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.
Returning to Vortigern and the military situation in the 440s, it is important to remember that the Roman fortress garrisons had not all departed with Constantine III in 407. While the bulk of the able-bodied and younger soldiers had crossed the channel with the pretender, their families, farms and chattel remained behind; likely guarded by those too old or infirm to march. Of course, some 40 years later those left behind were all very old or else dead.
Who or 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 been the practice for over a century, with duty in the limitanei garrisons becoming hereditary. By the late 4th century, these troops were no better than territorial militia, available for local defense only. (See Part Three)
In most of 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 relatively soft and civilized. It is not surprising that this region of Britain was the first to succumb to the coming barbarian tide.
The bucolic, Romanized south of Britain was home to many prosperous villas. This region was devastated by the “Saxon Terror” that followed the mutiny of Hengist and the Saxon feoderatii in the mid-century.
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 foederati. 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 foederati placed there by the Roman authorities. The presence of Anglo-Saxon grave sites and villages dating to Roman 4th century Britain lends strength to this argument.)
It was in the west, where tribal leaders still had authority and warriors 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: See Part One), came to take over the leadership and defense of Britain.
So what would Vortigern’s army look like four decades after the withdrawal of Roman authority?
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 withered away, Roman generals came to rely more-and-more upon a combination of barbarian foederati and their own mounted bodyguard units. These latter were employed directly by the general, paid out of his own purse (an economic advantage for the ever-strained Imperial treasury) and were members of his Household. They were called “bucellarii“, or “biscuit eaters”, referring to their campaign rations of twice-baked bread (known to 19th and early 20th century horse soldiers as hardtack). Bucellarii were often the professional core of 5th and 6th century Roman field forces. These units 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.
The British “superbus tyrannus” 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”). While in the late Roman Empire these were often lance or bow-armed cavalry (and, in the case of Belisarius’ guards, a combination) in Britain they were likely armed with javelins and/or light spear; wearing coats of mail and helmets of late Roman design.
The court of a Romano-British chieftain, surrounded by his Household (Teulu).
Vortigern’s own bucellarii would likely have been organized in troops numbering between 150 (a common number for the teulu of 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.650 AD 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 “tip of the spear” of any campaign army, this force was primarily for Vortigern’ personal security: the sources indicate he was never popular with his fellow Britons, and his reign (at least the later portion) 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, approximately 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.
Romano-British “pedyt”. The man on the left would be more typical of the rank-and-file British infantry. The well-armored figure to the right is a member of an elite “teulu” regiment of a chieftain or a ranking officer. (Image by Popius)
When campaigning in the north, a British war-leader might be able to 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 were both the descendants of the Sarmatian regiments stationed there by Hadrian, who likely maintained their ancestor’s heavy cavalry traditions. There were also the north British Votadini/Gododdin tribal nobility, who had a strong cavalry tradition all their own.
The poems and accounts of the Briton’s fight against the Anglo-Saxon invader (such as Y Gododdin) are from a later period, when resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invader was either in the far west or in the north of Britain, where tribal aristocratic cavalry predominated. In the early battles against Hengist and Horsa’s “Saxons” the likelihood is that the composition of British forces was closer to the older Roman model: closely ordered units of spear and/or javelin armed infantry, supported by archers in the rear and javelin-armed cavalry on the wings.
Artillery, in the form of scorpions, catapults, and ballista would be available in defense of city or fortress walls, but unlikely to be used in the field.
These British forces were maintained, as in late Roman times, by “annona”: fixed supplies levied from the nobility and the church of food, cattle and billeting when required.
THE EARLY SAXON INVADERS
Moving on to the Anglo-Saxons, what would the warriors who followed Hengist and Horsa to Britain look like, how were they organized and how did they fight?
First, it is important to understand that these were not a single people. They were, in the earliest years, a warband of semi-professional pirates and adventurers; much akin (both racially and culturally) to the Scandinavian Vikings four centuries later. Hengist attracted landless, displaced men from all over the eastern and southern shore of the North Sea, and around the western Baltic: “Old Saxons” from Saxony in north Germany, Danes from the Danish islands (where the semi-legendary Scyldingas were attempting to form a united Danish kingdom), Geats (the people of Beowulf, from south Sweden), Angles and Jutes (Hengist’s own folk) from the Jutland Peninsula, and Frisians and Franks from the Low Countries.
