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 Fourteenth-part of our discussion of Britain in 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!
WAR TO THE KNIVES: LLONGBORTH AND NETLEY MARSH
Returning in 511 AD from his sojourn in the north, Arthur and his mounted combrogi  rode down the Roman Roads from Din Eidyn (Edinburgh), back south to his likely power-center.  Word had come north that Cerdic, the leader of the West Saxons, had emerged from his refuge among the swamps around the Avon mouth; and was raiding deeply into the lands of the Belgae.
Cerdic had established himself in southern Hampshire, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle landing with three ships in 495 at Cerdics-ore (Cerdics-mouth), near modern Portsmouth. As previously discussed at this early stage Cerdic is described as an “ealdorman”, an appointed official within the Saxon kingdoms. But just who he served as ealdorman is unknown. The paramount Saxon king in Britain during this period was Ælle, King of the nearby South Saxe (Sussex). This formidable figure is the most likely ruler whom Cerdic, at this stage of his life, followed. But that is mere conjecture.
Cerdic’s very name raises questions, as it is not an Anglo-Saxon name at all, but a Celtic one. Some have suggested previously that he was a turn-coat, a British traitor who had joined the Saxons. Or that he may have been a British minor lord of the land-owning aristocracy, or even a “petty-king” whose holding was along the western extreme of the Saxon Shore, in the lands of the Belgae tribe. That, as time went on, he built up a band of Saxon warriors (mercenaries or renegades) and asserted his independence; aligning himself with what seemed to be the winning side, that of the Anglo-Saxon invaders.
This theory has one major flaw, however: a British chieftain could never command the loyalty of these very chauvinistic Germanic invaders. As Vortigern two generations earlier had learned, the Saxon wolves would eat from the hand of their British master, only to devour both hand and the arm behind it. The Saxons contemptuously called the British natives “Wealas” (Welsh): “Foreigners”. Foreigners in their own land, fit only to be thralls (slaves) of the Saxons!
Saxon chieftains traced their lineage carefully, back many generations. Kings, ultimately, traced theirs to Odin or one of the other gods of the north. Men followed these “Odinborn” chieftains precisely because of their family connection to the gods, and the good fortune which that brought them and to their people. To hail a lowly “weala” as king would have been unthinkable for a Saxon warrior.
A more likely scenario is the one previously suggested, that Cerdic was the by-product of the union of a highborn South Saxon father and a British (captive?) mother. (Alternatively, in her novel “The Sword at Sunset”, Rosemary Sutcliff makes Cerdic the grandson of Hengist and the son of Vortigern from his ill-fated marriage to Hengist’s daughter, Rowena (See Part Two for Vortigern and Rowena).
Rising in the service of Ælle, he was trusted with the mission of expanding the South Saxe territories westward, along the coast. This theory reconciles the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s (ASC) entry of 495, “Cerdic landed in Hampshire with his son, Cynic, in three ships”; with the later founding date of the Kingdom of Wessex (519).”
Since landing near modern Portsmouth, Cerdic had been a thorn in the flank of the southern British, harrying into the lands of the Belgae and perhaps raiding westward along the Dumnonian coast. In 501, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that there was a battle at Portsmouth Harbor, and that “a very noble (British) man” was slain. This closely matches a Welsh poem, which describe a battle at a place called Llongborth, the “port of the warships” (possibly Portsmouth, or nearby). In this battle, a Dumnonian prince named Geraint/Gereint ap Erbin (son of Erbin, 5th century king of Dumnonia) was involved and may have been slain.
The sources for this are Welsh heroic poetry; and depending upon the translation, there is cause to doubt if Geraint was indeed slain in this battle. Morris, using the translation below, and accepting that Geriant was indeed killed here, assumed Geriant to be synonymous with the “very noble” Briton who was slain, according to the ASC entry for 501. Morris concludes that this was a rare example of both Saxon and Welsh sources confirming a common historical incident: the battles of Portsmouth and Llongborth being one-in-the-same.
In Llongborth I saw the clash of swords, men in terror, bloody heads, before Geraint
the Great, his father’s son
In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s heroes cut with steel. The Emperor, ruler of our labor.
In Llongborth Geraint was slain. Heroes of the land of Dyfneint. Before they were slain, they slew.
