This is the sixteenth-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!
A GATHERING OF WOLVES
Mid-summer 516 A.D. saw longships arriving daily in the Thames estuary; rowing up the Medway and landing at Durobrivis (“stronghold by the bridge”), the former Roman fortress-town that once warded the Medway crossing.
Its Saxon rulers had shortened its name to “Robrivis”. The Saxon chronicler Bede would claim mistakenly that the origin of the name came from an otherwise unknown Saxon warlord, Hrofi’s, fortified camp: calling it “Hrofes-cæster; which would eventually morph into the name it bears today, Rochester.
Here the “great army” of Ælle, the Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda (“Briton Ruler”), gathered in camps pitched in the sunlit meadows that lined the Medway River of Saxon Kent. Warriors from throughout the north arrived daily to join in the coming campaign; aimed at laying the Celtic Kingdoms of the west under the Saxon sword once and forever. Warbands of Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Danes, Gotar, Norsemen, and perhaps even a ship’s crew or two of Svear (Swedes); each in their own camp, each led by their own eorls and chieftains. Some were men native to Britain, whose fathers (and in some cases grandfathers) had settled in the eastern portion of the island in the days of the last Romans, or when Vortigern led the Britons; as “foederati”, mercenary military settlers. Others, landless adventurers in search of new lands or merely crews of Viking freebooters, came from across the sea in response to rumors of war and rich plunder to be had under the standard of the Bretwalda.
As the long summer days dragged on, idle warriors ate, drank (beer and mead were favorites of Germanic/Scandinavian warriors), diced, wrestled, boasted, fought duels, and abused the Briton slave girls who served them. All the while new shiploads (“keels”) of warriors arrived to join in the despoiling of Britain. Likely no such force had ever gathered in Britain before under a single Germanic leader.
Winston Churchill, in his splendid “History of the English-Speaking Peoples”, wrote: “Of all the tribes of the Germanic race none was more cruel than the Saxons”. In their first devastating wave of invasion in the 450’s, they created such a record of slaughter that this episode in British History became known as the “Saxon Terror”. Though slave-taking and trading was a lucrative business throughout the world in this (as in most) periods of human history, for whatever reason the early Saxon attacks on Britain were distinguished by rapine and wholesale slaughter on a scale not seen in early “barbarian” invasions of the Roman Empire and its former territories. Only the Huns built up a greater reputation for bloody-minded ferocity.
This new gathering of warbands under Ælle promised to be in the same sanguine tradition. These were harsh men in a notably harsh age. For those Anglo-Saxon warriors native to Britain, this was “war to the knives”; a final reckoning of generational blood-feuds with the hated “Welsh”. As for those others from across the cold North Sea, these were merciless Viking reivers. Like a pack of hungry wolves, they had come to feast upon the carcass of Roman Britain!
King Ælle and his South Saxons likely camped at the center of this bivouac, beneath his horse-skull standard. These were Ælle’s own red-handed thegns and ceorls; veterans of many battles and bloody massacres. Adjacent to theirs was the camp of the Men of Kent, the white horse banner of the House of Hengist waving in the summer breeze. These were the heirs of the men who had followed Hengist and Horsa, first of the Saxon warlords to carve out a kingdom on the back of Roman Britain. Now they followed their king, Æsc/Oisc Big Knife, son of Hengist. 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 5,000). 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.
Their target was the former Roman resort city of Aquae Sulis, nestled in a Dumnonian valley of the Avon River. Its name meant the “Waters of Sulis”, an old pagan Celtic goddess once worshipped in the British West Country. Under the Romans, the natural hot springs was developed into a Roman bath complex. But in post-Roman Britain it was known simply as Bath.
Nennius, the 9th century Welsh chronicler, states that Bath was known to the post-Romans as Badon. The syllable th in early British was indicated by a dd, which because of a lack of standardization in spelling was often rendered as a single d (or ð). Thus Bath was spelled Baððonor Baðon; pronounced “Bathon”.
It was to Badon, this quite Roman town slumbering beside the Avon, that Ælle and his rapacious horde now marched. It was here that his “final solution” to the Welsh problem would be decided, and the future of Britain determined.
