King Arthur’s 2nd to 5th Battles – Bulbarrow Hill Site Visit

This month, February 2017, I visited the area I had identified four years ago as where King Arthur fought his second to fifth battles. In my post “King Arthur of Somerset: early battles above the River Divelish”, I explained that the Historia Brittonum “says Arthur’s four battles on the borders of Lindinis were ‘above the river which is called Dubglas’,” and that “linguists inform us that the name Divelish can have derived from Dubglas. The River Divelish rises on the N Dorset Downs south of Ibberton.”

The location is far more spectacularly credible than I had imagined as the site of Arthur’s early skirmishes to prove his worthiness to rule the Kingdom of Lindinis by defending its southern border.

In what is now deeply rural north Dorset, two miles south of Ibberton, the rim of Bulbarrow Hill gives large vistas to southward over the valleys below. Any general who had command of south Somerset but needed to guard against enemies from his south would want to control and defend Bulbarrow Hill. Correspondingly, Bulbarrow defended would be extremely difficult to conquer from the south with anything less than overwhelming force.

Today there is a sign informing us that this scenic location is on the “Wessex Ridgeway” long-distance footpath. The footpath is a recent creation; but the ridge, one can truthfully say, is as old as the hills, and the sign tells us that it was “used by traders and invaders”.

There is even an Iron Age fort on the ridge, called Rawlsbury Camp (a mile west of the sign), about 500 metres from one of the sources of the River Divelish. King Arthur’s base for his second to fifth battles? The pieces of the jigsaw fit together: credible purpose, credible strategically, credible linguistically[1]. One can’t prove it, of course, but it would certainly make sense.

 

[1] Equally so, incidentally, if the anciently Dubglas-named river be the stream flowing from Higher Ansty (below Rawlsbury) southwards through Dewlish, as others have suggested.

 

 

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Vortigern, Hengist, and 446 and all that

Vortigern’s deal with Hengist – you give me soldiers to fight my enemies and I’ll give you Thanet to settle in – was not the crazy and disastrous choice Gildas has us believe. In NW Europe in the 440s, such deals were normal.

As warlord of SE Britannia, Vortigern had no better choice. Aetius, Rome’s powerful man in western Europe, had done just such a deal with the Alans in 440-442 and another with the Burgundians in 443. A few years later he made a similar agreement with Attila the Hun.

In 446, Rome under Aetius was fighting on three fronts – NW Iberia, Brittany, and Belgium. He hadn’t got men to spare for Britain. Rome didn’t have an army other than its foederati, hired warriors like the Alans – and Hengist. Aetius could even have advocated Hengist to Vortigern as an ally. Rome-lover Gildas would not have published that even if he knew it to be true.

Attila the Hun changed sides in 451 and attacked Gaul. Hengist followed Attila’s example, expanding his power in Britain by fair means and foul at Vortigern’s expense.

However, the Historia Britonnum records that Vortigern’s son Vortimer regained all of Kent. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of course does not mention this, but its dates of what is in there suggest that Vortimer’s successes were in the 460s, his final driving of the Saxons out of Kent most likely happening in c465-468. So the results of Vortigern’s deal in 446 were not perdurable; it was events after 468 that came to gradually determine the future of what, centuries later, would be England.

In symbolic language typical of the culture of fifth century Britons, it is reported that when he died, five years after his last victory, Vortimer instructed that his head be displayed facing the ocean at Richborough; and that this was not done. Decoded, the meaning is, at minimum, that the Saxons came back: Vortimer’s successes, alas, were also ephemeral. His severed head should have been a talisman threatening any Saxon who dared to attack Kent, but it (symbolically), or more literally the Kentish defences militarily, was inadequate.

Only in outline is the next stage of British history clear. The exact political structure is not known, but it is almost safe to say that eastern coastal districts remained under Anglo-Saxon control from Deira (East Yorkshire) south as far as East Anglia, and probably Essex too. In 473, Saxons were able to slaughter citizens and carry off booty in the largest Saxon raid of the entire fifth century. After that calamity, Ambrosius Aurelianus, presumably Governor of Britannia Prima, perhaps a descendant of the Roman Emperor Aurelianus (270-275), became chief warlord of southern Britain, and led the Britons valiantly against the Saxons, with some measure both of unity and of success.

The presence of a line of Ambrs- place-names running north-east from Amersham suggests that he held a line of defence there against English attackers coming from Essex and East Anglia. The northern Home Counties were successfully defended and became the Kingdom of Calchfynydd (meaning: Chalk Hills i.e. Chliterns).

Two other Ambrs on the South Downs in west Sussex (Ambersham near Midhurst and Amberley to the north of Arundel) and one in Kent (guarding the Medway crossing somewhere near Maidstone) suggest that he also fought effectively in that area. In this context it is significant that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle identifies battles in Sussex in 477, 485, and 490. It implies that the Saxon side won, though not decisively in 477; silently hints at the probability that they lost in 485; and claims a decisive victory in 490.

490 (or possibly early 491) of course was also the year of the famous British victory at Mount Badon, attributed to King Arthur. Gildas implies that there was when he wrote his “Ruin and Conquest of Britain” (c530) an agreed frontier between the Britons and “our enemies in the east”. It is credible to suppose that the fall of the fort of Pevensey resulted in this frontier being negotiated in c491 as a cease-fire line with Sussex on the Saxon side and Calchfynydd on the Britons’ side.