This poem was likely translated from an early British (Brythonic) version, composed close to the event, into Welsh centuries later. Its feel is much closer to the Gododdin (late 6th century) than it is to that of the later Medieval Welsh poems. It has an immediacy and a visceral sadness, a lament for a much-loved fallen hero.
We know from recorded genealogies that the poem’s subject, the hero Geraint , was a prince of Dumnonia (called by the later Welsh Dyfneint). He is an attested historical figure (as much as any can be in this period notably poor in original sources). Both he and his brother, Dywel, were warriors who served “the court” of Arthur in the poem. Could Geraint and his brother been members (combrogi) of Arthur’s comitatus? The poem also names Arthur as Geriant’s (and the bard’s) overlord: “Emperor, ruler of our labor”. The poem suggests that Geriant and his sword-brothers are “Arthur’s Heroes” (at least in this translation).
But one should not conclude from this that Arthur was present. All scholars agree that he was not. Nor, considering the early date of this battle, is it likely that Arthur yet bore the title of Emperor (in Welsh, Ameraudur). All mention of Arthur may be in any case anachronistic in that Arthur was at this date (perhaps) only a subordinate of the elderly Ambrosius Aurelianus. It has also been reasonably suggested that Arthur’s name was inserted into the poem by later translators.
While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle names the Saxon leader at the battle of Portsmouth as an otherwise unknown Saxon leader named “Port”, this seems an attempt to equate the name of the town with some eponymous Saxon figure. Considering that the area was home to Cerdic’s recently arrived West Saxons, Cerdic is the most likely antagonist in this battle.
In 508, seven years after Llongborth, another battle was fought between Saxon and Briton at Netley Marsh; in which the ASC says Cerdic and his warriors “killed a certain British king named Natanleod, and five thousand men”. This battle is another of the mysteries surrounding Cerdic, and triggers several questions.
First, who was Natanleod?
Likely he was a local petty-king, ruling the plains and rolling hills north of Cerdic’s swampy refuge. It has also been suggested that he may have been ruler of the local Belgae, whose stronghold may have been at Venta Belgarum, the future Winchester, capital of the West Saxon kingdom. In the 18th and 19th century, many scholars (though not Gibbon) attempted to identify this British king with none-other than Ambrosius Aurelianus. As Ambrosius may have died around this time, this theory certainly makes for an interesting story: Cerdic, British traitor/half-breed serving the Saxon enemy, defeats and kills the great British leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus! If the battle did in fact cost the British 5,000 men, a considerable force in that day-and-age, than this Natanleod must have been a very great leader indeed, perhaps Ambrosius himself.
The location of the battle is the next question. A good choice is near Totton, where a Roman road through the swamps around Southampton northwards toward the Salisbury Plain passes close by an old hillfort. This mound, Tatchbury Hillfort, rising over Tetley Marsh, might have been garrisoned by a Briton force charged with warding the region from Saxon incursion. This may have been where Cerdic’s warband engaged the mysterious Natanleod and destroyed his forces.
It is highly unlikely that Cerdic possessed the strength in 508 to defeat in open battle a force of 5,000 men; assuming for a moment that this number is not greatly exaggerated, which it most assuredly is. His original 3 “keels” could not have held more than 200 warriors, and likely less. Even allowing for additional reinforcements over the years, the swamp lands could not provide a home for a warband of any great size. Either the Anglo-Saxon account has greatly inflated the number of British (engaged and dead), or the battle was not a set-piece battle at all.
There are more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. Not all victories are achieved through a stand-up fight.
Instead, a hypothetical scenario suggests itself: Old Ambrosius, at the end of his life, decides to finally put-paid to Cerdic’s vexatious presence in the southern marshes. As noted above, an army of the size claimed by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle could only have been mustered by a very powerful lord, and Ambrosius Aurelianus certainly had such authority. But by 508 Ambrosius was a very old man, whose health may have been failing. Arthur was his chief subordinate at this time, perhaps (as previously discussed) his Master of Horse (Magister Equitum); or perhaps filling the Roman office of Count of Britain (Comes Britanniarum), leader of the mobile field force (comitatenses) that defended late Roman Britain. But Arthur is far away, and this force was dispatched under another trusted (if less competent) lieutenant to reinforce the local petty-king (perhaps the Belgae tribal king), Natanleod. Joining him and his forces at Tachbury Hillfort, the overconfident Britons perhaps spend the night feasting and celebrating the coming campaign; a normal send-off for Dark Ages armies preparing for war.
