Tag Archives: Sub-Roman Britain

King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Two

Map of Roman Britain, showing the road from Cl...


If these military positions, or one of them, did exist, in some form, in mid to late 5th century Britannia, the question arises as to who exactly these individuals would command: the province’s various warbands or his own provincial army … or both? Generals of the late empire would very often be in command of feoderati (federates) and/or bucellarii (literally meaning ‘biscuit eaters’), but, of course, they could afford them! The former would come in federate ethnic groups, the latter as individual mercenaries, and, perhaps, some ethnic groups.  Bucellarii where his personal household troop and could add up to a considerable number when needed. The magister militum Aegidius had 12,000 at one time.

Here is an interesting quote from a paper with the very long title of ARMIES, WAR, AND SOCIETY IN THE WEST, ca.300-ca.600:LATE ROMAN AND BARBARIAN MILITARY ORGANIZATIONS AND THE ‘FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE’ by Richard Abels:

Generals used federates and bucellarii

Dick Whittaker observes that the “twin process of soldiers becoming landlords and landlords becoming soldiers” in the late empire facilitated 1) the collapse of the frontiers, 2) the integration/fusion of German ‘barbarian’ and Roman culture, 3) the breakdown of law and the growth of a new culture of private power in which ‘the poor became increasingly dependent on the arbitrary will of the landed rich” (Rich 281). As soldiers became landlords and landlords became the masters of soldiers, private individuals became the heads of military retinues of bucellarii. Though by law bucellarii were required to take an oath not only to their employers (a private contract), but one as well to the emperor (public). Surviving Roman administrative records show that bucellarii performed public duties (under the direction of their civilian masters) and were liable for military service if called upon by government authorities. The wealthy Apion family of early sixth-century Egypt received tax breaks for hiring bucellarii, whom they used to collect taxes and maintain order during games in the hippodrome. (Lee 165, citing Liebeschuetz, Barbarians and Bishops 45-6. But, as Whittaker points out, “the public oath was of limited relevance if the patron rebelled or if imperial rule was not recognized: the loyalty of the soldiers than became private obsequium [a personal following]” (295).

Archaeologically, one of the key developments of the fifth century was the increasing ‘nucleation of rural sites. … Small farms disappeared, many vici (villages) were abandoned or removed to old Iron Age hilltop sites, while larger villas … survived, expanded and were often fortified. … [There is evidence] of concentration of property holdings, the increased isolation and inaccessibility of estates and the compulsion on peasants to seek the refuge of the rich’ (292).

Increasingly in the fifth century, the “remnants of the Roman army operated in towns,” and bands of bucellarii in the service of local great men, their patrons, controlled the countryside. The Roman sources term these bands as ‘robbers,’ but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority.

This process was not restricted to ‘Roman’ landlords. It was true also of German chiefs, many of whom were ‘Roman’ generals or federate chieftains. The distinction between ‘Roman’ and ‘German’ itself was disappearing as the cultures merged.

Germanic bodyguards were used by Emperors and it could be as much that they were there, not just for their violent tendency, but because they were (usually) neutral and exotic. (They looked different and talked differently).* This could have been as much the reason some British elites used them as any other … although the fact Constantine III may have taken all the best units (not all) with him to the Continent in his bid for the western Empire may have something to do with it. However, just as happened in the Empire, your bodyguard could turn against you. (Interesting that the emperor Augustus didn’t dismiss his bodyguard, but put them on an island out of harms way* just as the Britons are supposed to have done with the ‘Saxons’ on the Isle of Thanet. (But see THIS blog).


The question comes as to how a provincial force would (or could) operate in Sub Roman Britain, especially if the likes of Higham and Dark are right and we had both ‘tribal’ (‘Celtic’) king based kingdoms (in the west and north) and more civil and military civitates in the Midlands and east, at the same time? How do you get powerful kings and their warbands to work under an ‘outside’ commander? The other question is, how would they be ‘paid’? (Higham’s theory not withstanding that this civil zone was under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suzerainty or Chris Wickham‘s theory on a greatly fragmented Britain).