One can only speculate about the possibility of a Briton-ruled salient between the North Downs and the Thames. The place-name Eccles is elsewhere associated with sixth-century Christian presence under Briton control; there is an Eccles north of Maidstone. Other Christian-suggestive place-names further west in this putative salient include Esher, Godstone, and Godalming.

In any case, the frontier kept its stability for 60 years. But it began to frazzle about 550; and the definitive English conquest of Britain came in the 570s when four calamitous battles (571, Bedford; 577, Dyrham, above Bath; 578, York; and 580, Weedon Bec, Northants) pulled many rich lands of what was once Britannia into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Before 570, Britain was an essentially Celtic-ruled island, despite the presence of English-ruled kingdoms around the eastern and southern coasts. After 580, whatever remained under Celtic control would never again be more than a “Celtic fringe”. The fruits of battle victories in the fifth century were ever precarious and temporary; it was those Angle and Saxon victories in the 570s that were decisive, setting Britain on the never-reversed course for its English future.

 

 

 

 

 

Vortigern: Regional Warlord, Not Britannia-Wide

Vortigern is typically thought of as ruler of all of (sub) Roman Britain through the middle half the fifth century. In reality, this is most implausible. When the Roman Legions left in 409, Britain has been divided into four Provinces for over a century; there is no evidence behind the unification assumption.

As Roman power weakened, prevalent conditions in western Europe pulled towards small kingdoms. Only from the seventh century onwards did Britain’s small kingdoms start to habitually become overrun by bigger ones.

It is surely significant that historical evidence linked to Vortigern and his son Vortimer identifies several battles against Saxons in Kent, one of which resulted in a retreat to London, concessions to Saxon control (at different times) of Thanet, all of Kent, and Sussex and Essex, and a victory over Britonnic rival Ambrosius at Wallop in Hampshire; but that the only other recorded location of either political or military activity for Vortigern or Vortimer is Belgium, where, having driven the Saxons out of Britain completely, Vortimer arrived with 10,000 men and was disastrously defeated. (This expedition in c468 makes Vortimer, I suggest, the prime candidate for the mysterious Riothamus, “Thames king”.)

This geographical pattern is indicative of the area controlled by Vortigern having been the Province of Maxima Caesariensis. There is room for argument about that Province’s exact boundaries – I argue that the northern boundary was close to that of present-day Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire and thence to the Wash, see my post of 31st March 2013 on “Gildas’s 28 Cities”, [1] – but certainly the major part of the Province was all the parts of Britain just mentioned.

Another sign pointing in the same direction is that although Vortigern won the Battle of Wallop in 428, the record says he remained afraid of Ambrosius. This only makes coherent sense if Ambrosius had a power base elsewhere in Britain than Vortigern’s and substantial enough for him to be a threat to Vortigern.

Nothing is directly known about this Ambrosius. What is known is that according to Gildas, half a century later another Ambrosius, Ambrosius Aurelianus, became a powerful leader somewhere in Britain; and that at the time of Gildas’s writing, c530, his grandson Cynan was a king in western Britain. Combining the works of Gildas and Taliesin enables Cynan’s kingdom to be identified as Powys, which was the successor state to the Roman civitas (city-district) centred on Wroxeter. It approximately corresponded to Staffordshire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Montgomeryshire, and Radnorshire. Another scion of this family prominent in the historical record is the sixth century Christian leader Pol Aurelian, who studied at St. Illtyd’s seminary at Llan Illtyd Fawr (now Glamorgan; then in the Kingdom of Gwent), strengthened the structure of the Old Church at Glastonbury Abbey, and founded the monastery at Leon, Brittany, where he became known as St. Pol de Leon. Considering this geographical provenance in his lineage, it is a reasonable possibility that the Ambrosius who was a forbear of these Aurelians and a potential threat to Vortigern was a, perhaps the primary, ruler in western Britannia, i.e. of the Province of Britannia Prima. Roman Britannia Prima included everything from the civitas of Wroxeter and those of Cirencester, Ilchester, and Dorchester, westwards.

Place names derived from Ambrosius[2] are suggestive of Ambrosius Aurelianus’s spheres of governance and of combat. Several are in Britannia Prima: one in SE Wales; others in the southeast of the province – Worcestershire, and Amberley near Stroud. One, Amesbury, is just on the Maxima side of the provincial boundary which ran across Salisbury Plain. These scattered ‘Ambros’ place names are consistent with the supposition that Ambrosius’s powerbase was the Aurelian heartland of Britannia Prima.

Several other Ambros- names form a line running more-or-less SW to NE from Amersham. By the time Ambrosius Aurelianus came to power (in 479 according to one of the Irish annals), most of the former Province of Maxima Caesariensis had passed into Saxon control. The exceptions were the Silchester civitas (approximately north Hampshire and pre-1974 Berkshire), which emerges into post-Roman history as the ambiguously Saxo-Britonnic kingdom of the Gewissae – cf my identifying the true location of Netley and Cerdic’s earliest conquests on the north bank of the Thames near Oxford in my post of 7th June 2014 ; and the civitas-becoming-kingdom of the tribe known to the Romans as the Catuvellauni[3].

This kingdom is known later on as Calchfynydd in Welsh, and as Cilternsaetna in Anglian English, its name recorded in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of c672; both words denote ‘the people of the chalk hills’, i.e. the Chilterns. It was a substantial kingdom ruled by Britonnic kings until it was defeated at the Battle of Bedford in 571; it will have been reduced to at most a rump by the further defeat in 580 at Bannaventa (the Roman walled town near Weedon Bec in Northamptonshire) when King Cadog was slain.

