Battle of Mons Badonicus

From Academic Kids

In the Battle of Mount Badon (Latin Mons Badonicus, Welsh Mynydd Baddon) Romano-British and Celts inflicted a severe defeat on an invading Anglo-Saxon army sometime in the decade before or after 500. While it is a major political/military event of the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain, there is no certainty about its date, place, or who commanded the opposing forces.

Location and Date: Uncertain

The location of this battle is controversial, as is the name of the Romano-British leader. Gildas, a near contemporary who states in his essay, De Excidio Britonum or The Ruin of Britain that the battle occurred in the year of his birth, does not name the leaders of either side, nor provides any information that helps identify its location.

A number of sites in Britain have been proposed in the last thousand years, distributed from near the border of present-day England and Scotland south to the edge of the island. (For a list of candidates, see Sites and places associated with Arthurian legend.) These sites include Bath, the town known to the Saxons as Baþon or Badon. All of these depend upon theories or speculations of scholars built from a poverty of evidence. However, any suggested location must take into consideration these points:

  • The location of this battle probably lies on the frontier between the territories of the native British inhabitants and the Anglo-Saxon invaders; and
  • 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 Mons Badonicus". While pointing to an engagement between two kingdoms of the seventh century, it is debatable which kingdoms this may be and whether this battle is recorded in other historical records of Britain or England.

The name of the specific participants is also debatable. The Historia Brittonum records traditions that name the Romano-British and Celtic leader as Arthur, while more recent scholarly speculation has suggested the Romano-British and Celtic leader could have been Ambrosius Aurelianus, and the Saxon leader to be Aelle of Sussex, King of the South Saxons. An old Welsh poem ascribed to Taliesin (who lived in the last half of the sixth century), refers to "the battle of Badon with Arthur, chief giver of feasts....the battle which all men remember". In societal context, "chief giver of feasts" implies de-facto supreme leader.

Lastly, there is no clear evidence for the date of this battle. Gildas writes ad annum obsessionis Badonici montis . . . quique quadragesimus quartus ut novi orditur annus mense iam uno emenso qui et meae nativitatis est, which is typically translated to mean "the year of the Battle of Mount Badon . . . and which happened 44 years and one month ago, for it was the year of my birth." Since it appears that Gildas wrote this in or before 547, since King Maelgwn of Gwynedd was still living, this would suggest the date 503 or shortly before. However there is some ambiguity in this passage, for Bede interpreted this passage as stating the battle occurred 44 years after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. In this case, adding 44 years to the date 449 (when Bede believed his Anglo-Saxons first arrived in Britain), gives us the date 493. Adding 44 years to the actual date of the concession of Thanet to Hengist, 447, places the battle in 491. 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 in existence) is not an absolute guide to its accuracy. The later Annales Cambriae offers the date of 516, which few modern scholars accept. (Annales Cambriae entries after 525 appear to have been transcribed from tables for the calculation of Easter that were contemporary; entries before 525 are much less reliable.)

Indirect support for a date for Mount Badon close to 493, rather than 503, comes from the Celtic Lives of the Saints. 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 purely 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 he 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.

Effect: Certain

However uncertain the place, date or participants of this battle may be, it clearly halted the Anglo-Saxon advance for a number of years. While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is silent about this battle, it clearly documents a gap of almost seventy years between two major Anglo-Saxon leaders, or 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 the fact that a number of 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 which point out the existence of some kind of reversal in the fortunes of the invading Anglo-Saxons.

Archeological evidence collected from the cemeteries of the pagan Anglo-Saxon suggests a number of their settlements were abandoned and the frontier between the invaders and the native inhabitants pushed back sometime around AD 500. The Anglo-Saxons held the present-day counties of Kent, Sussex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and around the Humber; it is clear that the native British not only controlled everything west of a line drawn from the mouth of the Wiltshire Avon at Christchurch north to the river Trent, then along that river to where it joined the Humber, and north along the river Derwent and then east to the North Sea, but also an enclave to the north and west of London, and south of Verulamium, that stretched west to join with the primary 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 surrounding the Wash.

If this theory is accurate, then we can assume when Cuthwulf, an associate of Ceawlin of Wessex, defeated the British at Bedcanford and took the four towns of Limbury, Aylesbury, Benson, and Eynsham in 571, the British wedge between the Anglo-Saxon communities was broken, and the peace that followed this important battle came to an end.

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 in fact they are all von Mons Badonicus no:Slaget ved Mons Badonicus pl:Bitwa pod Badon Hill


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