The answer to the first question could be that they would probably need to function, in some way at least, modeled on the Late Roman army system. (This, of course, being complicated by the Late Roman Empire’s use of barbarian federates who fought in the own ways). Whether they followed what militarily changes had been going on on the Continent is another matter, and their system may have been an old fashioned one, or a mixture of British and Roman. It may also depend on the part of the old diocese that was in question. If we take northern Britannia first, this could have seen an overall commander in charge of the various forces/warbands that occupied/re-occupied the still existing forts there when they were needed to come together as a combined force. This dux could have either been some over-king (or the equivalent) or a general in the employ of an over-king (as envisaged by Ken Dark). If this over-king had illusions of old imperial Roman grandeur he just might have done the latter. However, if this was the case he may have had to come from a ‘wealthier’ region of the north where surplus grain could be grown, such as the Yorkshire Plain. The old legions of the north had to rely on the southern grain regions to feed the amount of men that were there, though that number would be greatly reduced by this time.

We must also keep in mind, as discussed by Alex Woolf in ‘Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval’ (2003, p360), that kings of Gildas’s time – generally thought to be writing in the first half of the 6th century by all but Higham – in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) and before may not have functioned in the same way as later, Late 6th century and onward kings did and Gildas’s berated five kings of western Britannia may not be representative of those further east or in the north. Nor should the poetry of the 6th century bards Aneirin and Taliesin of the ‘Heroic Age’ be seen as showing how earlier or more Romanised ‘armies’ functioned. Woolf wonders if the other leaders Gildas isn’t happy with (but doesn’t mention by name) in these Romanised regions are the iudex mentioned by him:

Reges habet Britannia, sed tyrannos; judices habet, sed impios —“kings Britain has, but tyrants; judges she has, but wicked ones” (DEB, §27)

… if they are not one and the same as Gildas later says the kings also act as judges. Higham thinks these leaders were the rectores, speculatores and duces (more on this later).

The question often arises as to why use feoderati and bucellarii when you could use your own indigenous people? There are two answers: 1) Using, what has been termed the Gurkha Syndrome by military sociologist C.H. Enloe, you chose the most feared warriors to deal with the feared enemy, just as the British used the Gurkhas, and ‘Saxons’ were certainly feared. 2) Contrary to public perception, mercenaries are actually more likely to fight because that is their chosen profession, unlike some ‘levyman’ plucked from the fields. It also means you can keep them active for longer as they don’t have to farm. This is not to mention that mercenaries were very often put at the front, to save a kingdom’s own warriors.*

The more attractive alternative (and one perhaps borne out by the archaeology) might be that the various civitates and/or kingdoms that made up a province had to supply the men when needed for a combined force. Or, they were there to support a provincial army by only having to supplement a smaller group of feoderati and/or bucellarii that were the dux’s personal troop. This latter scenario might have been more acceptable, as any general with a large army could have become a threat himself. This would see him with his own smaller unit, or field army, for deal with raiding and the like, and supplemented by a combined large force for set battles. If this is how a historical Arthur did function it would be somewhat of an irony, especially if we add the possibility that he was of mix Hibernian (Gaelic) and British blood (More on this below or see THIS blog). Imagine: an Hiberno-British Arthur fighting with Germanic/Scandinavian/British/Hibernian mercenaries! Sacrilege! Yet perfectly normal for the time.

To need a provincial army, of course, would require there being a large enough enemy or enemies to warrant it, with a large enough border to protect, perhaps covering more than one civitas/kingdom. Or, maybe, it could be used to bring more force to bear at a particular point along that border than could be supplied by a single civitas/kingdom army? Is this restructuring what Ambrosius Aurelianus started and what enable the Britons to fight back?

How would they be paid? Well, they would be paid in kind, in some way; certainly not with money, except old coinage to melt down. They could also have been given food, metals or a share of any booty. They may have been promised land, either during service or after it.


