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 fifth-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.
THE SAXON TERROR
Vortigern had nurtured the Saxon wolf, from mere pup to full grown lupine menace. Like Fenris of Norse legend, the beast could be chained no longer. Hengist and his Saxon foederatii turned upon Vortigern and the Britons, devouring their host.
The brawny Horsa and the wily Hengist
The precise year of the Saxon mutiny is unknown. It is unlikely to have occurred earlier than 449, and certainly no later than 455. Nor do we know the number of Saxon warriors involved in the insurrection. An estimate based upon the number of Saxon ships that according to the sources joined Hengist in Briton prior to the mutiny render a number not less than 1,000 warriors, and not more than 3,000 (a high and unlikely estimate).
Furthermore, in his time as the High King Vortigern’s chief captain, Hengist may have plotted with and been able to win over those descendants of Saxon foederates settled in Britain by the Romans in the 4th century. Archaeology has revealed that Saxon settlements may have dotted the eastern fringe of Britain along the so-called Saxon Shore. These settlers might have risen at Hengist’s signal and joined their ethnic cousins in pillaging their Celtic neighbors.
However many or few, Hengist’s foederates constituted the only standing body of “professional” troops in the heart of Britain, aside from Vortigern’s own household troops (bucellarii or teulu), who would have numbered a few hundred at best. Little stood between them and the nearly undefended civilized heartland of Roman Britain. Saxon warbands fanned-out throughout the countryside and spread fire and bloody destruction throughout the prosperous southeastern and central portion of Britain. Farms and manor houses were pillaged and burned, towns were sacked and likewise put to the torch. Men were slaughtered, women raped and murdered or, along with children, enslaved. These pagan Saxons had nothing but contempt for Christian places of worship: churches were robbed, their priest’s butchered, their alters desecrated.
Gildas, writing nearly a century later, states that the Saxon violence:
“…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.”
During this time many thousands of wealthier Romano-British and their retainers fled the country in despair, crossing the Channel to find sanctuary in Armorica (modern Brittany) in Northwestern Gaul, which bears their name to this day. This was not a process of months but of years. Throughout the century, Brittany remained an alternative refuge for Romano-Britons. In their haste to escape the murderous Saxons, many buried coins and other valuables to lighten their burdens and in hopes of one day returning to their estates, when they could be recovered. Archaeology has recovered hundreds of such coin hoards, mute testament to the effects of the Saxon Terror.
What role did Vortigern, the ageing High King, play in these events? Was he a helpless bystander, deserted by his Saxon mercenaries who now too orders only from their own leaders? Or was he Hengest and Horsa’s puppet ruler, either a willing collaborator or their hostage? The narrative provides no clear answers. But his final chapter in the unfolding tragedy was yet to come.
AETIUS AND ATTILA
Events in Britain did not occur in a vacuum. Britain had been part of the Roman world for four centuries. It would continue to trade with the Roman Mediterranean, importing (among other things) pottery till into the 6th century. As we have already seen (Part Two) in the previous decade the Britons had appealed to the Roman general Flavius Aetius, the Magister Militum in Gaul, for aid. Aetius served the weak and ultimately paranoid emperor Valentinian III. But for two decades Aetius had been the real power in the Western Roman Empire. Much of his efforts had gone to stabilizing Roman authority in Gaul, which by the late 440s had produced positive if not yet conclusive results.
Flavius Aetius surrounded by his barbarian bodyguards (bucellarii)
Thus the promise (or threat?) of Roman intervention, and reestablishment of authority in Britain, was a very real possibility throughout the first half of the 5th century. But in 451, on the eve of Saxon Terror, any chance of Roman aid to Britain evaporated, as Aetius and the Western Roman Empire had to deal with a deadly threat to Gaul and to the very existence of the Roman Empire in the West: Attila the Hun!