It may be that Ambrosius Aurelianus and these two Britonnic kingdoms worked together in the 480s to contain Anglo-Saxon expansion. The Ambros place-names are along what could well have been the western edge of the English kingdoms of Essex (which included London and can be presumed to have also included what later became Middlesex) and East Anglia, which is suggestive of a line of defence and boundary between those English-controlled territories and Calchfynydd, a boundary which Ambrosius Aurelianus successfully held militarily; a boundary in due course agreed by treaty and respected for the first 70 years of the sixth century.[4]

Besides western Britannia being Aurelian territory and not Vortigern’s, there is also a good indication that another of the four Provinces was not under Vortigern’s suzerainty. There are king-list genealogies in the text Bonedd y Gwyr Gogledd (the Descent of the Men of the North) for various successor kingdoms in what in the fourth century had been Britannia Secunda, the northern Province which included everywhere between Hadrian’s Wall and the Trent except East Yorkshire and (probably) Nottinghamshire. They are all headed by Coel Hen (the king immortalised in nursery rhyme as Old King Cole) and Keneu. The inference is that for a few decades after 409 those two kings held some degree of sovereignty over the whole Province, before kingdoms such as Rheged (based at Carlisle) and Elmet (based at York) became fully separated and de-facto autonomous. None of these genealogies mention Vortigern.

The remaining Province was the relatively small Flavia Caesariensis, which I argue [28 Cities] approximated to East Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, easternmost parts of Staffordshire and Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Lincolnshire. There is brooch evidence of early Anglian warrior presence within this area, but no battles recorded by either Britonnic or Anglo-Saxon sources. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the hypothesis that the Province passed peacefully into Angle control, maybe indeed as early as before 440[5], has to be considered credible. The lack of disruption to agricultural practises shown by archaeological exploration at Hessle in East Yorkshire supports the peaceful transition hypothesis.

As has often been said, an absence of evidence is not convincing evidence of absence, least of all in a period as thin on evidence of anything as the fifth century. Nevertheless, three important patterns – the record of Vortigern’s battles and political actions across one Province, Maxima Caesariensis; the absence of evidence of any activities by him in Britannia’s other three civilian Provinces; and the presence of evidence in two of those Provinces of other men in control, and the hint, at least, of Saxon control in the third – point in one direction only. The rational inference is that Vortigern was supreme ruler – in the Roman structure the de-facto Provincial Governor – of Maxima Caesariensis, and only of Maxima Caesariensis.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] My analysis puts East Anglia and the Fens in Maxima. I know of no reason to suppose that Vortigern’s rule extended to those two civitates; it may be that they became effectively Anglo-Saxon ruled within a generation of thedeparture of the Legions.

[2] See Morris, The Age of Arthur, map p101.

[3] Or at any rate, most of it. The Roman civitas capital St. Albans and the nearby town of Hertford may have become Anglicised long before the rest of the civitas’s territory including Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and part of Oxfordshire fell under Anglian rule.

[4] Morris’s map also shows three Ambros place-names in Sussex and one in Kent. These do not fit tidily into any theory. Perhaps Ambrosius Aurelianus won battles in those areas.

[5] The Gallic Chronicle of c441 said that Britannia had ‘passed into the hands of the Saxons’. This date is thorny for historians because of Vortigern’s granting rule over Thanet to the Saxon Hengist, after Aetius’s failure to send troops to his aid in 446. That event was presented both by Gildas and by Bede, drawing on Kentish sources, as momentous, not because Saxon warriors like Hengist helping a ruler of Britons was new – they’d been doing so for a century or two – but because the concession of Thanet was seen as the first bit of Anglo-Saxon rule over part of what was to become England, and the thin end of a wedge: thirty years later, all of SE England was under Saxon rule.

Maybe, though, 446 was the watershed “Coming of the Saxons” ONLY in the south-eastern districts ruled by Vortigern. Beyond doubt the Chronicle’s statement was an exaggeration: neither the documentary nor the archaeological evidence suggests any areas of Anglo-Saxon control in two of Britain’s four Provinces at that time, Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda.

Equally though, I know of no reason to suspect the highly-respected Chronicler of writing nonsense. The region most likely to have been already under Anglo-Saxon control by 440 is the eastern coastal counties from East Yorkshire through Lincolnshire to the Peterborough area and East Anglia, plus lands on either side of the lower Trent, which was the Angles’ original ‘Mierce’ (meaning: borderland, c.f. modern German maerchenland), so named long before ‘Mercia’ came to mean a large Midland kingdom. This region includes West Stow (near Bury St Edmunds), the site of a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village which is indicated to have been in that location in 440; it also includes Hessle. Two-thirds of it had been in Flavia Province.

How Roman Britain Became England

How Britannia Became English

Educated British people are generally aware that for centuries up until about 400CE, England and Wales south of Hadrian’s Wall was Roman Britain, or Britannia, and that in the following centuries it fell into the hands of the Anglo-Saxons. What is much less well grasped is how that transition took place, or when.

The first key to a clearer understanding of that process is the political structure of Roman Britain in 400. Britain was divided into four distinct Provinces, and history took fundamentally different course in each of them over the quarter-millennium after the Roman legions evacuated in 409.

Each Province in turn was comprised of a number of civitates, districts for local governance, about the size of two counties. The seminal event of 409 was that the leaders of the civitates rebelled, demanding freedom from the burden of Roman taxation. The Roman Emperor Honorius could not spare troops to put down the rebellion, because the Empire was hard-pressed by Germanic invaders from across the Rhine frontier into Gaul (France and the Rhineland). So he withdrew his legions from Britain and told the civitates to defend themselves.

