This is the Twelfth-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!
WAR TO THE KNIVES
Returning in 511AD from his sojourn in the north, Arthur and his mounted Cymbrogi rode down the Roman Roads from Din Eidyn (Edinburgh); back to Dumnonia, his likely power-center. Word had come north that Cerdic, the West Saxon leader, had emerged from his refuge among the swamps around the Avon mouth; and was raiding deeply into the lands of the Belgae.
Cerdic had established himself in southern Hampshire, landing with three ships (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ) at Cerdics-ore (Cerdics-mouth); near modern Portsmouth, in 495. As previously discussed, he is in many ways a mystery.
As discussed previously, at this early stage Cerdic is described as an “Ealdorman”, an appointed official within the Saxon kingdoms; but just whose Ealdorman he was is unknown. The paramount Saxon king in Britain during this period was Ælle, King of the nearby South Saxe (Sussex); and he is the most likely ruler whom Cerdic, at this stage of his life, served. But that is mere conjecture, and we have no way of knowing with certainty.
Cerdic’s very name raises questions, as it is not an Anglo-Saxon name at all, but a Celtic one. Some have suggested he was a turn-coat, a British traitor. That he was in fact a British minor lord of the land-owning aristocracy, or even a “petty-king”; whose holding was along the western extreme of the Saxon Shore, in the land of the Belgae tribe. That, as time went on, he built up a band of Saxon warriors (mercenaries or renegades) and asserted his independence; aligning himself with what may have seemed to be the winning side, that of the Anglo-Saxon invaders.
This theory has one major flaw, however: a British chieftain could never command the loyalty of these very chauvinistic Germanic invaders. As Vortigern two generations earlier had learned, the Saxon wolves would eat from their British master’s hand, only to then devour the hand itself! The Saxons were already contemptuously calling the British natives “Wealas” (Welsh): “Foreigners”! Foreigners in their own land, fit only to be thralls (slaves)!
Saxon chieftains traced their lineage carefully, back many generations. Kings, ultimately, traced theirs to Odin or one of the other gods of the north. Men followed these “Odinborn” chieftains precisely because of their connection with the gods, and the good fortune that brought. To hail a lowly “weala” as king would have been unthinkable for a Saxon warrior.
A more likely scenario is the one previously suggested (Ch 10): that Cerdic was the by-product of the union of a highborn South Saxon father and a British (captive?) mother. Rising in the service of Ælle, he was trusted with the mission of expanding the South Saxe territories westward, along the coast. This reconciles the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry of 495, “Cerdic landed in Hampshire with his son, Cynic, in three ships.”
Since landing near modern Portsmouth, he had been a thorn in the flank of British Dumnonia.
In 501, the ASC tells us that there was a battle at Portsmouth Harbor; that “a very noble (British) man” was slain. This closely matches Welsh sources, which describe a battle at a place called Llongborth, the “port of the warships” (possibly Portsmouth, or nearby). In this battle, the Dumnonian king or petty-king , Geraint/Gereint ap Erbin (son of Erbin), may have been slain.
The sources for this are Welsh heroic poetry; and depending upon the translation, there is cause to doubt if Geraint was indeed slain in this battle. Morris, using the translation below, and assuming that Geriant was indeed killed here; assumed Geriant to be synonymous with the “very noble” Briton who was slain, according to the ASC entry for 501. Morris concludes that this was a rare example of both Saxon and Welsh sources confirming a common historical incident: the battles of Portsmouth and Llongborth being one-in-the-same. (1)
In Llongborth I saw the clash of swords, men in terror, bloody heads, before Geraint the Great, his father’s son
In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s heroes cut with steel. The Emperor, ruler of our labor.
In Llongborth Geraint was slain. Heroes of the land of Dyfneint. Before they were slain, they slew.
This poem was likely translated from an early British (Brythonic) version, composed close to the event; into Welsh centuries later. But its feel is much closer to the Gododdin (late 6th century) than it is to the later, Medieval Welsh poems. It has an immediacy and a visceral sadness, a lament for a much-loved fallen hero.
We know from recorded genealogies that the poem’s subject, the hero Geraint, was a prince of Dumnonia (called by the later Welsh Dyfneint). He is an attested historical figure (as much as any can be in this historical-source poor period). It also names Arthur, as Geriant’s (and the bard’s) overlord: “Emperor, ruler of our labor”. The poem suggests that Geriant and his sword-brothers are “Arthur’s Heroes” (at least in this translation).
