This is the fifteenth-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!
THE HILL OF AGNED
In the previous chapter we built a case for Nennius’ 10th battle of Arthur’s, at the River Tribruit, to have been located on the River Forth; 8 miles above Stirling. Under this scenario Arthur is called north by his brother-in-law, King Lot; in response to a conspiracy of outlaws, exiles, and Angle “Vikings” to march on Din Eidyn (Edinburgh).
A savage character named Garwlwyd (possibly synonymous with the figure known as Gwrgi Garwlwyd in the Welsh Triads) has formed a band of exiles and outlaws, called the “Dog Heads”. 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 Din Eidyn from land and sea.
Arthur and his 300 mounted Cymbrogi rush north from Cornwall, a distance of approximately 515 miles; and arrive at Din Eidyn in ten days (See the previous chapter). Joining with Lot’s forces, they move against Garwlwyd, 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 Angle ally Edlfled has landed near Din Eidyn, some 46 miles to the southeast.
Nennius states that the 11th of Arthur’s battles was at a place called “the hill of Agned”. Many scholars (and Geoffrey of Monmouth) agree that this was at/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 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.
Two views of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh
However, Arthur’s Seat must have had another name before 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 the 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.
With the Hill of Agned tentatively identified as Arthur’s Seat, and the enemy Arthur faced there being a force of Angles, allied to Garwlwyd; 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 the northern Angle kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira under one crown; and in doing so founded the embryonic Kingdom of Northumbria. However, 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; so 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; conflating events sometimes separated by as much as a century. It is entirely possible that even if the events described in Nennius, 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; when we know Æthelfrith of Bernicia/Northumbria to have lived, rather than 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, it cannot have been the founder of Northumbria. But instead, must have been a different and earlier leader.
What is more likely is that this was some otherwise unknown Viking leader; then raiding the Lothian coast. 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. This Edlfled was likely an Anglish pirate making 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” for males. Thus Æthelfrith, Æthelred, Æthelwulf for a male; and Æthelflæd or Æthelwynn for a female (to cite a few examples). Clearly, the Cumbric-Welsh rendering of this Angle leader’s name is the feminine form.
Scandinavian/Germanic culture allowed for women who took up arms to fight beside men as warriors. “Shieldmaidens” are referenced in later Scandinavian Sagas; many of which chronicle events of about or near this period (both Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki are roughly contemporary with Arthur). Two of the most famous of these legendary/archetypical warrior maidens include Brynhild in the Volsunga saga, and Hervor in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (“The Saga of Hervar and Heidrek”). Three 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.
It is therefore not beyond the realm of possibility for such a force of Angle Vikings to have been led by a “shieldmaiden”.
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 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 is no more. Expecting Garwlwyd’s imminent arrival, it is with astonishment that Edlfled and her Angle pirates see Arthur and Lot’s victorious forces arrive below them; Arthur’s dragon standard waiving over them in the northern breeze!
The 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 opined that in war morale factors are twice as important as all other “physical” factors; observing that “in war the morale is to the physical as two-to-one”). This unexpected turn of events has drained the pirates of their courage. Beginning with the back ranks of their shieldwall, individual Angles begin to slip away, looking to escape to their ships moored in the estuary. A trickle becomes a flood, and the Angles soon break in panic; blood-hungry Britons close on their heels!
Men on foot have little chance escaping mounted pursuers in open country; few of the Vikings would have reached the safety of the sea.
Arthur and his Cymbrogi feast with Lot and his Gododdin warriors that night. The following day, once more 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, and 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 include 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 the headsman’s axe.
The crisis in Gododdin is ended. But a far greater threat to the British kingdoms is looming in the south.
ÆLLE’S FINAL SOLUTION
While Arthur was busy from 507 through 514 consolidating his power among the British kingdoms, another figure was consolidating the Saxon kingdoms of the southeast into a coalition aimed at destroying all that Arthur and Ambrosius before him had so far achieved.
His name was Ælle, King of the South Sax (Sussex), recognized by all the Saxon kings and chieftains as “Bretwalda”, the paramount Saxon leader in Britain.
Ælle had come to Britain rather late in the game; arriving only in 477AD, thirty years or more after the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in Kent. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) reads:
477: Ælle and his 3 sons, Cymen and Wlencing and Cissa, came to the land of Britain with 3 ships… and there killed many Welsh and drove some to flight into the wood called Andredes leag.
From his initial lodgment along the southeast coast, Ælle slowly expanded his holdings at the expense of the native Britons. In 485 he defeated a British force (possibly commanded by Ambrosius Aurelianus) at a place called Mearcred’s Burn. Six years later, the chief British stronghold in the region, the old Roman Saxon Shore fortress of Anderitum, fell to Ælle and his South Sax in 491. The place was packed with soldiers and their families, descendants of the last Roman garrison; and refugees from the surrounding territory. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states the Saxons “killed all who lived in there; there was not even one Briton left there.”