Most Roman emperors didn’t lead from the front (although, of course, some did) unlike the Hellenistic kings, like Alexander, who did fight at the front.* How did the British kings in the 5th century see themselves? like their ancient British forefathers or like mini Roman emperors who used generals or what the later Welsh would call the pen teulu (captain of the kings retinue)? Could have been a mixture of course.


The Late Roman army had to change its tactics in the 5th century and learned that large pitched battles were not always the answer and smaller guerrilla type operations were the way to go against the northern barbarians. A type of warfare that had been used against them for centuries. It’s this kind of warfare that Collingwood envisaged Arthur undertaking as a comes with a field army against his enemies, who very often may not have been united themselves. It’s always possible that a commander of a provincial force would fight this way at times, as set battles with one large army against another is not always the answer. There would have to be offensive tactics used with surprise attacks on strategic points. Arthur’s supposed battles, many at rivers, may have been just this. Cutting off supply routes or attacking places such as salt production sites or mineral mines could also have been a method used.

(* My thanks to the Ancient Warfare podcast: War as a livelihood – Mercenaries in the Ancient world - of 04/03/09 for this information.)

In Part Three we’ll look at what Gildas called rectores. These could be provincial governors and I’ll explore if this is what Gildas meant by the term, as well as looking at the five provinces that made up the old Roman diocese of Britannia and the various theories as to some of them still existing in Gildas’s time.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to comments, thoughts … and corrections,



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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Three

This blog is going through a rethink and rework as of 12.11.11. New material or changes will be in bold type.


What exactly was going on in those supposed British enclaves in the east … if that’s what they were? Were they also at peace? How would the ‘Saxons’ react in those areas that surround these enclaves after a defeat or defeats? It may depend on the treaty agreed. But what would stop them later on, after 20 years or so? These enclaves either had some serious military power or some kind of ‘friendship’ with the ‘Saxons’ There are theories that the Britons did indeed take back ‘Saxon’ territory.  John Morris puts it forward but so does Professor Howard Wiseman (who may be a physicist but his Early Medieval studies have been quoted by Snyder, Higham and Halsall).

For Howard it may be to do with the later ‘Saxon’ expansion and victories at Bedcanford (identified as Bedford) and other sites in 571, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ACS). These are generally thought to have been British enclaves taken by a newly formed West Saxons kingdom. However, this theory puts forward that after Badon (or even before) the British regained territory and this territory went beyond Bedford. Howard has given me permission to use two maps he created.


Britain c. 530AD


Britain c. 530AD (Based on map by Howard Wiseman)

(Maps used with kind permission of Professor Howard Wiseman.The page containing it can be found at )

Howard explains MAP ONE thusly (with reference numbers removed):

“[...] this map descends into speculation in showing precise political boundaries in Britain at the time of Gildas. However, in many of these I have been guided by the work of the respected archaeologist and historian Ken Dark. I have also been guided by the distribution of archaeological sites [...] The names given to the Brittonic states are those of the corresponding Roman civitates when these are attested by post-Roman inscription, or by Gildas. When Roman names are not so attested, a Brittonic name is used. Some of these (Reged, Gwent, Glevissig) are well-attested in the early Middle Ages, while others (Calchvynydd, Barroc, Ebrauc) are only attested in later documents [...]”

On MAP TWO (with reference numbers removed):

“The above map was scanned from the 2000 book by Dark, which shows 5th and 6th century Germanic cemeteries in Britain. Of these I have erased those cemeteries which came into use only in the later 6th century, according to the maps of Morris. Then I have added Roman towns, villas, and forts for which there is archaeological or literary material indicating probable occupation after 490. The data for these sites are taken from the detailed descriptions in the 1998 book by Snyder, occasionally supplemented by Dark. An example of such archaeological evidence is the presence of coins of Emperor Anastasius (491-518), or datable Mediterranean pottery. An example of reliable literary evidence for occupation is that for Luguvalium (Carlisle), which still had a functioning Roman aqueduct and fountain in the late 7th century. These Germanic and Brittonic sites thus should give a picture of Gildas’ partitioned Britain (c. 530). As the map shows, Brittonic and Germanic sites do fall into reasonably distinct zones. There are a handful of small Germanic cemeteries in what I have judged to be Brittonic zones, and one Roman town, Lincoln (Lindum colonia), with evidence for continued occupation in what appears to be an Anglian zone.”

