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 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 two peoples were locked in a death-struggle for possession of the island of Britain. On the one hand was the Celtic kingdoms and the last vestiges of Roman civilization on the island. Pitted against them were the Germanic Anglo-Saxon invaders. From the mouth of the Humber to the Channel, all of eastern Britain was lost to these fearsome 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 pushed ever westward. The “debatable lands” between Anglo-Saxon and Briton were in constant flux, but the archaeology 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 mouth of the Thames north to the Highlands. Over the next century these incursions would solidify into the early Angle kingdoms of East Anglia, Deira and Bernicia. South of the Thames Estuary 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).
Thus in 495 there were far greater threats to the British hold on the island than Cerdic and his 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 and become, in time, its nemesis: 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 the 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 and 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”. He is described initially as an ealdorman (literally, “Elder Man”); the title held by Anglo-Saxon officials in charge of shires. Ealdormen were not independent rulers, but officers serving the various monarchs of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
So who was Cerdic’s master?
The likely possibility is Ælle, King of the nearby South Saxe.
Just four years after the fall of the British coastal fortress of Anderitum gave Ælle control of the Sussex coast and a port on the Channel coast, Cerdic appears. Could Cerdic be his lieutenant, sent with an advance party to establish a westward base in British territory?
Scholars are puzzled by Cerdic’s name, which is in fact Celtic, not Germanic. Some have suggested he was a British turncoat; a British petty-king who, with the use of Saxon mercenaries asserted his independence from higher British authorities. Others that he was a “half-breed”, the offspring of a Saxon nobleman and a British mother. If so, he might have been born in the earliest days of the Saxon Advent (Adventus Saxonum), in the late 440’s or early 450’s; thus old enough by 495 to have earned a high place among the Saxons, and to have a grown (or nearly grown) son.
In 508 Cerdic fought and killed a local British petty king called Natanleod, at a place called Netley Marsh. In 519 he declared his independence from whatever overlord (if any) who held his fealty, and declared himself the independent king of Saxon Wessex (the “West Saxons”). The date of this declaration may be significant, as will soon be shown. During all of this he doesn’t seem to have drawn the full attention of Arthur (or whoever may have been the supreme leader of the Britons at the time) nor triggered a major effort to eradicate the presence of this Saxon outpost so close to the heart of Dumnonia. This might well have been a deliberate policy of Cerdic’s, to “lay low”, biding his time and waiting till bigger players vacated the stage. Ultimately Cerdic’s patience would bear fruit.
At about the same time (give-or-take a few years) as the Battle of Netley Marsh Ambrosius Aurelianus, at last, died. I believe that with his death authority as supreme leader of the British passed to his successor, Arthur (See Part Ten). If we accept that along with being High King (or Riothamus, “Supreme King”) Ambrosius may have been sub-king of an area centered on Avebury as well, then Arthur may have assumed this dignity upon his uncle’s death. In later years, it was common that the Celtic “High King” was chosen from the most powerful of the British (and later Welsh) petty kingdoms. However, we know from surviving genealogies that neither Ambrosius nor Arthur were kings of the greater of these kingdoms (Dumnonia, Powys, Gwynedd, Elmet, Strathclyde, etc); nor founded lasting dynasties of their own. Both were warlords, military leaders who led the coalition forces of British kings. However, tradition (Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Mallory) has both men ruling Britain as “High King”. Perhaps drawing on an earlier list of British kings, both place an intermediate figure, Uther Pendragon, between them (see below).
There is reason to believe that the transition of power from Ambrosius to Arthur was not uncontested. In both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Mallory Arthur is forced to fight his rivals in order to claim and hold his newly acquired crown. This tradition of British reluctance to accept his authority may echo historical reality, the chronicles of which are now lost. It is not unlikely that some of the British petty kings were hesitant to give Arthur the same authority and respect they accorded Ambrosius. As previously discussed, the princes of Celtic Britain were jealous of each other and reluctant to cede any authority to another. Arthur had to prove he was worthy to lead them.
