I thought it might be fun to look at some of the battles of Anglo-Saxon England here on the blog. Seeing as warfare was something that certainly happened on a regular basis throughout the Anglo-Saxon era, it really is something I should talk about here, too.
Generally I focus on the 7th century, as that is the era in which Wilding, my historical fantasy is set. But to give myself more scope to write about, I thought I would use this sub-series in my blog to look at some of the major battles of the Anglo-Saxon era throughout the time period, from the 5th to the 9th century. So strap on your armor and grab a sword, we’ve got some fighting to do!
I thought I should start with an early battle that occurs a few decades after the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon era, and one that results in a very important victory for the British.
This battle, which likely happened in the late 5th or early 6th century, featured the Celtic and Romano-Britons fighting against the newcomers from the Continent. Such was the scale of the victory it resulted in a decades long peace between the native British and the Anglo-Saxons. And to a great extent, the victory is laid at the feet of the great hero, Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Romano-British warrior many associate today with King Arthur.
The historical veracity of any of the Arthur tales is difficult to pin down. I’m not even going to try to explain all the various theories of who he was, when he lived, and what exactly he accomplished. There’s a huge rabbit hole on the Internet named “King Arthur”, and if you are interested, I invite you to dive right in!
For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will just say that I agree with those historians who theorize that Ambrosius Aurelianus was a warrior of Roman/British extraction, who made alliances with the native Britons (the Celts) and together with the remaining Roman/British people who lived in Britain after the Roman legions left, managed to create a resistance of sorts against the Germanic tribes that began to flood into Britain after the chaos of Rome’s defeat at the hands of the barbarians.
The involvement of Arthur at this battle is first mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, an account of the British people by the Welsh monk Nennius. However, there are accounts of the battle that come from much earlier, most notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written by St. Gildas in the 6th century.
Gildas, who wrote his account much closer to the time of the battle (in fact he states that the battle happened the year he was born), doesn’t mention Arthur at all, leaving some to assume that the later mention of him in Nennius’ work was an insertion of a legendary figure with no basis in fact. The fact that Gildas was actually alive during Arthur’s supposed lifetime does make it odd that Gildas does not mention him.
However, there are a couple of explanations for this. Firstly, some scholars argue that Arthur’s fame was such that the people of the time who read Gildas’ work would have known that Arthur was there, without the monk having to mention it. No one has to say that George Washington was at Valley Forge, for example, or Napoleon at Waterloo. Gildas’ work was not meant to be a detailed account of the battle, it just summarizes the result; that peace reigned over the land for many decades after.
Secondly, In the 12th century a hagiography of Saint Gildas states that indeed, Gildas had praised Arthur extensively in his account of the battle, but that after Arthur killed Gildas’ brother, Huil Mab Caw, a Pictish warrior and rival of King Arthur, Gildas excised all mention of Arthur from his historical account of Britain.
After Gildas’ work, the next mention of the battle comes from the 8th century, from the hand of my favourite historian of the era, the Venerable Bede. Frustratingly, however, Bede only makes small mention of the battle. He states that 44 years after the “invaders” arrive on Britain’s shore (the date of which he gives as between AD 449-456), there was a “siege of Mount Badon, when they made no small slaughter of those invaders”. But then, he airly adds, “But more of this thereafter,” and then never mentions it again. Drat.
So what actually happened? Well, again, the details are murky, most especially the exact date and location of the battle. There are many places around England that claim to be the spot, but we can’t say exactly which is the historically true one. Gildas puts the battle at the Roman town of Bath, but neither Nennius, Bede nor other early historians mention the location, other than to say it happened at Mount Badon. It seems like Bath could be a plausible location, however. It is in the centre of England, close to the Bristol Channel, which, if controlled by the Saxons, would have basically cut England in two, with the Saxons controlling the South. So this was a strategically important spot.
There was obviously a mountain or hill involved, as the early accounts all speak of “Mount Badon”, and as it happens, there is an ancient hill fort near Bath, on Little Solsbury Hill, over looking Bath. Archeological evidence gives proof that the British occupied that fort in the 5th century. Finally, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle* gives the name of Bath as Badanceaster, or “City of Badan.” All of these clues give scholars some confidence that the battle was in that location. But there are others who would argue!
Here’s a little video of Little Solsbury Hill from the air. It really is more a hill than a mountain, so seeing a still picture isn’t very dramatic.
It’s impossible to say what happened during the battle. And perhaps it was more than just a battle, as Bede and Gildas both speak of a “siege”, likely of the hill-fort. Whatever happened, it resulted in a major victory. Bede speaks of the British forces slaughtering “no small number of their foes”.
What we do know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is that all mentions of the Saxon kingdom of Sussex, begun in AD 477 by the warrior Ælle, cease after AD 491. It is not mentioned again in the Chronicle until it’s re-founding over a century later. Archeological finds support the idea that something dramatic happened, as there have been no discoveries of Saxon burials in the area from the late 5th to the late 6th centuries, and there is also a break in the discovery of Saxon ceramics in this area during this time, suggesting they withdrew from the area. We don’t know why, but perhaps the victors were able to broker a truce, claiming that part of England for the British for a few more decades.
So it seems likely that early in the 5th century the Romano-British and Celtic British did engage the invading Saxons in a decisive battle, stopping their advance into England for decades after.
A most important battle, indeed, and one in which the legend of Arthur becomes intertwined. Nennius says Arthur slaughtered 960 men himself that day. Whether Arthur was involved or not, the battle gives us a fascinating glimpse into a time when England’s future hung in the balance.
*Funnily enough, the Chronicle itself does not mention this battle.