This blog is going through a rethink and rework as of 12.11.11. New material or changes will be in bold type.
This article (now an eight part blog) was mainly in response to a question I posted on Arthurnet about what could have caused the supposed two or three generational peace after the Battle of Badon (and other battles) between the Britons and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. I was asking if this subject had been debated by any group of academics, such as was done for the papers and discussions that went into the book ‘After Empire-Towards an Ethnology of Europe’s Barbarians’ (‘Studies in Archaeoethnology, Volume 1’, 1995). and discovered that no one was aware that it had. There have, of course, been numerous individual books and papers on the subject.
One Arthurnet member’s argument was that it was the great victory at Badon that caused the ensuing ‘peace’ and slow down of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ military and/or cultural expansion visible in the archaeology. This article was mainly in response to this, but it took on a life of its own and went on much further from there. However, keep in mind that this was its starting point.
My question was, again, motivated by the Arthurian screenplay I’m contemplating, which I wanted to make post-Badon. However, it has ended up going much deeper than this and is relevant whether you think there was a historical Arthur of Badon fame or not.
I will concede that my knowledge is not great enough to do this subject much justice. Having said that, my (lengthy) layman/novice meagre stab at it will follow. Since the scholars on the subject can’t be here, I’ll have to bring some of their thoughts to bear instead. One of those is Nick Higham, who, regardless of his negative views on a historical Arthur, should be listened to. Some quotes that follow are from a paper by him entitled ‘Debating The Insular Dark Ages’, 2004. I will also pay heed to his theories from ‘The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century’ (1994). In this in-depth work, he concludes that the battle of Mons Badonicus was the Britons’ last victory against the ‘Saxons‘ but not the decisive one, and the ‘Saxons’ were the ones who won the ‘war‘.
I realise this all has to be tempered by the archaeological evidence, which, whilst seemingly supporting a ‘peace’ or slow down of expansion, cannot, as archaeologist Keith Matthews (aka Bad Archaeology blogger) has mentioned through Arthurnet, be dated accurately enough or interpreted clearly enough. He also pointed out recently that we may be relying too much on burial practices and that evidence of other kinds, being greatly helped by metalwork reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, show the creation of new ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sites during the period 475-550. However, if Gildas says there had been an extended ‘external’ (relative) peace for possibly 40-odd years, who are we to disagree … unless we’ve misinterpreted him, which some, including Keith and Nick Higham, think we have, as well as Ken Dark, although in a completely different way, not to mention archaeologist Francis Pryor.
I will use the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘Saxon’ and ‘Anglian’ to mean not only those of Germanic stock but any Britons who might have supported them (either willingly or unwillingly!) or taken up the culture, which is how many scholars now see the situation at the time. What, in my opinion, they should probably be called are ‘Anglo-Briton (or British) ’ or ‘Saxo-Britons (or British)’ etc. After all, most of the generation we’re talking about were not only born in Britain but probably had British blood within them. Indeed, some of them may have had 100% British blood coursing through their veins. We call those of Hibernian (Irish) descent ‘Cambro-Irish’ (whilst I tend to call them Hiberno-Britannians), so why doesn’t this apply to those of Germanic stock? Probably because it helps keep them as the bad guys?!
WE WON … DIDN’T WE?!
So, the Battle of Mount Badon (dated anywhere between 483 and 518 – or 430 to 440 by Higham) is a massive defeat for the ‘Saxons'; other victories in other regions happen for some time afterwards and seal the deal. If Ælle was their Bretwalda, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC) tells us, who they faced (meaning Badon would have to be of the earlier dates – if the ASC dates are right, which they’re probably not!) and he died at the battle – or one of the other battles – that would make things worse for the enemy. For Ælle to be in such an ‘overlord’ position – if that’s what a Bretwalda was, as there’s no agreement – it must have meant he could personally bring the greatest military force to bear, as well as having many groups either as tribute payers to him or allied through fear. So if he was defeated at Badon then, perhaps, the greatest threat was removed, along with many enemy warriors and a break-up of any coalition. (More on this later).
“Barbarian kingdoms or ‘over-kingships’ often came into existence very suddenly, following military victory, and might disintegrate just as dramatically, as a consequence of defeat or changing political circumstances. The familiar examples of the rise and fall of individual dynasts in the late-sixth and seventh centuries, which Bede provides, should be sufficient to warn us off the simple, developmental approach.”
However, the question I posed on Arthurnet still stood: ‘what was stopping the second generation ‘Saxons’ from wanting revenge over the deaths of their fathers’ if so many of them had been slaughtered?’ As the late and great Sir Frank Stenton tells us:
“Much that is characteristic in the oldest Germanic literature turns on the relationship between the companions and the lord. The sanctity of the bond between lord and man, the duty of defending and avenging the lord, the disgracing of surviving him, give rise to situations in which English listeners were always interested until new literary fashions of Romance origin had displaced the ancient stories. There was no doubt that this literature represented real life. It was the personal reputation of the king which attracted retainers to his court, and it was the king’s military household around which all of the fighting centred. The inclusion of foreign warriors among the king’s companions and the presence of hostages from other countries in his court went far to cement the great dramatic confederations of early times. The migration to Britain produce no change in the relation of the king to his retinue. There is no essential difference between the king’s companions of the heathen age and the nobles who attest the earliest English royal charters.” (‘Anglo-Saxon England’, Stenton, 1989, p302)
Here’s a society that should (supposedly) fight to the death should their lord fall and avenge his death. This is not to mention the general tradition of the blood feud. So what was stopping them? I’ll explore the possibilities below.
