THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART TWENTY-ONE

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 twenty-first-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!

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

Arthur had arrived at Badon Hill (Mons Badonicus), come fresh from his victories in the North against outlaws and Angle pirates (remembered by Nennius as the 10th and 11th of “Arthur’s Twelve Battles”: the Battles of the River Tribruit and the Hill of Agned).  Atop Solsbury/Badon Hill, he could clearly see the Saxons swarming below the walls of Badon, less than two miles away.

Bath (Badon) viewed from atop Solsbury Hill

For Ælle, Arthur’s sudden arrival must have come as an unpleasant shock. The Bretwalda would have heard that Arthur and his vaunted horsemen were in the north, supposedly too far away to interfere with his move against Badon (Bath); the keystone to his strategy aimed at driving a wedge between the northern and southern British kingdoms. Now Arthur was on the high ground behind the Saxon army, dominating Ælle’s line of communications.

Strategically, it was an unacceptable situation for the Saxon.

Ælle’s reaction was likely to have pulled back from the bloody, all-out assault on Badon’s walls; and to regroup his warriors to face the new threat.

The stage was now set for the Battle of Badon Hill, the last of Nennius 12 Battles of Arthur. But before laying out a plausible description of the battle, let us reexamine the forces and leaders involved.

THE SAXONS

According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle,  Ælle was the first king to be called Bretwalda ("Britain Ruler"). While more a “first among equals” than a true king of all the Anglo-Saxons, he likely had the auctoritas to call a great number of the disparate Saxon kings and warlords to his standard when required. The army he brought to Bathon was undoubtedly one which included warbands from all of the Saxon (and possibly Angle) “kingdoms” in Britain.  It must have included a great number of the Anglo-Saxon warriors of Britain; in that its defeat proved decisive, stopping (and in fact pushing back) the Saxon advance in Britain for sixty years. Clearly, no small affair.

The core of Ælle’s host was composed of the elite warriors of his own household, his Gesith (what the Roman writer Tacitus called a “comitatus”). Every Germanic warlord maintained a retinue of young “hearth warriors” who ate, slept, and fought beside him. These would die before deserting their lord, and in battle they provided the professional edge of well-equipped fighting men for every Saxon army. Ælle’s three sons, Cissa, Cymen and Wlencing likely fought beside their father as well; though the eldest and heir, the Ætheling Cissa may have had a smaller Gesith of his own.

Anglo-Saxon chieftain or member of Gesith; and Saxon ceorl. (Art by Jason Pope)

The “Gesith” of a great chieftain such as Ælle may have numbered as many as 300 proven warriors. Later Scandinavian kings and Jarls maintained such bodyguards, called hirðmenn/hirthmen; numbers ranging from just 60 men for a Jarl to as many as several thousand for a wealthy and powerful king such as Cnut the Great. Most Anglo-Saxon chieftains in this earlier, poorer period would have had much smaller retinues; perhaps based upon the “keel”, or ship’s crew of between 30 and 60 men.

Along with the professional warriors of his household, Ælle would have brought the levy of free-born Saxon farmers (ceorls) of his own realm, Sussex (Kingdom of the South Saxons). In later Anglo-Saxon society, this would be called the fyrd. In these early days of constant raid-and-counter-raid between Saxon and Briton, every Saxon was a warrior: land would only be given to warriors capable of defending it and supporting their king in time of war. Sussex under Ælle was a dynamic and aggressive newcomer in Britain; born in blood with the sacking of Romano-British Anderitum (Pevensey Castle)), traditionally dated 491 [1]. At least some of older warriors in his host may have been veterans of Ælle's first great victory over the hated "Welsh".

