Anglo-Saxon society, this would be called the fyrd. In these early days of constant raid-and-counter-raid between Saxon and Briton, virtually every able-bodied Saxon male was a warrior. Land and what could be grown or raised upon it was the principal coin of the realm; and would only be given to warriors capable of defending it and supporting their king in time of war. Sussex under Ælle was a dynamic and aggressive newcomer in Britain, born in blood with the sacking of Romano-British Anderitum (Pevensey Castle), traditionally dated 491 [3]. At least some of older warriors in his host may have been veterans of Ælle’s earlier victories over the hated “Welsh”.

Along with his own South Saxons, the horde Ælle brought west to Badon included the men of Kent (Cantaware), led by their own king, Oisc “Big Knife” , son or grandson of the famed Hengist .[4] Geoffrey of Monmouth (hardly a reliable source) names the Saxon leaders as Cheldric, Colgren and Balduph; but these names should be considered mere placeholders for unknown (to him) Anglo-Saxon warlords . From up-and-down the eastern coast of Britain, every Anglo-Saxon pirate, warlord, and petty-king joined Ælle in this great campaign against the Britons.

As described earlier, such an expedition against the “Welsh” would have attracted land-hungry warriors from not only Anglo-Saxon Britain, but from across the North Sea, from the homelands of the Anglo-Saxons as well. Geoffrey of Monmouth speaks of Germans being brought from across the sea to reinforce the Saxon leaders for this campaign. This no doubt reflected the actual arrival of many such “Vikings”, flocking to take part in the despoiling of Britain. As noted earlier, small numbers of Franks, Frisians, Danes, Norse and Gotar (from southern Sweden, remembered in “Beowulf” as the Geats) may have sailed to Britain as well; to take service under the Bretwalda, in anticipation of rich plunder. Dark Age warriors gathered about a successful chieftain’s standard if he showed himself a generous “gift giver”; and land was the most prized reward a chieftain could give to a follower. Much of Ælle’s motivation for making war against the Britons in the west was in fact the need for land to grant the land-hungry new-comers from across the sea that followed his standard.

One question must be asked: was Cerdic, wily leader of the West Saxons present?

As outlined earlier, Cerdic is described in these early days of the West Saxon people as an Ealdorman, “Elder Man”[5]. Ealdormen were not independent rulers; but officials answerable to an Anglo-Saxon ruler. As speculated earlier, Cerdic’s master at this stage was likely Ælle of the South Saxons.

As an officer (or vassal) of the Bretwalda, Cerdic would have been expected to answer the summons to war against the Britons. His holdings, within the marshy coastal region of Hampshire, bordered Dumnonia in the west. His warband could either march north to join Ælle’s host as it marched on Badon. Or he could move directly west, by land or sea; harrying the Dumnonian coast, distracting the Dumonians and perhaps delaying their succor of Badon. It is likely that Cerdic did one or the other: merely sitting out the war would have been to defy his master’s summons. Such an act of defiance against the most powerful ruler in Britain on the eve of what promised to be his triumphal final campaign risked not only being left out of the rich booty to be gained, but being branded a rebel against the overlord he served.

So, though we have no way of knowing if Cerdic was present at Badon, his participation in the campaign in some fashion is highly likely. But as part of Ælle’s great host besieging Badon, or as a diversionary force raiding the Dumnonian coast?  That Cerdic’s death is recorded as being in 534, nearly two decades after the battle, lends weight to the latter possibility. He clearly survived the battle; unlike so many other Anglo-Saxon’s present.

That Cerdic and the West Saxons warband might have harried the Dumnonian coast as Ælle laid siege to Badon might also explain Geoffrey of Monmouth’s contention that the Saxons came by sea; landing at Totness, near Devon:

“…[the Saxons] went on shore at Totness. No sooner were they landed, than they made an utter devastation of the country…”

Geoffrey (perhaps working from now-lost Welsh or Cornish sources) has the Saxons marching north from Totness to Badon, murdering and pillaging as they went. Could his account come from sources that confused Cerdic’s costal raid with the movement of Ælle’s main host (by land) against Badon? Or, attempting to reconcile the two separate operations, conflates them into one?

In any case, with-or-without Cerdic’s West Saxons, the savage host Ælle brought to Badon was likely the largest ever marshaled by any Anglo-Saxon leader to that date: numbering not less than 3,000 warriors, nor more than 10,000.

The “Saxon” warriors that followed Ælle would have been equipped with a round shield made of planks of linden wood, covered with tough cowhide; gripped behind a heavy projecting iron boss.  His chief weapon would have been either a light spear, useful for throwing or retaining for melee, not dissimilar to the late Roman spiculum. However, both angons (heavy throwing spears) and francisca (throwing axes) have been found in Saxon graves of this period. These were the defining weapons of the Franks; arguing both for Frankish elements in early Saxon warbands, and a cross-pollination of weapons (and techniques) in such a heterogeneous force.

As previously discussed, the hallmark weapon of a Saxon warrior was his seax. This large, single-edged utility knife was ideal for use in the close-quarters battle that resulted when shield-wall met shield-wall, or when men wrested on the ground in a death-grapple. It was also perfect for finishing-off enemy wounded littering a battlefield!

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Chieftains and better-armed warriors would also carry a broadsword, the favorite weapon of the noble Germanic warrior. By the 4th century, the common sword of all Roman soldiers had become the “spatha”; the proto-broadsword formerly used only by cavalrymen. Such weapons would be re-hilted and highly decorated when captured or acquired by Anglo-Saxon warriors (as would other pieces of Roman armor, such as helms).  Such weapons transferred high status to a warrior in Germanic/Scandinavian society; and were imbued with mythic/magical properties. Famous heroes carried famous swords, which bore names of their own: Sigurd the Dragonslayer bore Gram (“wrath”), and Beowulf the sword Hrunting (“roarer”). Later Viking-Age Scandinavian swords bore names like “Leg-biter”, “Skull-splitter”, and “Peace-Breaker”.

Replica based upon Sutton Hoo sword, now in British Museum 

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Poorer warriors might carry a scramsax, a longer version of the seax.

Mail shirts, called byrnies, were also items of high status, and confined to chieftains or the wealthiest of warriors.  After victorious battles against the Romans or Romano-British, mail shirts might be scavenged. But these were in short supply even amongst the British, likely only found in officers and elite cavalry units.

Battles between Germanic/Scandinavian armies started with both sides taunting each other from afar. Champions would sometimes step-out between the two sides, and challenge the enemy to meet them in single combat. Warriors would recite their noble pedigree, the deeds of their ancestors as well as their own. Far from being considered boorish, bragging was encouraged in Germanic society. A warrior won status (“word fame”) by victory in such duels, in full sight of his leader and his peers, particularly against notable enemy champions.

In battle the Saxon host would form up in one-of-two formations: either the shield-wall, a linear formation in which the warriors of the first rank overlapped their shields, forming a wall. Or, when on the attack, the “swine array” (called the “cuneus” by the Romans the) could be adopted. In this formation, the chieftain and his household warriors formed a wedge, and would attempt to penetrate and shatter an opposing enemy line. 

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Once the battle began in earnest, the Saxon shieldburg or swine array advanced rapidly toward the enemy. As the distance closed to a dozen yards, those armed with throwing spears or axes would hurl these at their opponents. Then, before the enemy could recover from this barrage, the Saxons would charge forward, smashing bodily into the enemy.

A clash between opposing shieldwalls was a brutal slugfest, fought at close range, striking at the enemy from over the top (or underneath of) the warrior’s shields. It continued till one side began to give way, and eventually broke into panicked flight. In swine array, the warband would try to shatter the enemy shieldwall, penetrating and breaking the enemy line.

 

 

THE BRITONS

The British warriors who fought at Badon had come to call themselves Combrogi (or Cymry), meaning “fellow-countrymen” or “comrades”. The term “Welsh” (meaning “ foreigner”) would have been insulting to these native British warriors.

The memory of Rome was distant, though reflected in their military organization and equipment. The bulk of the army was comprised of spear-armed infantry pedyt (from the Latin pedites, or “foot”). These were militia, part-time soldiers; drawn from the farms, towns and fortress garrisons. They were likely organized in “legions” of 1,000-1,200 men each, approximately the same size and structure of legions of the late Roman army. Supporting this assumption is one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which describes the 4,000 British casualties at the Battle of Creacanford as compose of “four troops”. A smaller unit, called a “cant” (likely a derivation of the Roman centuriae), consisted of 100 men; suggesting a “legion” of spearmen divided into ten cants, as with the late Roman legio.

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Sub-Roman British warriors

As was the practice with the late Romans, a small number of every legio might have been armed with bows, instead of the usual lancea (light spear) or spiculum (heavy throwing spear/javelin). Auxilia cohorts of archers (sagittarii) also existed; and Britons may have continued both of these traditions into the 6th century.

The elite “professionals” of a British army were the cavalry retinues of the nobles, called teulu, or “family”. Despite their name, these were picked men from both the noble’s own tribe and, in the case of great warlords, adventurers from other lands. In this respect they were very similar to the late Roman Bucellarii. These wore mail shirts and helmets of late Roman pattern; and fought with spear/javelin and sword. However, the Romans had settled large numbers of Sarmatian heavy lancers in northern Britain. Their “horse culture” had permeated throughout the native Celtic aristocracy. As discussed previously, it is possible these and Alani cavalry settled in Armorica (Brittany) by the great Roman commander, Flavius Aetius[6], provided Arthur (and Ambrosius Aurelianus before him) with a Teulu of Sarmatian-type heavy cavalry lancers.

A sub-Roman Celtic lord dines in his hall, the soldiers of his teulu standing guard in the background

The cavalry force that Arthur brought from the north to Badon likely numbered not less than 300, nor more than 1,000.  As suggested earlier, the Combrogi of Arthur’s own teulu likely numbered around 300 at full strength. This was a standard establishment for late Roman cavalry units, called vexillatio. Contemporary Byzantine/Eastern Roman practice at the time was unchanged, though the late Roman 300-man vexillations were now called bandon.

We have postulated here earlier that Arthur’s own teulu was of the heavy lance-armed Sarmatian/Alani type; known in the late Roman army as cataphractarii.  Their role in the Roman army was both to protect the flank of the main infantry line in battle; and to provide a powerful shock weapon capable of breaking enemy formations. Such regiments of Roman cavalry were often armored in bronze and iron, sometimes including the horse as well as the man. Arthur’s Combrogi were likely more lightly armored: Britain in the late 5th century/early 6th century lacked the financial resources available to the Romans. A typical Arthurian teulu horseman was likely equipped with iron mail or scale shirt, augmented perhaps by banded (or splint) armor on all or part of their arms and legs. An iron helmet of the late Roman type, likely sporting a crest or horse-tail, protected their heads.

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Their chief weapon was a lance or spear. This could have been either the two-handed, 12’-long kontos normally carried by Sarmatian-style lancers; or, alternatively, the combination of shield and a shorter, lighter single-handed spear. Arthur is many times mentioned as carrying a shield in battle, which would suggest the latter.  A military cloak would add a jaunty completeness to his panoply.

Along with the Combrogi of his own teulu, Arthur may have collected along the way south the teulu’s of other British leaders. These would have been lighter than his own, but still very useful in battle against the Saxons, who had no cavalry. These could make good the losses and attrition among his own Combrogi in the previous years of campaigning.

THE BATTLE OF BADON HILL

For Ælle, Arthur’s sudden arrival must have come as an unpleasant shock. The Bretwalda would have heard that Arthur and his vaunted horsemen were in the north, supposedly too far away to interfere with his move against Badon (Bath); the keystone to his strategy aimed at driving a wedge between the northern and southern British kingdoms. Now Arthur was on the high ground behind the Saxon army, dominating Ælle’s line of communications. Strategically, it was an unacceptable situation for the Saxon warlord.

Ælle’s reaction was likely to have pulled back from the bloody, all-out assault on Badon’s walls, and to regroup his warriors to face the new threat. Arthur’s arrival had given the defenders of Aquae Sulis a much needed respite. 

Likely leaving a portion of his forces to maintain the blockade of Badon town (perhaps King Oisc “Big Knife”, and his Kentish warriors), Ælle now moved his main force northeast, against Arthur on Badon Hill.

Bath (Badon) viewed from Solsbury Hill: from this vantage Arthur would have surveyed the siege of Badon/Aquae Sulis

Attacking uphill against a force of heavy cavalry capable of charging down at any moment was a dangerous proposition. The only way infantry can resist a charge of heavy horsemen is to maintain close-ranks, and hold steady against the horsemen’s terrible impact. This is made doubly hard by the added impetus a downward slope gives to a charging horseman and the already considerable weight of his mount (a 15 hand horse weighs in around 1,100 lbs); and for a large infantry force, keeping good order while advancing in line uphill is problematic under the best circumstances.

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Slope of Solsbury/Badon Hill

Cognizant of all this, Ælle may well have halted his forces at the foot of the hill, and mulled over the best way to dislodge Arthur from atop the hill.

The Annales Cambriae say that Arthur fought at Badon carrying “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights…” This entry suggests a battle (or, as Gildas describes it, an “obsessio“: a siege) lasting three days; and that Arthur bore  the symbol of a cross painted on his shield. But if Badon was indeed a three days long battle, that time period might well have begun with Ælle arriving and laying siege to the town of Badon; which would also explain why Gildas refers to Badon as a siege.

Alternatively, Arthur might have camped atop Badon Hill for three days, surrounded, while Ælle considered the best way to attack him.

We know the end, but we can only guess at the details of the battle. Elaborating on the scenario we have presented, a plausible narrative of this decisive battle of the Saxon wars unfolds:

Thirty miles to the south Cado/Cato, the Dumnonian warlord whom Geoffrey of Monmouth calls “Cador, Duke of Cornwall”, is mustering the levy of Dumnonia at the refortified Iron Age hillfort, known today as Cadbury Castle. From Cadbury he can both keep an eye on Cerdic’s threatening activities, and be in place to support Badon. Now word reaches his headquarters of Arthur’s coming. It is time to move! The threat from the West Saxon’s is imminent; but events at Badon have moved quickly, and Cerdic can be dealt with another day. Cado breaks camp and marches north with whatever forces he has had time to gather to relieve Badon.

Cadbury Castle hillfort is but a day’s hard march from Badon. Ælle’s hand is forced: as to wait another day will find his forces caught between Cado’s army coming from the south and Arthur’s small but deadly band atop Badon Hill to the north. He must seize the initiative, and clear Arthur away from his line of supply (and, in the worst case, his retreat). With his rear thus secured, the Bretwalda can reunite his forces at Badon and face Cado’s Dumnonians in battle. The Bretwalda orders his warriors to assault the heights.

We can picture the Saxons forming a long and fairly thick line, many ranks deep; advancing slowly up steep sides of Mons Badonicus. Their leather-covered shields are brightly painted, and a variety of standards wave above the contingent warbands. The hill is much wider at its base, and as the Saxons climb higher up the slopes their ranks must contract; causing disorder as men jostle each other for space. The grass is bright with morning dew, or perhaps dampened by a pre-dawn downpour, common in the West Country summers. This makes the grass slippery under their feet, and the maintenance of well-ordered ranks nearly impossible.

Above, poised like an eagles ready to strike, are Arthur and his armored Combrogi. His men have tightened their saddle girths, mounted their horses, loosened their swords in scabbards, adjusted shields on arms and grip lances in hand. Their steed’s snorting breath is perhaps the only sound atop Badon Hill; or, alternately, they break into a battle song: these are the forefathers of the Welsh, after all, the sonorous singers of the Celtic race.

As the Saxons draw ever nearer, Arthur watches keenly, waiting for the moment. Like all great captains of war, he possesses the coup d’oeil, the ability to take in at a glance the situation and find the fatal weakness in the enemy’s movements. He sees that the closer the Saxons come up the slope, the more ragged grows their formation, the more winded their rank-and-file. 