To read more, visit his web page, linked above. The one thing to note about these maps is, unlike Morris and Dark, they don’t take into account the gaps in settlements and cemeteries, so may give a false picture of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ rule or the true spread of their cultures. But, as Howard says in a personal correspondence, “I was aiming for the smoothest boundaries that would leave (more or less) all the Germanic evidence on one side and all the Romano-British evidence on the other”. They also don’t show areas that wouldn’t be up for settlement by either side, such as dense forrest, heath land or heavy clay areas. Possibly even areas that wouldn’t be settled on because of some superstition or another.  (I’ll deal with this later).  Another thing to note is where Howard has ‘Hill Forts Common‘ he means hillforts occupied at this time and not all Iron Age hillforts pe se. Most hillforts in what is now the borderlands (the Marches) of England and Wales were re-occupied in the Late  4th to Early 5th centuries, but it’s hard to find evidence for this occupation going beyond this.

Back to these late 6th century battles. Howard, quoting from the ASC, says:

“ASC for 571 (perhaps invented later to justify West Saxon territorial claims) Cuthwulf fought with the Britons at Bedcanford (Bedford), and took four towns, Lenbury, Aylesbury, Benson and Ensham. And this same year he died.” – (Howard’s brackets, not mine).

We know where Bedford (Biedcanforda) is … or we assume we know. Lenbury (Liggeanburh) is thought to be Limbury in the suburbs of Luton, although there is a Lenborough southwest of Bedford and northwest of Aylesbury. Aylesbury (Æglesburh) is southwest of Bedford (I used to work there). Benson (Bensingtun) is actually called Bensington and is just south of Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire and Ensham (Egonesham) is generally thought to be Eynsham, just northwest of Oxford. The first question is, if Cuthwulf, who supposedly led these battles, was West Saxon, what was he doing starting his battles in the east and moving west? The answer could be the ASC got the order wrong and Bedford was the last battle. However, it could be that he was from the east and pushed west, taking over West Saxon territory. We’ll never know, but it does make sense of the progression.

So, as opposed to a British enclave based on the Chilterns (later to become Saxon Cilternsætna) and one in the Bedford area, they postulate a ‘bulge’ or ‘corridor’ that was either never under ‘Saxon’ occupation in the first place or was was won back and extended from the Thames Valley, up the Chiltern Hills to and beyond Bedford before or after Badon. This would, of course, cut off some main lines of communication, including part of Watling Street, Icknield Way, the Fosse Way and some river basins from the ‘enemy’. This ‘bulge’ would almost reach St. Albans. Actually, these maps encompass St. Albans, which can’t be right if the shrines referred to (or one of them) was there … and one would think St. Albans’ shrine was. Once again I’m indebted to Howard for pointing me to the following …

“It has been commonly stated that Gildas here, when he talks of martyrs and the unhappy partition, implies that Verulamium and Carleon held shrines which were deprived to the Britons because of English occupation. A more careful reading of this passage shows that he implies no such thing. When he says “I refer to St Alban …, Aaron and Julius … and the others …”, he is clearly referring to martyrs (the history of which he was discussing before being briefly side-tracked into the state of Britain at his time). If he had been referring to their “graves or places where they suffered”, he would have said “I refer to Verulamium …, Carleon, … and other places”. Thus the passage simply implies that there was a partition with the English, and that they evidently held large parts of the country, but it contains no specific geographical information on which parts.”