But one should not conclude from this that Arthur was present; all scholars agree that he was not. Nor, considering the early date of this battle, is it likely that Arthur yet bore the title of Emperor (in Welsh, Ameraudur). All mention of Arthur may be, in any case anachronistic; in that Arthur was at this date (perhaps) only a subordinate of the elderly Ambrosius Aurelianus.
While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle names the Saxon leader at the battle of Portsmouth as an otherwise unknown Saxon leader named Port, this seems an attempt to equate the name of the town with some eponymous Saxon figure. Considering that the area was home to Cerdic’s recently arrived West Saxons, Cerdic is the most likely victor of this battle.
In 508, another battle was fought against the Britons at Netley Marsh; in which (according to the ASC) Cerdic and his warriors “killed a certain British king named Natanleod, and five thousand men”. This battle is another of the mysteries surrounding Cerdic; and triggers several questions.
First, who was Natanleod?
Most scholarship suggests he was a local petty-king; ruling the plains and rolling hills north of Cerdic’s swampy refuge. It has also been suggested that he may have been ruler of the local Belgae, whose stronghold may have been at Venta Belgarum, the future Winchester, capital of the West Saxon kingdom.
In the 18th and 19th century, many scholars (though not Gibbon) attempted to identify this British king with none-other than Ambrosius Aurelianus. As Ambrosius died around this time, this theory certainly makes for an interesting story: Cerdic, British traitor/half-breed serving the Saxon enemy, defeats and kills the great British leader, Ambrosius! If the battle did in fact cost the British 5,000 men, a considerable force in that day-and-age, than this Natanleod was a very great leader indeed; perhaps Ambrosius himself.
The location of the battle is the next question. A good choice is near Totton; where a Roman road leading through the swamps around Southampton northwards toward the Salisbury Plain passes close by an old hillfort. This mound, Tatchbury Hillfort, rising over Tetley Marsh, might have been garrisoned by a Briton force charged with warding the region from Saxon incursion. This may have been where Cerdic’s warband engaged the mysterious Natanleod and destroyed his forces.
It is highly unlikely that Cerdic possessed the strength in 508 to defeat in open battle a force of 5,000 men (assuming for a moment that this number is not greatly exaggerated). His original 3 “keels” could not have held more than 200 warriors, and likely less. Even allowing for additional reinforcements over the years, the swamp lands could not provide a home for too large a numbers of warriors. Either the Anglo-Saxon account has greatly inflated the number of British (engaged and dead), or the battle was not a set-piece battle at all.
A hypothetical scenario suggests itself: Old Ambrosius decides to finally put-paid to Cerdic’s vexatious presence in the southern marshes. As noted above, an army of the size claimed by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle could only have been mustered by a very powerful lord; and Ambrosius Aurelianus certainly had such authority. But by 508 Ambrosius was a very old man, whose health may have been failing. Arthur was his chief subordinate at this time, perhaps (as previously discussed) his Master of Horse. But the swamps were no place for cavalry; and Lindum was at this moment under siege by the Angles under Colgren. So Arthur was dispatched there with the mounted forces (see previous installment); while Ambrosius raised the full levy of Dumnonia to deal with Cerdic.
This force was dispatched under another trusted (if less competent) lieutenant, to reinforce the local petty-king (perhaps the Belgae tribal king), Natanleod. Joining him and his forces at Tachbury Hillfort, the overconfident Britons perhaps spend the night feasting and celebrating the coming campaign; a normal send-off for Dark Ages armies.
Cerdic, no one’s fool, has spies throughout the bordering British strongholds. He knows of the coming campaign to destroy him; and of the levies gathered at Tatchbury, preparing to march against him. That night Cerdic’s warriors creep through the marsh, to the foot of the hill. They crouch silently in the darkness, waiting till the sound of celebration slowly dies down. Then, in the predawn gloom, the Saxons creep silently toward the gate.
Spies within the fortress open the gates, and the Saxon wolves rush into the sleeping camp! They fall upon the stuporous Britons, and the sounds of slaughter soon fill the night!
While purely hypothetical, such a scenario reconciles the picture painted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Again, the British force was almost certainly much less than 5,000. But it is not impossible that upward of a thousand Britons were slain in this massacre.
After the battle, Cerdic’s power spread further north, creeping toward the Salisbury plain and the heart of the Belgae tribal lands.
Now, in 511, Arthur returned to the south; to news that Cerdic is once again attacking British territory.