The moment comes: Turning to his signaler, Arthur nods. The trooper raises horn to lips, and its high keening trill sounds atop Badon Hill. Shouting their battle cry, the Combrogi spur forward, over the lip of the hill, and down the steep slope in a glittering, thunderous charge!

They form a mighty wedge, with Arthur and his chief champions, Cei the Tall and Bedwyr “of the Perfect Sinews”, at its point. Deep into the faltering Saxon ranks they plunge, stabbing and skewering, spears and lances piercing the mail byrnies of Saxon chieftains and champions like tissue paper!  The Saxon shieldwall shatters, and in moments Ælle’s host is broken and fleeing back down the hill in panic.

What followed was bloody pursuit, and for Arthur’s victorious Britons a lifetime of vendetta and blood debt was paid back with interest!

         Heavy was he in his vengeance;

        Terrible was his fighting…

         They fell by the hundred!

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Nennius tells us of Arthur’s final victory at Badon:

 “… in it nine hundred and sixty (Saxon) men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no-one lay them low save he alone.”

We should not take this to imply that Arthur personally slew 960 Saxons; but that the charge of his Combrogi did such slaughter, and that no other warlord or king could claim the credit but he.

Likely the aged Ælle was among those who fell in this initial charge: Arthur would have aimed his attack, like a thrown javelin, straight at the heart of the Saxon horde; where the Bretwalda’s standard stood high. Their king dead, his sons and best men slain around him, the bonds of oath and allegiance that held this savage horde together were sundered.  What moments before had been a conquering army was now a rabble fleeing in blind terror! Close on their heels were Arthur and his ravaging Combrogi, their spitting spears and reddened swords rising and falling, cutting men down like ripe corn.

Nennius tells us of Arthur’s final victory at Badon:

 “… in it nine hundred and sixty (Saxon) men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no-one lay them low save he alone.”

We should not take this to imply that Arthur personally slew 960 Saxons; but that the charge of his Combrogi did such slaughter; and that no other warlord or king could claim the credit but he.

Likely the aged Ælle was among those who fell in this initial charge: Arthur would have aimed his attack, like a thrown javelin, straight at the heart of the Saxon horde; where the Bretwalda’s standard stood high. Their king dead, his sons and best men slain around him, the bonds of oath and allegiance that held this savage horde together were sundered.  What moments before had been a conquering army was now a rabble fleeing in blind terror! Close on their heels were Arthur and his ravaging Combrogi, their spitting spears and reddened swords rising and falling, cutting men down like ripe corn.

Two miles to the southwest, Oisc “Big Knife” and his Kentish men were camped about beleaguered Badon town. Perhaps Oisc attempted to wheel his men north to rally their fleeing comrades. If so, in this they failed. Or perhaps, as Geoffrey of Monmouth implies, Cado arrived from the southwest and took a significant part in the battle by falling upon the flank of Oisc’s men. These, too, now fled the scene of slaughter!

But fleeing to safety was no easy matter. The Saxons were far from home, penned-in between Cado and Badon to the south and west; the river Avon to the east and south; and Arthur’s horsemen now hunting men down on the flat ground at the base of Badon Hill. In the narrow choke-point between the bend of the Avon and Badon Hill, clogged with fleeing Saxons, the slaughter and carnage must have been terrible indeed. It was here that a generation of Anglo-Saxon leaders and warriors perished.

That Oisc son of Hengist too was slain (likely in the pursuit that followed) is conjecture. But his death at around the same time as Badon makes it likely. Alternately, he may have lived to return to his stronghold at Cantwareburh (Canterbury), only to die soon after of his wounds; or perhaps of a broken heart.

Two miles to the southwest, Oisc “Big Knife” and his Kentish men were camped about beleaguered Badon town. Perhaps Oisc attempted to wheel his men north to rally their fleeing comrades. If so, in this they failed. Or perhaps, as Geoffrey of Monmouth implies, Cado arrived from the southwest and took a significant part in the battle by falling upon the flank of Oisc’s men. These, too, now fled the scene of slaughter.

But fleeing to safety was no easy matter. The Saxons were far from home, penned-in between Cado and Badon to the south and west; the river Avon to the east and south; and Arthur’s horsemen now hunting men down on the flat ground at the base of Badon Hill. In the narrow choke-point between the bend of the Avon and Badon Hill, clogged with fleeing Saxons, the slaughter and carnage must have been terrible indeed. It was here that a generation of Anglo-Saxon leaders and warriors perished.

That Oisc son of Hengist too was slain (likely in the pursuit that followed) is conjecture. But his death at around the same time as Badon makes it likely. Alternately, he may have lived to return to his stronghold at Cantwareburh (Canterbury), only to die soon after of his wounds; or perhaps of a broken heart.

Notes:

  1. Castleden, Rodney, “King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend”, Routledge 2000, P. 114
  2. See Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Anglo-Saxon Huscarl. The origin of the this body of elite household troops was in the reign of Cnut the Great. In all but name, these huscarls were the same institution as the earlier Germanic gesith.  
  3.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Ælle and his sons landed in Britain in 477; and that he sacked the British settlement/fortress of Anderitum/Pevensey in 491. This is also the date given for the founding of Sussex. But recent scholars debate these dates, some suggesting that due to a dating error by Gildas the traditional Anglo-Saxon Chronicle date may be off by 20 years. This theory would place the sack of Anderitum by Ælle and the founding of the Kingdom of Sussex not in 491, but in 471. Lyne, Malcolm: Excavations at Pevensey Castle, 1936 to 1964, (2009); Archaeopress.
  4. Alternate sources call him “Octha of the Bloody Knife“.
  5. Myres, J.N.L. (1989) The English Settlements. Oxford University Press, pp. 146–147
  6. Bernard S. Bachrach, “The Origin of Armorican Chivalry”: Technology and Culture 10.2 (April 1969), pp. 166–171

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR, PART EIGHTEEN: THE SAXONS MARCH TO BADON!

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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 Seventeen here. Or start from the beginning with Part One!)

A GATHERING OF WOLVES

Winston Churchill, in his splendid “The Birth of Britain[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 450-60’s they created such a record of slaughter that this episode in British history became known as the “Saxon Terror[2]. Though slave-taking and trading was a lucrative business throughout the world in this (as in most) period of human history, for whatever reason the early Saxon attacks on Britain were distinguished by rapine and wholesale slaughter on a scale seldom 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 the fortified camp of an otherwise-unknown Saxon warlord named Hrofi’s, calling it “Hrofes-cæster. In the fullness of time this would morph into the name it bears today, Rochester.

A view of the Medway meadows and marshes near Rochester

It was here the “Great Army” of Ælle gathered in camps pitched in the sunlit meadows that lined the Medway River. Warbands from throughout the north arrived daily: 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 ship’s captains. A great number (perhaps the majority) were men native to Britain, whose fathers (and in some cases grand or even great-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. For these this was a “war to the knives”, a final accounting for generations of blood-feuds with the hated “Welsh”. But their ranks were stiffened by the newcomers, landless adventurers in search of farmland to settle, or merely crews of Viking freebooters lured from across the cold North Sea by rumors of war and of rich plunder to be had under the standard of the renown Bretwalda Ælle. Merciless reivers, a pack of hungry wolves, come to feast upon the carcass of Roman Britain.

As long days of summer 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 a battle and bloody slaughter. 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 via Cornwall through the Bay of Biscay. Attacking Dumnonia made good strategic sense. It was the 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. For the Saxons settled in the southeast of Britain, and particularly those in their westernmost holdings around Hampshire (which would later become the Kingdom of Wessex), Dumnonia was their hereditary enemy.

With Arthur campaigning in the north, the moment was ripe for Ælle to “put-paid” to this enemy on his doorstep.

We have postulated earlier in this series that Arthur held lands in the western portion of the kingdom, in Triggshire, Cornwall. These were his personal estates, named in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen as Kelliwic or Celliwig.  The Welsh Triads locate one of his courts also at Celliwig: “Arthur as Chief Prince in Celliwig in Cernyw”. This does not mean Arthur was king of Dumnonia or even of Cernyw (Cornwall). He was neither. But as a major warlord, Dux Bellorum of the Celtic kingdoms, he had to draw revenue from some estates and have a place to call home between campaigns. Cornwall was likely one of these places.

The operational target of Ælle’s host was the former Roman resort city of Aquae Sulis, nestled in valley of the Avon River. Its name meant the “Waters of Sulis”, referring to an 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.

Two artist’s conceptions of Roman Aquae Sulis (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 toward Badon, this quite former Roman resort 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 by Arthur scholars and enthusiasts as the correct location for this, the 12th and climactic of NenniusTwelve Battles. Though I believe Bath, Somerset to be the correct location, here are some of the candidates suggested by others:

Some scholars (including Susan Hirst, Geoffrey Ashe, Michael Wood, and even 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. As the battle is described as a siege, or blockade, of the British by the Saxons, this must be ruled out as a possible candidate.

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Liddington Castle hillfort

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!

Bardon Hill

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?

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Bowden, West Lothian

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.

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Brent Knoll

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 modest seaborne raiding force 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.

Bath, seen from Solsbury Hill; likely in Arthur’s time known as Badon Hill

Which brings us back to Bath as the most likely candidate for the battle.

First, Bath lies in a strategic position south of 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 direct approach would also simplify his logistics, shortening his line of communications back to Sussex and Kent.
  • 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, Germanic 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 made earlier (perhaps after the deaths of Vortigern and his son in the 460s) 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, lucky to make 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.

Calleva/Silchester before and after the “Saxon Terror”. 

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.

Little Solsbury Hill viewed from the south. Bath would be to the left of this picture. Mons Badonicus?

Made somewhat famous by the Peter Gabriel song by the same name, Solsbury Hill (or “Little 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.

Bath in the laid out in the distance, seen from the upper slopes of Solsbury Hill

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: Bath, known then as Badon.

NEXT: BATTLE OF MONS BADONICUS

Notes:

  1. Churchill, W, A History of the English Speaking People: The Birth of Britain, Ch IV, p 50
  2. See Part Five of this series.
  3. Part Seven
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THE AGE OF ARTHUR PART SEVENTEEN: THE WARRIOR QUEEN AT THE HILL OF AGNED!

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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 Seventeenth-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 Sixteen here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)

In the previous chapter we examined Nennius’ tenth of Arthur’s battles, that at the River Tribruit, wherein we built a case for that battle to have been fought on the River Forth, eight miles above Stirling.  This has long been known as the “Gateway to the Highlands” and the site of William Wallace’s famous victory over the English. Arthur is  called north by his brother-in-law, King Lot, who is threatened by a strong band of outlaws called the cinbin. “Cinbin” (or Cynbin) translates as “dog-heads”. These brigands are led by a savage character named Garwlwyd, who is possibly synonymous with the figure known in the Welsh Triads as Gwrgi Garwlwyd.

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From their lair along the marches between the British Kingdom of Gododdin and the Pictish highlands the Dog Heads raid into Gododdin, carrying off plunder and prisoners; two of which (a boy and girl) they supposedly eat daily!

Making common cause with an Angle pirate chief named Edlfled, the Dog Heads plan to converge  upon and capture the hillfort of Dùn Èideann from land and sea.

As recounted in the previous chapter, Arthur and his 300 mounted Cymbrogi rush north from Cornwall, a distance of approximately 515 miles, to arrive in 10 days at Dùn Èideann.  Joining with Lot’s forces they move against Garwlwyd, who is camped at the crossing of the Forth at Tribruit (the Fords of Frew). In the resulting Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd the Dog Heads are destroyed, though Garwlwyd may have escaped (to be later assassinated).

Meanwhile, unaware of Garwlwyd’s defeat his ally, the Angle chieftain Edlfled, has landed in Arthur’s rear near Din Eidyn.

THE HILL OF AGNED

Nennius states that the 11th of Arthur’s battles was at a place called “the hill of Agned”. Many scholars agree with the often-fanciful Geoffrey of Monmouth that this was at or near Edinburgh.

Like Rome, Edinburgh is built on seven rocky, volcanic hills. Three of these, Castle Rock (upon which the Gododdin fortress of Din Eidyn is thought to have sat), Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat are in or near the center of the modern city. The four other hills, Corstorphine Hill, Blackford Hill, Braid Hill and Wester Craiglockhart are a bit further out. Any of these, admittedly, could have been named “Agned” in the early Dark Ages.

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Two views of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, above. Below, two images taken from Edinburgh Castle by author in 2019. One looks at Arthur’s Seat from the castle, the other looks toward the nearby waterway. It is easy to imagine Angle long boats landing on the shore, and raiders occupying Arthur’s seat to use as a temporary base and a stronghold from which to besiege the castle. 

However, Arthur’s Seat must have had another name before the life of Arthur. Could it have been called “Agned“?

It is a logical place for an attacking force of Angles, landing on the nearby coast as part of a concerted strategy to take Lot’s fortress of Din Eidyn, to make camp. This rocky, defensible hill so close to their target (Castle Rock/Din Eidyn) would have made an ideal place to hold up while they awaited their allies arrival, and at the same time begin to raid the surrounding area and place Din Eidyn under loose blockade.

With the Hill of Agned tentatively identified as Arthur’s Seat, and Arthur’s opponent being an Angle raiding party, we must consider next the question of who could this “Edlfled” have been?

As stated in the previous chapter, some scholars have attempted to identify the Edlfled of the Triads with Æthelfrith of Bernicia. This Angle ruler was the first to unite both of the northern Angle kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira under one crown; and in doing so founded the embryonic Kingdom of  Northumbria. However, these Angle kingdoms in the north were established in the later 6th century and Æthelfrith ruled from the end of the 6th century through the first half of the 7th century. As such, he is too late to have faced Arthur (first decade of the 6th century), and cannot be synonymous with the Edlfled we are discussing.

It must be born in mind that the Triads and other Welsh sources are suspect in many cases, as they sometimes conflate events separated by as much as a century. It is entirely possible that even if the events described by Nennius, as well as in the Triads and the Pa Gur, relate to the same historical event (the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd); the accounts may have become confused with later events.  They may have brought Æthelfrith of Bernicia/Northumbria into the events that took place during the Age of Arthur. Similarly, there is no certainty that the Garwlwyd referred to in the Pa Gur is the same man as the Gwrgi Garwlwyd of the Triads.

These doubts put aside for the moment, if there was a Bernician-Angle leader named Edlfled/Æthelfrith who fought Arthur at the Hill of Agned, he cannot have been the founder of Northumbria. What is more likely is that this character was an otherwise unknown “Viking”[1] leader then raiding the Lothian coast, and that this Edlfled made common cause with fellow outlaws (the Dog Heads) to prey upon Gododdin.

It should not be ignored, either, that the form of the name, Edlfled, if spelled as Æthelflæd (a more faithful rendering), is the feminine form of this name. Anglo-Saxon nobility bore family names, which were applicable to both the male and female members. To designate gender, a masculine or feminine suffix was applied: such as “fled/flæd” or “wynn”, in cases of females; while “frith”, “red” or “wulf” were added to denote males. Thus Æthelfrith, Æthelred,  Æthelwulf for a male; and Æthelflæd  or Æthelwynn for a female (to cite a few examples from the royal family of Dark Ages Wessex). Clearly, the Cumbric-Welsh rendering of this Angle leader’s name is the feminine form.

Could Edlfled have been a woman?

Scandinavian/Germanic culture allowed for women who took up arms to fight beside men as warriors. “Shieldmaidens” (skjaldmær in Old Norse; Schildmaid in German) are referenced in later Scandinavian Sagas. But many of these chronicle events of about or near this period (the events described in both Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki are roughly contemporaneous to the age of Arthur; more on that in later installments). Two of the most famous of these legendary/archetypal warrior maidens include Brynhild in the Volsunga saga, and Hervor in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (“The Saga of Hervar and Heidrek”).

