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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.

BATTLE OF THE CHILTERN BULGE?

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.

MAP ONE

Britain c. 530AD

MAP TWO

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 http://www.ict.griffith.edu.au/wiseman/DECB/DECBbestest.html )

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.”

See http://www.ict.griffith.edu.au/wiseman/DECB/DECBps.html#Martyrs

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:

MAK’S MAP

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: http://www.soilyourself.org/2011/02/soils-of-england-soils-of-great-britain.html )

I’d like to do a lengthy quote from the paper, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval (Rural) by Keith Wade ( http://www.eaareports.org.uk/Assessment%20post-Roman%20rural.pdf ). 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)

HELLO SAILOR!

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,

Mak

 

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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part One

INTRODUCTION

(Updated 2.1.12)

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 uswho 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).

Higham:

“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.

Higham:

“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).

Higham again:

“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,

Mak

 

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