Sometime after the bloody fall of Anderitum, Ælle was hailed as Bretwalda by his fellow Saxon leaders; eclipsing the older Jute dynasty of Hengist in Kent, now ruled by his son, Oisc. We don’t know what other incipient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms existed in what later became Essex (“East Sax”), East Anglia, Norfolk (“North Folk”), Middlesex (“Middle Sax”), Suffolk (“South Folk”), etc. All of the lands between the Thames estuary and The Wash were home to some of the earliest Saxon settlements in the 5th century (and perhaps as early as the 4th century; presumably Anglo-Saxon Foederatii (mercenaries) settled by late Roman or early Sub-Roman British authorities, particularly Vortigern). It is likely that all of these early Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Britain acknowledged Ælle’s authority as Bretwalda.
A desultory state of hostilities had existed between the Anglo-Saxons and the native Britons (whom the Anglo-Saxons had taken to calling “Welsh”, meaning “foreigner” or “stranger”!) since at least 451AD; when the Saxon mercenaries in Romano-British service mutinied and began slaughtering their patrons (an event known as “The Saxon Terror”; some scholars suggest an earlier date). In the subsequent decades, the tide had shifted back and forth; with the island becoming subdivided along a north-south axis. In the second decade of the 6th century, the Anglo-Saxons held approximately the eastern third of the island south of the Humber; with likely smaller enclaves hugging the coastal regions from the Humber north to the edges of Lothian and the Highlands. All of these lands and warriors, presumably, acknowledged Ælle’s authority to one extent or another.
Modern archeology demonstrates the extent of Anglo-Saxon settlement. We see that throughout the period from the mid-5th century to the early 6th century, the Anglo-Saxon population of Britain steadily and precipitously grew. Every year, new “keels” of land-hungry warriors came across the North Sea to join their cousins in Britain. Every year adventurous bands of plunder-hungry warriors raided the British lands.
Between the two races a blood-feud had gone on for nearly three generations. As the Anglo-Saxon population in the eastern portion of the island grew, so grew the pressures upon their chieftains, and ultimately Ælle as their Bretwalda, to find “lebensraum” (living space) upon which to settle the newcomers. As virtually every free-borne Saxon male was a warrior, these newcomers also brought Ælle the force necessary to take what was needed; to achieve a “final solution” to the Welsh problem.
While Arthur was in the north (514-515?), the ageing Ælle was making his preparations. The war arrow went out to the various chiefs of the north; to Kings and Viking warlords back in the “Old Country” of Scandinavia and north Germany; and to his fellow Saxon king, Oisc “Big Knife” of Kent.
Cerdic of the West Saxons was a special case. In theory, he was an “Ealdorman”, owing homage to and ruling his lands in (future) Hampshire in the name of Ælle (as previously discussed). However, that wily and ambitious swamp fox had fortified himself in his marshland fastness south of the Sarum Plain. From here he raided-and-retreated as he pleased. He exorcised a level of independence that must have irked the old wolf, Ælle! While he no doubt gave verbal commitment to the coming campaign, Cerdic was far too crafty to stick his neck out too far.
Just a few years earlier, Cerdic had made the mistake of doing just that. Leading a daring seaborne raid along the Cornish coast, he had nearly lost his head when he and his men were caught ashore by Arthur and the lords of Cornwall at Guinnion fort (near modern Lands End). The resulting battle (remembered by Nennius as Guinnion fort, and by the Cornishmen as Vellan-Druchar ) cost him dearly (see Ch. 12). While Cerdic managed to escape back to his ships, more than half of his followers were cut down!
Since then he had lain low in his marshland stronghold; replenishing his warband and biding his time. It was any man’s guess if he would answer the summons to war when it came. He’d had a taste of Arthur’s steel, and was none too keen to repeat the experience.
Came it did, in 516. Longships carrying warbands clogged the Thames estuary, as warriors from across Britain and from over the seas came at Ælle’s summons. Like flies to a dunghill, the promise of war and plunder drew highborn chiefs and landless adventurers alike. Every Viking pirate hungry for riches would have flocked to Britain as the warbands gathered.
This was a time of great unsettlement back in the Scandinavian homelands. Norway and Denmark were still but a patchwork of warring jarldoms; and the Swedish king’s authority extended not much beyond his hall at Uppsala. Allegiances shifted easily, with warriors taking service with whichever strong warlord promised plunder and riches.
In 516, that strong leader appeared to be Ælle, king of the South Sax and Bretwalda of Britain!
NEXT: THE BADON CAMPAIGN