1553829.jpgThree hundred shieldmaidens are said to have fought in the semi-legendary Battle of Bråvalla in East Götaland about 750AD, one of whom bore the Danish banner. The Byzantine historian Skylitzes records armed women among the defeated Varangian-Rus warriors at the Battle of Dorostolon in 971.

True warrior maidens are exceedingly rare in history, but not impossible or unheard of. It is therefore not beyond the realm of possibility for such a force of Angle “Vikings” to have been led by a “skjaldmær”.

Whoever the mysterious Edlfled was, it was at his/her hall (Germanic chieftains did not maintain palaces, but instead had their centers of power in Long Halls, where they entertained visitors and feasted their household warriors) that Gwrgi Garwlwyd, leader of the outlaw “Dog Heads”, acquired his alleged taste for human meat:

 “…who after tasting human flesh in the court of Edlfled the Saxon[2] king, became so fond of it that he would eat no other but human flesh ever after.”

Cannibalism was never an accepted practice in either Scandinavia or the British Isles. However, it is of course possible that such a fringe group of renegades and outlaws may have practiced ritual cannibalism; perhaps to create a savage reputation and as a way of intimidating their enemies. Cannibalism is also a way of bonding a group together in such a way as to forever set them outside of the bounds of normal society. Any or all of these reasons may account for both the Dog Heads and Edlfled’s band of Vikings taking up this abominable practice.

Two days following the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd, Edlfled and her band are camped atop Agned Hill, unaware that their ally has been defeated and his warband is no more. Expecting Garwlwyd’s imminent arrival, it is must have been with astonishment that Edlfled and her Angle pirates see Arthur and Lot’s victorious forces arrive below them,  the famed dragon standard waiving in the northern breeze!

1553830.jpgThe Britons assault the hill, numbers and high morale making up for the disadvantage of terrain. The Angles put up a fierce and desperate resistance. But in warfare the impact of morale is decisive (Napoleon observing that “in war the morale is to the physical as two-to-one”; i.e., morale factors are twice as important as all mere “physical” factors ). This unexpected turn of events likely drained the pirates of their courage. In the battle of shieldwalls, the rot begins with the back ranks slipping away. A trickle of the cowardly soon becomes a flood, as the Angle line breaks in panic. Men (and women?) run for the safety of their  ships, moored in the estuary, with the blood-hungry Britons close on their heels!

With the battle won and the north once again secure, Arthur and his Cymbrogi feast with Lot and his Gododdin warriors that night. The following day, atop Agned’s heights, Arthur gives judgment to the captured, both “Dog Heads” and Angles. Perhaps among them was the fearsome “shieldmaiden” leader, Edlfled.

Here where Arthur sat in judgment the hill will forever after be remembered as “Arthur’s Seat”.

The fate of captured outlaws and pirates then, as now, was bleak. The usual and sundry atrocities aside, their crimes included cannibalism and the daily, ritual killing of a British boy and girl. They neither expect nor receive any mercy. Arthur condemns them all to death beneath a headsman’s ax.

The crisis in Gododdin is ended. But a far greater threat to the British kingdoms is looming in the south.

A GATHERING OF WOLVES

Winston Churchill, in his splendid “The Birth of Britain[3], 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[4]. 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.

We have seen that in 477 a new Saxon warlord named Ælle landed in southeastern Britain. That after taking the British fortress of Anderida (Pevensey) and putting the inhabitants to the sword, he founded the kingdom of the South Saxons (Sussex). He soon became the paramount ruler of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in Britain, taking the title “Bretwalda”. He was, in fact, the first Saxon king to be so acclaimed. Even Æsc/Oisc”Big Knife, King of Kent and the son of the famous Hengist, as well as Cerdic of the West Saxons, acknowledged his over-lordship.[5]

Now it was the summer of 516, and among the Anglo-Saxon peoples of the eastern lands the war arrow had been passed. Ælle was calling for all to join him in a final reckoning with the hated Welsh, a call to rapine and conquest.

NEXT: THE SAXON’S “FINAL SOLUTION” TO THE BRITON PROBLEM

  1. In this context, the term “Viking” is used in the sense that it was in ancient Scandinavia: a pirate/outlaw crew; not subject to any recognized king or authority. In the early Dark Ages Scandinavia, such outlaws preyed upon settlements and shipping there as elsewhere; and were eventually put down by the emerging authority of jarls and kings.
  2. Though referred to here as a “Saxon”, it should be remembered that the Romans and their Romano-British and later Welsh successor collectively referred to all the various Scandinavian and Germanic raiders of Britain as “Saxons” (Saxones and Sassenach, respectively).
  3. Churchill, W, A History of the English Speaking People: The Birth of Britain, Ch IV, p 50
  4. See Part Five of this series.
  5. Part Seven
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THE MYTH OF SPARTAN INVINCIBILITY DESTROYED AT LEUCTRA

A millennium-and-a-half before Frederick the Great, Epaminondas of Thebes changes the face of warfare with the oblique attack and forever destroyed the myth of Spartan invincibility !

The Peloponnesian War indisputably established Sparta as the paramount power in the Greek World. Though that long conflict had been waged, ostensibly, by Sparta to free the Greek city-states of the Delian League from Athenian dominance; the Spartan victory merely replaced Athenian hegemony with Spartan.

Though superb soldiers, the Spartans were educationally and temperamentally ill-equipped to deal with the subtleties of statecraft and diplomacy necessary for managing an empire. Over the next 33 years following the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta faced sporadic challenges from the other leading Greek states; with coalitions forming against her and her interests. Of these, the Thebans were both the most implacable and the most dangerous.

Thebes had been an ally of Sparta against Athens; and had even pushed for the total destruction of that city after its surrender in 404 BC. However, the following year Thebes aided in the restoration of the Athenian democracy; rightfully perceiving a revived Athens as a counter-balance to Spartan power. Over the next two decades, she often found herself at odds with Sparta; culminating in defeat in the Corinthian War, after which her Boeotian League (through which Thebes exercised leadership over the other Boeotian cities) was dissolved. The crowning agony came in 382 BC, when a Spartan force treacherously seized and occupied the city; establishing once again a oligarchical government.

1551580.jpg Theban hoplites (drawing by James Carrozza*)

Three years later, the pro-Spartan government was overthrown by a coup, led by the dashing young Theban firebrand, Pelopidas and his friend, the philosopher-soldier, Epaminondas. A virulently anti-Spartan democracy was installed; and for the next eight years a desultory war was waged to drive the Spartan garrisons out of Boeotia and reestablish the Theban-dominated Boeotian League.

During this period Epaminondas and Pelopidas alternated command; training and improving the Theban forces. Pelopidas was particularly successful at leading small-unit operations; and in his hands the 300 strong Theban corps-de-elite, the Sacred Band became a formidable and professional body of soldiers, fully capable of facing the vaunted Spartan hoplites in battle. Skirmishing with the Spartans year-after-year, the Thebans both learned the Spartan’s method of making war; and lost their awe of Spartan military prowess.

This small cadre had started its existence as the citadel guard of the city; all chosen for their valor. Uniquely in Greek history, the entire corps was composed of homosexual couples; each man paired side-by-side with his lover. It was felt that lovers would fight like lions to protect their beloved; and under Pelopidas’ leadership the Sacred Band were indeed a corps of lions.

1551562.jpg Boeotian hoplites. Boeotians fetishized the naked male form to a higher degree than perhaps any other Greeks; and partial nudity may not  have been uncommon, even in battle. Note the boots worn by the central figure: while most Greek warriors fought barefoot, the Boeotians often wore boots. The back figure (in red) is a Theban. Note the “club of Heracles” device, the symbol of Thebes on his shield. This might have been the shield device used by Theban hoplites; while the lion head might have been used, alternatively, by the members of the 300-strong elite corps, the Sacred Band.

In 371 B.C. the hitherto invincible Spartan army once again invaded Boeotia, this time with the purpose of finishing Thebes for good.

The Boeotians had little time to muster their full soldier levy. In consequence, they were outnumbered by the Spartan invaders when the two sides met on the plain of LEUCTRA, in southern Boeotia. The Spartan army numbered some 10,000 hoplites, at the core of which were 700 elite Spartiates, the true Spartan citizen-soldiers; and 1,000 cavalry. The Boeotians numbered approximately 6,000-7,000 hoplites, perhaps 1500 cavalry, and a similar number of skirmishers. Of these number, no more than 4,000 were Thebans.

Neither side was initially eager for battle. The Spartan King, Cleombrotus, was convinced by his senior officers that he must fight or be indicted by the ephors when he returned to Sparta. The Boeotians were even more nervous about facing the Spartans. But the Thebans knew that if this army didn’t fight now, their Boeotian allies would return home to defend their own cities; and the Spartans would isolate and besiege Thebes. For several days the Boeotarchs [1] debated offering battle to the superior Spartan forces. But Epaminondas, who argued for giving battle, won the day.

The intellectual Epaminondas, a military innovator of the first-order, had devised a plan to defeat the vaunted Spartans (who had not lost a pitched-battle in three centuries). Though most of his Thebans were not as well trained as the Spartans, they were mainly comprised of “big country boys”; farmers who were both strong and large. Boeotia means “cow land”; comprised of broad pasture land, where cattle grazed. Likely the Thebans had a larger amount of beef in their diet; which would also account for a larger, heavier man. By contrast, the Spartans tended to be smaller and wirier of build, due to the spare, near-starvation diet they were raised on in the Spartan Agoge [2]. Epaminondas knew from experience that in a pure shoving contest his larger and stronger Thebans were a match for the Spartans.

One of the hallmarks of Greek hoplite warfare was a tactic called othismos, the push of shields. Though the precise explanation of this tactic is debated by scholars, I believe it involved each hoplite in the phalanx pressing his shield into the back of the man in the rank in front of him; and using the weight of the entire phalanx to press the enemy phalanx backward. Once falling backward, a phalanx quickly lost cohesion as men tripped over each other, and rout soon followed. The Spartans were masters of othismos, advancing in ordered ranks with measured tread, every man keeping time to the trill of the flutes; steadily and silently bearing down upon the enemy.

Few Greeks would stand up to the feared Spartans. At Mantinea of 418 BC the Arcadian and Athenian phalanx broke and fled from the Spartans before making contact:

(they) “did not even stand to fight, but they fled as the Spartans approached; some were even trampled in their hurry to get away before the enemy (Spartans) reached them.” [3]

However, Epaminondas knew that his Thebans would meet the Spartans, and in the push of shields his larger, stronger Thebans would have an inherent advantage. And with the fiery Pelopidas leading the Sacred Band, spearheading the Theban attack, he was confident he had men equal to the Spartans in valor and skill at arms.

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Unlike the Spartans, who advanced at a measured walk, the Thebans had trained and practiced advancing rapidly, and as they neared the enemy to break into a dead run, aiming to shatter the enemy formation rather than merely pushing them back.

Epaminondas had one more trick to play, and this one would be revolutionary.

First, knowing that in Greek hoplite battles each side always placed their best troops on the far right of their battle line; he deviated from the norm and placed his best troops, the Thebans, on his left flank, opposite the Spartans themselves. The rest of his forces, comprised of the allied non-Theban Boeotians, were to be  back to the right. By this he was gambling that his Thebans would defeat the unbeatable Spartans; and keep his less reliable Boeotian allies out of the battle till a decision could be reached.

 

Never before had a phalanx deployed in echelon formation; nor had the best troops been placed on the left end of the line.

To give even great pushing power of his Theban hoplites, he arrayed his Thebans in an uncommonly deep formation.

Greek phalanxes deployed in an average depth of 8-12 ranks. In fact, as few as four ranks were not unusual. The Spartans, masters of phalanx warfare, deployed their own phalanx that day 12 ranks deep, as Epaminondas expected. The Thebans, at least since the Peloponnesian War, had experimented with phalanxes twice as deep as the norm; making up with mass what they tended to lack in training.

At Leuctra, Epaminondas arrayed his Thebans in an unprecedented, massive column almost as deep as it was broad: a human battering ram 50-men deep (or, as the Greeks would term it, “shields” deep); with Pelopidas and the Sacred Band at its head. Their orders were to charge foremost, leading the rest of the Theban phalanx; and to aim directly for the Spartan king, Cleombrotus, where he would have taken his station: on the rightmost of the Spartan line, surrounded by his bodyguard of Spartan knights, the “hippeis”.

Thus, Epaminondas’ plan was to strike the strongest point of the Spartan army, where their king, his bodyguard, and the Spartiates would be stationed. If these were defeated, and quickly, he reasoned the rest of the Spartan army, comprised of allies who looked to Sparta to lead the way, would lose heart. In essence he planned to cut off the head of the snake, and let the rest of the body die on its own.

The battle began with the skirmishers and cavalry dueling between the two hosts. In this initial phase, the Theban cavalry got the better of the fight. Then, as the two opposing phalanxes approached each other, these got out-of-the-way for the main event: the push of shields.

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As the Theban column bore down on them across the shallow valley, the Spartans were unconcerned. They had fought the Thebans many times before, and knew their proclivity to charge in column. The counter to which, as with any column attack, was to extend ones own line and envelop the column once it had become bogged down in the shoving contest. Cleombrotus gave the order for his Spartans to extend their line, the rear 6 ranks of the phalanx attempted to spread out to their right, sacrificing depth for frontage.

What the Spartan king didn’t foresee was the dash and élan with which Pelopidas and the Sacred Band would close the distance between them.

Coming on at breakneck pace, the Theban spearhead struck the Spartans while still in the midst of this change of formation. The Spartans were caught unprepared, moving; rather than braced for the collision of two phalanxes.

Pelopidas and the Sacred Band smashed into the Spartan hippeis at the very point where Cleombrotus and his command staff were standing, directing the realignment. Disaster for the Spartans quickly followed, as the king and the hippeis were at first born backwards like flotsam on the tide; then overthrown and trampled into the dust. Cleombrotus was mortally wounded and ushered off the field, his men desperately covering his retreat.
Lending their weight to the Sacred Band’s assault was the massive Theban column; a shimmering tide of brazen shields and helmets, and glittering iron spearheads. They pushed into the chaos created by the Sacred Band’s assault, further ripping apart and trampling the thin red Spartan line. The Spartans held for a short time, fighting stubbornly as they were born backward.

In minutes, the history of Greece was forever changed, and the myth of Spartan invincibility overturned. As their king and his officers fell, the Spartan ranks shattered and then broke.

As Epaminondas had hoped, his Boeotian allies never had to strike a blow: When they saw the Spartans break, the Peloponnesian allies withdrew back to the Spartan camp, without striking a blow.

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The Thebans made no effort to pursue them. As was customary in Greek warfare, they instead erected a trophy of stacked enemy shields and spears taken from the fallen; and sent a herald to the Spartan camp, granting permission to come and collect their dead and wounded. This customary permission by the victor to the vanquished was formal recognition by both parties of who held the field. For the Spartans, long accustomed to granting and not receiving such permission, this must have been a bitter pill to swallow, indeed!
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CONCLUSION
The Spartans lost 1,000 men. Of these, 400 hundred were elite Spartiates, who died where they stood. At that time in its history, the manpower of Sparta had been in sharp decline for over a century. The total manpower of Sparta at this time was only some 1,200 true Spartiates. Thus, at Leuctra a third of the military manpower of Sparta died along with their king.

Though the Spartan would attempt once again to best Epaminondas and his Thebans at Mantinea in 362, it would prove a repetition of Leuctra; with Epaminondas gaining a second victory, though losing his life in the process.

In its day, Leuctra was the “shot heard round the world”; a signal moment in which the balance of power shifted forever from Sparta and the Peloponnese. First to Thebes, which would establish in the decade after a brief hegemony; then, a generation later, to Macedon. Young Philip of Macedon was a hostage in Thebes in the years immediately after Leuctra; and was able to study the methods of Epaminondas and Pelopidas first-hand.

