Mons Badonicus

Battle of Mons Badonicus

In the Battle of Mons Badonicus (English Mount Badon, Welsh Mynydd Baddon) Romano-British Celts defeated an invading Anglo-Saxon army some time in the decade before or after 500. It is a major political/military event of the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain, but there is no certainty about its date or place. By the 9th century the victory was attributed to King Arthur.

Location and date: uncertain

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Where this battle was fought, as well as the Romano-British leader's name, remains unknown. The polemical monk Gildas, a near contemporary, appears to say in his essay De Excidio Britanniae ("The Ruin of Britannia") that the battle occurred in the year of his birth, but neither does he name either side's leader nor does he have any information that could help find where it was.

Place

A number of places for the battle have been proposed; these are all in present-day England and Wales. (For a list of candidates, see Sites and places associated with Arthurian legend.) These sites include:

All of these depend on theories or speculations of scholars, built upon a poverty of evidence. The battle may have been on the frontier between the territories of the native British inhabitants and the Anglo-Saxon invaders, perhaps near the Wansdyke. Or there may have been an Anglo-Saxon attack deep into British territory in an attempt to reach the Severn estuary and separate the Welsh from the Britons of the southwest. "Obsessionis Badonici montis" in Gildas's chapter 26 might mean that the Anglo-Saxon army went too far into hostile territory and was surrounded and trapped on a hilltop in the Cotswolds. This strategic objective was ultimately achieved following the Battle of Deorham in 577 AD.

The Annales Cambriae, found in the Harleian recension of the Historia Brittonum, preserve an entry under the year 665 that records "The second battle of Badon" (bellum Badonis). While pointing to an engagement between two kingdoms of the seventh century, it is debatable which kingdoms these may be and whether this battle is recorded in other historical records of Britain or England. It could be a duplicate of the first battle, which had been passed through another oral transmission route with information changed on the way.

Information about names

In Historia Brittonum

The 9th century Historia Brittonum records traditions that name the Romano-British / Celtic leader as Arthur.

In Taliesin

An old Welsh poem ascribed to Taliesin (who lived in the latter half of the 6th century), refers to "the battle of Badon with Arthur, chief giver of feasts… the battle which all men remember". In that sort of society, "chief giver of feasts" implies supreme leader.

More recent speculations

Information about dates

Gildas

Gildas writes "ad annum obsessionis Badonici montis ... quique quadragesimus quartus ut novi orditur annus mense iam uno emenso qui et meae nativitatis est", which has been translated in more than one way. An earlier reference by Gildas to the same event— "de postrema patriae victoria quae temporibus nostris dei nutu donata est"— establishes that the battle was fought "in our time".

  • It may mean "at/to the year of the siege of Mount Badon ... which happened 44 years and one month ago, and which is [the year] of my birth". King Maelgwn of Gwynedd was still living when Gildas wrote this, therefore Gildas wrote this on or before 547. This suggests the date 503 as a terminus ante quem for the battle.
  • Bede treated this passage in his paraphrase as saying that the battle was— he inserted "about"— 44 years after the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain (which he said was in 449). Though Bede's circiter reveals that he does not wholly accept Gildas' dating, adding 44 years to 449 gives the date 493 for the battle. Adding 44 years to 447 (when Thanet was conceded to Hengist) gives the date 491 for the battle. Some would argue that Bede's copy of Gildas was much closer to Gildas's time than any now extant; however, the age of a manuscript (especially one no longer existing) is no guide to its accuracy.

Taking his cue from Gildas' temporibus nostris G.H. Wheeler suggested that the span of time between the battle and Gildas' writing was considerably less than forty-four years and that Gildas can not have been counting backwards.

Annales Cambriae

The later Annales Cambriae offers the date 516, which few modern scholars accept. Annales Cambriae entries after 525 appear to have been transcribed from contemporary tables for the calculation of Easter; entries before 525 are much less reliable.

Lives of the Saints

The Celtic Lives of the Saints indirectly support a date closer to 493 than 503. The Lives of Dewi Sant (David, the patron saint of Wales), Saint Cadoc and Saint Gildas report that Gildas visited the Abbey of Ty Gwyn in 527 or 528 and objected to Dewi/David being placed in charge of it at such a young age.