BATTLE OF GUINNION FORT
Nennius claims that Arthur’s “ 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 great slaughter upon them, through the power of Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother.”
The location for this battle is (as with the rest) unknown, and much debated. Guinnion has been identified at various locations; but two very good possibilities both point to a battle against Cerdic in the south.
W. G. Collingwood and others have placed the likely location for Guinnion Fort (Caer Guinnion, “White Fort”) at Venta Belgarum/Winchester.
Taking advantage of his victory at Netley Marsh and Arthur’s absence in the north, Cerdic may have based himself out of the captured hillfort at Tatchbury; which provided a stronghold with ready access to the Roman road through the swamps , bogs and moors onto the Salisbury Plain. In such terrain, a solidly made Roman road was vital to the movement of troops. From this base he could menace Avebury (the late Ambrosius’ stronghold) and Venta Belgarum. Now, in 511, Cerdic moved against the Belgae tribal capital; laying siege.
Under this scenario, Arthur rides south to relieve the town. According to Nennius, Arthur carried the image of the Virgin Mary blazoned on his shield. This may or may not be significant: If the first time he did so, it may signal Arthur’s attempt to identify himself with and unite behind his leadership the Orthodox/Catholic Christian faithful in Britain. (At this time, there was no schism between the Orthodox and Catholic branches of the Church.)
His horsemen shatter the Saxons, inflicting great casualties. Cerdic and his men flee back into the swamps to the south to lick their wounds.
But this is not the only possibility for this, Nennius’ Eighth Battle.
Another even more likely location is Land’s End, at the tip of Cornwall: Caer Guidn in the British tongue!
At Lands End, in westernmost Cornwall, there is a local legend that Arthur defeated a raiding force of “Danes”, near the ancient mill, Vellan-Druchar (Vellan=mill, druchar=wheel).
The legend says that the “Danes” landed at Genvor Cove; and proceeded to pillage and spoil the many of villages of Western Cornwall; which they believed were unprotected (Arthur being in the north?). Nighttime beacon-fires blazed across the land, summoning Arthur and his knights to the land’s rescue.
The legend has Arthur and nine native (Dumnonian) princes at Tintagel, feasting. Gathering their men, they rushed across the West Country to Lands End, reaching the scene in two day. Arthur caught the raiders returning to their ships, and gave them battle near Vellan-Druchar. So terrible was the slaughter, it was said, that the mill was worked with blood that day, and not a single Dane escaped!
Tintagel Castle, Cornwall
Arthur and the nine princes gave thanks for their victory in St Sennen’s Chapel, and dined that day on the Table-men, a rock table nearby. A poem to the victory, supposedly composed on the occasion by no less than Arthur’s court Druid (?) and advisor, Merlin, reads:
“The northmen wild once more shall land, And leave their bones on Escol’s sand. The soil of Vellan-Druchar’s plain Again shall take a sanguine stain; and o‘er the mill-wheel roll a flood Of Danish mix’d with Cornish blood. When thus the vanquish’d find no tomb, Expect the dreadful day of doom.”
Could this local Cornish legend give insight into the otherwise unknown details of Nennius eighth battle, at Caer Guinnion?
Taking the tale as told above at face value, it is entirely possible that a raiding force of “Danes” was destroyed by local Dumnonian warlords near Caer Guidn, Land’s End. The leader of the Cornish may have been Arthur, whose personal power-base might have been in northern Cornwall; in an incident unrelated to any of Nennius’ battles. But it is much more likely that if such a battle occurred, it was against Saxon raiders, not Danes; who were at this time in their history divided and busy raiding each other and their local neighbors.
The theory that the Battle of Guinnion Fort was near lands End gains momentum if one accepts the Cornish legend of Arthur fighting raiders there.
In such a scenario, instead of attacking Venta Belgarum/Caer Guinnion, Cerdic takes to the sea; raiding along the south Dumnonian coast. Thinking Arthur far away to the north, he lands and begins to pillage the countryside. Arthur and his veteran Cymbrogi, returning from his successful northern campaign but still on the road, see the beacon-fires blazing on the hilltops. Arthur and his horsemen spur down the Fosse Way, the main Roman road to the old Roman fortress town of Exeter (Roman Isca Dumnoniorum). From there, riders are sent, summoning the petty-kings of western Dumnonia (Cornwall) to muster at Tintagel.