Greek warfare would never be the same. No longer would a two phalanxes of citizen hoplites dominate the battlefield; with a simple push of shields deciding the issue. Commanders were finding new ways to utilize their heavy troops, new methods of piercing an enemy line. Combined-arms forces of cavalry and light infantry, augmenting the heavy infantry of the Greek battle line, would replace the hoplite armies of old.

Epaminondas had not just revolutionized Greek warfare, he had given future tacticians a new trick to add to their playbook: the echeloned (sometimes called an “oblique”) advance. This tactic would allow armies to gain a local superiority at one, decisive point on the battlefield; while withholding their most unreliable troops from combat till a decision was reached. It would be used by the great Macedonians, Philip and Alexander to effect; Frederick the Great of Prussia would win immortal fame at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757 using just such an approach.

1551577.jpg The Leuctra monument at the battle site. Note the representations of Spartan shields along the top.

Here is a very well done documentary by History Channel:

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The chief officers of the Boeotian Confederacy

[2] The “Rearing”, the training program all Spartan boys underwent from age 8 till manhood. The boys were given little to eat; and were encouraged to “forage” from the countryside.

[3] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 5:63

* Visit James Carrozza’s website here!

FOR FURTHER READING:


Masters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders From the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era

And this one:

Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com
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THE AGE OF ARTHUR, PART SIXTEEN: REVOLT IN THE NORTH

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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 Sixteenth-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 Fifteen here. Or start from the beginning,  with Part One!)

As we attempt to reconstruct the life of an “historical” King Arthur, it is important to bear in mind that all of this is highly speculative. We know little of Arthur beyond the legends, and that little we do have in way of “historical” data come from sources centuries later. However, unlike many modern historians who use this paucity of contemporary material as excuse to dismiss an historic Arthur as mere invention, we are here attempting to build a plausible narrative based upon what is available.

Certainly the historical facts support the possibility, even the likelihood, of a British national leader in the late 5th/early 6th century. One who defended the remnants of Roman civilization in Britain and led the resistance to Anglo-Saxon expansion on the island. We see evidence in the archaeological record, including the locations of Anglo-Saxon burial sites: in the early 6th century the seemingly inexorable advance of the Anglo-Saxons across Britain was arrested and thrown back to the eastern fringes of the island.

Procopius, the Byzantine historian of the mid-6th century, noted that there was an ongoing exodus of Saxons from Britain to the continent during his lifetime[1]. Something (or someone) caused this to happen, almost certainly by making successful war upon the hitherto triumphant Anglo-Saxons.  It goes without saying that successful warfare is impossible without good leadership. So such an achievement must be attributed to a otherwise unknown British leader.

Why would not that leader be the basis for the later stories and legends of “Arthur”?

1527660.jpgThat there is no contemporary written record of Arthur’s life and deeds, or a reliable genealogy for his House (the Dark Ages Celts loved to keep elaborate recorded genealogies for their kings and royal houses) are both explainable and, considering the age in which he lived, not at all surprising. There is an equal dearth of record for other, generally accepted contemporaneous historic figures, such as Cerdic, founder of the West Saxon Kingdom;  or Æsc/Oisc Hengistson, from whom the later kings of Kent (the Oiscingas ) traced their descent. Even less is known about Ælle, the chief enemy of the southern Britons at this time and reputedly the first Anglo-Saxon leader to earn the title of “Bretwalda”. Yet few British historians challenges his or their existence as vehemently as they do Arthur’s. Only Arthur is dismissed out of hand as fiction.

The sole near-contemporary chronicler of Britain in this age was the monk, St. Gildas.  As I explained in earlier installments of this series, the Welsh monastic sources indicate a very personal family animus towards Arthur held by Gildas. So Gildas’ failure to mention Arthur by name should not be grounds to dismiss his existence as fable. One must look between the lines of Gildas, often filling in the gaps with knowledge gleaned from later sources (many of which may have had access to more contemporary accounts now lost), from the pertinent archaeology, and from educated conjecture.

1527661.jpg Gildas the Monk, whose De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae recounts the history of the Britons before and during the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, fails to mention Arthur; much less name him as leader of the British forces against the Anglo-Saxon invaders. But Gildas had personal reasons to deliberately omit references to Arthur; as the latter is said to have executed his brother and may have defeated his father, Caw in battle. One of his biographers says Gildas destroyed monastic records of Arthur.

The decline of Roman Britain, the coming of the Anglo-Saxon invaders, the fierce and desperate British resistance, and how Arthur rose to power following the historically-accepted leader of the Romano-British, Ambrosius Aurelianus: all have all been discussed in previous chapters. In building a narrative for the military history of Arthur,  we have drawn on the work of the 9th century Welsh monk, Nennius; whose Historia Brittonum tells of twelve battles waged by Arthur as “Dux Bellorum” (Warlord) of the British. In previous installments, we have tried to place these battle on the map of Britain and develop a plausible explanation for each.

“At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain … Then it was that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons…

Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their warleader (or ‘dux bellorum’).

The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein.

The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Lindsey.

The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas.

The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Celyddon Coed.

The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his [shield,] and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The ninth battle was in the City of the Legion.

The tenth battle was on the bank of the river called Tribruit.

The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned.

The final battle was on Badon Hill, in which 960 men fell in one day from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns

Nennius used as source-material earlier (now lost) Welsh sources. Many modern historians dismiss his twelve battles as either from later ages grafted onto the Arthur legend; or simply spun out of whole (and wholly fictitious) cloth. But upon examination, Nennius’ battles, for the most part, tell a story that is both compelling and plausible; of a successful war-leader who, at the head of a band of well mounted, well armored cavalry (perhaps of the type the late Roman’s would have categorized as “Sarmatian“, or even “cataphract”) rode the length and breadth of Roman Britain; galvanizing and spearheading the Romano-Celtic resistance to the invaders. When viewed through the prism of military analysis by one well read in military history and trained in the military sciences, a discernible strategic narrative unfolds that is wholly tenable, taking into account the available data and known outcomes.

SUMMARY OF ARTHUR’S RISE TO POWER 507-511 AD 

(The following is synopsis of material covered in previous installments of The Age of Arthur)

Our explorations into what can be called “the Age of Arthur” have taken us to 511 A.D.  To recap, Arthur emerges initially as the right-hand of Ambrosius Aurelianus (who I have suggested is synonymous with the historical character, Riothamus), “Supreme King”of Britain. Celtic Britain in the wake of the Roman withdrawal is a patchwork of greater and lesser “kingdoms”. Most are tribal in nature, though others are based upon former Roman commands. The “High King” or “Supreme King” is a title indicating the “first-among-equals” of these petty monarchs. Arthur is perhaps Ambrosius’ nephew (as later tradition claims), and acts as his cavalry commander in Ambrosius’ later years.

By 506 at the latest, Arthur begins to emerge from behind the ageing Ambrosius as his successor. (Some Arthur historians put his life somewhat earlier, in the last quarter of the 5th century.) He commands a mobile force of armored horsemen; who, acting as a mobile “fire brigade”, ride throughout the marches between British and Anglo-Saxon territory. Their work is the unsung dirty business of “small war”: repelling incursions, defending endangered British fortresses and towns, and occasionally raiding into the Anglo-Saxon territories in the eastern part of the island.

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These warriors (who call themselves Combrogi, meaning “fellow-countrymen“, but perhaps used as we would the term “comrades”)  are recruited from the horse-riding class of Britain, sons of the British nobility, raised in the saddle from boyhood. Some, perhaps, may have been descendents of Sarmatian horsemen long settled in northern Britain; and from the Alani settlers of Armorica/Brittany, who since the mid 5th century have lived side-by-side in harmony with the British émigrés who arrived at about the same time, fleeing the “Saxon Terror”.

Campaigning together year-after-year; living in the close quarters of camp and bivouac; fighting together side-by-side in desperate battles or recounting tales around glowing fires: Arthur’s Combrogi must have become a true “band of brothers”.  Some few are remembered by name, and survived to be included in the later legends of King Arthur: Cei, “the unrelenting warrior”, comes down to us as Sir Kay, Arthur’s foster brother and later seneschal, as well as one of the first Knights of the Round Table. Another is Bedwyr “of the Perfect Sinews”; who in Monmouth and  Mallory is portrayed as Sir Bedivere; one of Arthur’s last surviving, loyal knights. Arthur’s Combrogi were well known to Welsh storytellers; in the romance Culhwch and Olwen, written around 1100, the protagonist Culhwch invokes the names of 225 individual warriors affiliated with Arthur. They are the basis for the later “Knights of the Round Table“.

In 507, while Ambrosius (who, according to some scholars, dies about this time) is conducting his last campaign against Cerdic and the West Saxons in the south; Arthur begins the campaigns that encompass the twelve battles noted by Nennius.

First he rides to Lindum (Lincoln), where the Angle leader, who Geoffrey of Monmouth called Colgren is laying siege to the town. In route, he intercepts and smashes a new landing at the River Glein (Nennius’ first battle); near the estuary of the Wash. Moving north, he takes Colgren’s forces by surprise at Lindum, breaking the siege (Nennius’ second battle). He drives the Angles eastward, over the River Dubglas (the “Black Water”); identified herein as the river Witham, which runs through Lincolnshire.

1527700.jpg Map showing the proposed location and date of Arthur’s battles, as presented by Nennius; numbers one through nine.

Arthur pursues, and battles Colgren’s retreating forces at a ford of this river. In this, the third of Nennius’ battles, the Angles repel the British; and Arthur withdraws back to British territory for the winter.

The Angle campaign resumes the following spring (herein identified as 508), as Arthur joins local forces in Lindsey (southeast Lincolnshire). He forces a crossing of the Dubglas (Nennius’ 4th battle); and finally brings the retreating Colgren to decisive battle (Nennius’ 5th). The Angles are defeated, Colgren is slain, and the remnants of their colony in Lindsey becomes subject to the local British authority.

Arthur turns north, as news of rebellion reaches him. Caw o’ Brydyn (or Prydain), chieftain (or petty-king) in north Strathclyde, has openly rebelled against Arthur’s authority; making common cause with the Picts to the north. Arthur’s hard-riding Combrogi gallop up the Roman roads, arriving at Caw’s doorstep before news of their coming reaches the rebels. Caw is defeated at the Battle of the Bassus (Nennius 6th) near modern Glasgow, before he can fully assemble his forces. Caw is deposed from his throne, and goes into exile in Wales. (Caw is the father of St. Gildas. This is the first instance of Arthur running afoul of the chronicler’s family. Later, Arthur will execute Gildas’ brother Huail ap Caw for piracy.)

Arthur rides next against the Picts, as they come south to reinforce Caw. He catches them unaware and ambushes them in Nennius’ 7th battle: the Celyddon Coed (Caledonian Forest). The Pictish force is shattered and driven back into the highlands.

Arthur spends the winter in the north, settling affairs in Strathclyde and Gododdin. He confirms his brother-in-law, Lot, as petty-king in northern Gododdin; and places his friend, Dyfnwal of Strathclyde, over southern Gododdin. He also encourages Fergus Mór mac Eirc, semi-legendary progenitor of the kings of Scotland, to come from Dál Riata in northern Ireland, to establish the Kingdom of Dal Riada on the Argyll peninsula; based around the stronghold at Dunadd.  These Irish “Scotti” would act as a counter against the power of the Picts; contending with them for supremacy in the Highlands for centuries; and eventually supplanting them and forming the Kingdom of Scotland.

The following spring, Arthur returns to the south to find Cerdic’s West Saxons raiding the Cornish coast. At Land’s End, warded then by a fortress known as Guinnion (the “White Fort”), he and the local lords of Cornwall catch the raiders and cut down many before they can return to their ships. This battle, Nennius’ 8th, is remembered in local Cornish legend as the Battle of Vellan-Druchar.

Later that year or the following, an Irish landing in Cornwall is repelled by Arthur’s ally (and possible neighbor in Cornwall), Theodoric. Theodoric, whose duties include patrolling the southwestern coasts, follows the survivors to south Wales. Here he drives out an Irish dynasty ruling in Demetia/Dyfed; placing on the throne instead Aircol/Agricola Longhand.

511 AD or 512 AD sees Arthur joining Theodoric in southeastern Wales, in Gwent. This petty-kingdom is experiencing dynastic strife; and Irish raiders driven from Cornwall and Dyfed have moved into the kingdom to fish in its troubled waters. Arthur and Theodoric defeat the Irish at Caerleon, the “City of the Legion”; in what was Nennius’ 9th battle. Theodoric is given the western portion of Gwent, Glywysing, as reward; which he, in turn, bestows upon his son, Meurig. He is remembered in local legends and genealogies as King Tewdric; being revered as an early Christian saint! In later years, he died in battle, aiding his son Meurig to repel an Anglo-Saxon incursion.

This brings us up to date: 511-512. Arthur has emerged as the paramount warlord amongst the Britons. He is styled “Dux Bellorum”: the “Duke of War”, or “warlord”.  Though the most successful of the British leaders, he is not ready yet to take the title of High King, as was born by Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus before him. But events are in motion that will bring Arthur to the pinnacle of his military career; and pave the way for him to emerge as Arthur: High King and Emperor of Britain.

REVOLT IN THE NORTH

Our discussion now comes to this tenth battle, at “river called Tribruit”.

In or about 514-515 A.D. events in Gododdin in the far north of Britain, threatened to unravel Arthur’s Northern Settlement (see Part Thirteen).

As detailed previously, between 508 and 510, Arthur had campaigned north of the Wall. He’d nipped-in-the-bud a conspiracy by the chieftain Caw o’ Brydyn [2], crushing his forces at the Battle of the Bassus  (tentatively placed near modern Glasgow). He then turned back an incursion by the Picts (possibly coming to join in Caw’s rebellion) at the Battle of the Celyddon Forest. Arthur spent the rest of that year and, perhaps, part or all of the next in settling affairs in the north to his liking.

In the process, we have suggested he placed his brother-in-law, Lot (rendered alternatively as Lleu or Leudonus), as petty-king of northern Gododdin. Lot’s fortress was at Din Eidyn (Castle Rock, Edinburgh); referred to in the Y Gododdin poem, from the seventh century, as Lleu’s Rock. As “Lleu”, he is remembered in the Welsh Triads as one of the three “Red Ravagers of Britain”. Lot is the eponymous king of Lothian in legend.

1538246.jpgEdinburgh Castle (ancient Din Eidyn) from the north

Arthur also enlarged the holdings of his ally and possible childhood friend, Dyfnwal of Alclud, by placing him in charge of southern Gododdin. By these measures he brought the otherwise over-strong and independent Kingdom of Gododdin to heal.

But in doing so, he perforce made enemies. These settlements would have left powerful and ambitious men disappointed or dispossessed. These would have bide their time, gathering strength in secret; waiting for the moment to strike. A natural place for them to gather would have been along the marches, the wild “debateable lands” north of the Gododdin, along the Pictish border.

Nennius’ states that Arthur’s tenth battle was along the river called Tribruit. As with all such battles, the location is debated. But most scholars agree that it was north of modern Edinburg, then a seat of power for the Gododdin. O.G.S. Crawford theorized the fords of the River Forth, called the “Fords of Frew”, some six miles upstream from Stirling as the location [3]. His suggestion is persuasive: He asserts this as a three river system flowing into the estuary, and that the Forth was once known as the River Bruit. Combine “Tri”, meaning three, with “Bruit” and one has “Tribruit”.

1538250.jpg Old Bridge over the Forth at Frew

The Fords of Frew have long been a site of strategic military importance. Its crossing point provided raiders or invading armies with a means of crossing the river while bypassing and avoiding the fortress of Stirling. It was here in 1745 that Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebel Army crossed the Forth on its way to the Battle of Prestonpans. So important (and picturesque) were the famous “Fords of Frew” they were considered among the Seven Wonders of Ancient Scotland.

