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 fourth-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!
But who was Arthur? Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.
(Read Part Three here)
THE ARMIES OF VORTIGERN AND HENGIST: COMPOSITION OF FORCES IN THE MID-FIFTH CENTURY
Returning to Vortigern and the military situation in the 440s, it is important to remember that all of the professional Roman soldiers who had not left the island in 407 were either dead or grown old in service.
What replaced them?
It is very likely that in the old border forts, which had become crowded villages (albeit very strongly fortified villages), sons took their father’s place in the unit. This had probably been the case for over a century, with duty in the limitanei garrisons becoming hereditary. Now these men were no better than territorial militia, available for local defense only.
In the southern heartland of Britain, where Roman roots had sunk deep and towns and wealthy villas abounded, defense was only provided by local civic militias and the small retinues of rich landed nobles. Unlike the north, which had the Wall garrisons and fierce tribal allies to defend it; or in the western hills of Wales and Cornwall, where the tribal system was still strong; the southern Britons had grown soft and civilized. It is not surprising that this region of Britain was the first to succumb to the coming barbarian tide.
The old command of the Comes Litoris Saxonici (“Count of the Saxon Shore”) had deteriorated much more than had that of the Dux Britanniarum in the north. While the coastal forts still remained occupied for several more generations, and were very strong places indeed; they had been stripped to the bone by first Stilicho and later Constantine III, and had no troops to spare to contribute to the defense of the interior.
(Recent scholarship has suggested that many of these “Saxon Shore” defenses were, in fact, manned by Saxon feoderati. It has always been supposed that the “Saxon Shore” was so named because it was the target of Saxon raids. However, it may be that it gained its name because of the presence of large number of settled Saxon feoderates placed there by the Roman authorities. The presence of Anglo-Saxon grave sites and villages dating to the 4th century and the Roman occupation gives strength to this argument.)
It was in the west, where tribal leaders still had authority, and warriors still maintained a martial tradition, that troops were to be had who could hold back the barbarian. It is understandable that it is from here that Vortigern, a prince of the Cornovii (and perhaps a former Bishop of London?), came to take over the leadership and defense of Britain.
So what would Vortigern’s army look like?
ROMANO-BRITISH FORCES IN THE TIME OF VORTIGERN (425-455)
In the 5th century, as the Western Roman authority became increasingly tenuous and the comitatensis armies disappeared, Roman generals came to rely more-and-more upon a combination of barbarian feoderati and their own mounted bodyguard units. These latter were employed directly by the general and were members of his Household; and paid out of his own purse (an economic advantage for the ever-strained Imperial treasury). They were called “bucellarii“, a term translating literally as “biscuit eaters”; referring to their campaign rations of twice-baked bread, or hardtack, that was their daily ration. Bucellarii were often the professional core of 5th and 6th century Roman field forces; and could be quite large; depending on the resources and prestige of the general. The largest recorded was the household regiment of the great Eastern Roman commander, Belisarius; which spearhead all of his campaigns and numbered as many as 7,000 men.
Vortigern likely maintained a regiment of bucellarii, recruited mostly from the loyal western tribes. As the memory of Rome faded further and further, and Brythonic replaced Latin as the lingua franca in the former Roman province of Britannia, these body-guard units came to be known as Teulu (“Family”; or “Household”). These were cavalry armed with javelins and/or light spear, wearing coats of mail and helmets of late Roman design.
Vortigern’s own bucellarii would likely have been organized in troops numbering between 150 (the number of teulu for later Welsh princes) and 300 men (the standard unit strength for Late Roman and Byzantine cavalry regiments). The overall strength of his Teulu is unknowable. But a Welsh poem c.650AD mentions a certain Celtic prince named Cynddylan maintaining as many as 700 warriors at his court. Another northern British chieftain who was a contemporary of Vortigern maintained a Teulu of 900 cavalry (three troops of 300 horsemen each). Considering his position and prestige, it is unlikely that Vortigern’s Teulu would have numbered less.
Though expected to form the hard-core of any campaign army, this force was primarily for Vortigern’ personal security: he was never popular with his fellow Britons, and his reign (at least the latter part) depicts a man deeply distrusted by and distrustful of his countrymen. When he moved himself to make war, Vortigern would rely on local militia forces of infantry and (to lesser extent) the mounted retainers of landed magnates and tribal princes to rally around and flesh-out his professionals. These latter would have operated as javelin-armed heavy or light cavalry, in the late Roman style.
These local British militias would be mostly spear and javelin armed infantry, called Pedyt (from the Latin “Pedites”, or Foot) supported by small numbers of archers. They would have been organized and equipped much like the late Roman auxilia and legions; in units of 1,000 (sub-divided into units of 100 men each). One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the 4,000 British casualties at Creacanford as 4 troops, suggesting units of 1,000 each; the same size as the late Roman legio. Body armor would be limited to only the officers, with helmets more ubiquitous. The spatha pseudo-broadsword would be the weapon of second-resort.
When in the north, a British warleader could draw from the garrisons of the old Wall forts and settlements. These were likely better armed and armored than the civic militia in the south. Importantly for the future, among these….
(Deadliest Blogger has moved. To continue reading, go here)