Cerdic, no one’s fool, has spies throughout the bordering British strongholds. He knows of the coming campaign to destroy him, and of the levies gathered at Tatchbury, preparing to march against him. That night Cerdic’s warriors creep through the marsh, to the foot of the hill. They crouch silently in the darkness, waiting till the sound of celebration slowly dies down. Then, in the predawn gloom, the Saxons creep silently toward the gate.
These are opened to Cerdic’s assault party by spies within the fortress. The Saxon wolves rush into the sleeping camp. They fall upon the stuporous Britons, and the sounds of slaughter soon fills the night.
While purely hypothetical, such a scenario reconciles the picture painted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Again, the British force was almost certainly much less than 5,000. But it is not impossible that upward of a thousand Britons were slain in this massacre.
After the battle, Cerdic’s power spread further north, creeping toward the Salisbury plain and the heart of the Belgae tribal lands. He has secured himself in along the southwestern British coast, and the seeds of a future Kingdom of Wessex have been well sowed.
Now, in 511, Arthur returned to the south upon hearing news of this disaster; and perhaps with it news that Ambrosius Aurelianus, the High King (his uncle?) is dying.
BATTLE OF GUINNION FORT
Nennius claims that Arthur’s “ 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 great slaughter upon them, through the power of Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother.”
The location for this battle (as with the rest) is unknown, and much debated. Guinnion has been identified at various locations. But two very good possibilities both point to a battle against Cerdic in the south.
W. G. Collingwood and David Nash Ford (among others) have identified Guinnion Fort (Caer Guinnion/Cair Guinntguic: “White Fort”) as Venta Belgarum/Winchester.
Taking advantage of his victory at Netley Marsh and Arthur’s absence in the north, Cerdic may have based himself out of the captured hillfort at Tatchbury; which provided a stronghold with ready access to the Roman road through the swamps which have become his stronghold, onto the Salisbury Plain. In such terrain a solidly made Roman road was vital to the movement of troops. From this base he could menace Avebury (the late Ambrosius’ stronghold) and Venta Belgarum. Now, in 511, Cerdic moved against the Belgae tribal capital, laying siege.
Under this scenario, Arthur rides south to relieve the town. According to Nennius, Arthur carried the image of the Virgin Mary blazoned on his shield. This may or may not be significant: if the first time he did so, it may signal Arthur’s attempt to identify himself with and unite behind his leadership the Orthodox/Catholic Christian faithful in Britain. (At this time, there was no schism between the Orthodox and Catholic branches of the Church; but instead, in Britain, between Catholic and Pelagian.)
In the resulting battle, Arthur’s horsemen shatter the Saxons, inflicting great casualties. Cerdic and his men flee back into the swamps to the south to lick their wounds.
But this is not the only possibility for this, Nennius’ eighth battle.
Another likely location is Land’s End, at the tip of Cornwall: Caer Guidn in the British tongue.
At Lands End, in westernmost Cornwall, there is a local legend that Arthur defeated a raiding force of “Danes”, near the ancient mill, Vellan-Druchar (Vellan=mill, druchar=wheel).
The legend says that the “Danes” landed at Genvor Cove and proceeded to pillage and spoil the many of villages of Western Cornwall; which they believed were unprotected (Arthur being in the north?). Nighttime beacon-fires blazed across the land, summoning Arthur and his “knights” to the land’s rescue.
The legend has Arthur and nine native (Dumnonian) princes at Tintagel, feasting. Gathering their men, they rushed across the West Country to Lands End. Arthur caught the raiders returning to their ships, and gave them battle near Vellan-Druchar. So terrible was the slaughter, it was said, that the mill was worked with blood that day, and not a single Dane escaped!
Two views of Tintagel
Arthur and the nine princes gave thanks for their victory in St Sennen’s Chapel, and dined that day on the Table-men, a rock table nearby. A poem to the victory, supposedly composed on the occasion by no less than Arthur’s court Druid (?) and adviser, Merlin, reads:
“The northmen wild once more shall land, And leave their bones on Escol’s sand. The soil of Vellan-Druchar’s plain Again shall take a sanguine stain; and o‘er the mill-wheel roll a flood Of Danish mix’d with Cornish blood. When thus the vanquish’d find no tomb, Expect the dreadful day of doom.”
Could this local Cornish legend give insight into the otherwise unknown details of Nennius eighth battle, at Caer Guinnion?