With a tentative location established, the question becomes against “who” and why” was Arthur battling?

Some have suggested Arthur was facing another Pictish invasion, or perhaps a landing by Angles or Saxons. However, an intriguing explanation is suggested by an older Welsh source.

THE DOG HEADS AND THE BATTLE OF TRYFRWD

In the eleventh century Welsh poem known as “Pa gur yv y porthaur” (“What Man is the Gatekeeper?”), or simply as Pa Gur, a battle is mentioned, called Tryfrwyd; which most scholars agree is synonymous with Nennius’ Battle of at the river called Tribruit. In this poem, the battle is fought against a group called the cinbin. “Cinbin” (or Cynbin) translates as “dog-heads”. They are led, in the poem, by a character known as Garwlwyd (“rough grey”).

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Who could these “dog-heads” and their leader, Garwywyd, be?

During the Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxons and Norman-English referred to an outlaw as a “wolf’s head” (translated from the Latin, Caput lupinum). Robinhood, famously, is addressed as such by his enemies Prince John and Guy of Gisbourne. In the much earlier Dark Ages British/Celtic society could “dog-head” not be of similar meaning: an outlaw? If so, then perhaps  Arthur’s 10th battle at the crossing of the Forth was against an uprising of “outlaws”? Broken or disgruntled men, banding together to oppose Arthur’s imposed order in the north?

Just as plausibly, these outlaws might have taken the name “Dog-Heads”, and even used such as their standard.

In this scenario, in the years since Arthur and his band of mounted combrogi returned south, these “dog heads” coalesced around a leader named Garwlwyd. Perhaps he was a Gododdin nobleman, dispossessed by Arthur or by the leadership put in place by Arthur’s settlement. Or, like the later Scottish hero, William Wallace, a man of lesser rank who rose to the occasion, a self-proclaimed champion of his people. Alternately he may have been naught but an leader of brigands.

Garwlwyd may also be synonymous with a character found in the Welsh Triads: Gwrgi Garwlwyd (“man-dog rough-grey”, though perhaps a better translation would read, “rough-grey man-dog”); who is a savage, man-eating character sometimes identified as a werewolf! In the Triads he is credited with making a corpse of a Briton every day, and two on Saturday so as not to have to kill on a Sunday!

Gwrgi Garwlwyd is identified in the Welsh Triads as the first of  “the three disgraceful traitors” of the Britons (or Cambrians/Welsh in the Triads); whose actions weakened and betrayed Celtic Britain to the Anglo-Saxon conquest.

 “The three disgraceful traitors who enabled the Saxons to take the crown of the Isle of Britain from the Cambrians: The first was Gwrgi Garwlwyd, who after tasting human flesh in the court of Edlfled the Saxon king, became so fond of it that he would eat no other but human flesh ever after. In consequence of this, he and his men united with Edlfled king of the Saxons; and he made secret incursions upon the Cambrians, and brought a young male and female whom he daily ate. And all the lawless men of the Cambrians flocked to him and the Saxons, for they obtained their full of prey and spoil taken from the natives of this Isle.”

In our scenario, this fearsome cannibalistic warrior, Garwlywd, has gathered a band of exiles and outlaws to his standard (a dog’s head?). He is opposed to Arthur’s settlement and to the rule of Arthur’s brother-in-law, Lot. He has made common cause with an Anglo-Saxon warlord or pirate, Edlfled (who has been tentatively identified by some scholars as Æthelfrith of Bernicia); perhaps planning a joint assault on the Gododdin stronghold of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh).

With northern Gododdin so threatened, and in fear for his authority and perhaps his life, Lot sends urgent word to Arthur to come to his aid.

Lot’s appeal reaches Arthur at his favorite residence, Kelliwic (Killibury/Kelly Rounds) in Cornwall, where Geoffrey Ashe and (particularly) Rodney Castleden suggested he had his “seat of power” as lord of the region known as Trigg (in Brythonic) or Tricurium (in Latin)[4]. Arthur soon sets out at the head of his 300 (?) armored combrogi.

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It is a journey of some 515 miles. A mounted force such as Arthur’s, used to hard riding and utilizing the very good Roman road network, could at a controlled canter make 50  miles in a day. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Arthur’s horsemen arrived at Din Eidyn in ten to eleven days after leaving Kelliwic.

There he joins Lot’s forces and moves north against the outlaw army. Garwlywd is camped (perhaps) near the Fords of Frew (then called Tribruit); from which he threatens and raids into Gododdin. With his characteristic speed and vigor, Arthur crosses the river and attacks the outlaw band before warning of his coming can reach Garwlywd’s ears.

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The Pa Gur speaks of the deeds of Arthur’s champions in the battle: Cei (remembered in the later romances as Sir Kay the Seneschal) and Bedwyr (in legend Arthur’s last loyal knight, Sir Bedivere) in the battle. The fighting is fierce and bloody; and is portrayed as in the nature of a civil war fought between men who knew each other and regretted the strife between them. Cei pleads with his opponents; perhaps exhorting them to surrender, to throw themselves upon Arthur’s certain mercy.

“Cei pleaded with them / While he slew them three by three. . . . Cei pleaded with them / While he hewed them down.”

This “pleading” with his opponents by Cei validates the theory that this was not a battle against foreign enemies, but between fellow Britons. This fits well the scenario we have suggested here: that these are Britons, likely men of Gododdin, some of which may have known their opponents from childhood, who are now in rebellion against Arthur’s authority.

 Bedwyr is mentioned as slaying  his opponents “by the hundred”; and  fighting the ferocious Garwlwyd himself:

“They fell by the hundred before Bedwyr of the Perfect-Sinew. On the shores of Tryfrwyd fighting with Garwlwyd furious was his nature with sword and shield”

1538257.jpgThe battle ends with Arthur’s victory, but perhaps not a decisive one. Arthur would have to fight again very soon at nearby Din Eidyn; and the “Dog-Heads” leader, Garwlwyd, perhaps escaped. According to the Triads, Garwlwyd was “assassinated” by one Diffydell mab Dysgyfdawd, in one of the three so-called “Fortunate Assassinations”. Either Diffydell slew the villain Garwlwyd during or after the battle of the Tryfrwyd (in which case it can hardly be called an assassination); or Garwlwyd escaped the battle and was later assassinated.
No mention is made in the Pa Gur’s (admittedly) scant account of the battle of the Angle allies the Triads accuse Garwlwyd of making common cause with. Could “Edlfled’s” Angle allies have struck by sea, landing south of the Forth and seizing “the hill of Agned”, near Din Eidyn?

NEXT: THE HILL OF AGNED AND THE SAXON INVASION!

* All dates are speculative. Scholarly debate places the life and deeds of Arthur at some point between 480 A.D. and 535 A.D.

  1. Procopius, Debellis 8.20
  2. Caw o’ Brydyn (or Prydain), was a chieftain (or petty-king) in north Strathclyde. He was the father of Huail/Hueil ap Caw, who was at some point one of Arthur’s combrogi cavalry; but eventually fell out with Arthur and the men became bitter enemies. Caw was also the father of St. Gildas, the future monkish chronicler of the period; and of daughter, Cwyllog, who may have been the wife of Medrawt/Mordred, Arthur’s killer. (Mathews, John: King Arthur:Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero, P. 19. Rosen Publishing Group, 2008).
  3. Ashley, M. A Brief History of King Arthur, P. 157. Running Press (2010)
  4. Castleden, Rodney: King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend. P 127. Routledge, NY (2000)

 

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

 

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A “MOST SAVAGE BATTLE”: ABU KLEA, 1885

ln 1881, in the Sudan, a leader emerged as if from out of the sands. He was a man of the desert, a mystic and a man of God. His name was Muhammad Ahmad and claimed to be the “Expected One”, the true “Mahdi”. He soon gathered a force of followers from the desert tribes, and declared jihad.

The Mahdi’s Army grew and his revolt spread. The Dervishes (as they came to be known) captured towns and defeated small Egyptian forces sent to destroy them.

Then, in 1883, the Turkish governor of Egypt hired William “Billy” Hicks, a retired British Colonel and several British subordinates to lead a modern army into the Sudan and crush the Mahdi. Hicks Pasha had at his disposal 10,000 regular infantry armed with modern rifles, 1,000 irregular cavalry, 14 field pieces and 6 Nordenfelt multiple barrel machine guns.

The Mahdi (R), and as portrayed by Sir Lawrence Olivier (L) in the 1966 film, “Khartoum”

On paper it was an imposing force. But the infantry had been recruited from pardoned rebels and the cavalry were undisciplined bashibazouks. In the words of Winston Churchill, it was “perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war”: unpaid, untrained, undisciplined, its soldiers having more in common with their enemies than with their officers.

The Mahdi awaited them, with 40,000 spear and sword-armed tribesmen. They had few rifles and no field guns; but they had something perhaps even greater. The Mahdi promised them a miracle, and they believed him.

They also knew the desert.

Dervish weapons, shields, and a mail shirt

The Mahdi retreated, and Hicks pursed. Further and further the Mahdi drew his enemy, and Hicks followed; slowed by an immense train of 5,000 camels. The Egyptians withered in the blistering desert heat, their water supplies dwindling. Day after day, they marched on, the Dervishes always just beyond their reach.

Finally, his army spent, Hicks ordered a retreat back to El Obied. It was then the Mahdi stopped retreating, and turned on his enemy. The Egyptians were soon surrounded. For two days their square held, until it collapsed. Hicks and all of the European officers perished; and only 500 survivors returned to Egypt. They left in the Mahdi’s hands all of their equipment. If formidable with spear and sword, how dangerous would the Dervishes now be with modern weapons?

The harsh, forbidding Sudanese desert. It was in just such terrain that Hick’s column was destroyed by the Dervishes.

The loss of Hick’s army was a deep embarrassment to both Egypt and British government. While technically a part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was effectively under the protection of the British Empire. Its army was trained and led by British officers. Pride aside, of more concern was the loss of more than 8,000 rifles and the 14 pieces of modern artillery. The government of Prime Minister William Gladstonewas forced by an outraged public to take action.

In contrast to his arch political rival, Disraeli, Gladstone was a staunch anti-imperialist; and was loath to commit British forces to a war in the Sudan. However, to ease British public opinion, Gladstone appointed a retired national hero, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, as Governor-General of the Sudan. While most famous for having led the Chinese Imperial government’s “Ever Victorious Army” to final victory in the Taiping Rebellion; Gordon had served as Governor of the Sudan in the 1870s, where he had suppressed the slave trade. It was a popular appointment both in Britain and in the Sudan.

Charles “Chinese” Gordon (right), and Charleton Heston, who portrayed Gordon in the film “Khartoum” (1966)

But Gordon was not sent to the Sudan to fight the Mahdi. He had no troops at his disposal, and none were promised should he get himself into trouble. He was sent in hopes that his name alone would rally support to the government and against the Mahdi; and failing that, to organize the evacuation of all European personnel from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Gordon arrived in Khartoum in February, 1884. However, Gladstone had overestimated both the dampening effect Gordon’s arrival in the Sudan would have on the Mahdist revolt; and Gordon’s willingness to obey orders. Once ensconced in the Governor’s palace in Khartoum, Gordon began calling for Gladstone to send troops to help his beloved Sudanese in resisting the Dervishes. Meanwhile, he spent the year preparing Khartoum to stand siege till relief arrived.

As the Mahdist revolt spread, Gordon and Khartoum were increasingly isolated. A loose Dervish blockade of the city began on March 18, 1884, with the telegraph line to Cairo being cut and river traffic interdicted. Fearful for their hero’s life, the British press and public called for a relief expedition. A stubborn and incensed Gladstone resisted as long as was politically possible. Then, in August 1884 he ordered a British relief force to Gordon’s rescue.

Called the Khartoum Relief Expedition (or, more popularly in the press, the Gordon Relief Expedition), a force of 4,500 crack British regulars were placed under the command of Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley, Britain’s most eminent general. Steaming from England to Alexandria, the expedition then set out from Egypt and up the Nile in two columns. The largest was led by Wolseley himself, and traveled south down the Nile by riverboats. The other, the elite Camel Corps, was commanded by Sir Herbert Stewart. These took the direct route from Wadi Halfa across the desert.

Stewart’s force, 1,400 strong, was composed of some of the best units in the British army:

1. The Heavy Camel Corps, comprised of the Household Cavalry, Dragoon Guards, Dragoons and Lancers.

2. The Guards Camel Corps, comprising Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards and Royal Marine Light Infantry.

3. The Mounted Infantry Camel Corps, drawn from the 1st Battalion the Sussex Regiment.

4. Four light field pieces and a small Naval Brigade manning a Gardner machine gun completed the force.

The men of the Camel Corps, 1885

Contrary to what was portrayed in the 2002 film, The Four Feathers, the men of Stewarts command did not wear the traditional British redcoat. Instead, they wore grey tunics, cord breeches and pith helmets stained brown. The infantry of the Sussex Regiment wore khaki tunics. The British troops were all armed with the Martini-Henry breach-loading rifle, equipped with a 22 inch sword-bayonet. Both infantry and cavalry units were mounted on camels, except for the 19th Hussars, who alone retained their horses, and carried carbines and swords instead of rifles.

As Stewart’s column neared the oasis of Abu Klea on January 16, 1885, pickets of the 19th Hussars encountered parties of Dervishes. It could be seen that a large force was waiting at the wells and ready to give battle. The British had left the last water some 43 miles before and were in need of replenishment. Nevertheless it was apparent that Abu Klea could only be taken by assault. Stewart halted two miles short of Abu Klea and camped.

The following morning, January 17 the British waited a Dervish attack behind a zereba (hedge) of thorn brush they had erected around their camp. Mounted parties were sent out to skirmish with the Dervishes, in hope of stinging them into a costly assault on the well-defended British camp. When the Mahdist failed to take the bait, Stewart broke camp. Forming up his command into a large, hollow square with the camels in the center, Stewart’s dismounted force advanced on the wells of Abu Klea.

Awaiting him was a 13,000 strong force of fierce Dervish warriors.

Mahdist/Dervish warriors

For Herbert Stewart and the British, the Battle of Abu Klea began with inauspiciously with mishap. At around 9:30am, as the British square wheeled to the right to move onto higher ground, the Dervishes emerged from the concealment of a nearby gully and charged the square. At this critical juncture, the British fire was hampered by the presence of their own skirmishers between them and the enemy. These had to be permitted to regain the square before volley fire could commence. The rapidly approaching Dervishes followed close on the retreating skirmishers, consequently coming to within 200 yards or less of the square before the first volleys could be delivered; depriving the British of long-range fire.

The Martini-Henry rifle with bayonet types

Near disaster loomed when, at this most inopportune moment, a potentially fatal gap opened in a corner of the square. This was partially due to the uneven nature of the ground, and to the inexperience of the Naval Brigade and the dismounted cavalry contingents, who were attempting to fight as infantry. The Dervish charge was delivered at the section of the square held by the Mounted Infantry Regiment of the Camel Corps. Captain Lord Beresford of the Naval Brigade brought his Gardner gun from its position at the rear of the square and took it out through the Mounted Infantry line and opened fire on the charging warriors. But after firing just some 70 rounds, the Gardner gun jammed; something it had an unfortunate tendency to do. Before it could be cleared the Dervish spearmen swarmed over and overwhelmed the detachment; slaughtering all but Lord Beresford, who fell under the gun, along with one of the junior men.

Despite this reverse, the heavy volley firing from the Mounted Infantry and shrapnel from the 3 guns in their front repulsed the Mahdist charge, which coursed around the left face of the square to fall on the gap, where the Heavy Cavalry Camel regiment was posted.