The Huns had long been the bogeyman hovering just beyond the Roman world. Their push into the plains of the Ukraine in the 4th century had shattered the Gothic kingdom of Ermanaric and pushed the Visigoths into the Roman Empire with disastrous results for the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. The Huns had steadily moved further and further westward in the late 4th century and first decades of the 5th, pushing before them like a gust front the Germanic peoples of eastern Europe. Aside from the Visigoths, the Vandals, Alans, and Seubi had pushed into and settled parts of the Western Empire. Others, like the Ostrogoths and Gepids had been absorbed into the expanding Hunnic Empire as subject peoples.
The Huns were the barbarian that all other barbarians feared!
By the first quarter of the 5th century the Huns had settled in mass within the devastated and largely depopulated former Roman province of Pannonia. Straddling the Danube, the heartland of the new Hunnic territories included the plains of what would come to be known as “Hungary”: perfect grazing land for a nomadic steppe people.
Once they had become accustomed to each other, Huns were often found serving as mercenaries within Roman armies. Aetius in particular had long used Hunnic warriors in his own household regiment (bucellarii). In his tenure as Magister Militum of the Western Empire it is very likely Aetius introduced the widespread use of Hunnic-style horse archery to the Roman Army (spreading to the Eastern Roman Army as well). To insure his position of primacy against rival generals in the Western Empire he needed a steady and available supply of these hearty, ferocious warriors.
Upon becoming king of the Huns in 434, Attila began a policy of alternatively extorting and raiding the Eastern Roman Empire. In the 440’s, the Huns devastated the Roman Balkans, defeating Roman forces on several occasions and ultimately extorting a large annual tribute in gold in return for withdrawing beyond the Danube. In 451, Attila turned is attention to the Western Empire, and invaded Gaul with a large army (the exact size is speculative, but between 30,000 and 50,000 men would seem a fair estimate). This invasion would culminate in Attila’s defeat at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (also called the Battle of Chalons).
With Aetius’ forces tied up in the defense of Gaul, and the Roman presence in Gaul seemingly on the verge of extinction in any case, the question arises: could not the anything-if-not-opportunistic Hengist have been emboldened to mutiny by Aetius’ distraction with Attila’s invasion, and with this the removal of any threat of Roman intervention in Britain? We can never know, of course. But the possible link between these two events is intriguing.
As stated earlier, this was a period of Romano-British diaspora, with many thousands of Britons leaving the island to find refuge in Armorica/Brittany. There they became neighbors with clans of Alani tribesmen, an Eastern European horse people settled in Armorica by Aetius. This was to prove a serendipitous convergence of events that would pay dividends in the years ahead during time of Arthur.
The Alans were a Massagetae people, perhaps related to the Sarmatians. They were excellent horseman, noted for their skill with lance, bow, and javelin. There is no record of conflict between these and the émigré Britons. What seems likely is that the two got on well together, supporting and eventually amalgamating into one “Breton” people by the Middle Ages. The Medieval Bretons were noted horseman, and their use of traditional steppe warfare tactics, such as feigned withdrawal to lure an enemy into disastrous pursuit.
Like the Sarmatians long settled in the north of Britain, the Alans in Brittany had a tradition of heavy shock cavalry: the one decisive weapon against which the Saxons had no defense. Now, in Brittany, a generation of Roman Britons (who like all Celts had a cavalry tradition of their own) would grow to manhood exchanging knowledge with their new neighbors; as well as inheriting a blood vendetta against the Saxon invaders of their homeland.
THE BRITONS STRIKE BACK
At this point in the narrative the British tradition (as chronicled in the Historia Brittonum by the 9th century Welsh monk Nennius, elaborating upon Gildas; and in the fanciful Historia Regum Britanniae penned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century) parts company with the near-contemporary (to Nennius) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), penned by Saxon monks in 9th century Wessex.
Let us start with the British version of events first.