Along with his own South Saxons, the horde Ælle brought west to Badon included the men of Kent (Cantaware), led by their own king, Oisc “Big Knife" , son or grandson of the famed Hengist .(Alternate sources call him “Octha of the Bloody Knife"). Geoffrey of Monmouth (hardly a reliable source) names the Saxon leaders as Cheldric, Colgren and Balduph; but these names should be considered mere placeholders for unknown (to him) Anglo-Saxon warlords . From up-and-down the east coast of Britain, every Anglo-Saxon pirate and petty-king joined Ælle in this great campaign against the Britons.

As described earlier, such an expedition against the “Welsh” would have attracted land-hungry warriors from not only Anglo-Saxon Britain, but from across the North Sea, from the homelands of the Anglo-Saxons as well. Geoffrey of Monmouth speaks of Germans being brought from across the sea to reinforce the Saxon leaders for this campaign. This no doubt reflected the actual arrival of many such “Vikings”, flocking to take part in the despoiling of Britain. Small numbers of Franks, Frisians, Danes, Norse and Gotar (from southern Sweden, remembered in “Beowulf” as the Geats) may have sailed to Britain to take service under the Bretwalda, in anticipation of rich plunder. Dark Age warriors gathered about a successful chieftain’s standard if he showed himself a generous “gift giver”; and land was the most prized reward a chieftain could give to a follower. Much of Ælle’s motivation for making war against the Britons in the west was the need for land to grant the land-hungry new-comers from across the sea that followed his standard.

One question must be asked: was Cerdic, wily leader of the West Saxons present?

As outlined earlier, Cerdic is described in these early days of the West Saxon people as an Ealdorman (“Elder Man”) [2]. Ealdormen were not independent rulers; but officials answerable to an Anglo-Saxon ruler. As speculated earlier, Cerdic’s master at this stage was likely Ælle of the South Saxons.

As an officer (or vassal) of the Bretwalda, Cerdic would have been expected to answer the summons to war against the Britons. His holdings, within the marshy coastal region of Hampshire, bordered Dumnonia in the west. His warband could either march north to join Ælle’s host as it marched on Badon; or move directly west, by land or sea; harrying the Dumnonian coast, distracting the Dumonians and perhaps delaying their succor of Badon. It is likely that Cerdic did one or the other: merely sitting out the war would have been to defy his master’s summons. Such an act of defiance against the most powerful ruler in Britain on the eve of what surely would have seemed his triumphal final campaign; risked not only being left out of the rich booty to be gained, but being branded a rebel against the Bretwalda he served.

So, though we have no way of knowing if Cerdic was present at Badon, his participation in the campaign in some fashion is highly likely. But as part of Ælle’s great host besieging Badon, or as a diversionary force raiding the Dumnonian coast?  That Cerdic’s death is recorded as being in 534, nearly two decades after the battle, lends weight to the latter possibility. He clearly survived the battle; unlike so many other Anglo-Saxon's present.

That Cerdic and the West Saxons warband might have harried the Dumnonian coast as Ælle laid siege to Badon might also explain Geoffrey of Monmouth’s contention that the Saxons came by sea; landing at Totness, near Devon:

“…[the Saxons] went on shore at Totness. No sooner were they landed, than they made an utter devastation of the country…”

Geoffrey (perhaps working from now-lost Welsh or Cornish sources) has the Saxons marching north from Totness to Badon, murdering and pillaging as they went. Could his account come from sources that confused Cerdic’s costal raid with the movement of Ælle’s main host (by land) against Badon? Or, attempting to reconcile the two separate operations, conflates them into one?

In any case, with-or-without Cerdic’s West Saxons the savage host Ælle brought to Badon was likely the largest ever marshaled by any Anglo-Saxon leader to that date; numbering not less than 3,000 warriors, nor more than 10,000.

The “Saxon” warriors that followed Ælle would have been equipped with a round shield made of planks of linden wood, covered with tough cowhide; gripped behind a heavy projecting iron boss.  His chief weapon would have been either a light spear, useful for throwing or retaining for melee; not dissimilar to the late Roman lancea. However, both angons (heavy throwing spears) and francisca (throwing axes) have been found in Saxon graves of this period. These were the defining weapons of the Franks; arguing both for Frankish elements in early Saxon warbands, and a cross-pollination of weapons (and techniques) in such a heterogeneous force.