Twice afterwards, in 418 and in 429, Rome sent forces to Britain to aid Roman Britons fighting against raiders from beyond its borders, with some successful effect; but when aid was asked for again in 446, the Roman General Aetius ignored the request, again essentially because his forces were already stretched beyond capacity trying to defend Gaul.

 

Britannia Secunda

In two of the Provinces, Britannia Prima (Wales and the West), and Britannia Secunda (the North), the civitates did see to their own defences thoroughly and effectively, and with little or no contribution from foreigners. Military logistics of the fifth century were favourable for autonomous governance units the size of a civitas.

The four civitates of Britannia Secunda, plus tribal lands that had been divided from them by Hadrian’s Wall with military but not sociological logic,morphed over the following century into three kingdoms, all of which feature strongly in later history: Rheged (approximately Ayrshire, Dumfries-and-Galloway, Cumbria, and maybe Lancashire); Gododdin (Lothian, the Borders, Northumberland and Durham); and Elmet (North, West, and South Yorkshire, the Derwent valley of Derbyshire, and probably northern Nottinghamshire north of Sherwood). Elmet appears to have combined the small civitas of York with the much larger one surrounding it whose Roman city was Aldborough. All three kingdoms were ruled by successions of Roman British, i.e. Celtic, kings. Britain’s most famous bard Taliesin wrote poems in praise of two of these kings, Urien of Rheged and Gwallawg of Elmet, in the third quarter of the sixth century. Urien temporarily extended Rheged’s boundaries eastwards across north Yorkshire at that time.

Undoubtedly, for well over a century after the departure of the Roman legions, the territory that had been Britannia Secunda remained in the control of kings who were Celtic British by tribe and culture, influenced by a slowly fading Romanised past. But in approximately 547, the English warrior-king Ida disturbed the far north by occupying and fortifying Bamburgh and conquering a coastal part of the Gododdin kingdom as his Kingdom of Bernicia. This initiated a half-century of skirmish warfare, highlighted by the British defenders calling their English enemy leader in the 570s “Fflamdwyn”, “Fire-Setter”. As of 580, the English had been driven out of all except their coastal fortress.

The tide turned, though, and over the next fifteen years or so a new kingdom of Northumbria, formed by a union of Deira (East Yorkshire, see below) and Bernicia, conquered most of Britannia Secunda east of the Pennines. York fell in 581; Catraeth (Maiden Castle near Catterick), famously, probably in the 590s. Rheged remained independent until 633, and culturally, especially religiously, influenced its English-speaking neighbour either side of 620, when Rum was king of Rheged and Edwin of Northumbria. In 633, however, the male line of Rheged’s dynasty failed and the kingdom merged with Northumbria by royal marriage of Rheged’s daughter.

 

Britannia Prima

Looking next at Britannia Prima, the Roman Province south of the Mersey and west of a line from the Staffordshire Moorlands to the Hampshire Avon and Bournemouth, as in Secunda, the civitates morphed into kingdoms, and their considerable sense of British cultural unity did not translate into any political unity. On the contrary, small-scale inter-kingdom fighting became normal. It would be misleading to call western Britain “Roman Britain” any more by the mid-sixth century, these former civitates that were fully independent and squabbling kingdoms with no governance links beyond their borders and no Roman empire to link to anyway, but the term “sub-Roman” can be used with fair justification, for their elite were Romanised in cultural style, wrote (when they did) in Latin, and kept up strong trade links to Byzantium.

There is evidence of several areas near the western coast becoming conquered or heavily influenced by Irish intruders. There is none of any area that had been part of Britannia Prima coming under English control prior to 577. The Great Raid of 473 broke into the Cirencester civitas; in 490 King Arthur of Lindinis (mostly Somerset) won a famous victory over English invaders at the Battle of the Badonic Hill, i.e. the hill in the small Spa civitas of Bath; for the next eighty years, the kings of western Britain were at peace with their English neighbours.

But in 577 the agriculturally rich kingdom of the people known to the Romans as the Dobunni was lost at the Battle of Dyrham. Its area, covering all of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire east of the Severn, West Midlands County, and western parts of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, plus the petty kingdom that had been the Spa civitas for Bath, became the English kingdom of the Hwicce (whose name is remembered by place-names such as Wychavon, Wychwood, and Bromwich). Very slowly, more territory came under English rule in the next one and a half centuries or so, with notable English battle victories at Chester in 611, Pengwern (?Shrewsbury; in ?634), Bradford-on-Avon in 652, Penselwood in south-east Somerset (?South Cadbury, a.k.a. Camelot) in 658, and Somerton in 733. However, the Westcountry west of the Parrett, western Herefordshire and Wales remained under the rule of British kings into at least the ninth century.

 

Flavia Caesariensis

By contrast, in the Province of Flavia Caesariensis, which comprised approximately East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, a little of eastern Warwickshire, and parts of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, such little evidence as there is is consistent with a wholly peaceful transition from Roman to English rule. There are not even signs of a short period of Celtic British independent kingships in-between, except in western Derbyshire where the recording in 676 of a semi-independent Mercian territory of Pecsaetna[i] attests to a territory around the Peak – a Peak district, the successor state to the small Roman Spa civitas of Buxton – that was not settled by English people.

