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A Significant Victory

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Recently I've developed an interest in Dark Age Britain. The sheer atmosphere of the period is seductive. In no small part that is due to the connection with the mythical Arthur, his battles, especially the most creditable of them all, Mons Badonicus. My interest in this particular battle emerges partly from its place in the period I was researching, but also because one plausible site lies only a few miles from where I live. During my research I discovered the following advice.


Mons Badonicus has probably generated more hot air than any other battle of the period


Why is it that this one single battle should be regarded in this way? Like all enduring uncertainties, Mons Badonicus defies conclusive description. It isn't known exactly which year the battle was fought, where it took place nor exactly who led the armies of either side. It's Dark Age mythology that fills in the gaps. The reason this battle generates so much hot air is because it's impossible to resist. I may not be able to be any more conclusive concerning events of this time but I hope I can shed some light on what must have been a victory celebrated for at least two generations.


An Obscure Significance


Sometime around the year 540 a british monk named Gildas wrote De Excidio Britanniae (The Ruin of Britain) in which he records the lack of christian morality he witnessed around him. His work receives criticism from some modern commentators for it's lack of historical profundity, but that rather misses the point. Gildas wasn't writing a history. Neither, for that matter, was he writing for future generations. His message was more of a sermon, or even social commentary, intended to be read and understood by people of his own time.


Whatever its good and bad points, De Excidio Britanniae remains a primary source of the first half of 6th century Britain. This was a period of history when history as we understand it was passed from generation to generation by oral tradition. The various annals of the period, such as the Annales Cambraie or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, are simply lists of significant dates and events, intended as official markers with which to date the more detailed spoken word by reference.


Gildas makes a reference in such a way to a specific event. He tells us he was born in the year of the Battle of Mons Badonicus. That confrontation marks the end of a war and begins forty years of peace in southern England. It was, by any standard, a significant victory, yet we know so little about it.



Britain In The Dark Ages


This island, of proud neck and mind, since it was first inhabited, is ungratefully rebelling, now against God, at other times against fellow citizens, sometimes even against the kings over the sea and their subjects.

De Excidio Britanniae (Gildas)


For Britain, that province so fertile in despots, the Scottish tribes, and all the barbarians round about as far as the ocean were alike without knowledge of Moses and the prophets.

Epistle 133:9 (Jerome)


Britain was abandoned by Rome, by its own rebel leader. With feelings running high concerning foreign raiders, troops stationed in Britain had revolted and chosen Marcus, Gratian, and then Constantine III in quick succession, and only the last of them survived for more than a few months in power. Constantine became such an influential figure that the admittedly lacklustre Emperor Honorius of Rome was forced to recognise him as a co-ruler, but this success was partially won by means of removing troops and military supplies from Britain, the last leaving British shores in 406. With the Saxon raids continuing almost unchecked the British had lost patience.


...expelling the Roman magistrates or officers, and erecting a government, such as they pleased, of their own. Thus happened this revolt or defection of Britain and the Celtic nations, when Constantine usurped the empire, by whose negligent government the barbarians were emboldened to commit such devastations.

Nea Historia (Zosimus)


The efforts of the Britons to organise and defend themselves met little success. They appealed to Aetius more than once for military aid, and famously in 410 Emperor Honorius sent a letter to the British cities telling them to look after their own defence. The independence of British government in the 5th century had received official sanction. It was somewhat ironic that this government would collapse completely within fifty years.


A series of petty rulers emerged until AD425 when Vortigern claimed Britain as his realm in its entirety although its only established that he ruled Kent. In AD440 he appealed for help against the picts to two Jutish chiefs, Hengist and Horsa. According to contemporary sources, the english king escaped a Saxon plot to murder his nobles from which he escapes to Wales, where he later dies in a fire, but theres no mention of the defeat of Vortigern in the Battle of Aylesford in AD449, nor his earlier attempt to ask the Saxons to go home.


Finally by AD460 the roman government had evaporated. As late as AD495 the Saxons were still arriving, followed by the Angles thirty years later who went on to dominate northern england and create the realm of Mercia. The historical sources of these times are not judged reliable, but its noticeable that Vortigern is described as a villain for inviting the Saxons into Britain, though some connection with the Pelagian Heresy put down by Germanus of Auxerre in 429 has been suggested as a possible reason for the hatred Vortigern generated.