In the British tradition, Vortigern’s son Vortimer (in Welsh, Gwerthefyr), now takes center stage, taking up his aging father’s mantle to lead the British counter-attack against their erstwhile allies. It should be recalled that Vortimer’s mother was Vortigern’s first (?) wife, possibly a daughter of Constantine III, Imperial pretender (and perhaps the last Comes Britanniarum, or “Count of Britain”), or even of another late-Roman emperor from Britain, Magnus Maximus. She had been repudiated in favor of “the pagan woman”, Rowena, daughter of Hengist (see Part Two). Vortimer may have broken with his father over his mother’s mistreatment. It is not unlikely that he now led a cabal within the Council of Britain that set aside his father’s over-lordship, deposing the old man (who may well have been a virtual prisoner of the Saxons by this time, if not a quisling puppet-ruler) and taking vigorous command of the British counter-attack.
Returning to the British version, Nennius speaks of three battles across the Kentish landscape. First at the river Darent/Derwent; the second at Epsford/Aylesford (dated 455 in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle), where both Horsa and another son of Vortigern’s, Catigern are slain; and lastly at Rutupiæ (Richborough), “near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea” (Ebbsfleet, the channel between the mainland and Thanet Island?), where the Saxons were defeated and fled to their ships. In this final fight, Vortimer was badly wounded, perhaps mortally.
In the British tradition, the Saxons were thus driven from the island, albeit temporarily.
By contrast, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (again, written by English monks in the 9th century) makes no reference to British victories, nor to Vortimer, son of Vortigern, leading the British war effort. In the ASC entry for the year 455, the Chronicle details that Hengist and Horsa fought with Vortigern at Aylesford (a river crossing of the Medway), and that Horsa died there. That afterwards Hengist took control of the kingdom (implying that Horsa had been the King before his death), along with his son Esc/Oisc .
In 457 Hengist and Esc/Oisc again fight the “Brettas” at Crecganford (Crayford?) on the river Darent, “and there slew four thousand men“, and driving the Britons back to London. In 465 Hengist and Esc/Oisc once again fight the “Welsh” in the Battle of Wippedesfleot (Ebbsfleet), the channel separating the Saxon stronghold of Thanet from the mainland. In the year 473, the final entry in the Chronicle mentioning Hengist, the Saxon leader and his son Esc are recorded as having fought “the Welsh” (Britons), having taken “immense booty” and the Welsh having “fled from the English like fire“.
Returning to Nennius and the British version of events: following the expulsion of the Saxons after Wippedesfleot /Ebbsfleet, young Vortimer dies of wounds received in the fighting. (Geoffrey of Monmouth dramatically has Vortigern’s Saxon bride, Rowena, poison the young prince!) Vortigern (at Rowena’s urging) sends emissaries to Hengist, requesting a peace-conference. In truth, Vortigern’s position was weak, blamed by all for his disastrous Saxon policy, which had brought such death and destruction upon the land. He had everything to fear from his British subjects and rivals. If he was to hold onto power, he needed his Saxon Praetorians more than ever!
The Saxons agree, and a feast is organized with leaders from both sides attending (at Stonehenge, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth). The wily Hengist instructed his thegns (aristocratic warriors) to come armed with their seax-knives hidden on their persons (normal practice in Germanic society was for all weapons to be left in a vestibule-chamber before attending feast: alcoholic beverage consumption and edged weapons being poor companions).
At the feast, each Saxon was seated beside a Briton. As the evening drew on, with many toasts to renewed friendship and peace, the Saxons were careful to imbibe but sparingly. At some point, Hengist raised his drinking cup in a final toast. This was the signal: as the British officers drank deep to peace, the Saxons pulled out their daggers and fell upon the Britons beside them, slaughtering all.
The “Night of the Long Knives” (this is the earliest recorded usage of this term) resulted in the decapitation of the British leadership. Only Vortigern was spared, the horrified and befuddled old man being bound and taken captive. In return for his life, he granted Hengist all the southeastern portion of Britain, the lands that came to be called Essex, Sussex, Middlesex.