Many locations have been suggested as the correct location for this, the 12th and climactic of Nennius’ Twelve Battles of Arthur as Dux Bellorum. Though I believe Bath, Somerset to be the correct location, here are some of the candidates suggested by others:
Some scholars (Winston Churchill included) have suggested Liddington Hillfort near Swindon, in Wiltshire. This site is well situated astride the junction of the Roman road connecting Calleva (Silchester) to Corinium (Cirenchester); and the ancient Ridgeway, in use continuously since the Iron Age. However, Liddington was well within the zone of Saxon settlement by the early 6th century, and with Saxon settlements on either side was unlikely to have been occupied by a British garrison in this period.
Bardon Hill in Leicestershire is another candidate. Local legend claims the honor, having Arthur and his Cymbrogi perched upon the heights, charging down upon the advancing Saxon army. A nearby field is called Battle Flat, where local stories say Arthur’s horsemen broke the Saxon forces. The same legends claim that the dead were buried at nearby Billabarrow hill. Placing Badon Hill at Bardon is attractive in that it places the battle right in the middle of the island; within the “debatable lands” between the two races. However, it makes little sense for a Saxon army from south of Britain to march northwest, toward Gwynedd (presumably), with British Dumnonia right on their western doorstep!
Bowden Hill, a conspicuous summit in West Lothian, has been proposed by those proponents of a “northern Arthur”. This location falls apart for the same reason the “northern Arthur” theory does: how, reasonably, can a battle fought clearly against and to stop Saxon aggression in the south of Britain (where the Saxon, as opposed to Angle kingdoms and holdings were all located) be placed in the Scottish lowlands? Are we to believe that Ælle and Oisc marched or sailed their forces into Lothian to attack Gododdin; when their hereditary and closest enemy, British Dumnonia, was so close at hand?
Badbury Rings in Dorset is a more plausible candidate. It is in the south, warding the southern route into Dumnonia. It was an Iron Age hillfort, and would likely have been occupied by a garrison; keeping an eye on Cerdic and his nearby West Saxons. Of all the candidates other than Bath, it has the strongest claim.
Brent Knoll, a high hill in Somerset, also has a claim. It sports an Iron Age Hillfort, and at first glance appears an attractive candidate. However, it lies southwest of Bath, near the Bristol Channel/Severn Sea. To reach it, a Saxon army would have to by-pass British-held Bath, leaving it defended in their rear. Not only would this make no tactical sense (a British force in Bath would be able to harass their rearguard, not to mention cut off their supply and communications with their homes in the east) it would make no strategic sense: Aquae Sulis/Bath was a strategic target of value; the remote Brent Knoll hillfort was not.
Proponents of Brent Knoll have proposed a scenario in which a Saxon seaborne force, sailing up the Bristol Channel and landing on the nearby coast could have marched inland to besiege the hillfort. While the Anglo-Saxons were a seafaring people, and such a campaign by a raiding force of Vikings would 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 major 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 marching west along the Roman roads was both available and safer?
Interestingly, though, Geoffrey of Monmouth has the Saxons using a modest version of this strategy: landing from the sea at Totnes, in Devon; a shorter and more “doable” voyage. From there he has them devastating the country as far as the Severn Sea; ultimately laying siege to Bath.
Which brings us back to Bath as the most likely candidate for the battle.
First, Bath lies in a strategic position amidst the Cotswold Hills, astride the Fosse Way. Its capture would sever the land route north from Dumnonia to the British kingdoms of Cumbria/Wales and the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”): the British kingdoms of Elmet, Rheged, Strathclyde, and Gododdin. Secondly, Bath was a place of some significance. Though its size at this date is unknown, it was likely a large and prosperous town; the well-known “baths of Badon” bringing “tourists” and visitors from throughout Celtic Britain. These factors would make it such an attractive strategic target that the Saxons would attack it again in 577, some sixty years later. Interestingly, of this later attack on Bath, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the town “Baðanceaster”: obviously the Saxons thought of it as Bathon/Badon. Finally, as noted above, Geoffrey of Monmouth cites it as the location of the battle, perhaps drawing on older Welsh sources, now lost.