The popular image of Roman Britain can be seen on the shelves of bookshops and libraries everywhere. The artists impressions of Roman architecture, country villas, and urban life are plentiful. They're also misleading. It gives the impression that Britain was completely 'romanised'. The truth is that this assimilation never happened. Certainly the Romans occupied England and dominated affairs there for centuries, but it isn't generally realised (or popularly accepted) that the native Iron Age culture co-existed right to the end of Roman occupation and beyond.


Not only did the native celtic culture survive, but in the collapse of Roman administration within fifty years of the last legionary departing British shores, that culture had blossomed again, this time with a latin legacy and a new Irish christian zeal. Note the christian symbol of the period, the 'Celtic Cross', the Druidic Circle superimposed by the Cross of Jesus.


The fact the Druids had been removed from political power by the attack upon the Isle of Anglesey in AD60 did not completely remove the druidic faith from peoples hearts, nor for that matter was Malmudian Law, the 248 Triads that encapsulated the oral codices of the Druidic priests, forgotten entirely. In fact, King Brude of the Picts, who lived between 550 and 584, had a personal druid named Broichan when Columba arrived to meet the king.


It wasn't the pagan Romans who brought Druidism to an end, nor the Christian Romans who followed them, but the new religious movements in those turbulent years when the British took control of their own affairs. Patricks Irish missionaries in the 5th century, the pagan Saxon settlers, and eventually Augustines liberal Roman Catholicism. Yet even today, Halloween and the Mistletoe at Christmas are druidic remnants still alive in British culture.


My reason for emphasising the religious continuity of the natives is to underline the concept that old traditions had survived the Roman occupation and the many temptations of luxury so famously alluded to by Tacitus. That doesn't mean the Romans left no mark behind them. Far from it.


Although these post-Roman Britons adopted a semblance of their former tribal culture, a feature of human sociology similar to that observed in the decline of colonial Africa in recent times, they still used Roman political offices awarded ad hoc rather than as permanent jobs, rather like noble titles. These were 'special jobs' that meant something, representing the authority of an old order still alive in peoples minds of the time.


Nennius for instance makes the point that Arthur was not a ruler but an important military leader. He uses the phrase Dux Bellorum (Duke of Battles). Most studies use that title literally and accept that was the rank accorded Arthur as the commander-in-chief of the gathered Romano-British armies. The exact name of a title in the Dark Ages was less specific and Arthur's dukedom may be no more than Nennius giving a latin title to a man who might have gone by another. Magister Militum, Imperator, or even the celtic title Gwledig are just as likely.


Neither should we overlook the influence of Irish celts, who in the early 5th century were mounting regular raids in western areas (and indeed, Arthur is credited for victories against them). It was from Ireland that Patricks Christianity spread.


The Dark Age Record


516 - The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carries the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and nights, and the Britons were victorious.

Annales Cambraie (?)


From that time, the citizens were sometimes victorious, sometimes the enemy, in order that the Lord, according to His wont, might try in this nation the Israel of to-day, whether it loves Him or not. This continued up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill, and of almost the last great slaughter inflicted upon the rascally crew. And this commences, a fact I know, as the forty-fourth year, with one month now elapsed; it is also the year of my birth.

De Excidio Britanniae (Gildas)


...a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon, and in it, 940 men fell in one day from a single charge of Arthurs, and no-one laid them low except he alone.

Historia Brittonum (Nennius)


They had at that time for their leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man of worth, who alone, by chance, of the Roman nation had survived the storm, in which his parents, who were of the royal race, had perished. Under him the Britons revived, and offering battle to the victors, by the help of God, gained the victory. From that day, sometimes the natives, and sometimes their enemies, prevailed, till the year of the siege of Badon-hill, when they made no small slaughter of those enemies, about forty-four years after their arrival in England.

Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Venerable Bede)


These were the reports of the Dark Ages left to us by the writers of the time. There are also mentions in Welsh heroic poetry but these are romanticised tales and lack historical accuracy.


