The Battle of Badon

The call of the fifth and sixth centuries, in Celtic Britain the proto-medieval era, when Englishmen were on the warpath, but before there was an England even in the minds of scholar monks, is a bagpipe singing in the mists of the Levels and a bugle resounding across the furze of the hills. It evokes me into a domain where hard facts scantier than plant life in the Antarctic are fragmented, shrivelled, tossed and dissected by a thousand arguments, and where remembered experiences drift into stories, stories morph into legends, legends merge imperceptibly into myths, interpenetrated as from another dimension by spiritual symbolism successfully concealing deepest wisdom from Catholic religious monopolists by sacred puns and inverted imagery through which it survived the religious dark-age that followed.

At the centre of this whirl is the commanding figure of King Arthur. In contemporary British minds King Arthur occupies the liminal zone where unpredictable winds perennially blow sand hither and thither to dissolve the sharp border fence that the 21st century longs to erect between reality and fiction, a place in our hearts he shares only with the Loch Ness Monster. Did Arthur exist? Was he a king? Where did he rule? And when? Which, if any, of the acts attributed to him were genuinely his? Of no other person, historical or legendary, are such questions frequently asked. And, like mythic battles between beings symbolising summer and winter, the answers from each side roll across the playing-field of disputation from year to year and decade to decade, none on either side of any question ever decisively convincing all the exponents of the other.

In this landscape of beautiful uncertainties, one solid rock stands unique, its existence beyond dispute. The Battle of Mons Badonicus. Everyone agrees that it happened, that it took place at a date within the period 470 to 530CE, and that it was a substantial victory for Celtic British forces over Saxon English enemies.

The primary source, the only one accepted as fully authentic by some historians, is Gildas (De Excidio). And Gildas neither names the British commander nor identifies the battle’s location in a way that to modern observers is definitive.

Historians such as Dark and Dumville suggest that the logical interpretation of Gildas’s grammar is that the commander was Ambrosius Aurelianus; others, such as Gidlow, that this is an impossible interpretation. Griffen (Names from the Dawn of British Legend) delves at some length into why, to his understanding, Gildas culturally and contextually could not have named the commander in De Excidio if the man were still alive and ruling in Britain at the time of writing.

What is certain is that over later centuries Arthur came to be revered as the victor of Mons Badonicus, or Badon for short. All three primary manuscripts of the Annales Cambriae say so. All versions of the battle list in the Historia Brittonum say so. Poems (of wholly unknown antiquity) in the Journey to Deganwy group say so[1].  Also, there is no sign of any other contender for that honour having ever been championed by anyone, either ancient or modern. It is plain common-sense to say that the weight of this evidence means it is almost certain that Arthur was the victorious British leader at Badon, though it cannot be proved to the level of complete certainty, comparable with proving that the world is round, that ultra-sceptics demand.

In the contention for identifying the location of the Battle of Badon, recent writers, including Gidlow (The Reign of Arthur, p74) and Fitzpatrick-Matthews (The Arthurian Battle-List of the Historia Brittonum), have drawn attention to the meaning of Gildas’s precise Latin obsessio badonici montis (the siege of a/the Badonic hill), indicating that it means a mount in the Badonic district or near a place called Badon, not a hill called Badon.

The two most advocated possibilities are NE Wiltshire and Bath. Both are near but not within the fifth-century Kingdom of Lindinis. As Gidlow highlights, there are in NE Wiltshire several places with names beginning Bad- or Bed-, such as Badbury, Great Bedwyn and, of all things, Baydon. After due consideration of alternatives, Gidlow places his bet on Chisbury.

17 miles from the presumable Lindinis and Britannia Prima border at Devizes, on the edge of Savernake Forest, and a stone’s throw from the eastern end of the Wansdyke, Chisbury Hill is a totally plausible location for a late-fifth/early-sixth century battle in which men from Lindinis, perhaps in alliance with other civitates of Britannia Prima, defeated English aggressors.

For military plausibility, the case for a hill near Bath is almost equally meritorious. As is clear from the impact of the English victory nearly a century later at nearby Dyrham, control of the heights above Bath was of strategic importance.

