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 Seventh-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 civlization 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.
SHADOW IN THE EAST
Once we move past the events between 420-455 AD, we are forced ever deeper into the realm of informed speculation. The campaigns of Ambrosius and the movements of the Anglo-Saxons are only given cursory treatment by the chroniclers of this era. None are contemporary. Gildas the Monk, who writes in the second quarter of the 6th century, is the nearest. He is terse in the extreme in describing events in the 5th century following the end of Vortigern’s reign (which, I suspect, was a morality tale for the blessed monk, as much as anything).
That said, we can make educated guesses and, based on what both archeology and the sources provide, develop a working theory.
Between 465 and 475 Hengist and his Saxons burst out of their confinement on the Island of Thanet (see Part Five). Quickly they overran much of Kent, likely as far as the Medway and perhaps to the Thames near Londinium. The majority of the British population had largely fled or died during the years of Saxon terror and occupation, and Saxon crofters had been quietly infiltrating into the deserted countryside of western Kent for years. Now, Hengist formally retook possession of the lands once granted him by the late, unlamented Vortigern.
We don’t know how Ambrosius Aurelianus, now leader of the Britons, responded. Kent was only one trouble spot. The Saxons were expanding all along the eastern coast of Britain. From the Isle of Wight to the mouth of the Humber, Anglo-Saxon incursions were a constant threat.
To check these, Ambrosius established garrisons in strategic towns and forts all along the new frontier with the Saxons. These “burhs” ran roughly across the center of the island along a rough north-south access: the eastern portion of the island was largely written off as “the Lost Lands of Logres” (or Lloegyr).
A shadow had fallen over the eastern part of the Island, as the barbarian power grew and spread.
These strategic garrisons established by Ambrosius were composed of professional soldiers, called by the local folk “Ambrosiaci”. It has been argued (Morris) that the locations of Ambrosius’ fortified settlements can be traced by the place-names beginning with the “Amb” prefix. Examples are Amberly, in Sussex, placed to overlook both Saxon Kent and the new Saxon colony of Sussex (see below); and Ambrosden, in Oxfordshire, perfectly located overlooking Akeman Street, the strategic east-west Roman road north of the Thames.
The Roman road system in Britain, and tribal territories. By the 5th century many of these tribes had merged to form a handful of Roman “successor kingdoms”, such as Dunmonia in the west.
It is during this period that many of the old Celtic Iron Age hill-forts of the pre-Roman days came back into usage. Towns previously located in low-lying ground withered, and centers of power now moved to the more easily defended hill-tops. These served both as refuge for the country folk in times of raid and invasion, and as residence for emerging warlords and their retinues.
Above: Badbury Rings Iron Age hillfort in Dorset. This was one of many such ancient strong-places reoccupied during this period by the Britons in response to Anglo-Saxon incursions. Below: Artist representation of such a place in this period.
As “Riothamus” (see Part Six) and de facto Count of Britain (Comes Britanniae), Ambrosius likely traveled frequently between the tribal capitals of the various, emerging Celtic-British petty-kingdoms and to the various military posts and garrisons. That is when he was not “in the field”, repelling raids by Pict, Scotti, and Saxon. When he was at rest, it was likely in the south, at Amesbury, as previously discussed. Vespasian’s Camp, across the Avon, was a very strong hill-fort capable of housing a 1,000 man garrison. This would have been the natural stronghold for Ambrosius and his Comitatus. (It should be noted, however, that no evidence of occupation during this period have been discovered.)
This was a time of raid and counter-raid, in which Ambrosius acted to repel Saxon incursion and to stabilize a deteriorating situation. Not wholesale invasion, but low-intensity threats; desultory intermittent attacks along the borders that made life impossible for peaceful farming. The inexorable creeping forward of small Saxon settlements as Saxon families occupyied the increasingly deserted “debatable lands” between the two peoples, Anglo-Saxon and Briton.
Modern reproduction of an Anglo-Saxon dwelling. Saxon settlers in search of land spread throughout the east of Britain, and into the “debatable lands” between those firmly controlled by ether race.
The Britons responded with raids of their own, at times burning-out these Saxon encroachments. But it is apparent from Saxon burial sites and coin hoards that the whole of eastern and much of central Britain was slowly being lost to Saxon colonization.
Of this period Gildas says:
From then on the victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies… This lasted right up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least.
Clearly, the tide shifted back and forth. But in the balance the Saxons continued to gain ground over the next 35 years.
Elite British warriors corner a Saxon raider.
Of the great Roman cities of eastern Britain some were still inhabited, though declining. We don’t know how long Londinium, the former Roman provincial capital, remained in British hands. But certainly with Saxon settlements encroaching all around its demise was imminent. A great trading town, it is also possible that the townsmen (and merchants who lived there) made some peaceful accommodation with the newcomers, perhaps even maintaining a semi-independent neutrality for a time. Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury), civitas capital of Roman Kent, was deserted by its British inhabitants, who were slain, or fled west or overseas. Over the next century it was re-inhabited by the new Jutish population, and became the capital of the Kingdom of Kent.