Nennius listed the twelve battles credited to Arthur. In doing so, he makes Mons Badonicus seem as if it were the culmination of a long campaign undertaken by Arthur to secure peace in Britain, when research seems to suggest a single great victory won by him at the end of a period of warfare spread over England. Both Gildas and the Venerable Bede mention a long war against the Saxons, but the grandeur of Arthurs career begins with Nennius.


None of those battles listed by Nennius have any definitive location. They remain mysterious, contradictory, and may well be fictional altogether. So much of our Dark Age history does. Only the Battle of Badon hints at any real historical event. That said, the event as we read of it is coloured by Dark Age sensibilities and medieval errors in transcription.


For instance, we read in the welsh Annales Cambraie that Arthur carried the cross of Jesus on his shoulder for three days and nights. As a physical activity it makes no sense for a practical minded leader of men in battle to perform such a duty literally. You might interpret this as merely a responsibility, leading celtic christian warriors against heathen Saxons. Alternatively it might be worth observing that the celtic worlds for shoulder (scuid) and shield (scuit) are very similar, so we might be looking a simple error in grammar that the pious medieval mind missed altogether.


The Question of Arthur


No figure on the borderline between history and mythology has wasted so much of the historians time

J.N.L. Myers


Point taken Mr Myers. But you just can't keep a good legend down. That remains the essential problem with Arthur, who by the 9th century had accumulated such mythic status that he was given credit for victories not only at Badon, but eleven other battles of which no trace can be found. The Venerable Bede, who used the work of Gildas as a source, also doesn't mention who led the Britons to victory at Badon and by omission, this seems to imply Ambrosius Aurelianus took command.


In an age when a warrior might expect to live to the age of forty, to have Ambrosius Aurelianus lead the Britons to victory at Badon would make him a very old man. Not impossible perhaps, just very unlikely, a situation enforced by the observation that no-one specifically gives Ambrosius credit for the victory, just that he had done much to win the battles of the previous generation.


The issue here is that Gildas doesn't mention Arthur at all. We shouldn't be suprised by this since he doesn't mention Patrick either, surely one of the most influential christian figures who inspired the Irish-Christian renaissance of the early Dark Ages, a movement that spread into continental Europe.


In fact the historical legacy of the following generations mention at least four identifiable Arthurs in the late 6th and 7th centuries that are recorde in Argyll, Wales, and Ireland. The popular emergence of this name points to an original Arthur who made such an impression.


...although he was no Arthur...

Y Goddodin (Aneuris)


Celtic heroic poetry of the Dark Age like the Goddodin makes that specific reference and underlines the legendary reputation. Unfortunately Arthur is remembered in these tales less for his ability on the battlefield and more for indfidelities in the bedroom, and the Welsh poets regarded him as an avaricious tyrant.


However, there is one important clue that Gildas left us. He describes Cuneglasus, one of the contemporary tyrants he despaired of, as aurigaque currus receptaculi ursi (The Bears Charioteer).


That may not seem significant, but look further. The old celtic word for bear was arth, coincidentially the root word in Arthur, and since Gildas was not above making puns of peoples names, we have an anonymous leader we remember by his nickname instead. What Gildas is saying is that King Cuneglasus, in his younger days, was given the privilege of driving Arthurs chariot.


A veiled reference to the real Arthur? Possibly, but such was the power of this myth that during the Middle Ages a story emerged that Arthur had relatives of Gildas put to death, either for treachery or piracy depending on which version you hear. There's no historical basis for this but it often appears as the reason for why Arthur is missing from the record.


The celtic oral tradition has a powerful persistence, but again, a measure of scrutiny is involved. In the Historia Brittonum Nennius informs us that Arthur slew 940 Saxons personally, sometimes recorded as 960. That can be viewed in three ways.


Firstly, that it's simply fiction, a made up number to sound impressive around the fireside and of no significance other than to underline Arthurs heroism.


Secondly, you might see it as a total of men slain by the Britons, but credited to Arthur as the sole leader of his warrior band, a practice thought to be common in Iron Age and Dark Age tales.


Thirdly, and perhaps the most damning coincidence of all, the number is often quoted as 960 and may well have once been expressed as three three hundreds and three score. What a great line for a storyteller to make to his audience.