Howard added: “Regarding Verulamium and St Albans shrine, I haven’t had any luck convincing Chris Gidlow of this [...]”

Could they be right? The archæology (as far as I’m aware) doesn’t show ‘Saxon’ occupation (or culture) to the west of St Albans. If anyone has information to the contrary I’d be very interested to hear about it.

A look at the OS map of Roman Britain shows there are two Roman roads going east/west they could have pushed back on after Badon, if they did: that which goes from Bath (or Cirencester) via Silchester to London and the other northerly route that goes from Cirencester via Bicester to St. Albans. (Another goes north-south from Bicester via Dorchester-on-Thames to Silchester). Between these east/west routes lies the Thames Valley and the Chiltern Hills including the ancient trackway of the Icknield Way.

To have taken the region around Bedford as well may have meant heading north on the Bicester-Towcester road. This push could have joined isolated British enclaves. It makes absolute sense that the Britons would capitalize on a victory if they could, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough to comment on the details and the archæology that Morris, Dark or Howard put forward as possible evidence. It does make sense to these later battles defeating the Britons and the taking of the Chilterns, which was obviously in British hands, where no enclaves but a whole British swathe of territory. But, it also make equal sense that they were enclaves that the ‘Saxons’ strangled. If they were never ‘Saxon’ at this point then it puts a different complexion on the whole debate with the Britons always having the upper hand, as argued by Dark.

Another Theory

However, I will give another possible theory of the fight back that could explain this ‘corridor’ and the ‘peace’. Once Ambrosius started the resistance, a British rebellion began to happen, just like those in the Middle East at the moment. Anti ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (politcal, religious and cultural elements) could have been inspired to break out from their enclaves, or even within ‘Saxon’ regions. This could have happened in regions we’re not even aware of. If Ambrosius could have achieved some sought of unity, or, at the least, coordination, then these, along with pushes from the west and north, would have stretched and shaken the enemies.

Pushes from the west wouldn’t, of course, have been on a ‘front’ but through lines of communication: roads, tracks, river basins. This may not have pushed all elements ‘back’ but turned them into isolated enclaves whilst rejoining British (cultural) areas, making it harder for the enemy to created confederacies and limiting their travel. This, in turn, may have created refuges heading east. The Britons could also have placed their own rulers over some of the enemy territory taken, which may add to the idea of an extended peace. So the politcal map may not have looked like Howard’s above, but like the one on below. I’ve kept St Albans and London as an enclave but, as discussed above, it may not have been:


Britain Post Badon (Mak) - Based on map by Howard Williams

This is just a very rough guess. There may have been more British enclaves in the east and southeast.  (In fact, Professor Ken Dark gives even more British areas than I do in the Midlands, based on the amount of inhumation and mixed inhumation/cremation areas: that’s the squares and star symbols). I’ve added known woodland (although there may have been more) in green and marsh/fen land in blue. I also overlaid a map of the clay soil areas of Britain (not shown here) and, with heavy clays in the Midlands, you could see why there may not have been much settlement there by either side. (Source: )

I’d like to do a lengthy quote from the paper, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval (Rural) by Keith Wade ( ). Date unknown.

“The large apparently unpopulated areas [of the east], especially in west Essex and Hertfordshire, have traditionally been explained as forest, but this may be too simplistic. There is an ongoing debate on the extent of post Roman woodland regeneration, but environmental evidence suggests that, at least in some areas, there was no large-scale woodland regeneration. The ongoing ‘extent of woodland’ debate is linked to the ‘surviving Romano-British population’ debate. The lack of Early Anglo-Saxon sites in west Essex, the Hunts part of Cambridgeshire, and Hertfordshire, has been explained as indicating a surviving Romano-British political entity with a small (initially) Germanic settlement ‘living in controlled circumstances on “Roman” settlements’ (Drury and Rodwell 1980), with surviving Romano-British populations that are invisible archaeologically. Others have explained the gaps as more to do with the difficulties of finding Early Anglo-Saxon sites [...] [Williams’] conclusions, however, were still that ‘there are signs that some land also went out of cultivation even on the lighter soils’ and ‘there was clearly a considerable contraction of land under cultivation in the post Roman period, with woodland growing up over abandoned farmland on the interfluve soils’ but that even ‘on the interfluves’ there is ‘some evidence of Saxon occupation, although whether such settlements were involved in the arable exploitation of these difficult soils is perhaps more doubtful’ (Williamson 1986, 127).”