As Dux Bellorum (“Leader of Battles”, or “War Leader”) riding at the head of a band of armored horsemen, Arthur now undertook an ambitious plan: to stop the seemingly inexorable westward drive of the Germanic invaders and to recover the “Lost Lands of Lloegyr”. Such a project may have been one he and his young comrades had entertained in long discussions while deep in their cups, around the midnight camp fire or beside the blazing hearth in winter garrisons. It was the one project that could unite all the rival Celtic rulers. Perhaps more importantly it was one sure to fire the imaginations of the younger generation of warriors coming of age throughout Britain, hungry for a cause to fight for and for a hero to lead them.
It is likely at this time that Arthur comes to be known as the “Pendragon”. The term means “Head Dragon”, and though we can in no way be sure how this name came to be associated with the warlord of Celtic Britain in the 6th century, it is one that came to be applied to powerful British/Welsh leaders in this era who obtained a position of primacy over the other regional kings of Celtic Britain. Could Arthur have been the first, with his fame and success lending the title a dignity other leaders in later generations wished to attach to themselves?
There is an early medieval list of the kings (Overkings) of Britain, starting in the pre-Roman days and continuing to the age of Arthur. For the 5th and 6th century, it lists the kings in chronological order:
GORTHEYRN (Vortigern). GWETHUYR VENDIGEIT (Vortimer/Vortigern the Younger). EMYRS WLEDIC (Ambrosius the Overking). UTHERPENDRIC (Uther Pendragon). ARTHUR. CONSTANTINUS (Constantine of Dumnonia). AURELIUS (Aurelius Caninus/Cynan). IUOR (?). MAELGON GOYNED (Maelgwn of Gwynedd).
None of these before Uther are called Great Dragon (“Pendragon”). After Arthur, Maelgwn of Gwynedd is called by Gildas “Great Dragon of the Island”, perhaps in imitation of the hero.
Uther Pendragon is a mystery. He is mentioned in the early Welsh chronicles/poems and is fleshed-out by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Arthur’s father. But Rodney Castleden argues persuasively in “King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend” against the existence of Uther Pendragon. Castleden argues that the confusion stems from a misreading of the original source.
Uter means wonderful or terrible. If one takes the early list of Overkings above and spells “Uther” as Uter (an easy transcription error), then the list changes meaning. Instead, it may have originally read, UTHERPENDRIC ARTHUR: “The Wonderful/Terrible Great Dragon Arthur”!
During his life, Arthur became known as “The Great Dragon”, or Pendragon. He was remembered by later Welsh chroniclers as “uter-pendragon”, the wonderful great dragon. Thus a transcriber’s error may have invented a character known as Uther Pendragon; which, in a effort to explain, later poets and story-tellers fleshed out a mythical biography.
A question arises: why was Arthur called “Pendragon”, while previous British leaders (such as Vortigern, Vortimer, or Ambrosius Aurelianus) were not?
Some of Arthur’s cavalry troopers, and perhaps Arthur himself, may have had Sarmatian or Alan ethnic roots, as explained in previous installments of this series. Both these peoples used the draco windsock-standard; as, for that matter, did many Roman cavalry units in the later days of the empire. In his campaigns it is likely that Arthur used such a standard. Perhaps this became very closely associated with him in a personal way. He became the living embodiment of the dragon standard that followed him, bringing terror and death to the enemies of Britain.
RESTORING LLOEGYR: ARTHUR’S 12 BATTLES
Writing centuries later (but perhaps drawing on now-lost contemporary sources), Nennius states that Arthur fought no less than twelve battles, culminating in the final confrontation at Mount Badon.
“At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain … Then it was that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons…
Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their warleader (or ‘dux bellorum’).
The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein.
His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis…
The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas.
The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Celyddon Coed.
The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his [shield,] and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The ninth battle was in the City of the Legion.