That doesn't mean the number is actually fiction, but a little too convenient, especially since the druidic tradition held the number three as especially significant in their beliefs. The Druids ordered their culture in Triads, verbal memnonics designed to be remembered easily without the need for the written word, and indeed the concept apparently survived in Britain long after the Druids were crushed by Roman legions on the Isle of Anglesey.


Such was the mythology of Arthur that in 1125 William of Malmesbury writes in his Gesta Regum Anglorum that he wanted to dispel some of these myths and bring the truth of Arthur back into perspective. In fact, he repeats the work of Nennius, although instead of glorifying the victory at Badon, refers to it instead as a temporary victory before the eventual retreat and capitulation of the Britons to the Saxon advance in later generations. He also diminishes the Saxon menace to fit in with Norman sensibilities.


The Question of Saxon Generalship


Who led the Saxons? In none of the sources is the re any mention of a historical figure to take the blame for the defeat. Since the West Saxons advancing from the south coast had yet to confront the Romano-British who had conquered Badon Hill, and the peace would persist (despite some conflict in other areas) until Ceawlin moved on Searobyrig (Old Sarum) in 552.


Essex, the Kingdom of the East Saxons, was not recorded as having a king until Aescwine in 527, thus Essex is not considered.


Icel of Mercia, a figure only known from an 8th century biography of Saint Guthlac, was active c.510 and perhaps there's an outside chance his Angles were ivolved, though this would introduce some interesting strategic implications. The Flores Historiarum of Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris reports that in the year 527 "...pagans came from Germany and occupied East Anglia... some of whom invaded Mercia and fought many battles with the British...". Modern reassessment produces an earlier date of around 515, which coincides with the Annales Cambraie.


That leaves two rulers with enough power and influence to mount an invasion of the area around Badon. The first is Aesc, King of Kent, and the second Aella.


Aesc of Kent appears to have been subordinate to Aella, as the title of king is a relative one in the Dark Ages. It may well be possible his men were involved - but there is no mention.


Aella was the first king of the South Saxons, a region now called Sussex, reigning from 477 to as late as 514. He was a warlike individual who'd already razed Pevensey in 491, easily within the time frame for involvement further west. Significantly, the Venerable Bede describes him as the first king to hold imperium (political and military power) over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists him as the first Bretwalda, or "Ruler of Britain", but without historical confirmation. Nonetheless, it does give an impression of a violent and strong ruler.


The Year The Battle Was Fought?


The actual date of the battle is difficult to pin down. The various chronicles are notorious for inaccurate dates, partly due to some very vague methods of naming years. The most positive datum comes from Gildas, who claims to have been born in the year the battle was fought, thus suggesting c.495. The Annales Cambriae tell us the battle was fought in 516.


An interesting correlation appears as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle specifically mentions the arrival of the West Saxons under Stufi and Wihtgar (Cerdics nephew) in 514, leading to a significant battle at Cerdicesford (Charford) 5 years later and the establishing of the realm of Wessex (The West Saxons with Cerdic and Cynric in power by 519).


Although the original borders are unclear, its believed it closely followed the boundaries of Hampshire at this time. This boundary was further enforced by the attack on Calleva (Silchester) sometime between 508-14. There followed a thirty year period of consolidation as the West Saxons brought their new-found influence to bear on the local populations, especially after other Saxon groups had just lost convincingly at Mons Badonicus.


The Britons: Fighting in the Roman Fashion?


With such scarcity of sources it's difficult to be authorative about the nature of the army the Britons led against the Saxons at Badon. There however hints from various sources that point to a generalised vision of their armies.


After the Roman legions had gone and taken all the available military supplies with them, the Britons asked for aid against the foreign threats and Gildas tells us the Romans responded twice, eventually leaving advice and intriguingly what was titled Exemplaria Instituendorum Armorum. Military manuals?


The Romans told them to make use of the ensis (generic sword), hasta (generic spear), and pelta (light skirmishers shield). In other words, sound professional advice for troops not well versed in the finer points of martial practice. This equipment was still being used in the time of Gildas as he records in discussing the tyrants of his day.