If we also keep in mind that the 6th century cleric/monk Gildas (St. Gildas) tells us in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) that the Britons were often at civil war, then something must have been very wrong in the east, or something extremely right in the western ‘borderlands’, to not be able to take advantage of that too. Could be a bit of both, could be a completely different reason such as Higham’s theory on the ‘Saxons’ being in charge of eastern Britain and holding the eastern part of Britannia Prima to tribute payment.
“Gildas’s remarks elsewhere reflect his continuing concern as to the vulnerability of his countrymen to their neighbours, which seems inconsistent with a triumphant conclusion of the war, so renewed divine protection: for example, ‘it was always true of this people (as it is now) that it was weak in beating off the weapons of the enemy but strong in putting up with civil war and the burden of sin.’”
What a strange thing for GIldas to say if the Britons had power over the enemy and they were at peace with them! So, what was true of the past with the ‘Saxons’ seems true even in Gildas’s day; unless he’s referring to other enemies, such as the Hibernians/Scotti, but he hasn’t mentioned them in regards to recent history.
Could Gildas just be trying to make a point, whether it was a ‘true’ one or not? Or, was it just in his view that they couldn’t beat the enemy off, maybe because they couldn’t win every battle? It could also be that it was only recently things had become uncertain again, and not for the whole of those 43 years since Badon (if it was this period – see below). However, it could also be that they still fought … or, indeed, because the ‘Saxons’ held more power than we think. (More on this below).
“In the present, Britain was divided by ‘an unhappy divorce of [?caused by] the barbarians’, the term divortio apparently referring back to the metaphor of ‘a chosen bride’ for the island of Britain, which was, therefore, no longer the single patria and promised land of Gildas’s ‘latter-day Israel’. Control had been ceded to the Saxons even of access to such shrines as St Albans. The church was now ‘tributary’, her sons had ‘embraced dung’ and the nobility had lost its all.” [Higham’s brackets, not mine]
So, for Higham at least …
“The war between Britons and Saxons, therefore, seems to have ended in some sort of compromise, which conceded a very considerable sphere of influence within Britain to the incomers. This was highly unsatisfactory from Gildas’s perspective and he was both extremely hostile towards, and fearful of, the Saxons.”
Higham’s not the only one to come to the conclusion that the ‘peace’ wasn’t necessarily satisfactory for both/all sides. The much maligned John Morris (1975) came to the same conclusion as did Stenton (1943-1989). However, Higham seems alone in how far he takes this.
What Higham mentions is what I was trying to get at in one of my posts: they’ve won a decisive victory, and yet they still can’t go where they want! Seems odd if the British ‘defeated’ the Saxons. Are there any alternative answers to Higham’s? Here are three I can think of:
1) the Britons had defeated ‘Saxons’ to the west/north/south of these ‘no go’ areas, but not these areas themselves.
2) The ‘Saxons’ had made some small gains in the intervening time, cutting off these areas.
3) The Britons had won back far more territory than we think, but not these areas.
(I’m sure there are more).
Of course, Ken Dark see things differently and Higham explains it as follows:
“His thesis, in brief, is to postulate not just survival but continuing cultural, political and military power for the sub-Roman elite, both in the far west (where this view is comparatively uncontroversial) but also in the east, where it has to be imagined alongside incoming settlements. He postulates the sub-Roman community to have been the dominant force in insular affairs right up to c.570. Then, over a sixty year period, but for no very obvious reason, Anglo-Saxon kingship begins to emerge, the English conversion began and, in this scenario, Anglo-Saxon leaders overthrew British power and set about establishing their own kingdoms [...] Dark’s principal argument for continuing British military and political power in the east rests on the very uneven distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and the proposition that large gaps in that distribution necessarily represent strong British polities which excluded Anglo-Saxon settlers by force.”
This theory does answer certain questions, although Higham himself disagrees with Dark’s conclusions, mainly because of what Gildas says. It’s a theory John Morris seemed to have been working with as he believed the majority of those in the east to still be under some kind of British rule. There may be another alternative reason, which I’ll look at in later blogs. Whatever the reason, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ expansion and kingdom foundation doesn’t appear to have started until after 550. If Badon was the earlier of the dates, at 483, then there was a peace for almost 70 years … unless Keith is right.
Just a note on the earlier dating of Badon. There is a theory that places the battle of Mount Badon, not just to a possible decade but to something far more specific: February, 483! This solution, by D. O. Croinin, is based on the 84 year ‘paschal cycle’. (The ‘lost’ irish 84-year easter table rediscovered, Peritia (6-7), 1987-1988, p. 238). Why is this date (if it’s correct) so different from the one given in the Annales Cambriae at 518? I’ll explore this in more detail in the coming blogs.
In the next blog I want to explore just what kind of Britannia Gildas saw, and how clouded that view might have been.
I look forward to any comments.
Thanks for reading,