This is the Eleventh-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.
CERDIC THE SAXON
In the last decade of the 5th century, Romano-British civilization was locked in a death-struggle with the Germanic Anglo-Saxon invaders. From the mouth of the Humber to the Channel, all of Eastern Britain was lost to the newcomers. These lands came to be known in later Welsh chronicles and poems as the “Lost Lands of Lloegyr”.
All along an imaginary line that divided the island roughly east from west, Anglo-Saxon warbands probed and raided, and new settlements pushing ever westward. The “debatable lands” between Anglo-Saxon and Briton were in constant flux, but the archeology supports that before 500 AD the Britons were losing ground.
In 495, a momentous event occurred in the history of Britain: According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) entry for that year, “Cerdic landed in Hampshire with his son, Cynic, in three ships.” He arrives along the swampy coastal region near modern Portsmouth, establishing an enclave.
This was a time when the Saxon’s Angle cousins were establishing enclaves in the northeast, from the Wash to the Highlands. Over the next century these incursions would solidify into the early Angle kingdoms of East Anglia, Deira and Bernicia. To the south, the Jutes under first Hengist and then his son, Oisc (or Æsc) had already created the Kingdom of Ceint (Kent); during their wars against the Britons under Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus in the past generation (see earlier installments of this series). An even more recent and dynamic kingdom, Sussex (South-Saxe) had been created between 477 and 491; by the preeminent Anglo-Saxon warleader on the island, Ælle (see Part Seven).
In 495, there were far greater threats to the free British than these few hundred Saxons establishing an outpost in the swamps at the mouth of the Avon.
However, Cerdic is a significant player in the history of England. His outpost would grow into a bleeding sore in the side of the British kingdom of Dumnonia: the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex! In the next century, Wessex would steadily increase in size and power, devouring Dumnonia; and ultimately the earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Sussex and Kent, as well. In the 9th century Wessex, under its heroic king, Alfred the Great, would become Anglo-Saxon England’s last bastion against Danish conquest of the island.
But that was in the distant future, beyond the vision of any in Arthur’s (or Cerdic’s) own day. Few at the time would have ventured a bet that this “swamp pirate” represented a mortal threat to what was (perhaps) Briton’s strongest kingdom. In the first 20 years of his time in Hampshire, Cerdic was but a nuisance; expanding in the forests and fens along the southern coast, battling occasionally with the local British authorities.
As with most of the key personalities that moved events in this period, little is known of the origins of Cerdic “the Saxon”….