Even Vortigern was said to have "fought in the Roman fashion". Before jumping to conclusions and imagining classic legions arrayed in organised cohorts, the description referred to the Romans of a later time, long after the legions we immediately think of had become history. When our sources say this, they mean the very late Roman forces, compact forces better suited to raiding warfare but still with a modicum of discipline and organisation, if the soldiers are properly motivated. We shouln't think of battles in Dark Age Britain as large sweeping affairs, but rather as large ambuscades and raids.


There's a noticeable difference in the tone that Nennius uses. The Britons are described as part of an exercitus (army) and composed of miles (soldiers), whereas the Saxons definitely don't earn such labels. This might simply be national pride, but it's difficult not to escape the feeling that the Britons fighting in the forty years of civil war before Badon regarded themselves as inheriting the military virtue of the Romans.


The welsh heroic poetry gives us a colourful description of their forces and it's worth collating these accounts as there is a suprisingly consistent view of how native armies were organised and equipped.


Infantry fight in close ranks, their best men to the front, organised in groups of 600-900 men and close to the effective legion size of the late Roman Empire. The typical infantry formation is described by various terms such as "Stronghold of Shields", "Wall of Battle", "Stockade", "Battle Pen". We have therefore a very protective tightly packed group in armies not used to facing missile weapons and perfectly suited to seeing off cavalry, and again, a hauntingly similar regime to Roman forces prior to their withdrawal.


However there's no standardisation of rank. A man is either in charge or not. The army leader is chosen (though who has that privilege isn't certain) and can be referred to by the phrases "A Regulator of Hosts", One Who Marshalls the Armies", or "The Conductor of the Toil".


There's no mention of helmets, but the Llurig (Lorica?), is torso armour of chainmail or scales confirmed by archaeological finds, but unlike the medieval versions, there's no mention of limb protection.


Large wooden shields, said to be round or circular, usually painted white and perhaps bearing symbols, are common but prone to shattering, lacking any strengtheners such as metal rims, and a spear was more likely to break a shield than pierce it. They made quite a noise in combat too, being described as "thunderous" under the blows of the enemy.


Whilst there was some similarity in Late Roman and early Dark Age British fighting, the use of the shield in deensive formations is a little vague. There's no mention of the testudo, the famous formation used to advance under cover of shields, nor of the foulkon, the twin row shield wall.


Spears are long and made of a 'yellow' wood, suggesting ash, with 'square' heads. It isn't clear quite what that means, but it may refer to a simple square-section spike rather than a wide diamond shaped blade. Swords are designed for swinging attacks, in a return to the old fashioned values of the Iron Age. The soldiers keep their blades sharp and polished. In the prose that describes these weapons the iron armour and weapons are a shiney blue colour. This would suggest superior oil-tempering, but beware, because archaeology suggests such quality was rare if available at all, and Barry Cuncliffe notes that Dark Age forges were a quarter the size of those encountered in Roman times.


In terms of tactics a battle cry was standard practice to announce the attack. There is some historical precedence for this. The Romans were known to employ a rising chorus called the barritus. Further, Bishop Germanus of Auxerre made a visit to Britain in 429 and having dealt with the Pelagian Heresy, convinced the Britons to place him as leader against Pictish raiders in that year. Famously he had his men shout "Alleluia" and frighten the opposing force.


There's clearly a tendency for infantry to close on each other, and instead of simply fighting, to push with their spears in a dangerous scrum to dominate the battle line. This behaviour isn't unusual in soldiers armed with polearms, and in fact, in some circumstances the psychological impact of being pushed back might even break a weaker formation without resorting to a long and bloody melee. In other words, poor quality troops retreat at the first obstacle, which is pretty much what has always happened in warfare.


Horsemen are said to have always fought in the manner of 'Heavy' cavalry regardless of equipment or even protection. This means the primary aim of the british horsemen was to break the enemy infantry. Scouting and harassing are lesser duties. It reveals something of the mindset of the time, a desire to get stuck in to the fight.


Both the Welsh poetry and Geoffery's accounts underline the effectiveness of Arthurs cavalry. The theory about armoured Sarmatians as the origin of Arthurs knights of the Round Table isn't convincing in the light of what we've learned, and our sources don't mention any foreign horsemen. After the apparent mistakes made by Vortigern in hiring Saxon mercenaries to begin with, it's hardly likely powerful Sarmatian cavalry would be viewed with anything but suspicion.