Taking the tale as told above at face value, it is entirely possible that a raiding force of “Danes” was destroyed by local Dumnonian warlords near Caer Guidn, Land’s End. The leader of the Cornish may have been Arthur, whose personal power-base might have been in northern Cornwall (Triggshire), in an incident unrelated to any of Nennius’ battles. But it is much more likely that if such a battle occurred, it was against Saxon raiders, not Danes. The Danes at this time in their history were divided and busy raiding each other and their local neighbors, seeking to establish their rule over the Danish islands and on the Jutland peninsula, recently all-but abandoned by the Jutes who had migrated to Kent in Britain. The Danes had no need or energy to raid as far across the sea as Cornwall. But the Saxons, in this era known as “seawolves”, were much closer and thus a more likely culprit.
In such a scenario, with his northern border secure after his victory at Netley Marsh, Cerdic and his warband take to the sea, raiding along the south Dumnonian coast to Cornwall. Perhaps this was a campaign Cerdic had planned all along, and gathered Anglo-Saxon freebooters to temporarily swell his warband. Perhaps Natanleod’s ill-fated campaign was in response to such a build-up in the southern marshlands. In any case, Cerdic now takes to the sea, sailing along the southern Dumnonian coast. Thinking Arthur far away to the north, he lands and begins to pillage the Cornish countryside.
Arthur and his veteran Combrogi, on the road and returning from the north, get word of the Saxon raid. The horsemen spur down the Fosse Way, the main Roman road to the old Roman fortress town of Exeter (Roman Isca Dumnoniorum). From there riders are sent, summoning the petty-kings of western Dumnonia (Cornwall) to muster at Tintagel.
As the Saxons approach the White Fort (Caer Guidn) at Lands End, Arthur and the petty-kings of western Dumnonia (nine, if local traditions are to be relied upon) fall upon Cerdic’s raiders. Busy pillaging, Cerdic’s men are caught unprepared for battle, scattered about the countryside in small bands foraging for plunder. They are easy prey for Arthur’s swift-riding horsemen. The slaughter is great, though unlikely as great as local tradition indicates. Penwith, between Lands End and St. Ives, is said to mean the “Headland of Blood”; a name that may echo back to this sanguinary battle!
Penwith, Cornwall, possible site of Battle at Vellan-Druchar
The wily Cerdic survives, and with the remnants of his force flees back to his ships, taking to the sea. This is a terrible setback on his road to establishing a Kingdom of the West Saxons, but just a setback.
Arthur and the lords that followed him in battle feast, perhaps as local legend would have it, upon Lanyon Quoit (known also as Table-Men Rock), perhaps surrounded by wooden tables set up on the surrounding field for their victorious warriors.
Two views of Lanyon Quoit/Table-Men Rock, Cornwall
NEXT: BATTLE OF THE CITY OF LEGIONS
- Brittonic word meaning “fellow countryman”, or “comrade-in-arms”. It is the source of the place name Cumbria, land of the combrogi.
- While there are competing theories as to the both the origin of a “historical Arthur”, as well as his base of operations in Celtic Britain; I believe the case for a “southern Arthur” to be persuasive, as we have discussed in previous installments of this series.There is a strong tradition of Arthur-related places in Cornwall, particularly in the northern part of the peninsula. In previous installments we have explored the possibility that he held land in Dumnonia. While it is certain he was not the king of Dumnonia, he may have held lands in Triggshire as a vassal of that king. I believe it very possible that a historical Arthur may have had been a sub-king in Dumnonia; perhaps by marriage or even by inheritance. It was not impossible that Arthur could have been both the premiere warlord of Britain, acting as “Count of Britain”, a late Roman military officer who commanded the mobile field force that defended the province during its late Roman days; and at the same time be a prince of one or more tribal areas. While it may seem strange that the war-leader (Dux Bellorum) of the Celtic British kingdoms might have been at the same time a vassal of one of these kings, such complicated and often contradictory allegiances and subordination are not without example in history. The Plantagenet kings of England were equals and rivals to the kings of France even while owing fealty and homage to the French crown for those lands they held in France.
- Morris, John, The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. P. 104-105. Barnes and Noble Books, 1996
- Dywel became king of Dumnonia after Erbin.
- Ford, David Nash. “The 28 Cities of Britain” at Britannia. 2000.