Tag Archives: Howard Wiseman

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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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Two

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


How much would Gildas know of what was going on around his ‘province’ and the old diocese in general? (That’s if the general assumption that Gildas wrote in the southwest is correct. E. A. Thompson thinks Gildas was from the north or northwest Midlands – ‘Gildas and the History of Britain‘, Britannia, Vol. 10. (1979), pp. 203-226.). He seems to have known what the kings of what may still have been the province of Britannia Prima were up to, which is what leads most to think that is where he was, but he must have received news from the east. How reliable or accurate that news was (both about the kings and of the east) is another matter. What he heard seems to have been, “all was mostly quite on the Eastern Front(s).” (Yes, I know there wasn’t actually an ‘Eastern Front’ and, yes, I know it may not have been completely quiet).

He also seems to have heard, or knew first hand, that you couldn’t get to some of the saint’s shrines because you couldn’t go through ‘Saxon’ territory … or to do a detour was just too far. (However, there are varying debates about where these shrines might have been.) As Higham points out, Gildas also seems to have still been rather worried about said ‘Saxons’, so they could not have been totally subdued … or, perhaps, Gildas suffered from paranoia! Maybe it was just those ‘Saxons’ closest to him that he was worried about, which coloured his view of the whole country. (If he wrote in the southwest!). Or was it that he did write in the 5th century and not the 6th and he knew of Sextus Julius Africanus (c.220AD) prediction that the Second Coming would happen by 500 A.D.?

An alternative view, that I can think of, is that pilgrims wouldn’t go to these places because they had to pass through the lands’ of these filthy heathens (even though some may have been Christians). What a warrior or large warbands would think or do would be another story. Or it was, indeed, as Higham supposes that ‘Saxon’ law applied here and you could simply be enslaved.

On this question of Gildas’s perception of the situation, Stuart Laycock, in his book ‘Britannia: The Failed State’ (2009), made a pertinent point. Many have criticized his Bosnian analogy (although he gives many more ancient ones) but what he says does ring true and should be heeded:

“It was commonplace, for instance, during the 1990s, for writers to describe Bosnia as totally ravaged by war, yet in reality there were, throughout the war, large parts that were physically untouched by shell or bullet (though still, of course, affected by the more general results of the war, such as the collapse of the economy). Equally, one could enter a village that had been described as ‘shelled to pieces’ only to find that, yes, it had been shelled, but most of the buildings were, while scarred, still substantially intact and many were not even touched. It has been the same situation in Iraq recently.” (p199)

Maybe there was a case of ‘Saxon-whispers’ at work in Gildas’s day? There are also many instances in history of both sides claiming victory, to save face if nothing else. Since he tells us he wasn’t relying on written sources then what he knew of the situation was by word of mouth, and we all know how unreliable that can be. He may have been privy to the meetings of the provincial council, if there was one, but if he was, that probably ended after his work was published … unless he did so anonymously! Even so, would he know the situation in the far east or north of the diocese? The alternative is that, if Gildas did write in the north, he really wasn’t well informed about the south. Thompson believes Gildas’s writing in the north is what gave him the relative safety of chastising kings that were too close to him to do something about shutting him up! However, Thompson then says Gildas may have written in Chester, very close to two of the kings he berates!


Near contemporary sources do say that ‘Angles’ were going back to the continent because of over population.

Adam of Bremen (531 entry)

“The Saxon people [...] leaving the Angles of Britain, urged on by the need and desire to find new homes, sailed to Hatheloe on the German coast, when king Theodoric (511-34) of the Franks was at war with the Thuringian leader Hermenfred [...] Theodoric sent envoys to these Saxons, whose leader was called Hadugat [...] and promised them homes for settlement in return for victory.”


“The island of Britain is inhabited by three very populous nations, each having one king over it. And the names of these nations are the Angles, the Frisians and the Britons, the last being named from the island itself. And so great appears to be the populations of these nations that every year they emigrate thence in large companies and go to the land of the Franks. And the Franks allow them to settle in the part of their land which appears to be more deserted, and by this means they say that they are winning over the island. Thus it actually happened that not long ago the king of the Franks, in sending some of his intimates on an embassy to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, sent with them some of the Angles, thus seeking to establish his claim that this island was ruled by him. And he [Justinian] never ceased pouring out great gifts of money to all the barbarians [...] as far as the inhabitants of the island of Britain.”