All of these people shared a common Germanic /Scandinavian culture, and in many cases ties of kinship and friendship. Their languages were, if not exactly the same, close enough that they could easily communicate. They worshiped the same Æsir and Vanir gods of northern Europe: crafty Wotan/Odin, bringer of victory; Thunor/Thor, god of thunder and protector of Midguard (earth); Tiw/Tyr, the noble war-god; and the twins Freyr and Freya, gods of harvest and of love. And they shared the common Germanic love of war and plunder for its own sake.
The Germanic/Scandinavian society from which they came was a warrior society”
“A German is not so easily prevailed on to plough the land and wait patiently for harvest as to challenge a foe and earn wounds for his reward. He thinks it spiritless to accumulate slowly by the sweat of his brow what can be got quickly by the loss a little blood.” – Tacitus
Hengist sought to provide his followers with what all Germanic warriors sought: a successful and generous leader to follow. One that would ensure they had regular employment and the chance to accumulate booty. The chieftain was the “ring-giver”. Gold and silver arm rings were both jewelry and currency in Germanic/Scandinavian society. The status of a warrior could be judged at a glance, by the amount of rings on his arms he had been gifted by his lord for valorous and loyal service. That, and the completeness and richness of his armor, weapons, and other accouterments.
Hengist, like all Germanic chieftains, was surrounded by a bodyguard of “hearth-warriors“, called his Gesith which Tacitus calls his comitatus. These warriors were sworn to serve their lord faithfully, much like the 10th-11th century Scandinavian household warriors of Viking chiefs, known as “hirðmen”. This picked band of warriors ate and slept in their lord’s hall, and fought together beneath their lord’s standard.
The Germans considered the breaking of an oath and betrayal of one’s sworn lord to be an unpardonable sin, rendering the offender a niðing (nithing): an abject wretch. A special place in Hel’s icy domain awaited such ill-doers! A warrior was expected to stand, and if necessary, die beside his lord in battle; and it was considered disgraceful to fail to attempt to avenge one’s fallen lord.
The three keels of warriors who followed Hengist and Horsa to Britain were likely men enlisted in the brother’s comitatus. Leaving home-and-hearth behind, they expected the “gift-giver” to compensate them with booty or land. A chief was only followed so long as he was successful. Faithfulness unto death by the warrior must be compensated with gold and glory, or the contract was broken.
As these warriors prospered in Britain, a place with far richer soil and a better climate than back in their northern homelands, word spread throughout the Germanic world that Hengist was a chief to be reckoned with. In Mafia parlance, he was “a man of respect”! The arrival of ships bearing his daughter and later his sons indicates that Hengist’s fame had reached his homeland (Jutland), and his fellow Jutes swarmed to join him. Nennius claims that the “Saxon” homeland became depopulated and was left empty as so many came to join Hengist in Britain. Even allowing for exaggeration, this is unlikely to have been Old Saxony in Germany, which remained populated throughout this period and into the historical record. However, we know that Jutland was occupied soon after by Danes from the islands to the east. Since there is no record of the Danish occupation of Jutland being a violent one, it is likely that the Danes occupied abandoned land left largely fallow by the departed Jutes (who themselves were closely related to the Danes in any case).
Which is not to say that the “Saxons“ of this initial migration were all Jutes. Just that Jutes may have constituted a large portion of the earliest invaders who followed Hengist and Horsa.
These “Saxons” would have been equipped with a round shield made of planks of linden wood, covered with tough cowhide, and sporting a heavy projecting iron boss. His chief weapon would have been a light spear, useful for throwing or retaining for melee. Both angons (heavy throwing spears) and francisca (throwing axes) have been found in Saxon graves of this period as well. These were the defining weapons of the Franks, arguing both for Frankish elements in early Saxon warbands and a cross-pollination of weapons (and tactics) in such a heterogeneous force.
The hallmark weapon of a Saxon warrior was his seax. This large, single-edged utility knife (hunting or fishing tool, eating utensil, and weapon) was ideal for use in the close-quarters battle that resulted when shield-wall met shield-wall, or when men wrestled on the ground in a death-grapple. It was also perfect for finishing-off the wounded enemies littering a battlefield!