Documentary evidence is only that of absence. Both British and English sources enthusiastically recorded battles – the English, only ones they won. Yet none are recorded in this Province. It is apparent from Bede, however, that these areas were all under English rule from long before the eighth century. East Yorkshire was the English kingdom of Deira since well before 547. Lindsey was an English kingdom since the fifth century. Leicestershire and English settlements close to the Trent were known as the Mierce (meaning Borderland, cognate with modern German maerchenland and English ‘marches’), later Mercia. Bede referred to North and South Mercia, divided by the Trent. Archaeological evidence from excavations near Hessle in East Yorkshire supports the view that the transition in Flavia was peaceful. The Roman city of Lincoln seems to have ceased to function within a few decades of 409.

 

Maxima Caesariensis

The story of the remaining Province, Maxima Caesariensis, the south and east of the island, is very different. Here, there was warfare from the mid-fifth century onwards. Here, there was destruction of Roman cities and slaughter in the streets, imprecisely and sorrowfully recorded on the British side by Gildas and occasionally gleefully and with variable reliability in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Here, the course of history was affected by diplomatic marriages and savage treachery. English warriors were employed as mercenaries under Roman command, and they remained after 409, soon becoming dominant forces in some civitates – Winchester’s, probably, on the archaeological record; Kent, famously by treaty between the British ruler Vortigern and the English warrior-commander Hengist, in about 450; Essex and Sussex (which included most of Middlesex and of Surrey respectively), reported to have been as ransom for Vortigern after his capture, possibly in or soon after 470.

Nennius records that Vortigern came to power in 430.[ii] Power to what extent? The battles and political dealings attributed to him involve Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. De-facto Governor (hence Gildas’s title for him ‘tyrannus’, i.e. ‘non-legitimate ruler’) of MaximaCaesariensis Province would be the answer that best fits the geographical record. Whether he could exercise any influence in Britannia Prima can only be speculated.

Vortigern’s son Vortimer won a battle against Hengist at a location called by the British Set Thirbagail, and by the English Aylesford, which is on the Medway near Maidstone, recorded by both sides: in Nennius, chapter 44; and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for 455CE. The battle next recorded in chapter 44 of Nennius, at which the Saxons were defeated and “fled to their ships”, may likewise be the same as the one recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 465.

Alas for Britain, Vortimer then took his army across the channel to help the struggling Roman Empire in Gaul, where in 470 they were wiped out in Burgundy (c.f. comparable events in 1940), or anyway disappeared from the record. Vortigern regained power, but was displaced by Ambrosius in or before 479 following the disastrous Saxon raid across southern Britain in 479.

During the fifth century, the civitas of the Iceni, in Norfolk and Suffolk, and the one whose Roman city was Water Newton near Peterborough, which later became the kingdoms of the Gyrwas covering approximately Cambridgeshire and Holland, and perhaps Kesteven, also came within the arc of English rule from Christchurch to Beverley which Gildas refers to as “our enemies in the east”. One Roman source says Britain “had passed into the hands of the Saxons” by the early 440s. He may have meant these eastern civitates plus the Flavia Province.

Historians do not believe that the battles which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says were fought by the Gewissae (later known as the West Saxons and then Wessex) ever occurred. But the date for the founding of their kingdom, 495, may be genuine. It is consistent with archaeological evidence of late-fifth century English settlements at Abingdon and at Dorchester-on-Thames. It is well known that the first kings of the Gewissae, Cedric and Cynric, had British and part-Irish names, and it is possible that these men were British rulers of the Silchester civitas which chose from that time to rely on English warriors for its defence.

Thus it appears that by the start of the sixth century all of Maxima Caesariensis was under English rule, except for the large civitas whose Roman capital was St. Albans, which included Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and eastern Oxfordshire. This civitas, though ceasing to be governed from and maybe not controlling St. Albans, became the British kingdom of Calchfynydd. This name means ‘chalk hills’ and appears in English translation in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of 672 as the tributary kingdom of the ‘Ciltern-saetna’, the people who live in the Chilterns (the chalk hills). Calchfynydd remained British until it lost the Battle of Bedford in 571 and forfeited the fortresses of Aylesbury, Benson (a military site also today, the RAF base on the left bank of the Thames in mid-Oxfordshire), and Eynsham (NW of Oxford and close to the Calchfynydd-Dobunnic border). The remnant of Calchfynydd, basically Northamptonshire, may have come effectively under English conquest when they killed King Cadog at Bannaventa (the Roman town near Weedon Bec) in 580.

 

The Non-Uniform Process of Anglicisation

This brief survey shows that the Anglicisation of Britannia was neither a uniform process of conquest, nor a uniform peaceful transition. Rather, there were four distinct stories, substantially but not precisely coterminous with the four prior Roman provinces, each story radically different in time and in process from the others. It is these contrasts that are the primary cause of confusion about how and when Britannia became English and the running disputation as to whether the change was essentially a conquest or a peaceful transition.

In the centre-east of Britannia, one Roman Province and a couple of adjacent civitates became English-ruled within the first generation after the Roman legions departed in 409, without any recorded warfare – quite possibly by the voluntary choice of their first sub-Roman rulers. Most of another Province, in the south-east, became English through force of arms in the thrust and counter-thrust of warfare during the second half of the fifth century. A third Province, in the north, became English through political and military power over the years 581-633. Parts of the fourth, the western, Province plus an adjacent civitas from the south-east (Calchfynydd) were conquered piecemeal over nearly three centuries (from 571 to 838), but other parts (Wales and Cornwall) never became incorporated into Anglo-Saxon England.

