THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART TWENTY

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 twentieth-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.

(Read Part Nineteen here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)

ARTHUR RETURNS SOUTH

Geoffrey of Monmouth states that Arthur was in the north, at Alclud, subduing the “Scots and Picts”. Alclud is obviously Alt Clut, the original name for Dumbarton Rock; the chief stronghold of Strathclyde. This meshes well with the scenario described here previously, in which Arthur is in the north fighting outlaws (the “Dog-Heads”) and Angle pirates near Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) at the battles of Tribruit/ Tryfrwyd and Agned Hill (Nennius’ 10th and 11th battles). News of Ælle’s invasion would have reached him there, likely before the Saxons crossed the Thames at Londinium ; a trading town, and traders are always willing to sell information in time of war to both sides. Word of the gathering of longships and warriors in Kent would not have gone unnoticed in any case; and the Britons in the south would have been laying in supplies and preparing for the worst.

Whether Arthur was still at Din Eidyn following the victory at Agned Hill (identified earlier as the volcanic rock known as Arthur’s Seat at Edinburgh), or had moved to Alt Clut in Strathclyde as Geoffrey suggests; he was in the north and had to cover some 450-500 miles (depending on location and route) as quickly as possible. Speed was essential!

This was an existential crisis of the first order. If Badon/Bath fell to the Saxons, Romano-Britain would be cut in two. Arthur’s own native kingdom of Dumnonia would be isolated, and a fatal blow struck to British unity.

Losing no time, Arthur and his Combrogi (and perhaps some picked mounted men from among the northern petty-kings who owed him favors and allegiance) rode southward post-haste! At a controlled canter, a cavalry force can safely travel 60 miles in a day; and somewhat more if able to change mounts. Arthur’s mailed Combrogi likely rode the largest horses available to a Roman heavy cavalryman (15 - 16 hands); and such horses were in limited supply. This said, if we assume that Arthur’s men were able to change mounts, traveling the excellent paved Roman roads, a week's hard riding  would bring him to Bath.

There were roughly two routes by which Arthur could ride south; on either side of the central spine of hills that run through the center of Britain, the Pennines. The likely route he took was the eastern one, which would take him south of the Wall into the British kingdom of Elmet and through Eboracum/York. Following mainly Dere Street as far south as Yorkshire, where it joined the Roman Ridge Road near Eburacum. At modern Templeborough in South Yorkshire, Arthur would have switched to Icknield Street; which finally joined the Fosse Way near modern Bourton-on-the-Water, in Gloustershire.

Now a picturesque Cotswolds town on the River Windrush, in Roman times this was the site of a Roman posting station, and the small village that had grown up around it. From here, Arthur was but 51 miles from his destination. It was here, perhaps, that he received the ominous confirming news:  Badon was invested and under siege!

THE SIEGE OF BADON

Ælle and the Anglo-Saxon forces arrived before Badon/Bath in late August. He would have found the countryside deserted, the local Britons having taken refuge in the town. As his  barbarian horde moved into position around the place, cutting it off from outside contact, the Bretwalda would have called a war council of his chieftains. Together, they would consider the best way to take the town.

All Roman cities had defensive walls. The normal pattern was a rectangle, all the streets laid out in a regular grid of right-angle streets. The defenses consisted of a masonry circuit wall supported by towers at regular intervals. In many (but not all) cases, small bolt-throwing machines, scorpions, were mounted upon the towers or walls.

Bath/Badon was no exception.

Example of a fortified Roman gateway.
Roman Bath (Badon).

While the Saxons were unsophisticated in the arts of siegecraft (what the Greeks called poliorketica) they had three relatively effective ways of capturing such strong places when necessary.

The first method was merely to surround the town or fort, and prevent the defenders from being resupplied from the outside. Given time, most places could eventually be starved into submission. This tactic, though, was a double-edged sword. The Saxons (like most “barbarian” armies of the Dark Ages) had at best a rudimentary grasp of logistics. A “barbarian” army on campaign lived off of the pillage from the surrounding countryside. When a particular area was picked-clean, the army perforce needed to move on or starve (along with the surviving locals). Sitting down to a lengthy siege risked running out of food supplies even sooner than the defenders within the town/fort; who, unless  taken completely by surprise or at the end of a long winter, likely had emergency supplies stockpiled for just such occasion. Finally, given the poor hygiene and sanitation of Germanic barbarian armies in general and the Saxons in particular, camp pestilence was an even greater threat than enemy weapons! (It should be remembered that unit the 20th century, more soldiers perished on campaign from disease and sickness than from wounds.)