In chapter 3 of De Excidio, Gildas wrote a summary geography of Britain, one that he (not being himself a geographer) probably copied from a prior Roman fourth-century source. Apart from natural phenomena such as rivers and mountains, this mentions only that there were 28 civitates plus some castles. The word civitas means both an urban capital city and the surrounding district governed therefrom. Later, when he used ‘badonic’ as the name for the area in which the battle hill was, he gave no further explanation. So it would have been reasonable if by ‘badonic’ he was indicating that the hill was in the badonic civitas. The territory around Bath was just such a civitas. Its area was much smaller than any normal civitas, but it had special equivalent political status as a spa[2].

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the English capture of Bath in 577, it is called Bathanceaster – the ‘th’ in the form of the Anglo-Saxon letter like an elongated p used there for the ‘th’ in ‘with’. The English must have imported the name from a Celtic (Brythonic) noun the same as or similar to Welsh badd or baddon, meaning ‘bath’ (itself derived from the Greek vatheess, meaning ‘deep’, and the cognate vitheezo, meaning ‘to immerse’), a name which the British would have applied to the Roman city because of the famous Roman spa baths built there[3].

One additional argument in favour of the Bath area as the Badonic location is that the Annales Cambriae identify an otherwise unknown “Battle of Badon for a second time” in 662. Suggestions that this might be a garbled reference to the inter-English battle of Bedanheafod in 675 are absurd: quite apart from the clash of dating, there is never mention in the entire half-millennial record of the Annales Cambriae of any of the many battles in which English rulers were only fighting each other. Celtic Britons must have been at least one of the contestants in 662.

By 662, the Baydon/Chisbury area of Wiltshire had been under English rule for more than a century. It is possible that Britons would have been able to fight a battle there at so late a date, but scarcely probable – especially as they had just recently, in 658, lost a battle deep into Lindinis, at Penselwood in SE Somerset and been driven “to the Parrett” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The Chronicle may not on this point have told the whole truth. The Brent Knoll area was not in English hands in the late seventh century; Britons fought West Saxons as late as 710 at Langport, beat them in 722 at Pencon – which in the previous post I have suggested was Quantoxhead – and according to Gidlow (p79) did not finally lose control of Somerset until 733. Possibly indeed, the Annales Cambriae phrase “battle of Badon for a second time” may mean that the Britons won the battle of 662 and much of whatever territorial losses they had suffered after Penselwood were restored to them by a victory at Badon four years later.

There is an additional possible implication that, when the record was written that found its way centuries later into the Annales Cambriae, the battle of 662 was perceived as ‘Badon, round 2’ because it was fought between the same antagonists as well as its location and outcome being the same – British victory. This would wholly account for it being not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, no more than Arthur or his victory were. The chronicle overlooked English defeats. It is a pointer to the contestants at the Battle of the Badonic Hill, Arthur’s great victory, having likewise been westward-thrusting Saxons on the losing side – and the valiant warriors of Lindinis, primarily, as the winners.

[1] The “I” figure speaking in this group of poems is Taliesin, preparing to travel from Aberdyfi in Ceredigion to a feast hosted by King Maelgwn at Deganwy in Gwynedd in the winter of 547/48 (the last winter of the king’s life). Taliesin’s bardic triumph over Heinin and the bards of Maelgwn there came to be known as “The Contention of the Bards”. It is possible (but entirely speculative to suggest) that Taliesin was the wise counsellor at Maelgwn’s court alluded to but not named by Gildas in De Excidio.

It is of course possible, however, that the poems were composed retrospectively in Taliesin’s honour, rather than by him in 547.  Phrases such as “Badon, the battle which all men remember” suggest that a date of composition earlier than the eighth century is a credible supposition; but there cannot be strong confidence in any attempt to date the oral originals from which the written poems derive.

[2] There is convincing milepost evidence that Buxton Spa had civitas status. Bath Spa must have been on a par, legally, with Buxton Spa. I will identify Gildas’s 28 cities in a later post here.

[3] Fitzpatrick-Matthews says that the –ono suffix (in Gildas’s badonici) indicates an intensification – which would have been appropriate to designate a city whose primary role was its baths, as distinct from the focal, yet by comparison ordinary, public baths built in every Roman civitas capital.

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