Battle of Mons Badonicus


Battle of Mons Badonicus
Battle of Mons Badonicus
Part of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain
Date circa 490 – 517
Location Unknown, various locations possible
Result Strategic British victory; Saxon expansion halted for many decades
Belligerents
Britons Anglo-Saxons
Commanders and leaders
Unknown, by later traditions King Arthur Unknown, possibly Ælle
Strength
Unknown in detail, but tradition says the siege was relieved by cavalry Unknown in detail, but apparently major concentration of available forces
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown, apparently heavy

The Battle of Mons Badonicus (English Mount Badon, Welsh Mynydd Baddon) was a battle between a force of Britons and an Anglo-Saxon army, probably sometime between 490 and 517 AD.[1] Though it is believed to have been a major political and military event, there is no certainty about its date, location or the details of the fighting. In the 9th century work Historia Brittonum, the victory is attributed to the battle-leader Arthur and various later texts follow this attribution, though the only near-contemporary account of Badon, written by Gildas, does not mention Arthur [2][3] nor does it explicitly state the identity of the victors.

Contents

Location and date: uncertain

The earliest source to describe the Battle of Mons Badonicus is De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written by the monk Gildas in the mid 6th century. Gildas writes the battle resulted in 'the last great slaughter' of the the Anglo-Saxon invaders by the Britons after a period of violent warfare. According to Gildas, the consequences of Badon had been to halt Anglo-Saxon expansion up to the time of his writing, but the battle and its aftermath had not restored the Britons to their earlier prominence.[4]

Gildas appears to say that the battle ("obsessio"—a siege) occurred in the year of his birth, forty-four years before his time of writing.[5][4] This would place the battle sometime in the late 5th or early 6th century. However, he does not appear to give the names of the leaders, or offer any information about the location, the course of the battle, or its tactical victors. This reticence was characteristic of Gildas's history in general.[6] Later medieval writers often associated the battle with the legendary King Arthur; however, no text decisively dated before the 9th-century Historia Britonnum mentions Arthur in relation to the battle.[7]

Some modern scholars suggest that Gildas' text implies that Aurelius Ambrosius was the Briton leader at Badon. Chapter 25 describes Aurelius as leading the Britons in their early skirmishes against the Saxons. Modern editions of Gildas include a space between this chapter and the next, which mentions Mons Badonicus; this has been interpreted as implying that time had passed between Aurelius and the final victory at Mons Badonicus. However, the space does not appear in the manuscripts; without it, the two sections can be read as implying that the victory at Badon was part of Aurelius' campaigns.[7]

Place

A number of sites for the battle have been proposed, most in present-day England and Wales. (For a list of candidates, see Sites and places associated with Arthurian legend.) These sites include:

  • Liddington Castle, above the village of Badbury (Old English: Baddan byrig) near Swindon in the Marlborough Downs commanding the east/west transit along The Ridgeway track route thus preventing further expansion by the Saxons in the Thames Valley region and protecting the Avon and Severn valleys.[8][9]
  • Badbury Hillfort / Badbury Rings, an Iron Age hill fort in Dorset.[10]
  • Solsbury Hill near Bath, suggested by Geoffrey of Monmouth.[11] Bath was known to the Saxons as æt Bathum ("at the Baths"), Hatum Bathum (dative plural "Hot Baths"), Bathumtun, and Bathanceaster (where ceaster derives from the Latin castra, "camp"). There are various hills not far from Bath, and any of them might have been the location of the battle. The word "bath" is Germanic, but "Badon" may be a Celtic name. Bath's Roman name was Aquae Sulis, but the area (and the neighbouring Solsbury Hill) was populated for millennia before the arrival of the Romans.
  • Buxton, a spa town and the site of a Roman bath.[12]
  • Bardon Hill.[13]
  • Bowden Hill in Linlithgow
  • Bathampton Down[14]

All of these depend on theories or speculations of scholars, built upon a poverty of evidence. The battle may have been on the frontier between the territories of the native British inhabitants and the Anglo-Saxon invaders, perhaps near the Wansdyke. Or there may have been an Anglo-Saxon attack deep into British territory in an attempt to reach the Severn estuary and separate the Welsh from the Britons of the southwest. "Obsessionis Badonici montis" in Gildas's chapter might mean that the Anglo-Saxon army went too far into hostile territory and was surrounded and trapped on a hilltop in the Cotswolds. The Saxon strategic objective was ultimately achieved following the Battle of Deorham in AD 577.

The Annales Cambriae, found in the Harleian recension of the Historia Brittonum, preserve an entry for AD 665 that records "The second battle of Badon" (bellum Badonis). While pointing to an engagement between two kingdoms of the 7th century, it is debatable which kingdoms these may be and whether this battle is recorded in other historical records of Britain or England. It could be a duplicate of the first battle, which had been passed through another oral transmission route with information changed on the way.