Modern replica of nobleman’s seax
Chieftains and better-armed warriors would also carry a broadsword, the favorite weapon of the Germanic noble warrior. These were weapons of very high status in Germanic/Scandinavian society. Handed down from generation-to-generation, these weapons carried with them the honor of the family or tribe. Famous men carried famous swords, which bore names of their own and were often imbued with mythical/magical properties. Sigurd the Dragonslayer bore Gram (“wrath”), Beowulf the sword Hrunting (“roarer”), and Hrolf Kraki the blade Skofnung. Later Viking-Age Scandinavian swords bore names like “Leg-biter”, “Skull-splitter”, and “Peace-Breaker”.
Poorer warriors might carry a scramsax, a longer, heftier version of the seax.
Mail shirts, called byrnies, were also items of high status, and confined only to chieftains or the wealthiest of warriors. After victorious battles against the Romans or Romano-British, mail shirts might be scavenged. But these were in short supply even amongst the British, likely only found in officers and select cavalry units.
Saxon’s weapons and armor were often highly decorated: etched with elaborate designs and symbols, often gilded or silvered. Shields were painted with bright colors, and a dyed woolen cloak complimented the chieftain’s panoply. The Saxon chief in full “war glory” was a splendid sight, indeed!
In battle, the Saxons fought as infantry. Even though horses might be used as pack animals or to convey the wealthiest warriors to the battlefield, the Anglo-Saxon was first-and-foremost a foot soldier, who fought his enemies toe-to-toe. (Ironically for a “non-cavalry” people, the Saxons revered the horse. Hengist means “stallion”, while Horsa means “horse”.)
The first was a rectangular formation in which the front rank’s shields overlapped each other, and subsequent ranks filled in as men in the front ranks fell. While ideally a defensive formation, it could be used on the attack as well.
The “swine array” or “boar’s head” was the favorite attack formation of all Germanic warriors. Legend says that it was taught to man by Wotan/Odin himself. Some recent scholarship suggests this was more a deep battle column than a true wedge.
Modern Viking reenactors demonstrate the swine array formation
In either formation, the King or chieftain would stand in the front rank, at the point of the wedge or the center of the shieldburg. His best equipped and highest-ranking warriors would form the front ranks around him. Warriors of lesser status (and armor) would fill in behind these.
Battles between Germanic/Scandinavian armies started with both sides taunting each other from afar. Champions would sometimes step-out between the two sides, and challenge the enemy to meet them in single combat. Warriors would recite their noble pedigree, the deeds of their ancestors as well as their own. Far from being considered boorish, bragging was encouraged in Germanic society. A warrior won status (“word fame”) by victory in such duels, in full sight of his leader and his peers, particularly against notable enemy champions.
Once the battle began in earnest, the Saxon shieldburg or swine array advanced rapidly toward the enemy. As the distance closed to a dozen yards, those armed with throwing spears or axes would hurl these at their opponents. Then, before the enemy could recover from this barrage, the Saxons would charge forward, smashing bodily into the enemy.
The battle between shield-walls was a savage affair
The goal of the swine array was to penetrate into and break through the enemy shieldburg or line, and in so doing slay its leaders and shatter the enemy formation. Once the Saxon wedge penetrated the front rank of the enemy formation, the integrity of the enemy line was broken and panic soon followed. Units in ancient battles tended to disintegrate from the rear ranks first, as the less steady men in the rear lost heart and ran.
A Saxon army might form-up in a line of wedges, each composed of the retinues of some leader, or his ship’s crew. Alternately, a line might be formed of one large shieldburg, which could go on the offensive by forming into wedges, as circumstances dictated. In their earliest battles against the Britons, the Saxons were often defending river fords against British attacks, as will be seen. In this role, it is likely that in most cases the Saxon’s employed the shieldburg formation, more suited to holding ground than the wedge.
The coming war for Britain would pit the numerically larger but less experienced British militia against smaller but better quality forces of hardened “Saxon” warriors. The Britons would have one distinct advantage: cavalry. But in the battles to come, skirmishing cavalry would prove ultimately ineffective against stolid Saxon shieldwalls. Only the type of cavalry found in the north of Britain was capable of rocking the Saxons back on their heels: hard-charging Sarmatian-like lancers, descendants or imitators of the warriors of the steppe stationed in Britain by Hadrian, nearly two-and-a-half centuries before.
NEXT: THE SAXON TERROR
- Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, chapter XXIII