These biographies of early church leaders, mostly written in the 11th century, may for propaganda purposes have invented, exaggerated, or borrowed miracles, and altered days of death, but some argue that their authors had no reason to distort mundane facts such as the dates and places of meetings. Further, these three Lives are independent of each other, their authors drawing from records (since lost) or traditions at the abbeys the saints lived in - St David's for David, Llancarfan for Cadoc, and Rhuys in Brittany for Gildas.

Rhygyfarch's Life of David says that David had ten years education under Saint Paulinus (Saint Pol de Leon) before becoming Abbot of Ty Gwyn. This suggests that David's birth could hardly have been later than 514. Rhygyfarch also says that Gildas preached to David's mother, Saint Non, while she was pregnant with him. If Gildas was old enough to be preaching in, at the latest, 514, it is implausible to place the date of Gildas's birth, and therefore of the Battle of Mount Badon, later than 498.

Effects of the battle

However uncertain the place, date, or participants of this battle may be, it clearly halted the Anglo-Saxon advance for some years.

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is silent about this battle, but documents a gap of almost 70 years between two major Anglo-Saxon leaders (Bretwaldas) in the fifth and sixth centuries.
  • Procopius records a story, told to him by a member of a diplomatic delegation from the Franks, including a group of Angles, which included that some Anglo-Saxons and British found their island so crowded that they migrated into northern Gaul to find lands to live on.
  • There are other tales from the mid-6th century about groups of Anglo-Saxons leaving Britain to settle across the English Channel.

All of these point to some kind of reversal in the fortunes of the invading Anglo-Saxons.

Archaeological evidence collected from the cemeteries of the pagan Anglo-Saxons suggests that some of their settlements were abandoned and the frontier between the invaders and the native inhabitants pushed back some time around 500. The Anglo-Saxons held the present counties of Kent, Sussex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and around the Humber; it is clear that the native British controlled everything west of a line drawn from the mouth of the Wiltshire Avon at Christchurch north to the river Trent, then along the Trent to where it joined the Humber, and north along the river Derwent and then east to the North Sea, and an enclave to the north and west of London, and south of Verulamium, that stretched west to join with the main frontier. The Britons defending this pocket could securely move their troops along Watling Street to bring reinforcements to London or Verulamium, and thus keep the invaders divided into pockets south of the Weald, in eastern Kent, and in the lands around the Wash.

Second Battle of Badon

According to the Annales Cambriae, in the year 665 there was a second battle at Badon. It also lists for 665 the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity ("first Easter of the Saxons") and the death of one "Morgan". It is possible these three events are connected, if they are factual. Or this battle may be a duplicate of the first battle, heard of by a different route with details changed.

Portrayal in popular media

  • In C. S. Lewis's 1945 novel, That Hideous Strength (Ch. 15), the wizard Merlin, reawakened in the 20th Century, "saw in memory the wintry grass on Badon Hill, the long banner of the Virgin fluttering above the British-Roman cataphracts, the yellow-haired barbarians. He heard the snap of the bows, the click-click of steel points in wooden shields, the cheers, the howling, and the ring of struck mail. He remembered also the evening, fires twinkling along the hill, frost making the gashes smart, starlight on a pool fouled with blood, eagles crowding together in the pale sky".
  • Alfred Duggan's 1951 novel "Conscience of the King" depicts the battle from the Saxon side, and assumes that Cerdic Elesing, legendary founder of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, was the Saxon commander.
  • In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), and the play "Monty Python's Spamalot," Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot is said to have "personally wet himself in the Battle of Badon Hill".
  • Bernard Cornwell, in The Warlord Chronicles (1995–1997), places the battle north of Bath.
  • The 2004 film King Arthur sets the battle at, and directly south of, Hadrian's Wall.
  • In the 2005 PC game Rome: Total War Barbarian Invasion, there is a scenario based on the battle.
  • The Dagorhir groups Rome and Eryndor run an event yearly named after Badon Hill.
  • In the 2007 web-based series Sanctuary, Dr Helen Magnus reawakens the Morrigan, 3 powerful witches who were created by Morgan La Fey to stop King Arthur from coming to power, however Merlin brainwashed them and used them to win the Battle of Badon Hill in Arthur's favour.

References

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