Spears are the main weapon used overarm in typical Roman practice, or sometimes thrown, with swords a reserve weapon. Riders are generally said to be armoured and carry shields, but no indication they used helmets.


Their horses are white, either by breeding or by sweat, though you might be forgiven for thinking a measure of "Cowboy Hat Syndrome" is at work here. Nonetheless, there is a hint that warhorses are being bred specially for the purpose, albeit in small numbers.


Chariots are mentioned in the context of command transport rather than military assets. They appear to have been used as a symbol of status, something inherited from both Roman and Celtic traditions.


The Saxons: A Rascally Crew?


Despite the records left by the Romans we don't have a clear idea of how the Saxons appeared and equipped themselves. This situation isn't helped by a somewhat anarchistic nature among Saxon warriors, who felt no need whatsoever to define themselves as a military structure. Even as small a force as a shipload of warriors might be described as an army in Saxon eyes.


Because these forces were quite small, it was obviously necessary for warbands to group together to form larger armies. Led by a dominant chief, or Althing, such an army is believed to have numbered around 200 to 600 men, smaller than the typical Romano-British gathering. Celtic tradition suggests the Saxons fielded larger armies when required.


Whether cavalry was used by the Saxons c.500 isn't confirmed and there's a measure of debate over the composition of their forces. They were nonetheless known as formidable fighters. In fact, Saxon culture was undergoing changes that would result in a more sophisticated and ordered society by the time of the Norman invasion. At the time of Mons Badonicus they weren't quite so civilised.


As is often the case with warrior cultures the Saxons of this time formed into warbands centered around a leader whose qualities were admired. The most elite follower was the Gedriht, an individual seeking to serve the leader in war. Such was the loyalty expected of a chiefs followers that it was considered dishonorable to leave a battlefield after your leader had been killed. Those who did might well find themselves later condemned to death for disloyalty, whatever the reason for that situation. In a very real sense, the elevation to elite status meant that a Saxon warrior had vowed to die with his chief.


Those who failed to follow a summons to fight might find their land forfeited unless that person sent another in his place, and in the last resort a Saxon could pay compensation, a forerunner of the medieval practice of scutage.


Gedrights used the Gar as the main infantry weapon, a spear with a shaft about eight feet in length. Long bladed swords were also used. Helmets and chainmail armour were usual for men of this order. The quality of manufacture in both armour and weaponry was a clear signal to a mans wealth and status. If the Saxons employed cavalry at all, it's very likely that only the Gedrihts were mounted.


Geoguth were the young warriors who made up the bulk of a Saxon force. Shield and spear were the usual equipment, with a very large dagger called the Saex as a secondary blade for defense. Helmets and armour existed among this order but would have been uncommon.


Duguth represented the veterans, the old warriors, used as a reserve of experienced men. Although this order developed over time, the long campaigns of Saxons pushing into the interior of Britain would have created such a body of men. The equipment would be similar to the Geoguth.


It's also known that Saxon wariors used axes, single handed weapons useful for breaking enemy shields. The archaeological record appears to confirm that the use of axes was very rare in the early Dark Age, becoming more common after c.600 and only later forming the primary weapon during the wars with the Vikings.


In terms of tactics on the battlefield the Saxons would have organised shield walls for defense. Wooden shields of a higher qulaity than their Celtic opponents had originally been quite small for convenience and favoured the intense close-in melee the Saxons preferred. With experience the shields became larger, which in terms of fighting would have resulted in a more organised style of formation.


The question of discipline is important. There's no doubting that the Saxons were ferocious fighters, but they were less than regimented even by c.500. For troops wanting to throw spears, the typical practice would have been to run forward from the line and throw the missile, before returning to the safety of the group, and such exchanges of spears was probably expected in the opening stages.


It wasn't just bravado - although that was certainly part of it - but also necessary to obtain momentum and freedom to throw without the restriction of close order. There's no evidence the Saxons used volleys of spears in the Roman method, except those Germans employed by Vortigern as mercenaries in the British defense. There's also hints from various sources that individual bravado played a part in hand to hand combat, the more confident wariors making brief attacks to frighten their enemy and inspire their comrades.