THE SAXON APPROACH
It has been long established that Saxon (and later Danish Viking) forces used the Roman roads whenever possible; calling these “heerpaths” (“heer” meaning ‘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). This route would entail following Watling Street northwest, bypassing Londinium and crossing the Thames; then marching west along the Akeman Street connecting road to the Fosse Way. While not the direct (or obvious) route, this could be turned to advantage, gaining strategic surprise. It also would allow Ælle to gather the Anglo-Saxon settlers north of the Thames; particularly from those small settlements (“burhs”) within the “debatable lands”, and late-comers from the Angle settlements to the north.
- From Londinium, a road ran southwest to Calleva (Silchester). This otherwise-unnamed extension of the Port Way was known in the later Dark Ages as the “Devil’s Highway”. From Calleva, connecting roads ran due west directly to Aquae Sulis/Badon. This route had the advantage of being the most direct. We don’t know if the towns and forts of Wiltshire at Liddington Hillfort, Cunetio, etc were in British hands or abandoned; but the presence of Anglo-Saxon pottery and gravesites during this period hint that this area was (at the least) within the “debatable lands”, dotted with Saxon burhs. Advancing along this route would allow Ælle to collect these warriors as he advanced.
- The sea route was also an option: sailing past the Isle of Wight and landing on the Dumnonian coast between Dorchester and Exeter. As noted above, this is how Geoffrey of Monmouth had the Saxons come; landing at Totnes and marching north to Bath, devastating the countryside as they went.
“ [the Saxons] went on shore at Totness. No sooner were they landed, than they made an utter devastation of the country as far as the Severn sea, and put all the peasants to the sword. From thence they pursued their furious march to the town of Bath, and laid siege to it.” –History of the Kings of Britain
However, it is doubtful that there would have been sufficient naval transport for so large a horde. Though some of Ælle’s warriors may have come from across the North Sea, the bulk were second generation settlers, farmers and landlords; unlikely to have possessed ships of their own.
All factors considered, the second, direct route is the most likely.
Londinium, much shrunken since its days as capital of the Roman province, was likely an “open city”; a merchant port used by northern traders (the presence of large amounts of Mediterranean pottery in Cornwall indicates that more “civilized” traders from the former Roman lands chose to trade with their civilized British counterparts in the west of the Island rather than with the untrustworthy Saxons in the east, through Londinium). Surrounded by Saxon settlements, it was unlikely to contain a hostile British garrison; and yet we have no record of it falling to the Saxons earlier. Therefore an accommodation with the newcomers is likely.
Ælle’s forces by-passed Londinium, crossing the Thames there or nearby; then pushed west. At Staines, the horde would re-cross the Thames along the “Devil’s Highway”/Port Way. Moving southwest, the Saxons would reach Calleva, some 36 miles away, in a matter of days (an army of this size likely traveled at a relatively slow pace, perhaps making 10 – 15 miles a day).
Calleva Atrebatum had once been a prosperous Roman town; civitas-capital of the Atrebates tribe. Calleva is not unusual of the various Roman cities of Southern Britain in being abandoned shortly after the end of the Roman era. While no one knows exactly when the city was abandoned or why, the most likely time and reason was as a result of the “Saxon Terror” in the mid-5th century.
Gildas, the 6th century monkish chronicler, records the fate of Romano-British towns in the face of the “Saxon Terror”:
“(the Saxon “fire”) devastated all the neighboring cities and lands, and did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean.”
Of the towns, such as Calleva:
“…all the columns were leveled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side. Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses…”
This is a vivid description of the aftermath of pillage and despoliation. This was the likely fate of Calleva Atrebatum. When Ælle’s savage horde marched past in the late summer heat, it was but a ghost-haunted ruin; the still unburied skeletons of its citizens entombed under the scorched and fallen masonry.
From here the Saxons took the connecting road west to Badon/Bath, 65 miles to the west; moving on to Cunetio, on the Kennet River by modern Mildenhall. This former Roman fort-turned-market was also abandoned, likely at the same time as Calleva. Crossing the river, the Saxons were now only 35 miles from their target.