The second way of eliminating a fortified British town or hillfort was simply to occupy the neighborhood near a British town, establishing burhs. From these, the Saxons could harry the countryside; killing  or taking-off the peasants who worked the fields that fed the town. The Saxon ceorls would set up their own farms around their burhs; putting British peasants to work as thralls. Meanwhile, these bad neighbors would periodically raid the nearby town and its environs, making normal life so untenable that the town’s citizens would in time move away to more hospitable places (usually to the west).  By this tactic many of the towns of Roman Britain had been forced into abandonment or surrender.

Saxon burh (fortified village)

The last resort was simple escalade and battery. Ladders would be set against the circuit wall, and battering ram put to the town’s gate(s). Fierce Saxon warriors would swarm up their ladders, belt-axes or the deadly knives from which their name derived in hand. Man-for-man, these fierce warriors were more than a match for any town burgher or militiaman! And if the gate was battered down, the Saxons would raise their shields overhead and swarm through the gatehouse as arrows, stones, and boiling liquids were hurled down upon them!

Storming a Roman fortified town in this crude, straight-forward fashion could result in terrible casualties to the attacker. Such a tactic would be used only when no other was available, or time was an issue.

Now, at Badon, time was the issue.

Ælle and his chiefs would know that the “Welsh” must soon react, particularly the nearby petty kings of Dumnonia. We have no idea from the scant accounts of Badon who, besides the townsmen, were defending the place. But it is not unlikely that at least some of these local Dumnonian lords might have rushed trained men of their own “Teulu” (household warriors) into the town at news of the Saxon approach.

But the full levy of Dumnonia would be underway; perhaps at Cadbury Castle hill fort, some 30-plus miles to the south.  This ancient Iron Age hillfort had been refortified during this age; and was likely the stronghold of a Dumnonian warlord. It would have been a natural place where the warbands and militia levy of Dumnonia would gather to prepare for the relief of Badon. Its name comes from its possible founder as a stronghold in the late 5th/early 6th century: Cado. The name Cadbury means "Cado's Fort".

South Cadbury Castle hill fort

Geoffrey of Monmouth gives an important role in his account to “Duke Cador of Cornwall”. This character may well have been based upon the very real Dumnonian leader, Cado ap Erbin (or ap Geraint or Gerren); petty-king of a region of north Devon and perhaps “High King” of Dumnonia. As with his brother (or possible father), Geraint, he is closely associated with Arthur in the Welsh sources [1]. Both are named in the 6th century elegy on the Battle of Llongborth (where Geraint may have been slain) and in the 6th century Life of St. Carantoc. Of all the petty-kings who were contemporaneous of Arthur, these two are the only ones we know for certain by name.

It was Cado/Cato who now likely called up the men of Dumnonia to the relief of Badon. However, the entire levy of Dumnonia would take weeks to fully muster; time which Badon may not have had.

Ælle was preparing to storm the town, using his massive numerical advantage before succor could arrive from the south or west. The first two days his warriors sat before the town would  have been spent in cutting timber for ladders and for a ram. On the third day, these assembled, the Saxons moved into position.

Perhaps the Saxons attacked in the early morning; at first light rushing the walls. Some no doubt were cut down by fire from the defenders on high. Once at the base of the fortifications, their ladders were raised; while their crude rams hammered at the northern and western portals (the eastern wall was warded by the river). The fighting would have been savage and desperate. Though in such assaults the attacker always took disproportionate casualties until gaining a lodgement atop the walls or breaking in a gate, the shear size of Ælle's army made the end a foregone conclusion. Badon seemed doomed.

However, before the Saxons could sweep over the battlements or batter-in the gates, help arrived from a wholly unexpected direction: From the north, down the Fosse Way.

Arthur had arrived at Badon, and the dragon standard waved in the Saxon's rear, atop Solsbury Hill!

Or, as it was known locally, Badon Hill (Mons Badonicus).

NEXT: THE BATTLE OF MONS BADONICUS

  1. Castleden, Rodney, “King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend”, Routledge 2000, P. 114

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