The tenth battle was on the bank of the river called Tribruit.
The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned.
The final battle was on Badon Hill, in which 960 men fell in one day from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns”
This may all be complete invention on the part of Nennius; and if so can be dismissed without further comment. However, if for no other reason than as a thought exercise we entertain the possibility that Nennius’ list comes from some lost historical source; then we can attempt to place these battles (which give us a road-map of Arthur’s career as warleader) geographically and in some likely historical context. Using Nennius twelve battles above in just this fashion we will build a hypothetical narrative for Arthur’s struggles against his enemies.
The likely location (in my opinion) of these twelve battles gives some indication of the priority and immediacy of threats as seen by Arthur and his advisers, and perhaps reflects a concerted effort to establish his popularity and authority over all of the Celtic kingdoms, from the borders of the Pictish Highlands to Armorica (Brittany) in northwestern Gaul.
I want to stress that the following are speculative; but based (I believe) on the best conjecture possible given the strategic situation in Britain at the time as we know it.
Arthur’s twelve battles begin in the east Midlands, in the district of the old Roman city of Lindum (Lincoln). Here Angle settlement threatens the eastern flank of British Elmet.
Both Bede and Nennius attest that the Angle homeland in Jutland was largely depopulated in this era, as the Angle people migrated in mass to Britain. Archaeology on both sides of the North Sea supports this assertion. The widespread presence of Angle grave sites dating to the late 5th century, stretching from south of the Trent to East Anglia demonstrate the dire threat the Angles presented to this strategically vital region.
We don’t know who (if anyone) led the Angles in this era. Unlike the Saxons in the south, no chronicle gives name to an Angle leader in the 5th or early 6th century. Geoffrey of Monmouth provides the name Colgren. However, this name is merely a placeholder for the Angle leader (there must have been one), lacking a historically attested figure, and not to be relied upon.
Geoffrey has “Colgren” lay siege to Lincoln and this may indeed have roots in a now lost history. The attack on Lindum triggers the series of events that, in the hypothetical scenario I am about to lay out, lead to the earliest of Arthur’s twelve battles on Nennius’ list.
Nennius states that the first of these twelve battle took place “in the mouth of the river which is called Glein”. The word Glein stems from the Celtic for “pure”, and likely in Nennius’ time many rivers carried this name. But a good candidate for this battle’s location is the River Glen in Lincolnshire near modern Spalding.
This river empties into the Wash, and the area here borders Britain’s Fenlands. Historically a place of refuge for outlaws and rebels, the Fens were a natural place in which small bands of Anglo-Saxon pirates and raiders could hide. Perhaps this first battle was against a force of Anglo-Saxons newly landed at the river’s mouth. These may have been associated with a local Angle leader, reinforcements on the way join Colgren besieging Lindum, or an independent newly-arrived band of raiders.
The River Glen near in Lincolnshire
We can imagine a camp of these Anglo-Saxon warriors, their shallow-draught, clinker-built longboats pulled up on the river’s muddy bank. The raiders are perhaps squatting around small, smoky fires, making breakfast. Others are going about the mundane business of camp chores: gathering firewood, mending sails, or cleaning weapons and polishing armor. Suddenly the ground rumbles, and out of the morning mist appear Arthur and his mounted “Combrogi”.
Horns blowing, the armored lancers charge in amongst the startled and unsuspecting German warriors, swords rising and falling, lances stabbing. Carnage and slaughter follows, and few of the pirates survive to flee into the fens.
Riding rapidly north, Arthur’s horsemen outstrip news of their coming, and of the slaughter at the Glein. A day later, they appear at Lindum, where Colgren’s army is investing the British stronghold.
- There is reason to suspect that not all these early Germanic settlements were Angle, or remained so. A plausible theory exists for a Swedish royal connection in East Anglia. It is curious that Beowulf, a poem about a 5th or 6th century south Swedish hero should have been written in East Anglia.