The troopers of this Regiment were defending themselves with the long infantry rifle, a weapon they were unfamiliar with. The cavalry officers had no experience in defending an infantry square. The result was perhaps predictable: swarming forward, the Dervishes penetrated through and into the square.

At this moment the renown Colonel Frederick Burnaby of the Horse Guards rushed forward to stem the tide. A large man who famously loved a good fight, Burnaby waded into the oncoming horde. Fighting with sword from horseback, Burnaby fenced with onrushing warriors, till a thrusting spearman, coming from his flank, caught him in the throat, mortally wounding him.

Rushing past the dying Burnaby and on into the interior of the square, the Dervishes were balked by the mass of camels packed into the interior, which prevented the Dervishes from smashing into the exposed rear ranks of the British troops on the opposing faces of the square. As the camels scampered out of the way, the rear rank of the Mounted Infantry in the front-face of the square, and the Foot Guards and Royal Marines on the right-face turned about; and opened a devastating fire on the blood-mad Dervish warriors. Their attack was soon broken, and thrown back.

The battle was only ten, frantic minutes long. It resulted in 76 dead and 82 wounded British soldiers. The Mahdists took approximately 1,500 casualties. By 4 pm, the British had taken the wells and the Dervish force was in retreat. Winston Churchill, in his book “The River War” called the fight at Abu Klea “the most savage and bloody action ever fought in the Sudan by British troops…”

Two days later, Stewart was mortally wounded by a stray bullet in a skirmish. The advance continued unabated. Concerned with Wolseley’s column approaching as well along the river, the Mahdi decided to order an assault on Khartoum, before the relief columns could arrive to break the siege. Despite his careful preparations, Gordon’s defenses crumbled and the city fell. Gordon died on the steps of his palace to a Dervish spear.

The death of Gordon

The Gordon Relief Expedition arrived at Khartoum two days later. Finding Gordon and the European nationals dead, the British withdrew; and the Mahdi took complete control of the Sudan.

Six months later, the Mahdi died of typhus. But the Dervish state continued on for another 14 years, till Britain sent a second army under Sir Herbert Kitchener to finish what Wolseley and Stewart had begun.

Scene from the 1966 film, Khartoum, depicting (inaccurately) the Battle of Abu Klea. Note the total lack of Dervish foot, among other flaws. (At least music is stirring!)
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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“OLD HICKORY” BREAKS THE THIN RED LINE AT NEW ORLEANS!

battle-new-orleans“OLD HICKORY” SHATTERS THE BRITISH ATTEMPT TO CONTROL THE MOUTH OF THE MISSISSIPPI AT NEW ORLEANS; AND SAVES THE FUTURE OF THE UNITED STATES!

The War of 1812* was a mere sideshow for the British, desperately committed as they were to the titanic effort of defeating Napoleon in Europe. Most of the battles in America involved less than 2,000 combatants on either side; compared to those fought in Europe, where tens of thousands were engaged. But for Britain the American War was a nuisance that needed to be brought to a successful conclusion, and the American upstart put firmly in its place.

In 1814 Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of nations and “the Ogre”  (seemingly) safely sent into exile on the Island of Elba. The greater enemy behind them, the British now turned their full attention to finishing their war in America. Even while negotiations with the United States were underway in the Belgian city of Ghent, the British were transporting a new army of 15,000 men to America. About half of these were veterans of Wellington’s Peninsular War, commanded by the Iron Duke’s own brother-in-law and former division commander, Sir Edward Packenham.

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The British operational plan called for the seizure of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. This would stop the flow of commerce up-and-down the river.  As a bargaining chip in the ongoing peace talks, it would give the British excellent leverage. America had only recently acquired the vast territories of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. With New Orleans in their grip the British would be in excellent position to claim these as spoils of war. The fledgling United States could then be cut off from the American west by British holdings, and its expansion across the continent curtailed.

The future of the fledgling United States hinged  upon the outcome of this campaign.

On December 14, 1814, the British fleet cleared the approach to the city in the Battle of Lake Borgne; and the morning of the 23rd the British vanguard  of 1,800  men landed on the bank of the Mississippi, at Lacoste’s Plantation just 9 miles south of New Orleans. This was Packenham’s 3rd Brigade, commanded by  the veteran General John Keane, who would later lead the British conquest of Afghanistan at the start of the First Anglo-Afghan War. The veteran Irishman was within hours of seizing the undefended city, and accomplishing the campaign’s main strategic goal on Day One of the campaign. But Keane made the fateful decision to encamp for the day and organize his brigade, rather than push on.

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Fortunately for the American cause, a small but well-led American force was rushing to the city’s succor: 1,000 regulars commanded by General Andrew Jackson. Known admiringly by his troops as “Old Hickory” (“tough as an old piece of hickory wood!”), Jackson and his men were fresh from victory in the Creek (“Red Stick”) War; and from driving the British out of their base at Pensacola, Florida.

“Old Hickory” had a very personal hatred for the British: In 1780 during the Revolutionary War, when Jackson was 13 years old, his home had been used as a billet for a British officer.  When Jackson angrily refused to clean the officer’s boots the Englishman sabered the youth, leaving him with scars on his left hand and head. He and his brother Robert spent a year imprisoned by the British, and Robert died in captivity of smallpox. For these and likely many other reasons Jackson was delighted to have the opportunity to lead an army against this hated enemy.

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In all,  Jackson was a “fighting general”, whose fiercely indomitable spirit and will to win infused the troops under his command.

Upon his arrival Jackson took charge of New Orleans. The city was in a near panic, and some of the leading citizens advocated surrender in the face of what seemed an overwhelming threat. Jackson would entertain no talk of surrender, and instead placed the city under martial law. He arrested anyone who interfered or disagreed with his plans for defending the city, including a lawyer, a Louisiana legislator, a federal District Court Judge. “Old Hickory” was going to stop the British, and devil take whoever stood in his way!

The Buccaneer (1958):  Jackson (Charleton Heston) takes charge of New Orleans  

Learning of Keane’s presence at Lacoste’s Plantation, Jackson famously cried, “By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!” Gathering what troops he could find at hand (about two thousand men), Jackson raided Keane’ camp on the evening of December 21st. A vicious hand-to-hand skirmish ensued by the light of campfireThe British repulsed the brief attack, and Jackson withdrew. But Keane was unsettled by the sudden appearance of American forces. For the next few days, he did nothing, choosing to wait for Pakenham and the main force to come up. Combined with his decision not to advance immediately on the 23rd, this nighttime skirmish which convinced Keane to hold in place saved New Orleans.

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Coffee’s Tennessee Militia attack the British camp at Lacoste’s Plantation on the night of the 21st December

Jackson used the respite to fortify a narrow position across the British line of advance to New Orleans, beside the river and behind the shallow Rodriguez Canal; about four miles south of the city at Chalmette Plantation. Jackson’s small force of “regulars” was swelled to some 4,700 with volunteers, drawn from local militia, woodsmen, and even a force of pirates under the famed French pirate and privateer, Jean Laffite. The pirates provided something even more important to Jackson’s cause: heavy guns and expert gunners from their ships and base at nearby Barataria. With these and other field pieces he was able to glean Jackson had at his disposal a sizable battery; which included one 32-pound gun, three 24-pounders, one 18-pounders, three 12-pounders, three 6-pounders, and a 6-inch (150 mm) howitzer. This was a very formidable array, much more typical of the battery of a fortress than what would normally be found upon a battlefield of the day[1]. This very strong American defensive position was called “The Jackson Line”. Supporting this position was a 20 gun naval battery on the west bank of the river, commanded by a Commodore Daniel Patterson.

On Christmas Day, General Edward Pakenham arrived on the battlefield and ordered a reconnaissance of the American earthworks on the 28th. Unhappy with the prospect of attacking this position, that evening Pakenham held a command conference with General Keane and Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commander of the British naval forces. Pakenham suggested reembarking the land force, and outflanking Jackson’s position with a new landing north of New Orleans, utilizing the  Chef Menteur Road. The pugnacious Cochrane argued for an assault against Jackson’s makeshift position, underestimating the strength of the position and insisting that Pakenham’s veterans should be able to easily drive the Americans from their redoubt; and that if the army couldn’t do it, he (Cochrane) would land his sailors and see it accomplished!

Despite Sir Edward’s misgivings, the decision was made to attack Jackson at Chalmette.

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On the dark, fog-shrouded morning of January 8 Sir Edward’s force of 8,000 men launched a two-pronged assault against Jackson’s line. With bagpipes, fifes and drums the red-coated ranks advance with measured tread across the boggy ground.  General Samuel Gibbs commanded the brigade tasked with the main thrust on the British right, spearheaded by the 1st Battalion of the 44th East Essex Regiment of Foot, along with the 21st Reg of Foot, and the West India Regiment. General Keane commanded the left-hand prong, along the river, comprised of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders (who later gained fame as the “Thin Red Line” at Alma and Balaclava); and companies of the 43rd Foot. The whole British advance was screened by a 500-man “demi-battalion” of the elite 95th Rifles (the famous Green Jackets of “Sharp’s Rifles” fame).

A secondary attack would be made against Patterson’s battery on the west bank. This force of 780 men was comprised a battalion of 85th Regiment of Foot with detachments of sailors and Royal Marines, commanded by Colonel William Thornton. Their role was to overrun the American guns and turn them against the flank of Jackson’s line.

In all, as sound a plan as could be made under the circumstances.

From The Buccaneer (1958), The British attack begins 

Unfortunately for the British, the fog lifted just as the attack was crossing the open ground; and the British right-wing came under intensive and deadly artillery fire from the American parapet. Even so, Gibbs’ force pushed on, displaying the dauntless courage British regulars were famous for. But as they reached the American trench defending the parapet, the British plan began to unravel; as it was found that the 44th had inexplicably forgotten the ladders and fascines needed to cross the canal and scale the earthworks. Confusion and carnage followed as the storm column, halted in place, was lacerated by point-blank grape shot and rifle fire from American marksmen. To make matters worse Gibbs was killed and Pakenham was wounded and unhorsed. The General was subsequently killed as he was helped off the field, his spine shattered by grapeshot.

pake-woundedPakenham is shot from his horse

On the British left, progress was made and the Highlanders stormed the American parapet. But seeing the disaster unfolding to his right, Keane left the detached companies of the 43rd to hold the ground taken, and took the Highlanders across the field to rally and support the main attack. As they crossed the field, the 93rd were raked by fire from the guns of the American center, and pinned down. Keane became the third senior officer to fall wounded.

troianiredoubt

The two main assaults having failed, a third attempt to storm the redoubt was made by Major Wilkinson of the 21st North British Fusilier Regiment. They were able to reach the entrenchments and attempted to scale them. Wilkinson scaled the parapet, reaching the top before falling wounded to American fire. Impressed with his courage, the defenders carried him behind the rampart.

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With most of their senior officers dead or wounded, the British soldiers, including the 93rd Highlanders, having no orders to advance further or retreat, stood out in the open and were shot apart with grapeshot from the Jackson Line. The “immense bravery” shown by the 93rd under this maelstrom of fire was noted by Jackson biographer Paul Wellman:

To the very edge of the canal before the rampart the few that were left of the kilted regiment marched, then halted there. The men who had been detailed to bring scaling ladders and fascines had failed to come up. Unable to go forward, too proud to retreat, although the regiment behind them had all fallen back. At length a mere handful of what had been the magnificent regiment slowly retired, still in unbroken order, still turning to face the foe. From the ramparts the Americans cheered them wildly. All rifle fire ceased. [2]

Meanwhile, the progress gained on the left was halted as the American 7th Infantry came up and threw-back the British lodgement on the redoubt. Within 20 minutes, their ranks decimated and the attack in shambles, the British survivors were ordered to retreat by General John Lambert, commanding the reserve brigade.  Lambert, now the senior officer still standing, took command. He gave the order for his reserve to advance and cover the withdrawal of the army from the field.

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The one British success that day was on the opposite side of the canal. Here, Thorton’s attack on the naval battery was successful, and were able to turn the guns to enfilade Jackson’s line across the canal. Unfortunately, this was too late to influence the battle, and Lambert ordered this force to abandon its gains and retreat as well. The irony of this is that when he learned the British held the opposite bank allowing enfilade fire upon his line, Jackson was prepared to withdraw the American forces if the British renewed the attack.

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In all the British had suffered 2,042 casualties: 291 killed (including both Generals Pakenham and and his second-in-command, Gibbs), 1,267 wounded (including General Keane and Major Wilkinson) and 484 captured or missing.[3]

Jackson’s men had suffered a mere 71 casualties: 13 dead; 39 wounded and 19 missing.

The news of victory, one man recalled, “came upon the country like a clap of thunder in the clear azure vault of the firmament, and traveled with electromagnetic velocity, throughout the confines of the land.” Jackson became a nation hero, receiving the Thanks of Congress as well as a Congressional Gold Medal. The fame he gained at New Orleans would sustain and propel Jackson into the White House.  Once Jackson was elected to the Presidency in  1829, the “8th of January” was celebrated as a national holiday until 1861 brought the American Civil War.

Actor Charleton Heston brought Andrew Jackson to the screen twice in his career. In 1958s The Buccaneer, and the first time in this film from 1953, “The President’s Lady”; which focused on the love affair with his wife, Rachel. In this clip, we see Jackson during his run for the Presidency, leading to the last scene, his Inaugural.

The irony of the Battle of New Orleans was that the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, had been signed on December 24th. However, that doesn’t rob the American victory of significance. Had the British won the battle and seized New Orleans, they may well have leveraged such a victory to gain better terms; perhaps even taking the Louisiana Purchase territories from the United States.

The history of the United States and North America could have been very different, indeed.

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*Known as The American War to the British and Canadians

  1. The largest guns in Napoleon’s “grande batterie” at Waterloo the following year were only 12 pounders, much smaller than the 32 and 24 pound naval guns Jackson had in place at Chalmette.
  2. Wellman, Paul, The House Divides: The Age of Jackson and Lincoln, From the War of 1812 to the Civil War. Foulsham Publishing
  3. The 44th suffered heavy casualties at New Orleans that January, 1814. Less than thirty years later, the same regiment would suffer annihilation in January of 1842 in the icy passes of Afghanistan during the Retreat from Kabul.
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TERROR IN THE TEUTOBURG FOREST!

Roman expansion into Germany is forever halted when three legions are massacred in  one of history’s most decisive battles. 

At the beginning of the first century of the Common Era Germany seemed on the verge of conquest by the Roman Empire. As with every independent power and people on the periphery of the Mediterranean and its hinterlands, Germany seemed the next nation to fall before the unstoppable power of Rome; and to become the newest jewel in the crown of the Caesars. It was the concerted policy of  Augustus Caesar, the first of Rome’s emperors, to expand the empire’s borders beyond the Rhine to the Elbe; both to protect Rome’s Gallic provinces from Germanic raiders and to establish her frontier along a shorter and more defensible border. Following 22 years of steady campaigning, Roman generals had planted the eagles on the western banks of the Elbe, and by AD 6 the western German tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe were considered largely pacified, if not yet completely conquered.

This land the Romans called Germania is described by the historian Tacitus as  “covered either by bristling forests or by foul swamps”, inhabited by independent tribes whose men were marked by “fierce-looking blue eyes, reddish hair, and big frames”[1]. The Romans had suffered the worst military defeat in their history at the hands of a Celto-Germanic coalition, the Cimbri and the Teutons, at Arausio (Orange) in 105 BCE. Caesar had fought German hosts on several occasions during his Gallic Wars, and had famously bridged the Rhine and conducted a show-of-force on the German side to cow the tribesmen. Eventually Caesar had recruited German cavalry to support his legions.