Detailed military miniature of the common Anglo-Saxon warrior of the age.

As previously discussed, the hallmark weapon of a Saxon warrior was his seax. This large, single-edged utility knife was ideal for use in the close-quarters battle that resulted when shield-wall met shield-wall, or when men wrested on the ground in a death-grapple. It was also perfect for finishing-off enemy wounded littering a battlefield!

Chieftains and better-armed warriors would also carry a broadsword, the favorite weapon of the noble Germanic warrior. By the 4th century, the common sword of all Roman soldiers had become the “spatha”; the proto-broadsword formerly used only by cavalrymen. Such weapons would be re-hilted and highly decorated when captured or acquired by Anglo-Saxon warriors (as would other pieces of Roman armor, such as helms).  Such weapons transferred high status to a warrior in Germanic/Scandinavian society; and were imbued with mythic/magical properties. Famous heroes carried famous swords, which bore names of their own: Sigurd the Dragonslayer bore Gram (“wrath”), and Beowulf the sword Hrunting (“roarer”). Later Viking-Age Scandinavian swords bore names like “Leg-biter”, “Skull-splitter”, and “Peace-Breaker”.

Poorer warriors might carry a scramsax, a longer version of the seax.

Mail shirts, called byrnies, were also items of high status, and confined to chieftains or the wealthiest of warriors.  After victorious battles against the Romans or Romano-British, mail shirts might be scavenged. But these were in short supply even amongst the British; likely only found in officers and elite cavalry units.

In battle, the Saxon host would form up in one-of-two formations: either the shield-wall, a linear formation in which the warriors of the first rank overlapped their shields, forming a wall. Or, when on the attack, the “Boar’s Head” (also called the “Swine Array”, or by the Romans the "cuneus") could be adopted. In this formation, the chieftain and his household warriors formed a wedge; and would attempt to penetrate and shatter an opposing enemy line.

THE BRITONS

The British warriors who fought at Badon had come to call themselves Combrogi (or Cymry), meaning “fellow-countrymen” or “comrades”. The term “Welsh” (meaning “ foreigner”) would have been insulting to these native British warriors.

The memory of Rome was distant, though reflected in their military organization and equipment. The bulk of the army was comprised of spear-armed infantry pedyt (from the Latin pedites, or “foot”). These were militia, part-time soldiers; drawn from the towns and fortress garrisons. These were likely organized in “legions” of 1,000-1,200 men each; approximately the same size and structure of legions of the late Roman army. Supporting this assumption is one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which describes the 4,000 British casualties at the Battle of Creacanford as “four troops”. A smaller unit, called a “Cant” (likely a derivation of the Roman centuriae), consisted of 100 men; suggesting a “legion” of spearmen divided into ten centuries, as with the late Roman legio.

Sub-Roman British warriors.

As was the practice with the late Romans, a small number of every legio might have been armed with bows, instead of the usual lancea (light spear) or spiculum (heavy throwing spear/javelin). Auxilia cohorts of archers (sagittarii) also existed; and Britons may have continued both of these traditions into the 6th century.

The elite “professionals” of a British army were the cavalry retinues of the nobles, called Teulu, “Family”. Despite their name, these were picked men from both the noble’s own tribe and, in the case of great warlords, adventurers from other lands. In this respect they were very similar to the late Roman Bucellarii. These wore mail shirts and helmets of late Roman pattern; and fought with spear/javelin and sword. However, the Romans had settled large numbers of Sarmatian heavy lancers in northern Britain. Their “horse culture” had permeated throughout the native Celtic aristocracy. As discussed previously, it is possible these and Alani cavalry settled in Armorica (Brittany) by the great Roman commander, Flavius Aetius [3], provided Arthur (and Ambrosius Aurelianus before him) with a Teulu of Sarmatian-type heavy cavalry lancers.

