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 Seventeenth-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”; the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain.
In the previous chapter we examined Nennius’ tenth of Arthur’s battles, that at the River Tribruit, wherein we built a case for that battle to have been fought on the River Forth, eight miles above Stirling. This has long been known as the “Gateway to the Highlands” and the site of William Wallace’s famous victory over the English. Arthur is called north by his brother-in-law, King Lot, who is threatened by a strong band of outlaws called the cinbin. “Cinbin” (or Cynbin) translates as “dog-heads”. These brigands are led by a savage character named Garwlwyd, who is possibly synonymous with the figure known in the Welsh Triads as Gwrgi Garwlwyd.
From their lair along the marches between the British Kingdom of Gododdin and the Pictish highlands the Dog Heads raid into Gododdin, carrying off plunder and prisoners; two of which (a boy and girl) they supposedly eat daily!
Making common cause with an Angle pirate chief named Edlfled, the Dog Heads plan to converge upon and capture the hillfort of Dùn Èideann from land and sea.
As recounted in the previous chapter, Arthur and his 300 mounted Cymbrogi rush north from Cornwall, a distance of approximately 515 miles, to arrive in 10 days at Dùn Èideann. Joining with Lot’s forces they move against Garwlwyd, who is camped at the crossing of the Forth at Tribruit (the Fords of Frew). In the resulting Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd the Dog Heads are destroyed, though Garwlwyd may have escaped (to be later assassinated).
Meanwhile, unaware of Garwlwyd’s defeat his ally, the Angle chieftain Edlfled, has landed in Arthur’s rear near Din Eidyn.
THE HILL OF AGNED
Nennius states that the 11th of Arthur’s battles was at a place called “the hill of Agned”. Many scholars agree with the often-fanciful Geoffrey of Monmouth that this was at or near Edinburgh.
Like Rome, Edinburgh is built on seven rocky, volcanic hills. Three of these, Castle Rock (upon which the Gododdin fortress of Din Eidyn is thought to have sat), Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat are in or near the center of the modern city. The four other hills, Corstorphine Hill, Blackford Hill, Braid Hill and Wester Craiglockhart are a bit further out. Any of these, admittedly, could have been named “Agned” in the early Dark Ages.
Two views of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, above. Below, two images taken from Edinburgh Castle by author in 2019. One looks at Arthur’s Seat from the castle, the other looks toward the nearby waterway. It is easy to imagine Angle long boats landing on the shore, and raiders occupying Arthur’s seat to use as a temporary base and a stronghold from which to besiege the castle.
However, Arthur’s Seat must have had another name before the life of Arthur. Could it have been called “Agned“?
It is a logical place for an attacking force of Angles, landing on the nearby coast as part of a concerted strategy to take Lot’s fortress of Din Eidyn, to make camp. This rocky, defensible hill so close to their target (Castle Rock/Din Eidyn) would have made an ideal place to hold up while they awaited their allies arrival, and at the same time begin to raid the surrounding area and place Din Eidyn under loose blockade.
With the Hill of Agned tentatively identified as Arthur’s Seat, and Arthur’s opponent being an Angle raiding party, we must consider next the question of who could this “Edlfled” have been?
As stated in the previous chapter, some scholars have attempted to identify the Edlfled of the Triads with Æthelfrith of Bernicia. This Angle ruler was the first to unite both of the northern Angle kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira under one crown; and in doing so founded the embryonic Kingdom of Northumbria. However, these Angle kingdoms in the north were established in the later 6th century and Æthelfrith ruled from the end of the 6th century through the first half of the 7th century. As such, he is too late to have faced Arthur (first decade of the 6th century), and cannot be synonymous with the Edlfled we are discussing.
It must be born in mind that the Triads and other Welsh sources are suspect in many cases, as they sometimes conflate events separated by as much as a century. It is entirely possible that even if the events described by Nennius, as well as in the Triads and the Pa Gur, relate to the same historical event (the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd); the accounts may have become confused with later events. They may have brought Æthelfrith of Bernicia/Northumbria into the events that took place during the Age of Arthur. Similarly, there is no certainty that the Garwlwyd referred to in the Pa Gur is the same man as the Gwrgi Garwlwyd of the Triads.
These doubts put aside for the moment, if there was a Bernician-Angle leader named Edlfled/Æthelfrith who fought Arthur at the Hill of Agned, he cannot have been the founder of Northumbria. What is more likely is that this character was an otherwise unknown “Viking” leader then raiding the Lothian coast, and that this Edlfled made common cause with fellow outlaws (the Dog Heads) to prey upon Gododdin.
It should not be ignored, either, that the form of the name, Edlfled, if spelled as Æthelflæd (a more faithful rendering), is the feminine form of this name. Anglo-Saxon nobility bore family names, which were applicable to both the male and female members. To designate gender, a masculine or feminine suffix was applied: such as “fled/flæd” or “wynn”, in cases of females; while “frith”, “red” or “wulf” were added to denote males. Thus Æthelfrith, Æthelred, Æthelwulf for a male; and Æthelflæd or Æthelwynn for a female (to cite a few examples from the royal family of Dark Ages Wessex). Clearly, the Cumbric-Welsh rendering of this Angle leader’s name is the feminine form.
Could Edlfled have been a woman?