Arthurian connection

By the 9th century, the legendary King Arthur had become identified as the leader of the victorious British force at Mons Badonicus. The earliest known text to mention Arthur in this regard is the 9th-century Historia Brittonum. Chapter 56 attributes to Arthur victory in twelve battles, the last of which is at Mons Badonicus, where Arthur single-handedly slew 960 men.[15] Arthur is again mentioned as the victor at Mons Badonicus in another ostensibly early source, the Annales Cambriae. Under the entry for 516, the Annales say that Arthur fought at Badon carrying "the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights…", and emerged the victor.[16] In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth followed these texts in describing Arthur's victory at Mons Badonicus in his influential pseudohistory Historia Regum Britanniae. Subsequently, this appeared in a number of medieval chronicles and romances.

That Arthur is not mentioned in the earliest source, Gildas, was noticed as early as the 12th century. The 12th-century Life of Gildas claims that Gildas had in fact written extensively about Arthur, but then angrily excised him from the text after Arthur killed his brother, Huail. Modern writers have suggested the details of the battle were so well known that Gildas would have expected his audience to be familiar with them. At any rate, the Historia and Annales taken together are used as evidence that Arthur fought at Badon.[7]

However, the consensus among scholars is that the Annales entry was directly based on the Historia. This part of the Annales occurs only in manuscripts of a late date, and is largely derived from earlier sources. Additionally, the wording in the entry is very similar to a mention in the Historia of a different battle, Guinnion. According to the Historia, at Guinnion, Arthur "carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders", and put his enemy to flight. Scholars such as Thomas Jones and N. J. Higham argue that the Annales entry is based directly on the Historia, with the obscure battle of Guinnion replaced with the more famous Badon, and the icon of Mary replaced with the more common cross.[17] The Historia itself is not considered reliable for this period of history.[18]

Information about dates

Gildas

Gildas writes

ad annum obsessionis Badonici montis ... quique quadragesimus quartus ut novi[19] orditur annus mense iam uno emenso qui et meae nativitatis est

which has been translated in more than one way.[20] An earlier reference by Gildas to the same event—de postrema patriae victoria quae temporibus nostris dei nutu donata est—establishes that the battle was fought "in our time".

  • It may mean "at/to the year of the siege of Mount Badon ... which happened 44 years and one month ago, and which is [the year] of my birth". King Maelgwn of Gwynedd was still living when Gildas wrote this, therefore Gildas wrote this on or before AD 547. This suggests AD 503 as a terminus ante quem for the battle.
  • Bede treated this passage in his paraphrase as saying that the battle was—he inserted "about"—44 years after the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain, which Bede (not Gildas) said was in 449. Though Bede's circiter reveals that he does not wish to give the impression that Gildas' dating is accurate, adding 44 years to 449 gives the date 493 for the battle. Adding 44 years to 447 (when Thanet was conceded to Hengist) gives the date 491 for the battle. Some would argue that Bede's copy of Gildas was much closer to the original than any now extant; however the age of a manuscript (especially one no longer existing) is not a conclusive guide to its accuracy.

Taking his cue from Gildas' temporibus nostris G.H. Wheeler suggested[21] that the span of time between the battle and Gildas' writing was considerably less than 44 years and that Gildas cannot have been counting backwards.

D. McCarthy and D. Ó Cróinin propose that Gildas' 44 years and one month is a reference to the 44th year of an 84-year Celtic Easter cycle used in Britain in Gildas' day; the cycle in question commenced in January, 438 AD, allowing them to date the battle to February, 482 AD.[22]

Annales Cambriae

The later Annales Cambriae offers the date 516, which few modern scholars accept. Annales Cambriae entries after 525 appear to have been transcribed from contemporary tables for the calculation of Easter; entries before 525 are much less reliable. One of the modern scholars who does accept this date is the historian Geoffrey Ashe, who suggests that Mons Badonicus occurred in 516, but was just one of a string of British victories. According to Geoffrey Ashe, Gildas may have been referring to Aurelius' first victories as occurring near the time of his birth, which Ashe suggests was around 473, while Mons Badonicus may have occurred much later.[23]

Lives of the Saints

Some British saints' hagiographies indirectly support a date closer to 493 than 503. The Lives of Dewi Sant (David, the patron saint of Wales), Saint Cadoc and Saint Gildas report that Gildas visited the abbey of Ty Gwyn in 527 or 528 and objected to Dewi/David being placed in charge of it at such a young age.