I’d love to hear from anyone knowledgeable on the interpretation of both this evidence and the archæology for all these areas.  

(Since writing this I have read more on the work of Chris Wickham, Guy Halsall, Ken Dark and re-read Francis Pryor, I realise even more the complexity and varying interpretations of the data. However, what is clear, is how politically fragmented and lacking in elites most of the east appears and how even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sites, such as Mucking in Essex, are being reassessed).

I’m also not sure if this ‘bulge’ theory would harmonise with what Gildas tell us. One would also have to wonder what would convince the Cornovii (or Dobunni) to attack beyond their borders … if they did. The answer might be simpler for the Dobunni as they may have been trying to take some of their lost land back. The Cornovii, however may have wanted revenge for attacks on Chester and Bassa (if these Arthurian battles are, indeed, where some think them to be and if they ever happened). More land would also be a good reason. I think that these reasons would be above an altruistic one of ‘saving Britannia’, although saving themselves and their portion of their province might have had something to do with it. (Interestingly, Dark wonders if these two civitates are ones that were under Roman type administration rather than monarchy at this time).

There would bound to be different factions wanting different things, including some who might think, “The ‘Saxons’ are their problem. Let them sought it out!” Those ‘Saxon’ regions in the Midlands that found themselves isolated  (in this hypothesis) may have swapped sides to survive. (Plenty of evidence of that in history). The Britons could have shown, through their power and their action and, maybe, even through bluff by announcing how united they were though they may not have been in reality, that they were a force to be reckoned with.

None of this takes into account Nick Higham’s theory that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were the ones who had the upper hand after Badon and his assessment that this battle happened (and Gildas wrote) much earlier.

(See comments below)


We also have no idea what sea power either side(s) had. If the Brits could, somehow, have taken control of at least some stretches of the southern and eastern coast, they may have been able to disrupt not only supplies, but immigration and export, for a while at least. There’s probably not such a strong argument for this, but it’s worth considering.

In the next blog we’ll look at just who the ‘enemies’ might have been, starting with the ‘West Saxons’/’Geuissae’ and the ‘West Angles’.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,



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In Search of the ‘Original’ Arthur – Part Nine

UPDATED 1.6.12


(I was hoping this would be the last blog in this series, so I could end on that auspicious ‘Celtic’ number 9 (3×3), but I’m afraid it’s become even longer!)

There are alternatives, of course, to those regions outlined in the previous blogs. One is put forward as a possibility by Christopher Gidlow in his latest book Revealing King Arthur.  Beside being an excellent rebuttal to the likes of Green, Higham and Dumville, his argument (or one of them, as he forwards several) that there could have been an Arthur based in the north of Britannia is well thought out.  (Of course, he’s not the first to have this theory).

Basing his proposal on evidence given by such credible names as Dark, Wilmott and even Dumville he shows that the north – that is the provinces of Britannia Secunda and possibly Valentia (see THIS blog) – could have survived under Roman military type rule for quite a long time.  Those Roman frontier troops left behind wouldn’t all have decided to take up farming; some would have set up their own petty kingdoms or decided to make a living out of protecting the locals, many of whom had married them.  (This is if the Romans hadn’t left the protection to the locals). This may have amounted to extortion in some cases.