Scandinavian/Germanic culture allowed for women who took up arms to fight beside men as warriors. “Shieldmaidens” (skjaldmær in Old Norse; Schildmaid in German) are referenced in later Scandinavian Sagas. But many of these chronicle events of about or near this period (the events described in both Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki are roughly contemporaneous to the age of Arthur; more on that in later installments). Two of the most famous of these legendary/archetypal warrior maidens include Brynhild in the Volsunga saga, and Hervor in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (“The Saga of Hervar and Heidrek”).
Three hundred shieldmaidens are said to have fought in the semi-legendary Battle of Bråvalla in East Götaland about 750AD, one of whom bore the Danish banner. The Byzantine historian Skylitzes records armed women among the defeated Varangian-Rus warriors at the Battle of Dorostolon in 971.
True warrior maidens are exceedingly rare in history, but not impossible or unheard of. It is therefore not beyond the realm of possibility for such a force of Angle “Vikings” to have been led by a “skjaldmær”.
Whoever the mysterious Edlfled was, it was at his/her hall (Germanic chieftains did not maintain palaces, but instead had their centers of power in Long Halls, where they entertained visitors and feasted their household warriors) that Gwrgi Garwlwyd, leader of the outlaw “Dog Heads”, acquired his alleged taste for human meat:
“…who after tasting human flesh in the court of Edlfled the Saxon king, became so fond of it that he would eat no other but human flesh ever after.”
Cannibalism was never an accepted practice in either Scandinavia or the British Isles. However, it is of course possible that such a fringe group of renegades and outlaws may have practiced ritual cannibalism; perhaps to create a savage reputation and as a way of intimidating their enemies. Cannibalism is also a way of bonding a group together in such a way as to forever set them outside of the bounds of normal society. Any or all of these reasons may account for both the Dog Heads and Edlfled’s band of Vikings taking up this abominable practice.
Two days following the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd, Edlfled and her band are camped atop Agned Hill, unaware that their ally has been defeated and his warband is no more. Expecting Garwlwyd’s imminent arrival, it is must have been with astonishment that Edlfled and her Angle pirates see Arthur and Lot’s victorious forces arrive below them, the famed dragon standard waiving in the northern breeze!
The Britons assault the hill, numbers and high morale making up for the disadvantage of terrain. The Angles put up a fierce and desperate resistance. But in warfare the impact of morale is decisive (Napoleon observing that “in war the morale is to the physical as two-to-one”; i.e., morale factors are twice as important as all mere “physical” factors ). This unexpected turn of events likely drained the pirates of their courage. In the battle of shieldwalls, the rot begins with the back ranks slipping away. A trickle of the cowardly soon becomes a flood, as the Angle line breaks in panic. Men (and women?) run for the safety of their ships, moored in the estuary, with the blood-hungry Britons close on their heels!
With the battle won and the north once again secure, Arthur and his Cymbrogi feast with Lot and his Gododdin warriors that night. The following day, atop Agned’s heights, Arthur gives judgment to the captured, both “Dog Heads” and Angles. Perhaps among them was the fearsome “shieldmaiden” leader, Edlfled.
Here where Arthur sat in judgment the hill will forever after be remembered as “Arthur’s Seat”.
The fate of captured outlaws and pirates then, as now, was bleak. The usual and sundry atrocities aside, their crimes included cannibalism and the daily, ritual killing of a British boy and girl. They neither expect nor receive any mercy. Arthur condemns them all to death beneath a headsman’s ax.
The crisis in Gododdin is ended. But a far greater threat to the British kingdoms is looming in the south.
A GATHERING OF WOLVES
Winston Churchill, in his splendid “The Birth of Britain”, wrote: “Of all the tribes of the Germanic race none was more cruel than the Saxons”. In their first devastating wave of invasion in the 450’s, they created such a record of slaughter that this episode in British History became known as the “Saxon Terror”. Though slave-taking and trading was a lucrative business throughout the world in this (as in most) periods of human history, for whatever reason the early Saxon attacks on Britain were distinguished by rapine and wholesale slaughter on a scale not seen in early “barbarian” invasions of the Roman Empire and its former territories. Only the Huns built up a greater reputation for bloody-minded ferocity.
We have seen that in 477 a new Saxon warlord named Ælle landed in southeastern Britain. That after taking the British fortress of Anderida (Pevensey) and putting the inhabitants to the sword, he founded the kingdom of the South Saxons (Sussex). He soon became the paramount ruler of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in Britain, taking the title “Bretwalda”. He was, in fact, the first Saxon king to be so acclaimed. Even Æsc/Oisc”Big Knife, King of Kent and the son of the famous Hengist, as well as Cerdic of the West Saxons, acknowledged his over-lordship.
Now it was the summer of 516, and among the Anglo-Saxon peoples of the eastern lands the war arrow had been passed. Ælle was calling for all to join him in a final reckoning with the hated Welsh, a call to rapine and conquest.
- In this context, the term “Viking” is used in the sense that it was in ancient Scandinavia: a pirate/outlaw crew; not subject to any recognized king or authority. In the early Dark Ages Scandinavia, such outlaws preyed upon settlements and shipping there as elsewhere; and were eventually put down by the emerging authority of jarls and kings.
- Though referred to here as a “Saxon”, it should be remembered that the Romans and their Romano-British and later Welsh successor collectively referred to all the various Scandinavian and Germanic raiders of Britain as “Saxons” (Saxones and Sassenach, respectively).
- Churchill, W, A History of the English Speaking People: The Birth of Britain, Ch IV, p 50
- See Part Five of this series.
- Part Seven