If Geoffery of Monmouth is to be believed the Saxons had developed wedge formations by the time of the Batle of Badon. In many literary sources this wedge is described as an attack formation, designed to pierce the opposing troops like an arrow-head. Far from it. The wedge would have been defnsive, intended to persuade enemy cavalry to turn aside.


Our knowledge of the Saxons does not credit them with any great skill in siegecraft, even though Aella is known to have taken a coastal fort and razed it. The advance of the West Saxons from their landings on the south coast is shown to have been delayed by the ditches and palisades put up by British defenders.


The Battle Of Mons Badonicus


Sometime around the end of the 5th century the Britons confronted the Saxons at Mons Badonicus. There is no verifiable account of the battle. In the Dark Age records the event is outlined and given a cursory significance.


...the battle of Badon with Arthur, chief giver of feasts... the battle which all men remember.



Most sources only give a cursory mention of this important battle. There is however a tantalising glimpse from Geoffery of Monmouth.


Then, stationing his companies, he made hardy assault upon the Saxons that after their wont were ranked wedge-wise in battalions. Natheless, all day long did they stand their ground manfully maugre the Britons that did deliver assault upon assault upon them At last, just verging upon sundown, the Saxons occupied a hill close by that might serve them as a camp, for, secure in their numbers, the hill alone seemed all the camp they needed. But when the morrows sun brought back the day, Arthur with his army clomb up to the top of the hill, albeit that in the ascent he lost many of his men. For the Saxons, dashing down from their height, had the better advantage in dealing their wounds, whilst they could also run more swiftly down the hill than he could struggle up. Howbeit, putting forth their utmost strengh, the Britons did at last reach the top, and forthwith closed with the enemy hand to hand. The Saxons, fronting them with their broad chests, strove with all their endeavour to stand their ground. And when much of the day had been spent on this wise, Arthur waxed wroth at the stubbornness of their resistance, and the slowness of his own advance, and drawing forth Caliburn, his sword, crieth aloud in the name of Holy Mary, and thrusteth him forward with a swift onset into the thickest press of the enemies ranks.

Historia Regum Brittanniae (Geoffery of Monmouth)


Anyone who has read Geoffery's History of the Kings of Britain will understand my reticence at taking this quote at face value. When he wrote this work in the mid twelth century he claimed that Walter of Oxford, a learned man, had given him 'an old book' which contained much of the historical detail he referred to. Given the common medieval penchant for fraud and trickery, it's easy to dismiss this account of Badon as fiction like much of Geoffery's history obviously is. That said, the description is peculiarly specific and evokes an image of a dark age battle that probably isn't so far from the truth.


What saves Geoffery's credibility is that a very similar tale was written by Wace in Roman de Brut in 1160. Wace coloured the account as noble vengeance whereas Geoffery was eulogising Arthur as a king, but both might have used the same source, Britannici Sermonis Liber Vetustissimus which sadly no longer exists and may well have been the volume given to Geoffery by Walter.


There are interesting points for debate in this account. Was the start of the battle away from the hill, as Geoffery infers, with hard pressed Saxons retreating to a defensive position for the next day? His story stresses the difficulty of attacking uphill, and the cost in casualties Arthur had to suffer, which certainly underlines his ability to rally and inspire his men to continue the fight despite stubborn Saxon resistance. Was the Saxon camp merely the place they stopped overnight, or an existing hillfort?


As for the Saxons, they are described making 'dashes' down the hill. Was this an act of bravado by individual warriors, something often seen in tribal warriors before medieval times, or a rush by a host of men spurred on by their leaders? More intriguingly, the Saxons are better able to climb up again, suggesting lighter equipped troops consistent with the bardic tradition.


Only Nennius makes any other reference to the situation, declaring that the Britons penetrated to the hill. We can see in the works of Gildas that this final victory against the Saxons brought about a long peace of forty years or so, one that resulted in the hedonistic tyrannies among the warlords of the native Britons that Gildas clearly finds ungodly. It wasn't to last. On the south coast, the West Saxons were landing and they would expand aggressively north to found the kingdom of Wessex in later years.