These biographies of early church leaders, mostly written in the 11th century, may for propaganda purposes have invented, exaggerated, or borrowed miracles, and altered days of death, but some argue that their authors had no reason to distort mundane facts such as the dates and places of meetings. Further, these three Lives are independent of each other, their authors drawing from records (since lost) or traditions at the abbeys the saints lived in—St Davids for David, Llancarfan for Cadoc, and Rhuys in Brittany for Gildas.

Rhygyfarch's Life of David says that David had ten years' education under St. Paulinus (St. Pol de Leon) before becoming Abbot of Ty Gwyn. This suggests that David's birth could hardly have been later than 514. Rhygyfarch also says that Gildas preached to David's mother, Saint Non, while she was pregnant with him. If Gildas was old enough to be preaching at that time it is implausible to place the date of his birth, and therefore of the Battle of Mount Badon, later than 498.

Effects of the battle

However uncertain the place, date, and participants of this battle may be, it clearly halted the Anglo-Saxon advance for some years.

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is silent about this battle, but documents a gap of almost 70 years between two major Anglo-Saxon leaders (Bretwaldas) in the 5th and 6th centuries.
  • Procopius records a story, told to him by a member of a diplomatic delegation from the Franks, including a group of Angles, which mentioned that some Anglo-Saxons and British found their island so crowded that they migrated to northern Gaul to find lands to live on.[citation needed]
  • There are other tales from the mid-6th century about groups of Anglo-Saxons leaving Britain to settle across the English Channel.[citation needed]

All of these point to some kind of reversal in the fortunes of the invading Anglo-Saxons.

Archaeological evidence collected from the cemeteries of the pagan Anglo-Saxons suggests that some of their settlements were abandoned and the frontier between the invaders and the native inhabitants pushed back some time around 500. The Anglo-Saxons held the present counties of Kent, Sussex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and around the Humber; it is clear that the native British controlled everything west of a line drawn from the mouth of the Wiltshire Avon at Christchurch north to the river Trent, then along the Trent to where it joined the Humber, then north along the river Derwent and east to the North Sea, and also controlled a salient to the north and west of London, and south of Verulamium, that stretched west to join their main territory. The Britons defending this salient could securely move their troops along Watling Street to bring reinforcements to London or Verulamium, and thus keep the invaders divided into pockets south of the Weald, in eastern Kent, and in the lands around the Wash.

Second Battle of Badon

According to the Annales Cambriae, in AD 665 there was a second battle at Badon. It also lists for 665 the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity ("first Easter of the Saxons") and the death of one "Morgan". It is possible these three events are connected, if they are factual. Alternatively, this battle may be a duplicate of the first battle, heard of by a different route with details changed.

Notes

  1. ^ Ashe, Geoffrey, From Caesar to Arthur pp.295-8
  2. ^ R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History From 3500 B.C. to the Present, Fourth Edition (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 193.
  3. ^ C. Warren Hollister, The Making of England to 1399, Eighth Edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), 31.
  4. ^ a b Gildas, De Exidio et Conquestu Britanniae, ch. 26.
  5. ^ ...qui et meae nativitatis est
  6. ^ Winston Churchill, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1: The Birth of Britain (London: 1956), p. 47, n. 1, cites Sir Frank M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, as saying that "Gildas was curiously reluctant to introduce personal names into his writing."
  7. ^ a b c Green, p. 31.
  8. ^ Cat.Inist
  9. ^ Ashe, Geoffrey From Caesar to Arthur, pp.162-4
  10. ^ Badbury Rings
  11. ^ Mount Badon/Mons Badonicus
  12. ^ From Glein to Camlann: The Life and Death of King Arthur by August Hunt
  13. ^ http://www.leicesterchronicler.com/origins.htm The Origins of Leicester – An Arthurian Association?
  14. ^ Scott, Shane (1995). The hidden places of Somerset. Aldermaston: Travel Publishing Ltd. pp. 16. ISBN 1902007018. 
  15. ^ Lupack, Alan (Trans.) "From: The History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum). The Camelot Project. Retrieved March 28, 2011.
  16. ^ Green, p. 26.
  17. ^ Green, p. 28.
  18. ^ Green, p. 67
  19. ^ ut novi has been generally agreed to be corrupt, following Theodor Mommsen; it is variously interpreted as "as I know" or "as recent writers".
  20. ^ G. H. Wheeler, "Gildas de Excidio Britanniae, Chapter 26" in The English Historical Review 41 No. 164 (October 1926:497–503).
  21. ^ Wheeler 1926
  22. ^ McCarthy, D., Ó Cróinin, D. "The 'lost' Irish 84-year Easter table rediscovered", in Peritia, vol. 6-7, 1987-1988, pp. 227-242.
  23. ^ Ashe, Geoffrey, The British Recovery 473-517, pp.295-8

References


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