For the most part, the Saxons did not occupy the Roman cities that came into their possession in the years ahead. These early Anglo-Saxon conquerors avoided the Roman urban centers, considering them haunted (perhaps by the ghosts of their slaughtered British former inhabitants). As with later Dark Ages London (Lundenwic) they preferred to build their own timber-and-wattle villages adjacent or nearby, leaving the Roman cities to decay and crumble.
Two views of Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury): During the Roman period, 2nd Century A.D.; and a deserted ruin by the 7th century
RIOTHAMUS IN GAUL
There is a tradition (first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae) that King Arthur crossed the English Channel from Britain and made war against the (fictitious) Emperor Lucius Tiberius. This part of the Arthurian legends may have its roots in events that developed in Gaul, involving Ambrosius Aurelianus in his role as Riothamus of the Britons in 470 AD.
In the year 470, the Visigoths, under the aggressive leadership of King Euric, were expanding from their holdings in southern Gaul into the remnants of Roman territory in the center of the province. The Visigoth kingdom was the strongest entity in Gaul, contending for dominance with the Franks in the northeast, and with the Western Empire’s remaining holdings north of the Loire. The Western Emperor, Anthemius, eager to check Visigoth expansion, now sent a request to “Riothamus” (whom, as stated, I believe to have been Ambrosius Aurelianus), asking for assistance.
In his The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, the historian Jordanes states:
“Now Euric, king of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent change of Roman Emperors and strove to hold Gaul by his own right. The Emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Brittones for aid. Their King Riotimus came with twelve thousand men into the state …
As can be read, Jordanes states that Riothamus crossed into Gaul with 12,000 British soldiers. However, it seems apparent from deeper reading into the sources that Riothamus was already in Gaul rooting out a colony of Saxon pirates infesting the Loire Valley. Such a Saxon presence threatened both Brittany/Armorica, a Briton colony on the continent; and trade between southern Britain and the Roman Mediterranean.
Destroying the Saxon bases, and driving the survivors out of Gaul, Riothamus marched south to effect a link-up with a Roman force coming to join him. Together, the joint army would be more than sufficient to destroy the Visigoth threat, perhaps even recovering some of the lost Roman territories in southern Gaul and Spain.
As was so often the case in the later Roman Empire, political intrigue undermined this attempt to restore the Empire.
The Emperor Anthemius had been a successful Eastern Roman general who’d been placed upon the Western throne by the Eastern Emperor Leo I. Now resentment at this intrusion by the Eastern Empire combined with ambition among certain Western officers surfaced in the form of betrayal.
Arvandus, the Emperor’s Praetorian Prefect (senior officer) in Gaul (holding the same position as had, perhaps, Ambrosius’ own ancestor and namesake in the 4th century) betrayed his master’s plan to the enemy. The Prefect sent a letter to King Euric of the Visigoths, warning him of the coming attack and advising him to attack Riothamus/Ambrosius’ army before the Roman forces could join him.
Euric marched to meet Riothamus and the Briton army. The clash came near Avaricum (modern Bourges).
Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them with an innumerable army, and after a long fight he routed Riotimus, King of the Britons, before the Romans could join him. So when he had lost a great part of his army, he fled with all the men he could gather together, and came to the Burgundians, a neighboring tribe then allied to the Romans…
Artist’s fanciful rendering of Riothamus (here synonymous with Arthur) against the Visigoths
As Jordanes states, Riothamus’ outnumbered army was defeated after a terrific struggle. The casualties were likely high on both sides, the Britons inflicting terrible casualties on the numerically superior Goths. The severity of the damage done to the Gothic forces may be gleaned from the fact that after resting at nearby Arvernum, Euric retreated into his territories; never again attempting to annex Gaul to the Visigoth kingdom.
Defeated, Riothamus/Ambrosius extracted the survivors of his force and retreated eastward, into the neighboring territory of the Burgundians (a Germanic tribe that had settled in east-central Gaul, and allies of the Romans).
In Jordanes narrative, Riothamus is last seen retreating towards a Burgundian town, with the intriguing name of Avallon!
Here we have several elements of the Arthurian legend coming together in documented, near-contemporary history: a British ruler crossing into Gaul. There, he is betrayed by an ally, Arvandus (in this case perhaps an archetype for the legendary betrayer of Arthur, Mordred). Defeated, Riothamus retreats to heal his wounds and those of his men at a place called Avallon. Of course, the legendary Arthur is taken to the Isle of Avalon to heal his wounds after the disastrous final battle of Camlann against his nephew, Mordred.
Could echoes of Riothamus’ battle in Gaul, and the subsequent retreat to Avallon, have influenced future Dark Ages chroniclers, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth; confusing Riothamus’ deeds with those of Arthur?
AELLA AND THE COMING OF THE SOUTH SAXONS
Riothamus/Ambrosius returned to Britain (perhaps after convalescing among the Burgundians at Avallon) following his defeat in Gaul. This venture was not without a cost.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle states that in 473 (within 2 years of Ambrosius’ return):
Hengest and Æsc fought against the Welsh and took countless war-loot, and the Welsh fled from the English like fire.
