Have you heard of Arthur’s greatest victory?

It has been an interesting few weeks. I’ve been stuck trying to decide how to approach one of the most important parts of this series- the Siege of Mount Badon. It is a key part of The Strife of Camlann, book two of The Arthurian Age trilogy, and one of the few events we are certain happened in the late fifth or early sixth centuries.

Gildas Sapiens

The reason we know about it is because of Gildas. I mentioned him in an earlier post about the historicity of King Arthur. Gildas is very important because his are the only writings from Britain during Arthur’s era that have survived to today. And Gildas gives the earliest mention of the Siege.

Statue of Saint Gildas
Statue of Saint Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys

Now, there are a lot of unknowns about Badon. First, we’re not entirely sure of when it happened. This particular controversy, and what I think is the best answer to the date, is discussed in this post. Second, we don’t know where it happened. And thirdly, Gildas doesn’t identify the commander of the Britons, much less the Anglo-Saxons.

A hill by any other name…

The location of Badon is a mystery because there is no location today that can be identified by place names. Badon, itself, is a mystery of a name. It is not Anglo-Saxon, and while it is considered to be most likely of Britonnic Celtic origin, even that is in dispute.

Geoffrey of Monmouth placed Badon at a hill outside the city of Bath in Somerset. The thought was that Old English name for the city, BaĆ°um (at the baths), was related to the word Badon. However, linguists point out that in the way that Welsh developed from Brittonic, this could not be the case. The Roman name for the city was Aquae Sulis, or ‘Waters of Sulis’, after a pre-Roman British goddess. We don’t know what the Britons called the city in the fifth century, so for the purposes of The Arthurian Age, I call Bath ‘Cair Sulis‘.

The Roman Baths at Bath, Somerset
The Roman baths over the original Celtic holy site at Bath, Somerset.

We know, from Gildas, that the location is a mons, a prominent hill or ridge. Many believe it was a hillfort, and Britain is sprinkled with an abundance of these. But it might not be. Tactically speaking, it need only be a place that a relatively small group of defenders could hold when surrounded. Armies of this era were not the multi-thousands forces of later and earlier eras. The Anglo-Saxons considered anything more than thirty men to be an army! Assuming a major battle may have numbered anywhere from a few hundred combatants to perhaps a thousand or so, a small hillfort or even just a hill with a small peak and steep sides would do well.

There are a number of other places in England that sound like they may be related to “Badon”, but they all seem to come from unrelated Old English names. There are two additional options. One is that Badon is not one location, but rather refers to a region. This has some support by the fact that Gildas refers to the place as “the Badonic mount”, a descriptive term for a place. Another intriguing possibility is that Badon could be related to pre-Roman Celtic religion. Christopher Gwinn, points out that in Dacia (which had Celtic speakers in the Iron Age) there is an inscription referring to a group of Celtic goddesses known as the Badones Reginae.

Who’s in charge?

So that brings us to the question of who was at Badon. From Gildas, we know only that the Britons defeated the Saxons and that it was a major victory. In fact, there is evidence that Badon was such a setback for the Anglo-Saxons, that it halted their expansion across Britain for about fifty years.

Anglo-Saxon Kings
Anglo-Saxon Elites.
Art by the incredible Angus McBride

We don’t know who commanded the Anglo-Saxons. They did not record their history until much later, and when they did, they were not inclined to speak of their defeats. From the personalities described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the most likely named candidates were Hengist and/or his son Aesc and grandson Octha, who may have been in eastern Britain, and Aelle, in Sussex, who was said to be the first “Bretwalda” or Britain-Ruler of all the Anglo-Saxons.

But who led the Britons? Gildas never mentions Arthur. Some consider this proof that Arthur didn’t exist, but really, it just indicates that Arthur was not a subject of what Gildas was writing about. He mentions very few people by name, and almost all of them are people he is singling out for moral condemnation. If Arthur wasn’t on his naughty list, there is no reason for Gildas to mention him.

Not even as commander of the great battle of Badon? Nope. Gildas was writing to an audience that was very familiar with Badon and who was involved. The only reason he talked about historical events was to set the stage for his jeremiad against the Britons. For example, Gildas does name one general, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and holds him up as the example of how far the Britons have fallen. Some people think that Gildas implied Ambrosius was the commander at Badon, but he does not. Ambrosius was a commander of the earlier wars and would be too old for battle by the time of Badon, if still alive. Some have offered some theoretical gymnastics involving a father-son dynasty of the same name, but this does not hold up. Gildas says that Ambrosius’ descendants were inferior to their ancestor.

Arthur at the Battle of Mount Badon
Arthur is said to have carried the image of the Virgin Mary on his “shoulders”, which probably meant his shield.

The first indication of the British commander at Badon comes from the ninth-century Historia Brittonum by the Welsh monk, Nennius. And it describes Badon as the twelfth of Arthur’s great victories. It is very unfortunate that we don’t have more documents for the four centuries between Gildas and Nennius, but it is very likely that Nennius had access to records that are lost to us (he says he did) as well as a rich oral history.

The battle is mentioned twice by Nennius, who apparently referenced multiple sources. But the gist was the same. When describing Arthur’s most important twelve battles, he says:

‘Arthur pushed the twelfth battle against the Saxons most hard on the mons Badonis, in which nine hundred and forty men perished from his attack in one day, none of the Britons coming to his aid except he himself, the Lord strengthening him’.

And here we are.

So, my challenge has been to take what limited information we have and try to piece together the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How that makes a good story. The Who and When was pretty easy. I’ve spent hours considering the various theories on Where. The Where is closely tied to the Why. There has to be a reason for the battle. Having come up with a good Why has helped me narrow down the possibilities and choose the Where. But that brought up the challenge of the How. How did the two sides end up meeting. There are issues of logistics, distance, time required to move from one point to another. That one has been tough, but I finally reached a breakthrough. So now I am finally on to the What. What happened?

I’ll write more about the background in a later post. More importantly, I hope you will soon read about it all when The Strife of Camlann is released. As you may know, it is the sequel to the acclaimed historical fiction novel, The Retreat to Avalon. If you haven’t read it, please pick up a copy. You won’t regret it!

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