Three kilometers northeast of Badon/Bath, the connecting road Ælle’s force was traveling (the modern “High Road”) reaches the Avon River. Here, at modern Bathford, the road bends northwest and crosses the Bybrook River, a tributary of the Avon; before joining the Fosse Way as it descends a ramp-like spur of the Bannerdown plateau. From here, the Fosse Way travels on to Bath. But as it does it passes through a mile-wide choke point between the Avon and another high mound: Solsbury Hill.
Made somewhat famous by the Peter Gabriel song by the same name, Solsbury Hill rises 625 feet above the Avon. Atop its heights is the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort. However, there is no evidence that it was refortified during the post-Roman period.
As Ælle’s forces passed by its shoulder, the old king may have ridden to the top. From its heights, the view of the surrounding countryside is spectacular. Less than two miles to the southwest his prize lay before him: Badon!
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). Though 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.
Wither Arthur was still at Din Eidyn following the victory at Agned Hill (identified earlier as the volcanic rock known as Arthur’s Seat at Edinburgh), or had moved to Alt Clut in Strathclyde as Geoffrey suggests; he was in the north and had to cover some 450-500 miles (depending on location and route) as quickly as possible. Speed was essential!
This was an existential crisis of the first order. If Badon/Bath fell to the Saxons, Romano-Britain would be cut in two! Arthur’s own native kingdom of Dumnonia would be isolated, and a fatal blow struck to British unity.
Losing no time, Arthur and his Cymbrogi (and perhaps some picked mounted men from among the northern petty-kings who owed him favors and allegiance) rode post-haste southward! 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 Cymbrogi likely rode the largest horses available to a Roman heavy cavalryman; 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 travel time of 5 day’s hard riding would not be impossible.
There were roughly two routes by which Arthur could ride south; on either side of the central spine of hills that run through the center of Britain, the Pennines. 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 Eburacum/York. Following mainly Dere Street as far south as Yorkshire (perhaps being joined by volunteers from the household troops of his friend, King Gurgust), 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, 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 taken refuge in the town. As his barbarian horde 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.
Roman cities all 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 was no exception.
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) were far from masters of logistics. A “barbarian” army on campaign lived off of pillaging the land. When a particular area was picked-clean, the army perforce needed to move on or starve 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. Finally, given the poor hygiene and sanitation of Germanic barbarian armies in general and the Saxons in particular, camp pestilence was a greater threat than enemy weapons!
The second way of eliminating a fortified British town or hillfort was simply to occupy the neighborhood near a British town, establishing Saxon 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.
The last resort was simple escalade and battery. 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, the fierce Saxons were more than a match for any town burgher or 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!
Storming 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, besides the townsmen, was defending the place. But it is not unlikely that at least some of these local Dumnonian lords might have rushed trained men of their own “Teulu” (household warriors) into the town at news of the Saxon approach.
But the full muster of the Dumnonian levy would be underway; perhaps at Cadbury Castle hill fort, 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 warbands and militia levy of Dumnonia would gather to prepare for the relief of Badon.
South Cadbury Castle hill fort
Geoffrey of Monmouth gives an important role in his account to “Duke Cador of Cornwall”. This character may well have been based upon the very real Dumnonian leader, Cado ap Erbin (or ap Geraint); 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. Both are named in the 6th century elegy on the Battle of Llongborth (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 Badon may not have had.
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 were spent in cutting timber for ladders and for a ram. On the third day, these assembled, the Saxons moved into position.
Perhaps the Saxons attacked in the early morning. At first light, their ladders were placed up against the walls, and their rams hammered at the northern and western portals (the eastern wall was warded by the river). The fighting would have been savage and desperate. However, before the Saxons could sweep over the battlements or batter-in the gates, help arrived from (for Ælle) an unexpected direction: From the very way by which he had come just days before: the northeast, down the Fosse Way.
Arthur had arrived at Badon, and the dragon standard waved atop Solsbury Hill!
 Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume 1, The Birth of Britain, Barnes and Noble 2005, p 55
 Ibid, P 52
 Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, Book IX, Ch.3
 Castleden, Rodney, “King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend”, Routledge 2000, P. 114