The cavalry force that Arthur brought from the north to Badon likely numbered not less than 300, nor more than 1,000.  As suggested earlier, the Combrogi of Arthur’s own Teulu likely numbered around 300 at full strength. This was a standard establishment for late Roman cavalry units, called vexillatio. Contemporary Byzantine/Eastern Roman practice at the time was unchanged, though the late Roman 300-man vexillations were now called Bandon.

We have postulated here earlier that Arthur’s own Teulu was of the heavy lance-armed Sarmatian/Alani type; known in the late Roman army as cataphractarii.  Their role in the Roman army was both to protect the flank of the main infantry line in battle; and to provide a powerful shock weapon capable of breaking enemy formations. Such regiments of Roman cavalry were often armored in bronze and iron, sometimes including the horse as well as the man. Arthur’s Combrogi were likely more lightly armored: Britain in the late 5th century/early 6th century lacked the financial resources available to the Romans. A typical Arthurian Teulu horseman was likely equipped with iron mail or scale shirt, augmented perhaps by banded (or splint) armor on all or part of their arms and legs. An iron helmet of the late Roman type, likely sporting a crest or horse-tail, protected their heads.

Their chief weapon was a lance or spear. This could have been either the two-handed, 12’-long kontos normally carried by Sarmatian-style lancers; or, alternatively, the combination of shield and a shorter, lighter single-handed spear (Arthur is many times mentioned as carrying a shield in battle, which would suggest the latter).  A military cloak would add a jaunty completeness to his panoply.

Along with the Combrogi of his own Teulu, Arthur may have collected along the way south the Teulu’s of other British leaders. These would have been lighter than his own, but still very useful in battle against the Saxons, who had no cavalry. These could make good the losses and attrition among his own Combrogi in the previous years of campaigning.

THE BATTLE OF BADON HILL

Approaching Badon (Bath), Arthur would have come along the Fosse Way as it descended down the ramp-like spur of the Banner Down towards the Avon valley. Turning west off the road, he and his band would have ascended the steep slopes of Badon hill; known today as Solsbury Hill.

Here were the remnants of an old Iron Age hillfort. From here, Arthur’s few hundred Combrogi could survey the Saxon host below, safe from sudden and overwhelming assault; while in a perfect position to threaten Ælle’s line of communications to the east.

It was a threat the Bretwalda could not ignore.

Likely leaving a portion of his forces to maintain the blockade of Badon town (perhaps King Oisc “Big Knife”, and his Kentish warriors), Ælle now moved his main force northeast, against Arthur on Badon Hill.

Attacking uphill against a force of heavy cavalry capable of charging down at any moment was a dangerous proposition. The only way infantry can resist a charge of heavy horsemen is to maintain close-ranks, and hold steady against the horsemen’s terrible impact. This is made doubly hard by the added impetus a downward slope gives to a charging horseman and the already considerable weight of his mount; and for a large infantry force, keeping good order while advancing in line uphill is problematic under the best circumstances.

Slope of Solsbury/Badon Hill

Cognizant of all this, Ælle may well have halted his forces at the foot of the hill, and mulled over the best way to dislodge Arthur from atop the hill.

The Annales Cambriae say that Arthur fought at Badon carrying "the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights…" This entry suggests a battle (or, as Gildas describes it, an "obsessio": a siege) lasting three days; and that Arthur bore  the symbol of a cross painted on his shield. But if Badon was indeed a three days long battle, that time period might well have begun with Ælle arriving and laying siege to the town of Badon; which would also explain why Gildas refers to Badon as a siege.

Alternatively, Arthur might have camped atop Badon Hill for three days, surrounded; while Ælle considered the best way to attack him.