Thus by 500 a considerable chunk of eastern and south-eastern Britain was under English rule, the area behind the coast from Bournemouth to Beverley, divided among a dozen young kingdoms; but the bulk of the country – all of the north, all of the west, and the centre as far east as Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire – was comprised of sub-Roman Celtic-British kingdoms. This was still the geographical reality in 570.

During the next eleven years English kings conquered British territories equivalent to about nine counties, mostly in the Midlands. But in 582, even after these losses, all the regions west of the Pennines, the Severn and Selwood Forest remained under British control, and there was little further change in the following half-century. Only after the early 630s, with Powys’s loss of Pengwern, the defeat of Cadwallon of Gwynedd after his brief conquest of Northumbria, and the merger of Rheged into Northumbria, can it be said that English kings ruled over most of what was to become England.

The exceptions, lands outwith English control beyond the 630s, were Ergyng (the part of modern England south and west of the Severn), ruled by a British king known to the Mercians as Merewalh (which means ‘illustrious Welshman’), Lindinis (Somerset, western Wiltshire, northern Dorset and northern Devon), and most of Kernow (Cornwall and south Devon). Some of these areas remained under Celtic British rule for centuries; Cornwall into the tenth century.

 

Plenty of people publish on the internet, or in a few cases in books, their discoveries of aspects of the process by which Roman Britannia became a patchwork of English kingdoms, including me in earlier posts on this blog about King Arthur, Somerset, and Lindinis in the fifth and sixth centuries, and indeed through to the eighth century. But I trust and believe some readers will find it useful to have this summary of the process, of the overall picture of the change across three centuries, gathered here in one relatively brief narrative.

 

 

[i] In the Mercian Tribal Hidage. In that document, the ending –saetna was used for some petty kingdoms that were not part of Mercia but were scheduled for paying land taxes to Mercia, including Pecsaetna and Cilternsaetna. These areas were under English political influence but not areas of English immigrant settlement.

[ii] He transmits a record that from “Rufus and Rubelius” – obviously meaning the consuldom of Fufius and Rubellius in the first half of 29CE – to Stilicho was 373 years and from Stilicho to the start of Vortigern’s reign was 28 years, which in combination take the date to 430CE. He also names Valentinian and Theodosius as consuls that year, which is true of 430 (and also of 426 and 435).

Dindraithou = Dundry (Dundry hill in Somerset, near Bristol)

Dundry = Dindraithou

I recently visited Dundry. Dundry is just outside the city of Bristol, on the south side. The Dundry hillfort is an impressive defensive site, with a mighty ditch on its eastern side, deeper even today than a man, and extensive outlying walls beyond the inner perimeter. The flat land immediately to the south of the fort could easily be a paddock grazing ground for a king’s horses when he was in residence.

How little they know of South Cadbury who only South Cadbury know. The South Cadbury hillfort, (‘Cadbury-Camelot’) has been excavated, was evidently a major royal residence of the late fifth and early sixth centuries, and was indeed probably often used as a kaer (defended citadel, royal residence and feasting-hall) by King Arthur.

Dundry by contrast has never, to the best of my knowledge, been excavated. But it has an obvious strategic value: its views. Places on the Dundry plateau fairly near the hillfort[i] command a vista over the entire city of Bristol, across the estuarial valley of the River Avon westwards to the Severn shore, and to the north-east as far as the hills near Bath which I and others argue was ‘the Badonic region’ where Arthur’s most important battle success was won in 490[ii] and, I think, to Dyrham (site of the disastrous battle in 577 when the prosperous Circencester civitas was lost, along with the cities of Gloucester and Bath, their territories becoming the English-allied Kingdom of Hwicce). No enemy could have advanced on Lindinis from the north by land or water without being seen and heard afar by lookout warriors on the Dundry hill. A less impressive, but still militarily useful, overview of lands to the south – especially the south-west – is possible from a different point on the Dundry plateau.

Cador, the Governor of Lindinis in the mid-fifth century,[iii] had need to guard the northern frontier of Lindinis, primarily from the threat of Irish pirate raiders penetrating up the Bristol Channel and along the Avon, as they had devastatingly done in 398, and also from the possibility of Saxon adventurers intruding from the north-east. Dundry makes great sense as a base from which he would have done so.

Dindraithou, which I regard as the ancient name for Dundry, appears twice in the historical record. The more important reference is in the Life of St. Carantoc, [iv] which names it as the royal residence of both Cador and Arthur which the saint visited. The other reference is in the list of 33 cities given in the Historia Brittonum; the significance of that is that Dundry Dindraithou was a contemporary or remembered important British royal kaer at the (unknown, perhaps seventh century) time of compilation of that list. (Cadbury-Camelot, there called Penselwood, is also on the list.)

In my post on Cador (9-3-13), I mentioned several places which were fortified in the fifth century for which name and/or date evidence point to his being the commander responsible. Dundry should be added to that list. So too, its name suggests, should Cadbury Heath. Cadbury Heath is now a decidedly ordinary suburb of Bristol, but its location is above the Avon, just a mile to the north of the river. It is a little surprising to find the Cad- name on the north side of the Avon, since the river itself would have been the natural boundary between Lindinis and the Cirencester civitas. But Cador was a military man with a genius for strategic defensive planning, and it is easy to suppose that he would have wanted to ensure that his men could keep watch over the Avon water-transport route from both sides, and that he had the force to take command of Cadbury Heath – with or without the approval of his opposite number in charge of Cirencester, about whom nothing is known.

