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.






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.