Anglo-Saxon (500-1000)

Arthur and the Celtic Decline

As the raiders confidently advanced, Germanus raised his staff and three times shouted “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia”. The whole army joined in the shout and the hills rang and echoed with their cries. The enemy column panicked, thinking that the very hills were falling on them threw away their weapons and fled, many drowning in the nearby river in their haste to get away.

We now return to Vortigern who, having disastrously invited Hengist and Horsa to Britain was virtually deposed by his son Vortimer who was the real leader in the ensuing battle of Aylsford where some success was had in driving out the Saxons but at the cost of his brother Catigem’s life. The battle of Crayford in 457AD however, was a disaster with the Saxons reportedly killing four thousand Britons; the remainder abandoned the defence of Kent and fled to London. Some flavour of the time, plus the alignments and intrigues of rulers can be deduced from Vortigern, having been sidelined by his son, married Rowena, the daughter of Hengist. Seeing a threat from Vortimer, she persuades Vortigern to have his son poisoned and to resume his own rule which continued until 480AD. His reign heralded yet more success to the invading Saxons with Vortigern either unable or unwilling to make a strong stand against them.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle cites many invasions and battles during this period. In 466AD, a great battle was fought between Hengist, Horsa and the Britons, called Welsh by the invaders (that being a Saxon word meaning “foreigner”) at a place called Wippedesfleot. During this battle, twelve Welsh Ealdormen were killed, plus one of the invading commanders called Wipped. It is likely that the battle site was named in his honour. The Chronicle goes on to relate that these invasions were clearly unacceptable to many of the indigenous population, among which was a certain Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman Briton who, with his brother Uther, was smuggled abroad to Britanny during the upheaval following the murder of Constans. In his Historia Brittonum, Nennius again writes that Ambrosius was the son of Constantine, had “worn the purple” and was thus rightful heir to Britain.

He returned to Britain, landing at Totness, and raised his own army to oppose both Vortigern and the Anglo Saxons. It is known that he fought against Vortigern’s General Vitolinus at a placed named Guoloph, thought to be near Wallop in the modern Somerset and, having won, went on to attack and subsequently kill Vortigern by burning him to death in a tower. He went on to capture and execute Hengist at what is now Conisburgh.

Nennius names Ambrosius as “king among all kings in the British nation” and goes on to state that he was given “the fortress with all the kingdoms in the western part of Britain” although it is not known how much of the land he actually ruled.  It is also known that in 495AD, his forces won a great victory over the Anglo Saxons at the battle of Mount Badon, thought to be in the region of Bath in Somerset, or near Liddington Castle near Badbury Wiltshire, and, as a result, according to the writer Gildas, stemmed the tide of invasion for over forty years.

This agrees with other sources who confirm that a relative peace existed between the two sides for many years after the battle. It must also be remembered that the writers of both sides would put history in a favourable light to themselves, thus, the Chronicle will relate many Saxon victories, but not defeats, whereas the native writers would place events in a manner advantageous to themselves.

The Chronicle states that the Saxons Cerdic and Cynric landed at  Cerdicesora (probably Calshot in Hampshire) in the year of the Baydon Hill battle 495AD. It relates that they fought the Welsh “on the same day”, Welsh being a common term for the native Britons, coming from the Saxon “waelisc” meaning foreigner or slave. A passage relating to 514AD reads virtually the same apart from the names of the leaders now named as Stuf and Wihtger. This and many other similarities are due to the form in which the Chronicle is written, being based on a nineteen year cycle used to calculate Easter dates. In a probable attempt to unite the warring factions Ambrosius appointed Vortigern’s third son Pascent as king of Buellt and Gwertheyrion. Pascent was clearly not content and in 501AD, arranged for Ambrosius to be poisoned by a renegade Saxon called Eoppa.