 

[i] On the road to East Dundry.

[ii] For the basis for identifying 490 as the battle’s date, see my post here of 22nd Sep 2013.

[iii] See my post here of 9th March 2013.

[iv] See my post here of 4th March 2013.

The Real King Arthur

This blog piece has taken five hours / fifty years to make. Five hours to compose – and, behind that, fifty years of study and love, visits and maps, intellect and intuition. I have been in pursuit of the real King Arthur since I first visited Glastonbury, and then South Cadbury, in the 1960s.

As a schoolboy in Taunton, I believed that he was one of ours – a man of what we knew as The Westcountry, a land that included Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. Now I am confident. The pieces fit together. All the indicative evidence points in one direction. Arthur was King of Lindinis Civitas. This was northern Devon, most of Somerset, northern Dorset, and much of western Wiltshire.

Everything, every story or notice that has a geographical element and is maybe derived from a source in the fifth or sixth centuries, has a certain or probable Lindinis provenance. Modern writers placing Arthur in the north, Scotland, Lincolnshire, or the third century, base their thinking on no more than the odd piece of etymology (such as Camboglanna on Hadrian’s Wall as a claimant for Camlan, or Lincoln – Lindum in Latin – as a claimant for Linnuis), and bypass the inconvenient total absence of Arthur’s name from the Bonedd y gwyr gogledd (“Descent of the men of the north”), a document of genuine antiquity in which the names of the actual kings of the various regions of northern Britannia are given in several genealogical compilations; and any connecting of Arthur to Tintagel, Caerleon, Colchester or London is derivative of the fanciful imaginings of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The earliest historical source on Arthur pointing in part away from Lindinis is the list of twelve battles in the Historia Britonnum, an eighth- or ninth-century compilation; however, all the battles there listed which are identifiably far from Lindinis are also identifiably ones that were unconnected to King Arthur (Chester; Wallop; Armterid – now called Arthuret, north of Carlisle; etc): they were fought by other warriors at dates spread across the quarter of a millennium after the British overthrew their Roman governors.

It is a lost cause to attempt to convince academic historians that there even was a real King Arthur, let alone that anything specific can be said about him. Such historians allow as evidence only documents that are beyond doubt contemporary to the events they attest, or copied unaltered from ones that were so, and physical archaeology and artefacts. In an era when very few people could write, when the main method of culture transmission was oral storytelling – primarily by bards in poetic song – and when even the most imposing residences and strongholds of the social elite were built in wood, evidence that attains academics’ thresholds is virtually non-existent. It is not only for King Arthur that this type of evidence is lacking: even the reality of (piecemeal) conquest of England by Englishmen (the “Anglo-Saxons”) is questioned for lack of such ultra-hard proof.

But the indications for King Arthur are diverse and consistent. What happened has often come down to us as told in allegory and story, a culturally natural form for the fifth and sixth centuries, rather than as the dry facts beloved of modern scholarship.

The one dry source is the Annales Cambriae, which names him as a Christian and as the victor of the Battle of Badon – at a date that has to be corrected to 490 – and as being killed in 538 at the Battle of Camlan. The other sources, which I have discussed in previous posts here, are oral traditions later written down, saints’ Lives, and an eighth-century battle list that straddles the border between eulogy and record-keeping.

In probable chronological sequence, the life of King Arthur thereby conveyed is this:-

  • As a youth when Cador was Governor of Lindinis Civitas, Prince Arthur met St. Carantoc at the mouth of the Doniford Brook, near Watchet in Somerset. They travelled to see Cador in his kaer (citadel) at Dundry (Somerset). Cador chose Christianity to be the official religion of Lindinis. He granted St. Carantoc a land charter to build a church at the commercially significant town of Carhampton (Somerset).
  • Arthur as the new man in charge of Lindinis had a culturally essential duty to fight and win raids on his borders. He won one such at Glein (possibly Clannaborough, in the Lindinis part of Devon), and four more skirmishes on the hills above the River Divelish (near Ibberton, on the border of the Lindinis part of Dorset).
  • He won a battle on the Bristol Channel coast (Somerset); and then another that may have been near Beaminster (on the border of the Lindinis part of Dorset) or near Mere (near the border of the Lindinis part of Wiltshire).
  • He was given Divine protection from death by a Christian Mystery initiation at Beckery on what was then the Glastonbury peninsula (Somerset).
  • He defeated English aggressors at the stunningly successful Battle of the Badonic Hill near Bath (Somerset) in 490.
  • He ruled Lindinis for half a century and became known as King Arthur (rather than Roman-style Governor). During the long peacetime that followed his Badonic victory, his largest citadel which he used often to host feasts for kings of other British kingdoms, was the Cadbury-Camelot hillfort at South Cadbury (Somerset).
  • He was killed at the Battle of Camlan at Queen Camel (Somerset) in 538.
  • He was buried by monks of Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset), most likely at Nyland, the island in the marshes (now the Somerset Levels) held sacred as the Gate to the Otherworld, rather than by the Old Church at Glastonbury itself.

After his death he was remembered as a great warrior hero by Celtic bards of the later sixth century (Aneurin, Taliesin), and as their own past warrior hero by the bard who eulogised a battle lost in the eighth century at Langport (Somerset). He was remembered in song particularly by minstrels of Brittany (culturally descended from immigrants from the Westcountry).