Under his successor Augustus (and later rulers of the Julio-Claudian dynasty) a cohort of Germans, the Numerus Batavorum, was recruited to serve as a personal bodyguard. The Caesars valued the fighting quality of the Germans, and as a bodyguard had the advantage of not being Roman, and thus largely immune from local politics and intrigues (unlike the Praetorians). A conquered Germania would over time become, like Gaul, a place to recruit these ferocious warriors.

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Early German warriors

Augustus Caesar resolved to bring Germania into the Roman fold. This would end the threat of German raids into the empire, and place the northeastern border on the Elbe, a shorter and more defensible line than the Rhine.

ARMINIUS AND VARUS

The Roman conquest of northwestern Germany began in 12 BC with the campaigns of Drusus, stepson of Augustus, who as governor of Roman Gaul responded to German incursions into his province by crossing the Rhine and devastating the territories of the tribes involved. The following year he again crossed into Germania (as the Romans called the lands of the German tribes). Marching east towards the Weser River, he passed through the lands of the Cherusci tribe, whose territory stretched from the Ems to the Elbe.

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Among the Cherusci who saw Drusus’ passing through their territory was a boy of 5 or 6 years old, the son of the chieftain[2] Segimer. His name is unknown, though history remembers him as Arminius[3]. As surety for his father’s loyalty, young Arminius and his younger brother Flavus[4] were taken as hostages to Rome.

There the two German princes were raised to be loyal Romans. When they grew to manhood, both Arminius and Flavus became officers in the army,  commanding auxilia cavalry for six years (between 1-6 AD). Both were granted the honor of Roman citizenship, and Arminius at least (and perhaps Flavus as well) obtained the dignity of equestrian rank.

Sometime after 6 AD Arminius returned to his native land and tribe; whether as Praefectus of a Cherusci cavalry ala or as a civilian is unclear. By this time the Roman occupied territories in northwestern Germany were designated as the province of Germania Magna. That he was released from his status of hostage demonstrates Rome’s confidence in his and his father’s loyalty. While Arminius and his brother were away, all had not been well. Between 2 BC and 6 AD many of the tribes, including a faction of the Cherusci, rose up in what was called a “vast war”. No detailed record of this war remains, but the tribes were pacified by first Vinicius and then (from 4 AD) Tiberius, stepson of Augustus and brother of Drusus (who’d died in 9 BC).

Roman auxilia cavalrymen. Young Arminius was an officer of such horsemen in Roman service. 

Returning at the end of this conflict, the 23-year-old Arminius found he and his clan granted special favor my Tiberius, who in his efforts to pacify the Cherusci granted the ruling clan (of which Arminius belonged) the status of “free people” among the Germans. But the Cherusci, like all Germans under Roman occupation, were rife with undercurrents of resentment. For reasons unknown, Arminius began intriguing within his own tribe and those neighboring against his Roman patrons.

Arminius’ return to Germany and subsequent turn against the Romans coincided with and may have been caused by a change in circumstances and the arrival of a new governor of Germania Magna.

In 6 AD, Tiberius was about to launch a second campaign against the Marcomanni in southern Germany. A massive force of 11 legions in Germania Magna were preparing to attack from the north, while from the south legions stationed in Illyricum/Pannonia were to march north; destroying Marcomanni opposition in a pincer movement. But before the Romans could launch this campaign a dangerous revolt broke out in Illyricum that threatened both Italy and Roman Macedonia. A hasty peace was concluded with the Marcomanni, and Tiberius was given command of the Roman troops sent to crush this revolt. Eight of the eleven legions in Germania Magna left with Tiberius for Pannonia. In his place, a new governor was appointed: Publius Quinctilius Varus.

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Coin bearing the likeness of Q. Varus

Varus was lawyer and experienced administrator known for the harshness of his methods. As governor of Syria from 7/6 BC until 4 BC he caused widespread resentment by his high-handed rule and the crushing taxes he exacted from the provincials. In 4 BC civil disorder in Judea following the death of Herod the Great caused him to march on Jerusalem, where he crucified some 2,000 Jews.

He brought to the new Roman Germania province the same arrogance and high taxation. The long-conquered Syrians, a highly civilized people who were accustomed to despotic governance dating back at least as far as Ashurbanipal and Darius, may have meekly accepted this treatment. But the Germans, a fiercely free people who labored for none but themselves and acknowledged no lord but their tribal chieftains, hotly resented Varus’ treating them like conquered minions.

It may well have been an antipathy to Varus, personally, and of his methods and policies that led Arminius to consider himself once again, first-and-foremost, a prince of the Cherusci rather than an Equestrian and loyal client of Rome. This, combined with Rome’s distraction with the revolt in Pannonia may have convinced Arminius that the time was ripe for action.

All the while gaining Varus’ trust and insinuating himself into the governor’s councils as a trusted adviser, Arminius secretly forged an alliance of the neighboring tribes. These included the Marsi, the Chatti, BructeriChauciSicambri, and elements of the Suebi. Over the next couple of years Arminius laid his plans, and waited for the opportunity to throw-off the Roman yoke.

MARCH TO TEUTOBERGER WALD

Arminius’ opportunity came in 9 AD.

In September Varus marched the three legions he had in Germany (Legio XVIILegio XVIII, and Legio XIX), accompanied by six auxilia infantry cohorts and three squadrons  (alae) of cavalry; toward Moguntiacum (modern-day Mainz), where he planned to winter. His total forces was somewhere between 20,000 – 36,000 men.

On the march Arminius brought Varus word that a revolt had broken out to his north, perhaps among the Chauci. The Cheruscian prince advised that by prompt action Varus could quash this rebellion before it got out of hand. Another Cherusci chief,  Segestes, who was an enemy of Arminius and friend of Rome, warned Varus not to trust Arminius; and instead advised him to arrest both Arminius and several other tribal leaders. But Varus disbelieved Segestes, and disregarded the warning as motivated by the men’s mutual animosity. With Arminius directing his route, Varus and his legions began marching toward their doom.

Varus’ army followed a narrow path through the forest, hardly a road at all; which Arminius promised was the quickest way to the trouble spot. The terrain grew increasingly difficult: heavily forested hills cut by overgrown, swampy ravines and gullies. According to the historian Cassius Dio, the “mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence the Romans, even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it.”[5] The army’s progress was further slowed by the large baggage train attending the soldiers, who had been marching to winter quarters:

They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them – one more reason for their advancing in scattered groups.[6]

Even the elements turned against Varus, as a violent rainstorm assailed the marching legions. A “violent rain and wind came up that separated them still further, while the ground, that had become slippery around the roots and logs, made walking very treacherous for them, and the tops of the trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion”.[7]

AMBUSH 

As they approached modern Osnabrück, Arminius and other German officers begged Varus’ permission to leave the column, telling Varus they were off to assemble tribal auxiliaries to aid the Romans against the rebels. However, they instead joined their tribal forces, assembled in the forests all around in prepared ambush.

By this point the column had become perilously spread out along the narrow path, some 9 to 12 miles from van to rear; the towering trees dark and foreboding, the driving rain reducing visibility even further. Suddenly, echoing from the dark forest though the mists and rain, came the eerie chanting battle cry of the German tribes, the “barritus“; which Tacitus describes as a “harsh, intermittent roar”, “amplified into a deeper crescendo by the reverberation” of the warriors holding their shields to their mouths.

Image result for barritus war cry

Then the air was alive with a shower of javelins thrown from all quarters. These rained down on the Romans, inflicting death and disorder on an already chaotic scene. These missiles were the framaeubiquitous light spears of the German warrior. Each carried a brace behind his shield, used as javelin at range or spear in close quarters. Confusion reigned, and as the Germans saw the Romans were in no good position to offer concerted resistance, they came down from the high ground or from within the bogs to assail the soldiers at close quarters.

…the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, coming through the densest thickets, as they were acquainted with the paths. At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them.

For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all.[8]

It was a command-and-control nightmare for any leader, even a modern one with all the advantages of radio, maps, and GPS. For Varus it was an impossible situation. Troops could not form a battle line or fight in any depth, along the narrow path or in the dense surrounding woods. It is a testament to their discipline and training that they were able to close up and, defending themselves all the while from every side, and to build a fortified camp “so far as that was possible on a wooded mountain”[9] in which to spend the night.

No record exists of a command meeting held that night in Varus’ tent (assuming a tent could be erected in the chaos). But whatever plan for the following day was formulated, it involved breaking camp at dawn and marching as best they could out of the confined space of the forest and onto more open terrain. This was available to them north of the Wiehen Hills, near the modern town of Ostercappeln. Dispensing with the baggage wagons, the Romans marched forward that second day under a constant harassment by the tribesmen, towards the open area where they were here able to form up in some sort of order. The attack did not abate, though here they took fewer casualties and could better defend themselves. In the open ground Varus made his second camp.

On the third day the Romans marched on, once again entering the forest (no other path of escape being open to them). If anything the enemy’s ranks were growing thicker, as tribesmen, hearing of the Romans plight, joined Arminius’ forces to take part in the victory (and plundering) that appeared imminent. The rain now beat down ever more ferociously, perhaps as great an enemy as the Germans who darted in-and-out of the trees to attack the Roman column. Dio paints a picture of chaos, with cavalry and infantry blundering into each other and into trees in the blinding rain. The muddy, boggy terrain The Romans suffered their greatest casualties here, on the third day.

Modern reconstruction of the palisade prepared by Arminius near Kalkriese

During the night the column attempted to break out, but in the morning found themselves on a sandy strip of ground between the foot of Kalkriese Hill and swampland at the edge of a bog. Arminius had here neatly blocked the road with a trench, and a wooden palisade had been erected on the higher, wooded slope to its flank; from which the defending tribesmen pelted the column with missiles. His years with the Roman army had taught Arminius well the advantages of field fortifications.

There was no alternative but to storm the palisade. The legions closed ranks and climbed the hill. The alternating mud and rain-slicked rock and gravel made the footing treacherous. Four days of driving rain had left their scutums waterlogged, their clothing sodden. They faced a driving wind blowing the rain into their faces. After several attempts, the Romans gave up the assault and retreated. The Germans followed them closely, storming down the hill into the Roman ranks.

Image result for Teutoburg Forest - Great Bog

Like wolves sniffing blood, the emboldened Germans now closed for the kill from all sides on the greatly thinned-out Roman ranks.

Seeing that all was lost, and fearing capture, Varus and some of his senior officers committed suicide. Varus’ senior Legatus, Numonius Vala, attempted to escape with some of the remaining cavalry. The Germans pursued and slaughtered them before they could reach the Rhine. Most of what remained of Varus’ army was cut down, many too weak to lift their weapons and shields, but nevertheless fighting to the last. The historian Paterculus wrote: “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”[10]

Some small detachments, led by their centurions, attempted to escape. Many of these lost their way and were trapped in the low ground around the Great Bog, where they were killed. Only a relative handful of survivors managed to make their way to Roman forts along the Rhine. Some 20,000 Romans perished.

Some of the senior prisoners taken were tortured to death, or sacrificed in hideous ways to the Germanic gods. Others, lower-ranking soldiers, were enslaved. Arminius found Varus’ corpse, and after beheading the dead Roman commander, sent this grizzly trophy south to the king of the Marcomanni in effort to win him, too, to the anti-Roman coalition. This effort failed, but that day in September, 9 AD, Arminius stood victorious on a muddy, bloody field; having achieved what would prove not just a decisive victory, but one that would change the very course of history.

AFTERMATH

In the immediate aftermath of the battle Arminius’s tribesmen attempted to exploit their victory by attacking along the Rhine frontier; but the garrisons of the various forts held them at bay. Still, there was widespread panic in Rome and in the Gallic province, as only two legions remained to hold the river.

But the tribal alliance could not hold together, and Arminius was soon dealing with rivals at home instead of the Romans abroad. Six years later Germanicus, son of the late German conqueror Drusus and nephew of Tiberius, would lead punitive expeditions into Germany to punish Arminius and the tribes responsible for the massacre at Teutoburg Forest. Coming to the site of the massacre, he would find the remains of the disaster littering the area. Tacitus describes well the grim scene Germanicus found:

Varus’ first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions. Further on, the partially fallen rampart and the shallow fosse suggested the inference that it was a shattered remnant of the army which had there taken up a position. In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles. 

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe. In raising the barrow Caesar laid the first sod, rendering thus a most welcome honor to the dead, and sharing also in the sorrow of those present.[11]

Honors done to the lost army’s remains, Germanicus would continue against the Germans, ultimately recovering two of the three lost eagles. The third legionary eagle  was recovered in 41 AD from the Chauci during the reign of Claudius, brother of Germanicus. Some 40 years after Arminius’ victory Roman forces liberated Roman slaves held by the Chatti, including some survivors of Varus’ army.

But when Germanicus was done, Tiberius, now emperor and successor to Augustus, pulled out of Germany and returned the Roman border to the Rhine. No further attempt was made to add Germany to the empire.

Teutoburg Forest had stopped Roman expansion, and reversed the tide of Roman conquest that had been unchecked for 4 centuries. The borders of the empire would expand and contract over the next few centuries; but never again into Germania.

CONSEQUENCES

That Germany remained outside the empire had wide-reaching consequences.

The first was that the empire would not have a shorter, more defensible frontier in the west. It is arguable that a fortified border that ran along the west bank of the Elbe to the Carpathian Mountains would have taken fewer troops to defend, and thus placed a lighter burden upon the Roman treasury. The virile western German tribes that continued to harass the Rhine frontier into the 4th century; and which would eventually, in the early 5th century, overrun Gaul and Spain entirely; would have become defenders of, and not enemies of the empire. Thus the lifespan of at least the Western Roman Empire might have been greatly extended.

That is the negative effect of Arminius’ victory. The positive one is perhaps even greater: that Germany remained independent and outside of Roman law and culture.

The Germans had a unique culture of their own. It was one that embraced individual freedoms and a liberty to a much greater degree than was the case of the Celts (particularly the Gauls) or the various civilized people of the empire. Though the Greeks early in their history and the Romans of the Republic gave the world its first experiences with democracy and republican form of governance; the Roman Empire was increasingly authoritarian and despotic in its later centuries. Whereas Diocletian turned most of Rome’s farmers into little better than surfs, oppressed by an oppressive tax system; in the German lands and kingdoms that replaced the empire in the west there was still a healthy free-man class of yeomen farmers/warriors. This spirit would infuse the west, particularly in England (conquered in the 6th century by Anglo-Saxons) and Germany itself, where free farmers would jealously maintain the freedoms that Arminius, in opposing Rome’s iron hand upon his native land, bequeathed to them.

FINAL NOTE

At end of the civil war which brought him into power, Augustus Caesar had economized by downsizing the Roman army from 78 legions to a mere 25 legions. In Augustan Rome’s downsized, shrunken military structure the loss of Varus’ three legions represented nearly 17% of the entire legionary force of the empire, almost one-in-five of its soldiers. On hearing news of the disaster, Augustus was thunderstruck; so distraught that months later he is said to have banged his head against the wall, crying out:

“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ (‘Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!’)

NOTES:

  1. Tacitus, Germania
  2. The tribal politics of the Cherusci at this time are unclear. Segimer seems to have been at the least the paramount chief of the tribe, if not its king. Just prior to Varus’ disaster, the tribe became divided between the pro-Roman and anti-Roman factions, each with their own leaders. Segimer and his son Arminius came to lead the anti-Roman faction; while another chief (or powerful nobleman), Segestes, led the pro-Roman. According to Tacitus, following Arminius’ war against Roman occupation and Germanicus‘ subsequent punitive campaigns, the devastated Cherusci requested of Rome that Hermann’s nephew, Italicus, raised within the empire and thoroughly Romanized, be allowed to return and take up the kingship; as he was the last living member of their “royal house”. This would seem to indicate that Segestes, Italicus grandfather, was king of the tribe and not just one of its chieftains. But the question is open to speculation.
  3. Though it has been convention since the 18th century to Germanize his name as Hermann we do not actually know what Arminius’ true name was. The Roman histories call him Arminius, and this is likely a Latinisation of his original German name. This could have been Erminameraz or Erminaz. It certainly was not”Hermann”, a German name that did not come into usage before the Middle Ages, and means “man of war”.
  4. Flavus’ real Germanic name is, like his brother’s, unknown. Flavus in Latin means “the blonde”; and was likely given to him by his Roman hosts/captors when he came to Rome, doubtlessly  referring to his hair color.
  5. Dio Cassius, Historia Romana; Book 56.20.1
  6. Ibid, 56.20.2
  7. Ibid, 56.20.3
  8. Ibid, 56.20.4-5
  9. Ibid, 56.21.1
  10. Vellius Paterculus, Historia Romana II 119, 1-2
  11. Tacitus, 1.61-62
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A BLOODY AND MOMENTOUS YEAR, 1066!