Perhaps this is the point at which we can get closest to the legend and actuality of the Arthurian stories. Uther, the brother of Ambrosius, was also his staunchest ally, fighting at his side throughout the campaigns launched by Ambrosius against the Anglo Saxons. He also commanded his brother’s forces in Ireland when an expedition was launched to subdue its wild inhabitants. He became king on the death of his brother and took the crown under the title Uther Pendragon after a dragon shaped comet that appeared in the sky at the time of his brother’s death.

He was a tireless leader spending his reign fighting against the Saxons and the Irish in the north from his base at Pendragon castle in Westmorland. He suffered heavy losses against the Angle Osla who, with his Jutish ally Octa, won a resounding victory against Uther at York, but Uther gathered fresh troops and turned the tables in his ensuing victory at Mount Damen.

He later travelled further north to help the Kings of Strathclyde in their struggles against the Scots. Legend has it that he fell in love with Ygerna or Igraine, wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall and tried to have the couple stay with him in London. The Duke, aware of Uther’s passion, took his wife back to Cornwall. Uther invaded the Duchy and persuaded his magician Merlin to transform him into the likeness of Gorlois and to magic him into Ygerna’s room at Tintagel castle. The result of this union was Arthur and in the Malory story “Le Morte D’Arthur”, he has to hand over the new born infant to Merlin to bring up “as he sees fit”. Following the death of Gorlois, Uther married Igraine and later gave Igraine’s sister Morgause to King Lot of Lothian.

Growing old and sick, Uther was again forced to go to the aid of his ally King Lot in his battle against the Northern Angles who were besieged in St Albans. He was successful, but the fleeing Angles poisoned the water supply and within a few days, Uther and many of his men were dead. It would be natural that Arthur succeeded to his father’s crown and indeed, Nennius states that Arthur became King of the Britons in 521AD at the age of fifteen and ruled for twenty one years before being killed in battle. The Chronicle also claims that his sister Anna married King Budicius of Britanny and, rather confusingly, later married Loth of Lodonesia who went on to become King of Norway.

It is of no surprise that most of the legends originate from early Welsh writing. With the Anglo Saxons having taken most of the country and the  natives pushed to the fringes, it is natural that Arthur’s name would be preserved by the people who most needed a saviour and many of the legends tell of him, not dead, but sleeping in a cave awaiting the call to rise again and drive out the invaders. The tales of the Round Table, Merlin, Morgan le Faye etc were all embroidered from scraps of old myths by the medieval writings of Malory. The tale of the sword Excaliber, for example, first appears in the tenth century in Robert de Boron’s tale “Merlin”, while the first mention of Camelot was by a French writer in the twelfth century.

Gildas adds his bit by bringing the battle of Mount Badon forward to 516AD and refers to Ambrosius Aurelianus as the victor. This is continued by St Bede the Venerable in his “Historia Ecclestica gentis Anglorum” written in 731AD, who states that the Baydon (or Badon) battle was fought in 493AD and again names Ambrosius as the victor. This Ambrosius is the probable prototype Arthur from a native point of view, while the invaders Aesc, son of Hengist, or Cerdic fulfil the similar heroic role in the Saxon version. Cerdic was certainly the founder of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex or the land of the West Saxons, while other invaders built the mini kingdoms of Sussex and Essex. The Jutes took over much of the south east and the Angles moving northward, the Southfolk in Suffolk and the Northfolk in Norfolk, all give testimony to how thorough was the takeover of the Celtic lands.

The writer Nennius states that Arthur fought twelve battles against the Saxons, the last being at a place called Camlann in 537AD, described by Tennyson as “the last dim, weird battle of the west”, where he and his half brother Mordred were killed. One of the Roman forts on Hadrian’s Wall was named Cambloganna, meaning “crooked glen” which historians believe translates to Camlan. If this was indeed the site of the battle it is more likely that his opponents were Picts or Scots rather than Anglo Saxon. Varying legends have him buried in Avalon or Glastonbury.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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