The following quotes are from a paper called ‘The Post-Roman archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall AD 400-1000’ from Durham Archaeology, about the Roman forts of BANNA (Birdoswald – 1), VINDOLANDA (Chesterholm – 2), ARBEIA (South Shields – 3) and VINOVIA (Binchester – 4 -not on the Wall but 30 miles south of it):

“ [...] The south granary was clearly reused, possibly as a hall building, with the hearths at the western end provided for the leading figures in the fort community. If the timber structures were the functional successors of this building, as seems likely, the TPQ for the first is c 388-95. As the Theodosian coin was worn, however, this could be assumed to be later, perhaps c 420. An estimated life of 50 years for each building would bring the close of occupation to c 520.”

A very interesting closing date of occupation.  If the information about the Battle of Camlan is correct, and it happened 21 years after Badon, that could place Arthur’s fall between 511 and  521, depending on whose dating you go with. Could be a complete coincidence of course.

Though Birdoswald and South Shields are the only detailed sequences on the Wall line itself, there is another similar sequence in the Wall hinterland at Binchester (Ferris and Jones 1996, 58). These sequences clearly demonstrate continuity of occupation within at least some Wall forts beyond the conventionally understood end of the Roman period in Britain, and into the fifth century. Further, the character of this occupation clearly changes during the fifth century.

Also at Vindolanda the early Christian tombstone of Brigomaglos dating to c. 500 indicates a late Roman / early post-Roman Christian presence (Jackson 1982, 62), as does other recently discovered artefactual evidence.”

It’s worth reading more about what Tony Wilmott of English Heritage himself has to say.  The following is from an article that appeared on the BritArch website:

Roman commanders Dark Age kings

“[...] It may be that the kind of commander-patronus attested by the large commanders’ houses in the late forts continued to be an important figure as the 5th century went on. These men may have been of sufficient influence to become imperceptibly more like chieftains in control of warbands than Roman commanders. Such an idea would explain the use of the hall as a centre to the settlement. Birdoswald may have become the centre of a small petty kingdom indistinguishable from others with totally different antecedents north of the Wall, or to the west of Britain.”

Birdoswald Roman Fort

Both Christopher Gidlow and, more surprisingly, Francis Prior, have commented that if ever there was a place crying out for an Arthur, it was Birdoswald.

(There could be evidence of many more post-Roman forts on the Wall, many not having their finds published yet, and I’d point anyone wanting to know more to August Hunt’s article on the subject at Robert Vermaat’s Faces of Arthur website. August himself puts forward nearby Etterby (once known as Arthuriburgum) as the site of Arthur’s ‘court)’.

As another proponent for an Hiberno-British or Irish Arthur, Gidlow realises that such positions in the north could have lead to Arthur either rising to a command position or inheriting one.  His ethnic background wouldn’t have mattered a jot, just as those around him could have been descended from any number of ‘nationalities’.   By this point they all would be, essentially, Britons.  Of course, some of these areas would eventually have morphed into kings and kingdoms, as mentioned above.

One does have to wonder how a powerful Hiberno-Briton might have come about here, especially since military service was hereditary; as the same became with later kingdoms in the area.  Historians might be able to leave it floating, but for a story or screenplay you need to have more than that.  If Gaelic blood came from his father, then how would he become part of this military society?  There are only a few possible Hiberno-British units that we know of: those derived from the Attacotti after the so called Barbarian Conspiracy of 369. The Attacotti (Atticoti, Attacoti,Atecotti, Atticotti, Ategutti) are an enigmatic group of Britons (if, indeed they were Britons) as no one can be sure where they were from.  Most place them in the Western Isles, but there is an argument put forward by Philip Rance (‘Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: The Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain’, 2001) that they were a sept of the Déisi of Demetia and known as the aichechthúatha (‘client people’), so would have been in southwestern Wales. (There are counter arguments to this on linguistic grounds, which I won’t go in to).

(For further thoughts on the Attacotti, see THIS blog).