This battle is otherwise unchronicled. We don’t know if it involved Ambrosius personally or not. It is not unreasonable to assume that the losses in Gaul weakened Ambrosius’ British forces, particularly his own elite cavalry comitatus. Perhaps taking advantage of Ambrosius/Riothamus’ defeat, Hengist chose this moment to attack.
Certainly, this defeat reflects further loss of ground by the Britons. It is the last entry to mention Hengist by name.
The old Jute died soon after. For two decades, since the great Saxon Mutiny, he had advanced his people’s fortunes in Britain. He left his son, Æsc, who had long been his colleague in command, a secure kingdom in Kent. (Æsc is also rendered as Oisc; whence the name of the ruling dynasty of Kent, the Oiscingas.)
For Ambrosius and the Britons, the Saxons of Kent soon became a secondary threat. A more deadly menace, closer to Ambrosius’ own lands, would occupy the final decades of his life.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that in 477 a new Saxon warlord, named Ælle, landed in southeastern Britain:
“Ælle and his 3 sons, Cymen and Wlencing and Cissa, came to the land of Britain with 3 ships at the place which is named Cymen’s shore, and there killed many Welsh and drove some to flight into the wood called Andred’sley.”
The location of “Cymen’s Shore” is the south Kentish coast near modern Pevensey, and the “Andredsley” wood is the nearly impenetrable Anderida Forest (or Weald). In Roman and Sub-Roman British times this was a very dense forest that cut the coastal plain off from the rest of southern Britain. It was warded along the coast by the Saxon Shore fortress of Anderitum/Anderida (Pevensey).
Now, in 477 this new wave of Saxons arrived to drive the Britons of the Anderita Weald region deeper into the wood and to seize from them control of the coastal strip. For the next 14 years, Ælle and his “South Saxons” made war upon the Britons, expanding his holding in the south.
From whence came Ælle and his band is not known. Perhaps these were remnants of the Saxon pirates displaced by the campaign of Riothamus along the Loire River in 470. Certainly, the original three crews were steadily reinforced over the following years by new waves of adventurers, seeking plunder and employment in the warband of a successful leader. As the Franks consolidated control of northern Gaul across the channel, that land became less inviting a target for Saxon raiders than Britain; and so Ælle’s forces swelled.
In 485 Ælle fought the Britons (likely commanded by Ambrosius) at the Battle of Mercredesburne. Both the site and outcome are unknown. The villages of Ashburnham and Penhurst, in East Sussex, maintain a tradition that a pre-Saxon earthwork known as Town Creep, situated in the adjoining Creep Wood, was the site of Mercredsburn. If so, it is not far from the site of the later Battle of Hastings.
This puts the battle square within the dense Anderita Weald. Perhaps the battle was one in which the Britons defended an earthwork thrown up across a forest path. Or, that the Britons were defending a fortified base of operations within the wood, from which they had carried on a guerrilla war against the newcomers from within the forest’s fastness. Or perhaps the battle resulted from an attempt by Ambrosius to raid into Ælle’s land, or to relieve the isolated fortress of Anderita.
It was likely a victory for the Saxons, and helped drive the Britons out of the forest region around and to isolate Anderita fortress. The way was cleared to attack the last British fortress in the southeast, Anderitum.
This coastal fortress was located in a very strong place, built on what was then a peninsula of land rising above the coastal marshes. In the final days of Roman occupation it had been home to all or part of the VI Legion and attendant auxilia units. For 20 years its garrison had held off the Saxons of Kent, under Hengist and his son and successor, Æsc.
In 491, Ælle and the South Saxons besieged and eventually stormed the Roman fortress. The place was packed with soldiers and their families, descendants of the last Roman garrison and refugees from the surrounding territory. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states the Saxons “killed all who lived in there; there was not even one Briton left there.”
Haunting views of Anderitum (later Pevensey Castle), site of a massacre of Britons by the Saxons under Ælle.
The massacre at Anderitum left Ælle the supreme Saxon leader in southeastern Briton. From this area he carved out his new kingdom, Sussex (kingdom of the “South Saxe”). Soon he would eclipse all other Saxon leaders in Britain, including Æsc/Oisc Hengistson, and be proclaimed as the paramount Saxon king in Britain: the “Bretwalda”. He was, in fact, the first Saxon king to be so acclaimed. No other Anglo-Saxon leader would earn that title again till the last half of the 6th century.
However much the Saxon star seemed to be in the ascendance, the tide was soon to turn. Even as Ælle was christening the South Saxon kingdom in a Eucharist of slaughter, a child was growing to manhood who would be Briton’s long sought-after savior, and the Saxon’s deadliest foe!
- In the previous installment I proposed the idea that “Riothamus” was not a proper name at all, but a title; much as “Vortigern” may have been. This is a position held by many scholars. Both names/titles may be a Latinization of a Brythonic name meaning “supreme” or “highest” king.
- Scoti or Scotti is a Latin name for the Gaels of Ireland. Later in this century Fergus would lead his Ulster Scoti across the Irish Sea and found the first Scots colony in Argyllshire, the beginnings of “Scotland”. See Dál Riata.