Locating the Battlefield


Where did the Battle of Mons Badonicus take place? Here we run into the classic problem of Dark Age history in that the historical references are vague. Interstingly, Henry of Huntingdon in his Historia Anglorum of 1133 says that the providence of God had masked the real locations of the twelve battles he incorrectly credits to Gildas.


For modern researchers the first clue is the name itself. Mons is a latin world that indicates a mountain or a substantial hill.


The second clue is that Gildas names the battle as obsessio montis badonicus. The word obsessio refers to a siege, thus we're looking for an established site of that period.


The third clue is that Nennius confirms the battle was fought at a hill, and that the British 'penetrated' to it.


The fourth clue, and one that needs some circumspection, is that Geoffery of Monmouth refers to a camp on top of the hill.


The only direct reference in past writing is that Geoffery of Monmouth specifically locates the Battle of Badon at Bath, the town once known to the Romans as Aqua Sulis. This is not solid evidence by any means, but we are left with the understanding that Geoffery was using 'an old book' as his source, given to him by Walter of Oxford.


Various sites have been put forward as the location in recent research.


- Badbury Rings - Iron age hillfort in Devon. Badbury has long been touted as a possible site, and in recent years local historian Roy Carr has made attempts to link events throughout the period connected with Badbury.


- Bardon Hill - Local tradition tells that Arthur waited at the top of the hill to view the approach of the Saxons, clearly in opposition to the evidence. Nonetheless, an area nearby is still called "Battle Flat" to this day.


- Bathampton Down - Sometimes suggested as the site of the battle, but the presence of the River Avon mitigates against it (no river is mentioned in any context connected with Mons Badonicus). Also, the rings appear to have been intended as animal enclosures rather than siege defenses.


- Bowden Hill - A site in Scotland, near the town of Linlithgow, a claim dependent on similar names and the idea that Arthur was a northern king.


- Buxton - A spa town, where the site of a Roman bath has been found.


- Liddington Hill - For many researchers this is the obvious choice. Located at the crossroads of the Ridgeway and the southward Roman road at Badbury, near Swindon.


- Mynydd Baedan - Near Bridgend in South Wales. There have been attempts to link Arthurian mythos purely within a modern Welsh context and the similarity of the name has generated this possibility. However, the Welsh connection shouldn't be dismissed entirely. Cuneglasus, a 'tyrant' from mideast-Wales, was mentioned by Gildas with hints of a connection with Arthur.


- Solsbury Hill - Out of a number of possible sites around Bath, Solsbury Hill is the favourite, as it's known to have been occupied in Pre-Roman times and was known to the Saxons as Badon or Badanceaster, suggesting a camp or fort. Some of the linguistic support for this case is unconvincing.


All things considered, many of these locations are put forward for little more than word games. Two have better credibility. Bath has the advantage of literal links with the period, and Liddington Hill the geographical logic of the hillfort above the crossing of a Roman road with the Ridgeway (and the last also satisfies Field Marshal Slim's dictum that all British battles are fought uphill across the junction of two maps!). The debate goes on.


The Second Battle Of Badon


Listed in the Annales Cambraie is a second battle at this site in 665, also listing in this year the 'First celebration of Easter among the Saxons' and the death of 'Morgan', though it isn't known if the events are related, or even if the record is inexact and the second Badon actually refers to a different site thus confusing the issue thereafter. There is no legend or historical reference of this other battle known to us.




Annales Cambraie: ?

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: ?

De Excidio Britanniae: Gildas

Gesta Regum Anglorum: William of Malmesbury

Historia Anglorum: Henry of Huntingdon

Historia Brittonum: Nennius

Historia Regum Brittanniae: Geoffery of Monmouth

Lives of the Saints: St David, Llancarfan, Rhuys of Brittany

Roman De Brut: Wace

Taliesin: Taliesin(?)

Y Goddodin: Aneuris




Battlefields of England: A.H. Burne

Battles of the Dark Ages: Peter Marren

In Search of the Dark Ages: Michael Woods

King Arthur: Christopher Hibbert

King Arthur: Rodney Castleden

Wessex From AD1000: Barry Cuncliffe

Edited by caldrail

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