As the Saxons approach the White Fort (Caer Guidn) at Lands End, Arthur and the petty-kings of western Dumnonia (nine, if local traditions can be at all relied upon) fall upon Cerdic’s raiders. Busy pillaging, Cerdic’s men are caught unprepared for battle, scattered about the countryside in small bands foraging for plunder. The Saxons are easy prey for Arthur’s swift-riding horsemen! The slaughter is great, though unlikely as great as local tradition indicates. Penwith, between Lands End and St. Ives, is said to mean the “Headland of Blood”; a name that may echo back to this sanguinary battle!
Penwith, Cornwall, possible site of Battle at Vellan-Druchar
The wily Cerdic survives, and with the remnants of his force flees back to his ships; taking to the sea. Arthur and the lords that followed him in battle feast, perhaps as local legend would have it, upon Lanyon Quoit (known also as Table-Men Rock); perhaps surrounded by wooden tables set up on the surrounding field for their victorious warriors.
Two views of Lanyon Quoit/Table-en Rock, Cornwall
THE CITY OF THE LEGION
Nennius’ wrote that Arthur’s Ninth Battle battle took place at “the City of the Legion”. The identification of this has (not surprisingly) caused controversy.
Several locations in post-Roman Britain could be termed “the City of the Legion”. York (Roman Eburacum) was home to both the Legio IX Hispana (till about 120AD) and the Legio VI Victrix thereafter. Chester (Deva), at the northeast approach to Wales, was home to the Legion XX Valeria Victrix throughout most of the Roman occupation. In southeast Wales, in the territory of the Silures tribe, Isca Silurum/Caerleon on the River Usk was home to the Legion II Augusta till at least 300 AD. However, this legion was moved sometime in the 4th century to Richborough Castle (Roman Rutupiae), assigned to the “Saxon Shore” garrisons. Finally, Wroxeter (Roman Viroconium Cornoviorum), was home for a time to both the Legio XX Valeria Victrix and the Legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix.
There are many theories of which of these is the correct location for Nennius’ battle. Of these possible locales, Chester/Deva and Caerleon are the most-often cited; and Geoffrey of Monmouth named Caerleon-on-Usk as the site.
An interesting (and original) theory was proposed by Tolstoy: Exeter/ Isca Dumnoniorum, as a follow-up of the fight at Land’s End. In this scenario, after his defeat at Caer Guidn, Cerdic and his remaining Saxons take ship and sail for home, the marshes around Southampton. In route, they attack and (improbably) seize Exeter. Arthur, pursing by land, arrives later to expel Cerdic in this, the ninth battle.
However logical from a military theorist standpoint, creating a neat campaign narrative, this theory suffers from one main deficiency: Exeter/Isca Dumnoniorum was never home to a Roman legion. It cannot have been termed “the City of the Legion”.
Carlisle/Luguvalium, at the west end of Hadrian’s Wall, was home to legionary detachments at various times in its history, and has been named by recent scholars attempting to make Arthur simply a regional champion, and to place all of his battles in the Old North (Hen Ogledd). But, like all such attempts, is unconvincing and the attempt seems artificial. Carlisle was never truly a “City of the Legion”, in the sense of having a permanent Legionary garrison.
Richborough Castle/Rutupiae can be eliminated from contention, in that it was deep in Saxon territory. It is unlikely that a British army, even swift-moving mounted troops such as Arthur commanded, would have penetrated successfully so deeply into enemy lands without first being challenged to battle further west.
York/Eburacum certainly fits the bill as a legion home; and as such must be considered a possible contender for this battle site. Could the Angles or Saxons have landed north of the Humber again, threatening the Elmet capital? Certainly a possibility…
Chester/Deva could certainly be described as a “City of the Legion”. A battle was indeed fought here in 615/616, between the Angles of Northumbria and the Welsh. Some scholars suggest that Nennius confused or deliberately assigned this battle to Arthur’s time. If it was in fact a battle of Arthur’s, separate and aside from the later 7th century battle, then the location raises questions as to who the Briton’s enemies may have been. This was rather far west of the known “Eastern Front”, the line of demarcation between Anglo-Saxon and British lands.
The same question applies to a battle at Caerleon-on-Usk, the site identified by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This was a major fortress/town in the heart of the British petty-kingdom of Gwent (south Wales); and as far as we know, not subject to attack by foreign enemy.
Perhaps a rival leader or coalition formed against Arthur, as has been suggested occurred in the north with Caw in 509. But no source suggests such discord among the British at this early date.
However, about this time in history an event occurred in Gwent that provides a possible (if unlikely) explanatory hypothesis. It involves the former Visigoth fleet commander, now land-holding petty-king in west Cornwall, Theodoric.