View of slope, looking down from Solsbury Hill

We know the end, we can only guess at the details of the battle. But elaborating on the scenario we have presented, a plausible narrative of this decisive battle of the Saxon wars unfolds:

Thirty miles to the south Cado/Cato, the Dumnonian warlord whom Geoffrey of Monmouth calls “Cador, Duke of Cornwall”, is mustering the levy of Dumnonia at the refortified Iron Age hillfort, known today as Cadbury Castle. From Cadbury he can both keep an eye on Cerdic's threatening activities, and be in place to support Badon. Now word reaches his headquarters of Arthur's coming. It is time to move! The threat from the West Saxon's is imminent; but events at Badon have moved quickly, and Cerdic can be dealt with another day. Cado breaks camp and marches north with whatever forces he has had time to gather to relieve Badon.

Cadbury Castle hillfort is but a day’s hard march from Badon. Ælle’s hand is forced: as to wait another day will find his forces caught between Cado’s army coming from the south and Arthur’s small but deadly band atop Badon Hill to the north. He must seize hold of the initiative, and clear Arthur away from his line of supply (and, in the worst case, his retreat). With his rear thus secured, the Bretwalda can reunite his forces at Badon; and face Cado’s Dumnonians in battle.

Despite the risks,  the Bretwalda orders his warriors to assault the heights.

We can picture the Saxons forming a long and fairly thick line, many ranks deep; advancing slowly up steep sides of Mons Badonicus. Their leather-covered shields are brightly painted, and a variety of standards wave above the contingent warbands. The hill is much wider at its base, and as the Saxons climb higher up the slopes their ranks must contract; causing disorder as men jostle each other for space. The grass is bright with morning dew, or perhaps dampened by a pre-dawn downpour, common in the West Country summers. This makes the grass slippery under their feet, and the maintaining of ordered ranks nearly impossible.

Above, poised like an eagles ready to strike, are Arthur and his armored Combrogi. His men have tightened their saddle girths, mounted their horses, loosened their waiting swords in scabbards, adjusted shields on arms and grip lances in hand. Their steed’s snorting breath is perhaps the only sound atop Badon Hill; or, alternately, they break into a battle song: these are the forefathers of the Welsh, after all, the sonorous singers of the Celtic race.

As the Saxons draw ever nearer, Arthur watches keenly, waiting for the moment. Ever closer the Saxons come; becoming increasingly exhausted in the process, their ranks ever more ragged as they ascend the high, steep slope.

The moment comes: Turning to his signaler, Arthur nods. The trooper raises horn to lips, and its high keening trill sounds atop Badon Hill. Shouting their battle cry, the Combrogi spur forward; over the lip of the hill, and down the steep slope in a glittering, thunderous charge!

From Hal Foster's "Prince Valiant", showing charge of Arthur's cavalry at Badon Hill. Though fancifully armored and dressed as 10th/11th century Medieval knights, this image gives a good impression of the fury of Arthur's Combrogi cavalryment in the charge down the slopes of Badon Hill

They form a mighty wedge, with Arthur and his chief champions, Cei the Tall and Bedwyr “of the Perfect Sinews”, at its point. Deep into the faltering Saxon ranks they plunge, stabbing and skewering, spears and lances piercing the mail byrnies of Saxon chieftains and champions like tissue paper!  The Saxon shieldwall shatters, and in moments Ælle’s host is broken and fleeing back down the hill in panic.

What followed was bloody pursuit, and for Arthur’s victorious Britons a lifetime of vendetta and blood debt was paid back with interest!

         Heavy was he in his vengeance;

        Terrible was his fighting…

         They fell by the hundred!

Nennius tells us of Arthur’s final victory at Badon:

 "… in it nine hundred and sixty (Saxon) men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's, and no-one lay them low save he alone."

We should not take this to imply that Arthur personally slew 960 Saxons; but that the charge of his Combrogi did such slaughter; and that no other warlord or king could claim the credit but he.