An earlier idea I had for a screenplay (and one to which I have recently returned) had this Arthur’s father serving with the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani (or the Honoriani Atecotti seniores) in Gaul.  After the unit is virtually decimated and his father killed, whilst supporting Riothamus, the remnants flee to Amorica. The 15 year old Arthur then ends up in Dumnonia and the story goes on from there. (In case anyone is wondering … no, the Attecotti didn’t have a dragon as a shield pattern).

So how might Arthur as an Hibernian-Briton be on the Wall? Not because of being Hibernian, but because it appears to have been a closed system?  Well, he could have joined as a mercenary or part of a bucellarii, fighting under a commander, if they were short of numbers.  If his father had his own fianna warband (which would make him a ri fianna), they could have given their services to one of these groups on the Wall and, eventually, stayed with them.  Alternatively, Arthur could have been a ri fianna and done this with his own warband.   If his Hiberno blood was from his mother, the answer is simpler, of course.  However, if Eigr was actually his mother’s name, I’ve yet to find an Irish name that could have sounded anything like it.

(For further thoughts on what military position Arthur might have had, see THIS blog).


The above could take us back to the Campbell genealogy one of which shows a descent to Coel Hen, thought by some to have been the last Roman Dux Britanniarum (‘Duke of the [Five] Britains’) who was militarily in-charge of the Wall area and the northern provinces.  However, no other Coeling genealogy shows Arthur as one of the descendants.

Cunedda’s northern battles

But Arthur also is given a connection to the Coelings via Cunedda who (supposedly) married Coel’s daughter Guaul.  This sounds a little bit suspect as the name means ‘Wall’ … although, I believe it can also mean ‘blood‘.  He may, instead, have given his support to Coel and the Wall … if there was, indeed, any connection.  The poem Marwnad Cunedda (‘The Death-son of Cunedda’) attributed to the 6th century bard Taliesin, but probably a later composer, has Cunedda fighting at Caer Weir (2), somewhere in County Durham just south of the Wall, and Caer Lliwelydd/Ligualid (Carlisle), Roman LVGVVALIVM (1): practically on the Wall.  (Interestingly, this poem makes no mention of Gwynedd!).


You get those who, understandably, try to give Arthur a sphere of activity.  Many can’t accept that there would be a Britannia (and beyond) wide ranging ‘commander’ as Gidlow and others have suggested so they look for battles just in the north, or the east and the south … or just in Wales (Blake and Lloyd).

There is another possibility, beside the one that says these proposed wide ranging battles belong to different Arthurs or they were just made up.  That is that these battles belong to different times in his career, fighting alongside different kings.  This would see him, not as a Britannian Magister Militum, as forwarded by Gidlow, but a ‘general for hire’ figure with his own large retinue.  He would be a mercenary in effect, fighting for whichever province or civitas needed him.  As for him only fighting ‘Saxons’ as the Historia Brittonum seems to imply, I tried to show in my ‘Arthurian’ poem that it would only take one mention of them for us to think these are only group(s) he fought. He could have battled against every one of the various ethnic peoples of these islands.

Even if we could identify a region where he was from it may give us no indication as to where he fought his battles or who were his British allies and enemies.  There’s the added problem of not even knowing what his status was: high king? king? prince? chieftain? general? Magister Militum?  Each of these could give us different options. We don’t know the state of Britannia and how fragmented of united it was. Were the Britannia Secunda and Valentia provinces still in existence? If so, were they allies and did they see themselves as part of Britannia still? Were Britannia Prima and the northern provinces (if Valentia was northern) allies? Would they come to one another’s aid? Each answer give potentially different outcomes.

Could an Hiberno-British Arthur have been at the Wall? It appears as good a place as any of the other sites and I can see why many favour it above all others. Its downside (for an Hiberno-British Arthur) is it isn’t in an Hiberno-British region; but the possible reasons for him being there, outlined above, could answer this.

In the next blog I want to briefly look at the Historia Britonnum and the Annales Cambriae and see what light they might shed on an Hiberno-British Arthur.

Thanks for reading,



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