From them, his fame entered mainstream European literature as the fictionalised hero of “Arthurian legend”. The real King Arthur, successful Brittonic warrior leader, commander of a hillfort in SE Somerset beside the River Cam later known as Camelot, Christian ruler of one of the ten former Roman civitates of Britannia Prima, Lindinis, a name after his time corrupted to Lyonesse…. became transformed into the wizard-guided idealised model English (!) king, born at Tintagel, and governing the whole island of Britain (and then some) with the help of the Knights of the Round Table – voided in the public imagination of all lifetime connection to his true home among the hills, coasts, forests, and extensive brackish marshes of Somerset.

Dating the Battle of Badon

 

The Date of the Battle of Badon Controversy

The The date of the battle of Badon has long been the subject of controversy among students of the period. The uncertainty is due to the ambiguity of Gildas’s words in his book De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. He refers in the context of Badon to “the 44th year with one month elapsed”, i.e. a period of 43 years and one month. But it is not linguistically clear whether the period was before the Battle of Badon – between a previous event mentioned in his book and the battle – or after it, between the battle and the date of writing.

 

How to Interpret Gildas

A major difficulty with interpreting this as the period between the battle and the time of writing is: how could Gildas while he was still writing have known to the month at what date his work would be finished? The alternative that the 43 years and one month ended with the battle (which of course did have an exact date) leads to the question: which of three events Gildas discussed in the preceding chapters of De Excidio he intended as the starting point. It could reasonably be any of: the letter to Aetius (Chapter 20); the council of Britain deciding to invite some Saxons to fight for Britain (Chapter 23); or the coming to power of Ambrosius (Chapter 25).

Gildas could reasonably have known the month and year of any of these. But the coming to power of Ambrosius should be ruled out, because Gildas indicates that it happened after and in consequence of the Great Raid of 473. This would require the date of Badon to be 516 or up to a few years later. A date as late as this is inconsistent with Gildas’s saying that the people who were in positions of responsibility during the warring that culminated at Badon, including kings, officials and priests, had all died by the time of writing. De Excidio was published during the lifetime of King Maelgwn (Mailcun in the older spelling used in the Annales Cambriae [AC]), so not later than 548CE.[1] A period of thirty years or so is not sufficient for this to be true. Fifty years at least would be necessary.

Also, Gildas records that he was born in the year of the battle of Badon. Hagiographical writings record that he gave or sent a bell to St. Bride. (It is presumed that he was a bell-maker.) If true, this has to have been before her death in 524, and therefore Gildas’s birth can hardly have been later than, at a squeeze, 510. There is also the tradition that he founded Rhuys Abbey in the 520s. This date is not as assured as that of St. Bride’s death – but even if the foundation date were in the 530s it would speak in favour of a date of Gildas’s birth earlier than 516.

 

43 Years after Aetius or Hengist

It is much more probable therefore that Gildas intended us to understand his period of 43 years and 1 month to begin with one of the other two seminal events he reports, the letter to Aetius or the invitation to Hengist. The letter to Aetius is the most probable, as it is the only one of the three events in writing, and therefore with an exact date on its face. It is figured to have been sent in 446 because that was the year of his third consulship, to which the letter refers.

In any case though, if the council of Britain was meant it makes little difference to the calculation for the date of Badon. The council cannot have been long after the letter, for response to the emergency prompting the request to Aetius for military aid was urgent. It makes logical sense to postulate that the council convened late in 446 or early in 447, the year when according to Mageoghagan’s Irish annals Hengist actually arrived with his English warriors in response to that council’s request. On either basis, the resulting calculation is that the Battle of Badon was fought in 489 or 490.

 

Badon in 490 CE Makes Sense

This date for Badon and therefore for Gildas’s birth fits the information about Gildas’s life excellently. It is also fully consistent with the archaeological record, which shows a break in the English penetration of Britain approximately comprising the first half of the sixth century; and with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which gives no battles other than in Wessex between 490 and 550. Its supposed battles in Wessex have been interpreted as an ‘origin myth’ for the Gewissae dynasty, rather than factual truth.

 

The Annales Cambriae Date for Badon can be Amended to 490

It can be reconciled with the AC on a straightforward hypothesis: that the original Christian source said the Battle of Badon was “490 years after the Incarnation of Christ”, and that an early copyist mis-transcribed that as “490 years after the Passion of Christ’. Scribes before the introduction of the AD calendar sometimes expressed dates anno passio, and 27 needs to be subtracted from the number thus given to give the corresponding CE year.[2] The AC date for the Battle of Badon on a +445 calibration is 517CE, and 517 minus 27 is 490.

490CE as the date of the Battle of Badon fits well with all the evidence. It does not require the AC compilers to have made a complex derivation of the date of Badon, such as by interpreting De Excidio and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle while not using other dates also found in the same sources. It is compatible with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, the archaeological evidence, the floruit of Ambrosius, the Irish annals, De Excidio, the events of Gildas’s life, and the other entries in the AC.

The 27-year Passion/Incarnation mistake does nothing to diminish the likelihood of authenticity of the AC entry. On the contrary, it enhances it, for the error is much more probable with a source that was originally written before the invention of the AD calendar in 529.


[1] On the calibration of the AC to the CE calendar by adding 445 to the AC’s internal year ticker count, which I advocate for its pre-565 entries (see my previous post here of 21 September 2013).

[2] The Historia Brittonum demonstrates that such mistakes happened: Chapters 16 and 66 show a similar mistake in reverse, 405 and 400 years after the Incarnation, respectively, being written when “years after the Passion” should have been written.