In the late 4th century, an Irish group known as the Déisi Muman settled (or were allowed to settle) in Demetia/Dyfed, southwest Wales. The term déisi is virtually interchangeable with another Old Irish term, Aithechthúatha (meaning “vassal communities”, or “tributary peoples”). It had been suggested that this term might be the origin of the barbarian raiders known in late Roman history as the Attacotti. These people raped Roman Britain in the 360s; and after order was restored, some were taken into the Roman army as auxilia, as attested to in the Notitia Dignitatum.
One account is that this group was granted Demetia/Dyfed by the Roman Governor/Imperial Pretender, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig in Welsh chronicles). Settling allied or defeated barbarian tribes along unstable or vulnerable frontiers was a common Roman practice in the Late Empire.
Throughout the 5th and into the early 6th centuries, Irish/Scotti raiders had settled in various parts of western Britain. Then, local accounts indicate that Theodosius (or Tewdric, as he was known in Welsh chronicles) campaigned to drive the Irish out of both western Cornwall and southern Wales. In doing so, he placed Aircol Lawhir (“Longhand”, whose Latinized name was Agricola) on the throne of Demetia/Dyfed; and took for himself the kingdom of Gwent.
Morris and Castleden both floated the hypothesis that Tewdric of Gwent is one-in-the-same as the Visigoth admiral, Theodosius; granted land in Cornwall by Ambrosius or Arthur, as discussed here previously. With this land grant came a mandate and authority to patrol the southwestern coasts; and to root out existing and prevent further Irish incursions into Britain.
Returning to our narrative, and attempting to develop a hypothesis for Nennius’ ninth battle, at the “City of the Legion”:
In 511 Arthur and the sub-kings of western Cornwall repel Cerdic’s raid at the “white fort”, Guinnion, identified in this hypothesis as Lands End. This was on the doorstep of Theodosius the Visigoth’s holdings; and it is impossible that he would not have been among the nine “princes” who fought against the invaders under Arthur’s standard; and feasted with him afterward at Lanyon Quoit!
Perhaps immediately following this victory, or perhaps in the next year’s campaign, Theodosius/Tewdric sails across the Severn to Wales; to oust the Déisi and place a scion of the old British dynasty of Dyfed, Aircol Longhand. Afterwards, he moved west into Gwent. There, he is joined by Arthur in battle at Caerleon, where Arthur aides him in seizing the throne.
But in this hypothesis, against whom do they battle?
Another clue is found in monkish chronicles from later centuries; which talk of an Irish expedition led by Fingar, son of the Irish King Clyto. Arriving at Hayle, Cornwall, with 700 warriors, they are attacked by Theodosius and repelled. But to where? Did they return to Ireland? Or, perhaps, cross the narrow Severn to land in Gwent?
Gwent at approximately this time was experiencing dynastic problems, and fragmenting into ever smaller sub-kingdoms. Could these Irish under Fingar (or a successor, if he was killed in the earlier fighting in Cornwall) have attempted to fish in Gwent’s troubled waters, taking advantage of Gwent’s weakened condition?
In this hypothetical scenario, perhaps Theodosius’ campaign in neighboring Dyfed followed close on the repelling of Fingar’s Irishmen; following them across the Severn. In the course of dealing with this Irish threat, Theodosius settles Aircol Longhand on the throne of Demetia/Dyfed.
At Caerleon, the City of the Legion, Arthur joins his ally Theodosius in crushing Fingar’s Irish. Needing a strong ally to secure south Wales, Arthur grants Theodosius a sub-kingdom in the western portion of Gwent, Glywysing. This sub-kingdom names Tewdric as one of its early kings; though the genealogical data in the various monkish chronicles give conflicting dates for his reign.
According to one of these monkish chronicles, the Book of Llan Dav, Theodosius/Tewdric later resigned the kingship of Glywysing in favor of his son, Meurig; to become a hermit/monk! He was later made a Christian saint (St. Tewdric). However, this may be a garbling of disjointed local accounts. It is more likely that Theodoric placed his son on the throne of Glywysing in south Wales; and returned to his lands in Cornwall.
Theodosius/Tewdric ended his life, according to the same sources, in battle beside his son; repelling a Saxon attack. He died victorious, a very old man, this much-traveled Visigoth. He was buried at Mathern, near Chepstow, in the church dedicated to him.
Death of Tewdric
(1) Morris, John, The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. P. 104-105. Barnes and Noble Books, 1996