(Quote source: Howard Wiseman: )

So they obviously felt they couldn’t ‘go west young man’, or didn’t want to. Of course, we must consider that it may not just have been Britons who were forcing them out. It could also be a case of immigrants coming in just as the Britons were gaining the upper hand, or that the ‘Angles’ simply didn’t want any more immigrants.


Something may have been stopping the ‘Saxons’ expanding west (and north) but also something may have been stopping Britons taking back and expanding east if we listen to Gildas’s words about the shrines. It’s almost as if an invisible wall had been built between them … or so it would appear.  Were the ‘Saxons’ paying tribute to the Brits in repayment for them not taking back territory or going on yet more reprisal raids? Had the Britons taken back more territory in the east than we think but not enough as far as Gildas was concerned? Higham’s reading of Gildas says the opposite: the western Britons were paying tribute to the ‘Saxons’.  (More on this later).

If Ken Dark and Roger White are right, it could be Britannia Prima that was holding and expanding that ‘front’ eastwards … militarily and/or culturally. Christopher Gidlow (‘Revealing King Arthur’, 2010) sees a possible powerful confederacy between the Cornovii and the Dobunni evident in the archæology (I wouldn’t know) that could have helped win Badon and such a force could have manned or patrolled (parts of) such a ‘front’ if it was necessary … the great Midland Forrest of Arden probably helping. Higham, however, see the Cornovii as completely lacking in power (apart from, possibly, Wroxeter), hence why he see them be tribute payer to eastern ‘Anglo-Saxons’. I’ll explore this and where that ‘eastern front’ or ‘fronts’ might have been in the next blog.

Higham on the existence of provinces:

“Even provinces may have continued in some sense, since contemporaries still described Britain in terms of its Roman provinces in the later fifth century, or even beyond.”

… and with regards to the east …

“If we are to model Dark Age territoriality, it should be envisaged as socially constructed, and both multi-layered and dynamic, with the assumption that both accumulation and sub-division will have occurred contemporaneously, in bewildering patterns and often at great speed.”

Of course, any long term British resistance would take coordination, cooperation and ‘financing’. Yet we have those ‘civil wars’ going on and no large force (if there was one) could be mobilized for very long. It would also be thought that any territory gained would be settled; but that may depend on exactly what kind of territory it was. Civil wars would not be constant but any weakening in an alliance could have proven fateful. What we’re not told is where these ‘civil wars’ had taken place or how far they were from the ‘Saxon’ areas.They’re most likely going to be on civitates/kingdom boundaries (although there must have been septs within these areas that could have been vying for power) and Stuart Laycock has forwarded some possible conflict zones.

Of course, if the British had some kind of ‘scorched earth’ policy in the aftermath of Badon in some regions, this could have a long term effect. It might also explain the massive ratio of cemeteries to settlements, but the latter’s lack of numbers could be just down to later agriculture or that they just haven’t been found yet.

This is where a partially independent commander/general (or commanders/generals) would be very useful I would have thought … although potentially dangerous to any British kings or rulers. Such ‘battle leaders’ might be best sourced from outside the region. (But see THIS blog). However, what would happen to territory they took or retook? I suppose that would depend on who they were fighting alongside and where and what the territory was. They could be refuges and their exiled leaders from those distant areas now in enemy hands, or the leaders of a civitas that had some of its borderland taken by the enemy. However, these commanders and their men would have to be ‘paid’ in some way and land might have been part of that bargain. The problem would come once a relative peace was arrived at.

What do these commanders and their men do then? Would the province (or civitas) be willing to keep their services? What would their role be? Some Early Medieval UN policing units? I can’t see that somehow. Ruling some taken territory? Possibly. Taking there services elsewhere, even to the continent? Not impossible.

In the next blog I’ll look at some possible alternatives as to what was going on in Britannia and where that ‘front’ might have been.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,



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