1403046.jpg

“By the grace of God I shall yet prove the victor!”

The year 1066 saw Haley’s Comet blaze across the night sky. To the people of England it was a harbinger of invasion and war. Three ambitious men vied for the vacant thrown: Harold Godwinson, the land’s most powerful warlord; William the Bastard, iron-willed Duke of Normandy; and Harald Hardrada, the most feared warrior in northern Europe and king of Norway. Only one could be king, only one would survive. Their struggle for the thrown of England would lead to one of the greatest and most decisive battles in the sanguine history of the British Isles: The Battle of Hastings.

The struggle for the English throne in 1066 was the culmination of years of dynastic intrigue concerning the would-be successor to King Edward the Confessor, a monarch known for his piety but who had failed in his duty to produce an heir.  The issue was complicated by the events a generation earlier in England’s history, when the Danes under their kings Svein Forkbeard and his son, Canute, wrested England from the hands of the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the “Unready[1], descendant of Alfred the Great and scion of the ruling House of Wessex.

The Danish conqueror Canute married Aethelred’s widow Emma, a daughter of the Norman duke Richard I (“the Fearless”). Her two sons by Aethelred, Alfred and Edward, fled the Danes and took refuge in the court of their Norman kinsmen at Rouen. Emma also had a son by Canute, Harthacanute, who briefly ruled England and Denmark following the deaths of both his father and brother. Upon his deathbed, Harthacanute named his half-brother Edward, still in Normandy, as his heir.[2]

1402928.jpgRaised in the court of Normandy, once on the throne Edward favored his Norman kinsmen and friends. He was also naturally suspicious of those English lords who had won favor under Danish rule, particularly the powerful Earl of Wessex, Godwin; who had linked himself to the house of Canute by marriage. Edward the Confessor’s 24 year reign was marked by tension between his English lords and Norman favorites at court. Eventually Godwin forced the Normans out of England, becoming the “strong-man” behind the throne in Edward’s later years as king.

When Godwin died, his place behind Edward’s throne was taken by his strong son, Harold Godwinson, elevated to his father’s title of Earl of Wessex. Harold used his wealth and position at court to amass a private army of professional Anglo-Danish warriors, called Huscarls (or Housecarls, “Household Warriors”). Canute had first created such a force, and Harold’s guards were modeled on that elite body of fighting men. With these he defeated a coalition of rival English lords and the Welsh Prince, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, from 1055-1057. He then warred successfully in Wales in 1063, killing Gruffydd and bringing peace to the Welsh Marches.

The following year a momentous event occurred. Harold and his youngest brother, Gyrth, were shipwrecked off the Norman Coast.

Normandy was ruled by the stern and capable Duke William the Bastard. A cousin of Edward the Confessor, William had been encouraged by the childless Edward in his ambition to be named heir to the English throne. However, William had learned the lessons from earlier in Edward’s reign regarding English hostility to Norman influence, and knew he had to win over the powerful House of Wessex to his cause if he were to peacefully gain the English throne upon Edward’s death.

Fortune intervened in William’s favor when Harold and Gyrth washed ashore in Normandy in 1064. The two Godwinson brothers were seized initially by Count Guy of Ponthieu, a vassal of Duke William, but were ransomed by the Duke and became William’s guest.

William entertained Harold that summer at his court at Rouen. He even took Harold on campaign with him against the rebel Count of Brittany. During the course of this campaign Harold performed acts of heroism, perhaps even saving William’s life, and from William’s own hand received the spurs and accolade of knighthood.

From the Bayeux Tapestry: Duke William knighting Harold Godwinson?

Little details remain and scholars argue over the depth of the two men’s friendship. It seems likely, though, that the two most powerful men on either side of the English Channel developed a respect for each other and friendship that goes far to explaining the enmity and sense of betrayal that underlines William’s later actions.

At some point, while at the court of Rouen, Harold was tricked into swearing, upon a box containing the bones of a long-dead saint, to uphold William’s claim to the English throne. Such an oath carried great weight in 11th century Christian Europe. Harold, once he realized what he had done, is said to have noticeably paled. He was now bound by his honor and oath before God to support the claim of his new-found “friend”, whatever his own ambitions.

1402946.jpg Harold is tricked into swearing on holy relics.

His Norman sojourn resulting in a political disaster for his kingly aspirations, Harold returned to England, where events proceeded rapidly. That year, as though to herald the coming bloodshed, Halley’s Comet blazed brightly in the night sky. It was taken by all as a portent of great (and terrible) events to come.

Harold’s brother Tostig, the earl of Northumbria, had been ejected by his liegemen in favor of two sons of an earlier earl. Recognizing his brother’s poor performance as lord of the turbulent Northumbrians, and wishing to avoid civil war, Harold accepted the new Northumbrian earls, the brothers Edwin and Morcar.

By so doing he earned his brother Tostig’s enmity.

Tostig fled England, and eventually arrived at the Norwegian royal court at Nidaros. This was the seat of power of the redoubtable Norse king, Harald Sigurdsson (called Hardrada, or Hardrede: “Hard-council”, or “Harsh-judgment”).

In 1065, Harald Hardrada was considered the greatest warrior in the North, if not in all Europe. Said to be seven-feet tall and broadly built, he had been a fighting man since old enough to wield a sword.  As an exiled prince in his youth he had ventured to the Court of Byzantium, where he’d won great renown as a leader of the famed Varangian Guard; the Scandinavian “corps de elite” of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperors.

1403013.jpg Hally’s Comet, which appears in the sky every 75 years, arrived in 1066 and was widely taken as an omen of great events to come. Here its arrival is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Returning to Norway in 1046 with both wealth and a store of military experience, Harald seized the throne that had once been his older brother’s. His 20 year reign saw unremitting military campaigns, as he steadily brought the turbulent and independent Norse landholders under royal authority. For many of those years he had campaigned in Denmark in an attempt to unite the two countries under his sword, and create a Norwegian hegemony.

Tostig Godwinson found a patron with a ready ear for intrigue in Hardrada. Between the two of them a scheme was hatched to invade England and unite Norway and England as one land, just as Canute had done with Denmark and England two generations earlier. What Canute the Dane had wrought could not the “Champion of the North” do as well?

Meanwhile, in England, Edward the Confessor’s long reign finally came to an end in January of 1066. On his deathbed he was said to have named Harold Godwinson as his heir. However, in Normandy an outraged William openly disputed this claim as an invention of his rival. Ignoring William’s claim the Witan, the English proto-Parliament, elected Harold Godwinson as their king.

1402956 Harold Godwinson is crowned King

Whatever the Witan decided, Harold Godwinson’s claim was about to be challenged. Both William in Normandy and Harald Hardrada in Norway were laying in supplies and mustering their forces. The summer of 1066 promised to be a bloody one indeed for England.

THE RIVALS PREPARE

In Normandy, William prepared to back his claim to the throne of England with force of arms; and to avenge himself upon the erstwhile friend and oath-breaker who had betrayed him. The risk of this undertaking is easily underestimated today, with the ultimate results known in advance. But at the time he proclaimed his intent to invade England, William was venturing upon a dangerous and uncertain endeavor.

England was a far larger and, in theory, stronger country than the Duchy of Normandy. Though largely composed of a national militia of stout English freemen, called the fyrd, if given time to muster this force was potentially large and capable of holding its own in battle. Giving the fyrd more staying power was the wealthier land-owning warrior class, the thegns, and King Harold’s professional Huscarls. England’s fleet controlled the channel, and William had nothing that could be called a navy to oppose the English “Sea Fyrd”. Manned by experienced seamen and captained by men who were in many cases former Vikings, the English longships were filled with detachments of axe-wielding Housecarls, experienced at fighting on shipboard.

1402964.jpg Anglo-Danish Huscarls

Harold’s Housecarls had a particularly fearsome reputation throughout Europe. These “knights who fight on foot” were all veteran professional warriors, many of which had themselves served in the Varangian Guard in their youth; or in the service of one of the various Scandinavian kings. Their five-foot Danish long-axes were said to be able to hack through shield and mail as if it were tissue.

William, however, had an advantage of his own: the superb mailed heavy cavalry, provided by the Norman knights and mounted sergeants. Norman adventurers had already ventured as far afield as Italy, where they were carving out another Duchy in Apulia. The Norman knight was feared and respected throughout Europe, considered the most dangerous heavy cavalry on the continent. William’s army was a balanced force, with archers and armored foot-sergeants complimenting the mailed cavalry, creating a true “combined arms” fighting force.

However, in 1066 it had yet to be shown that heavy cavalry could prevail over the close-order infantry tactics of the English “shieldwall”, perfected by English and Scandinavian armies over the previous three centuries; and archers, with their rather weak “self” bows had never been a significant factor in western European battles.

Norman cavalry: a Byzantine source claimed they could “charge through the walls of Babylon”!

Though they believed in the righteousness of their Lord’s claim, many a Norman noble must have looked upon the coming campaign with trepidation.

William set about in the spring of 1066 to bolster their resolve, and to gather additional recruits to his banner. To effect this he sought and received Papal support from Rome. Oath breaking, particularly when said oath was given upon the bones of a Catholic saint, was a serious ecclesiastic offense. His Papal petition was aided, no doubt, by the fact that all southern Italy was controlled by the Norman Duke of Apulia, Robert de Hauteville (called Guiscard, the “Cunning”). The Normans of Italy had become the Pope’s chief bastion against the German Emperor’s Italian ambitions. Though politically independent and powerful rulers in their own right, the de Hautevilles were ever deferential to their Duke back home.

William achieved his aim: Harold was excommunicated by the Pope, and a papal legate delivered to William a Papal banner to symbolize the support of Holy Mother Church. In the 11th century the blessing of the church gave William immeasurable political and psychological advantage. The morale of his vassals was greatly strengthened in the fearsome undertaking to come, and few men in William’s ranks doubted now that God was on their side. To augment his own Norman vassals, pious adventurers from all over Northern France now flocked to his banner to win religious indulgence by smiting the “usurper”, Harold.

However, William still had to get his growing and now-eager host across the Channel, in the face of English naval superiority. All that summer Harold’s ships patrolled the southern coast, waiting to intercept the Norman expedition. The English fleet was not his only obstacle. The weather that summer seemed determined to prevent his crossing. William waited and watch for fortune (and God) to send him the opportunity he needed.

1403017.jpg The Norman host prepares in Normandy for the invasion

With two armies preparing to invade, all that summer of 1066 England held its breath. Harold found himself in the unenviable position of having to surrender the initiative to his enemies. He could do naught else but wait, and try to keep his levies in the field. Unfortunately for him, summer turned to fall and still the imminent invasions failed to materialize. Fall harvest made disbanding the  fyrd a necessity, as feudal obligation demanded, and the men of both fleet and army went home to harvest their fields.

STAMFORD BRIDGE

No sooner had the English levies disbanded than word arrived from the north that the opening salvo of the three-way campaign of 1066 had come: in mid-September Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson landed near York, coming with a large invasion fleet of Viking longships and experienced Norse warriors, veterans of Hardrada’s many campaigns. By the time word of the incursion reached Harold Godwinson in London the tidings were grim: the Norse had already met and routed the Northumbrian levies at the Battle of Gate Fulford; and York, the second city of England, was on the verge of surrender.

1403031.jpgHarold responded with lightning swiftness. Force-marching north with an army composed of his royal Housecarls and those shire-levies hastily gathered along the way, he arrived near York in time to intercept Hardrada’s army on their way to accept York’s surrender.

On September 25th, along the York road at a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, the English met the Norse marching from their camp on the coast. Not expecting a battle, Hardrada and his men had left their armor back at their ships, coming only with shield and arms.

To buy time for the surprised Norse to form their array for battle, a lone Norwegian champion stepped forward to hold the narrow bridge against the English crossing. His name is now sadly lost. But this fearsome warrior held the bridge against all attackers, hewing down man-after-man with his deadly long-axe. No more than three-at-a-time could approach him on the narrow foot-bridge, and time-and-again he sent Harold’s redoubtable Housecarls dead or reeling back, bloodied. Meanwhile, the Norse formed their shieldwall for battle beneath Hardrada’s famous raven banner, “Landwaster” (Landøyðan); and King Harald sent messengers back to his ships, summoning the rest of his host.

An incident at the beginning of the Battle of Stanford Bridge: a lone Norse hero held the narrow bridge, allowing the Norwegian army time to deploy for battle.

Eventually, a solution was found to the lone Viking holding the narrow bridge, slaughtering all who approached him. An Englishman, finding a skiff along the river bank, rowed under the bridge. The English warrior struck upwards between the planks with his spear, piercing the Norseman from below. Mortally wounded, the Norse champion collapsed in agony, dying where he lay. [3]

The English were now free to cross the bridge and give battle.

Before the two sides “laid on”, King Harold asked to speak with his brother Tostig under flag of truce. Tostig came forward, and the two brothers parlayed. Harold offered Tostig a pardon, if he would give-up this fight and return to his brother’s side.

“What of my ally, King Harald of Norway”, asked Tostig? “What will you offer him?”

“To the King of Norway”, Harold replied, “I offer naught but six feet of good English earth; or as much more as is necessary to bury him, he being larger than other men”.

This brought negotiation to an end. Both men returned to their forces, and prepared for the fight.

Stamford Bridge was a bloody and hard-fought battle. Though fearsome warriors (and physically larger than most others in Europe), the Norse suffered from their lack of armor. Men fell on both sides, but more Norse than English. King Harald Hardrada is reputed to have fought in the front rank, encouraging his men and laying many an Englishman low. However, an arrow struck him in the throat, ending the storied life of this “Last of the Vikings”.

1403039.jpgLate in the battle the Norse reinforcements arrived from the coast, where they had been guarding the Viking longships. Led by Eystein Orre, the Norse king’s Marshal, they were exhausted by the haste with which they had run the 15 miles from their camp to the battlefield. Eystein reputedly took up “Landwaster”, and initiated a final Norse counter-attack. Nearly breaking the English line, the attack faltered when Eystein too was killed. Defeated, the Norse fled from the battlefield.

Following them, King Harold and the English forced their surrender. The English king was merciful, and allowed the surviving Norse to return home peacefully. Included in their number was Hardrada’s young son, who would return to Norway and rule as Olaf III Kyrre (“The Peaceful”).

Though the redoubtable Hardrada was defeated, Harald Godwinson found no time to savor his triumph. While still at York, word came of a second invasion, this one in the south: William the Bastard had crossed the Channel.

NEXT: HAROLD GODWINSON DEFENDS HIS CROWN AT SENLAC HILL!

Two very well-made reenactments of the fight at Stamford Bridge; depicting the holding of the narrow way by a single Norse champion:

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NOTES:

  1. This appellate may be a misconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon word for “Unwise” rather than “Unready”. Either would be applicable in his case.
  2. Edward’s elder brother Alfred had been treacherously killed by the Danes some years earlier, after being lured back to England.
  3. It should be noted that this entire incident is not mentioned in King Harald’s Saga, and must therefore be treated with caution.

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

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