THE DIVERGENCE IN THE SOURCES
So, here we are left with two versions that diverge greatly on the details. The Saxon version of events presents an 18 year progression of victories by the Saxons from 455 to 473, advancing ever westward. The British version is one of a relatively short campaign of hard-fought battles; of victories won, but ultimately thrown away by Vortigern’s foolishness and Saxon treachery.
How to reconcile the two?
First, we look at where they agree.
Both the Saxon and British versions agree on the battles, their names and/or locations. That there were three battles in Kent following the Saxon mutiny thus seems to rest on solid ground. But who won these battles, and over what time-period?
The Saxon version has the virtue of simplicity of narrative. We know that the Saxons ultimately retained control of Kent: that much is certain. The Saxon version neatly supports the ultimate outcome.
What argues for the British version (or at least the bare elements of it) is the geographic progression of the battles: with the final one taking place where the Saxons first landed, on the eastern-most tip of Kent. Clearly, the Saxons are losing ground after each battle. This would seem to bring into question the ASC (Saxon) version of an ever-victorious Saxon march.
We can never know the truth of the matter, but a working theory that reconciles the two versions can be constructed:
Vortigern, perhaps too old to lead his army in person, or no longer trusted by his own people, cedes or loses control of the war to his son and successor, Vortimer. In 454, late in the year, Vortimer leads the British forces into Kent. The battles are fought at river fords, which the numerically inferior Saxons defend. Fiercely contested, the casualties are high on both sides, with the defending Saxons having the advantage, killing more of their enemies and thus able to claim victory. But they are forced to fall back after each as their own numbers dwindle. Finally, defending their original base at Thanet, the Saxons oppose the Britons at Wippedesfleot/Ebbsfleet. Perhaps Vortimer’s army crosses the channel at low tide. Driven out of their base, the Saxons take to their ships. This is a tactic used centuries later by the Danes under similar circumstances, and it seems reasonable that Hengist would have cut his losses and reverted to pirate.
All this takes place in the campaign season of 455, extending perhaps into 456; not over ten years as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle maintains (though a later Saxon victory in 473 is surely plausible, in light of events to come). Shortly thereafter, Vortimer dies of wounds received in the hard fighting. The British militia disperses to their homes or garrisons. The following spring, having licked his wounds and gathered new recruits on the continent, Hengist returns, landing again at his original base at the Island of Thanet.
The “Night of the Long Knives” can be dismissed as pure invention. Had such an event actually occurred, it surely would have been remembered in the Saxon tradition. Such treacheries were celebrated in Northern sagas and applauded as cunning stratagems by clever leaders: the Scandinavian and Germanic sagas are filled with just such episodes. Would not Hengist or his successors (the future kings of Kent) have ensured that court bards recorded and retold the event in song and saga? Clearly, this is the Welsh monk’s attempt to reconcile his claims of British military victories with the ultimate Saxon triumph that followed.
What is far more likely is that events outside of Kent overtook Vortigern and the Britons, shifting the focus away from Hengist and Kent. The Saxons returned to a Kent depopulated by the tide of war, and over the next two decades had only to defend their new home against sporadic attempts by the distracted Britons to push them out.
Vortigern has directed British affairs for 3 decades. His Saxon policy, never popular, has proven disastrous for the country. His heroic son and successor was dead, along with many of Vortigern’s household troops, killed in the previous year’s fighting.
Now, a hated rival and old nemesis returned to challenge the old man’s withered authority.
- There is a school of thought that the arrival of the Saxons can be placed decades earlier than either Bede or the ASC indicate, sometime in the 420s. This would allow for a much earlier mutiny of the Saxon foederatii, and with it an earlier Ambrosius and Arthur. This theory has the advantage of not needing to hypothesize two Ambrosius’, father-and-son. Its greatest weakness is of course its variance with all the known sources.
- Scholarly arguments attempting to place the battles elsewhere are mostly specious or beg credulity.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
For some a terrific read on these events, try David Pillings novel: