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 twenty-first-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!
Arthur had arrived at Badon Hill (Mons Badonicus), come fresh from his victories in the North against outlaws and Angle pirates (remembered by Nennius as the 10th and 11th of “Arthur’s Twelve Battles”: the Battles of the River Tribruit and the Hill of Agned). AtopSolsbury/Badon Hill, he could clearly see the Saxons swarming below the walls of Badon, less than two miles away.
Bath (Badon) viewed from atop Solsbury Hill
For Ælle, Arthur’s sudden arrival must have come as an unpleasant shock. The Bretwaldawould have heard that Arthur and his vaunted horsemen were in the north, supposedly too far away to interfere with his move against Badon (Bath); the keystone to his strategy aimed at driving a wedge between the northern and southern British kingdoms. Now Arthur was on the high ground behind the Saxon army, dominating Ælle’s line of communications.
Strategically, it was an unacceptable situation for the Saxon.
Ælle’s reaction was likely to have pulled back from the bloody, all-out assault on Badon’s walls; and to regroup his warriors to face the new threat.
The stage was now set for the Battle of Badon Hill, the last of Nennius 12 Battles of Arthur.
But before laying out a plausible description of the battle, let us reexamine the forces and leaders involved.
According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Ælle was the first king to be called Bretwalda(“Britain Ruler”). While more a “first among equals” than a true king of all the Anglo-Saxons, he likely had the auctoritas to call a great number of the disparate Saxon kings and warlords to his standard when required. The army he brought to Bathon was undoubtedly one which included warbands from all of the Saxon (and possibly Angle) “kingdoms” in Britain. It must have included a great number of the Anglo-Saxon warriors of Britain; in that its defeat proved decisive, stopping (and in fact pushing back) the Saxon advance in Britain for sixty years. Clearly, no small affair.
The core of Ælle’s host was composed of the elite warriors of his own household, hisGesith (what the Roman writer Tacitus called a “comitatus”). Every Germanic warlord maintained a retinue of young “hearth warriors” who ate, slept, and fought beside him. These would die before deserting their lord, and in battle they provided the professional edge of well-equipped fighting men for every Saxon army. Ælle’s three sons, Cissa, Cymen and Wlencing likely fought beside their father as well; though the eldest and heir, theÆtheling Cissa may have had a smaller Gesith of his own.
Anglo-Saxon chieftain or member of Gesith; and Saxon ceorl. (Art by Jason Pope)
The “Gesith” of a great chieftain such as Ælle may have numbered as many as 300 proven warriors. Later Scandinavian kings and Jarls maintained such bodyguards, calledhirðmenn/hirthmen; numbers ranging from just 60 men for a Jarl to as many as several thousand for a wealthy and powerful king such as Cnut the Great. Most Anglo-Saxon chieftains in this earlier, poorer period would have had much smaller retinues; perhaps based upon the “keel”, or ship’s crew of between 30 and 60 men.
Along with the professional warriors of his household, Ælle would have brought the levy of free-born Saxon farmers (ceorls) of his own realm, Sussex (Kingdom of the South Saxons). In later Anglo-Saxon society, this would be called the fyrd. In these early days of constant raid-and-counter-raid between Saxon and Briton, every Saxon was a warrior: land would only be given to warriors capable of defending it and supporting their king in time of war. Sussex under Ælle was a dynamic and aggressive newcomer in Britain; born in blood with the sacking of Romano-British Anderitum (Pevensey Castle)), traditionally dated 491 . At least some of older warriors in his host may have been veterans of Ælle’s first great victory over the hated “Welsh”.
Along with his own South Saxons, the horde Ælle brought west to Badon included the men of Kent (Cantaware), led by their own king, Oisc “Big Knife” , son or grandson of the famedHengist .(Alternate sources call him “Octha of the Bloody Knife“). Geoffrey of Monmouth(hardly a reliable source) names the Saxon leaders as Cheldric, Colgren and Balduph; but these names should be considered mere placeholders for unknown (to him) Anglo-Saxon warlords . From up-and-down the east coast of Britain, every Anglo-Saxon pirate and petty-king joined Ælle in this great campaign against the Britons.