Likely the aged Ælle was among those who fell in this initial charge: Arthur would have aimed his attack, like a thrown javelin, straight at the heart of the Saxon horde; where the Bretwalda’s standard stood high. Their king dead, his sons and best men slain around him, the bonds of oath and allegiance that held this savage horde together were sundered.  What moments before had been a conquering army was now a rabble fleeing in blind terror! Close on their heels were Arthur and his ravaging Combrogi, their spitting spears and reddened swords rising and falling, cutting men down like ripe corn.

Two miles to the southwest, Oisc “Big Knife” and his Kentish men were camped about beleaguered Badon town. Perhaps Oisc attempted to wheel his men north to rally their fleeing comrades. If so, in this they failed. Or perhaps, as Geoffrey of Monmouth implies, Cado arrived from the southwest and took a significant part in the battle by falling upon the flank of Oisc’s men. These, too, now fled the scene of slaughter!

But fleeing to safety was no easy matter. The Saxons were far from home, penned-in between Cado and Badon to the south and west; the river Avon to the east and south; and Arthur’s horsemen now hunting men down on the flat ground at the base of Badon Hill. In the narrow choke-point between the bend of the Avon and Badon Hill, clogged with fleeing Saxons, the slaughter and carnage must have been terrible indeed. It was here that a generation of Anglo-Saxon leaders and warriors perished.

That Oisc son of Hengist too was slain (likely in the pursuit that followed) is conjecture. But his death at around the same time as Badon makes it likely. Alternately, he may have lived to return to his stronghold at Cantwareburh (Canterbury), only to die soon after of his wounds; or perhaps of a broken heart.

Ælle, first Bretwalda of Anglo-Saxon England, almost certainly died at Badon. His sons likely perished there as well: his house went extinct after this period, leaving no trace (though later Medieval writers attempted to fill in the gap in the Sussex royal line by assuming Cissa survived and ruled another 90 years!).

Gildas writes that Badon resulted in 'the last great slaughter' of the Saxon invaders by the Britons. It ended the long period of violent warfare that had begun when Hengist and Horsa led their Saxon feoderatii against their employer, Vortigern, in the 450s. According to Gildas, the consequences of Badon were that the Anglo-Saxon expansion was stopped and thrown back; and up to the time of his writing, some 30 years later, the Saxons were still dwelling quietly along the eastern fringes of Britain. Modern archeology confirms this: Anglo-Saxon grave sites retreat after Badon; and much of the “lost lands of Lloegyr” were recovered for a time.

Another side-effect of Badon was to elevate the wiley Cerdic from Ealdorman to king. Following the defeat and death of his overlord at Badon, Cerdic returnsf to the marshy coastal fastness of Hampshire. In 519, with his erstwhile master Ælle now out of the picture, Cerdic declared himself King of the West Saxons. His was a dynasty that would last through the centuries, leading to Alfred the Great and his son and grandson, Edward and Athelstan; who together succeeded in uniting England as one kingdom in the 10th century.

Had he been at Badon, Cerdic would likely have faced the same fate as his master, Ælle. The future of Anglo-Saxon England might have been very different, indeed.

For Arthur, Badon was the ultimate triumph. It represented the high-water point of his military career. His days as Dux Bellorum, the war leader of the Britons, had come to an end. A golden age of peace lay before him and Britain, and a new title: amerawder, "imperator": the Emperor Arthur!

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1. The arguments for a 5th century Arthur are strengthened by recent scholarship; which suggest that due to a dating error by Gildas the traditional Anglo-Saxon Chronicle date may be off by 20 years. This theory places the sack of Anderitum by Ælle and the founding of the Kingdom of Sussex in 471. Lyne, Malcolm: Excavations at Pevensey Castle, 1936 to 1964, (2009). Archaeopress.

[2] Myres, J.N.L. (1989) The English Settlements. Oxford University Press, pp. 146–147

[3] Bernard S. Bachrach, "The Origin of Armorican Chivalry": Technology and Culture 10.2 (April 1969), pp. 166–171


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