The traditional view of warfare in Britain in the two centuries following the end of imperial Roman government there envisages things very much in aquatic terms. A ‘tide’ of migrating Anglo-Saxons ‘washes’ or ‘flows’ over the former provinces. The newcomers come in ‘waves’ and ‘swamp’ Romano-British culture, ‘flooding’ it with new influences. The spread of Anglo-Saxon population, culture and influence is seen to spread across the land, from east to west with a discernible ‘front line’: Romano-Britons to the west of it and Anglo-Saxons to the east. We can plot the movement of the newcomers from their cemeteries (inhumations and cremations with grave-goods) and some sorts of settlement (with certain types of timber hall and sunken buildings or Grubenhäuser). Supposed exceptions to this picture are described as ‘reservations’ – metaphors from the frontiers of European colonization of America and elsewhere are also common in discussions of the period. The sides involved in the fighting are seen as two quite separate cultures with very different ways of waging war. In the east, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes wage war on foot. Some may ride to battle but dismount to fight. Their weapons are principally spears and shields, though their leaders carry swords and all bear the seax (knife) that supposedly gave the Saxons their name. To the west the Britons try to maintain a more Roman way of doing things. They employ mounted as well as dismounted warriors, and their leaders are thought to ride in this cavalry force. Their campaigns are based upon refortified Iron-Age hillforts, such as have been excavated at places like South Cadbury (Somerset).
This account represents an extreme version of a particular view, to which few scholars today would subscribe in its entirety. But it is certainly no caricature. These images and metaphors are so common that people who write about the topic fall into them seemingly unconsciously. The assumptions behind them permeate discussions of the subject, even when an author is trying to call older ideas into question. In recent decades many of these ideas have been disputed but without a clear consensus emerging among scholars. One reason why a more moderate version of the image sketched in my first paragraph probably remains the majority view of the period, and why attempts to revise the picture have made little headway – in spite of the many problems inherent in the older view – is that a series of unexamined assumptions that underlies almost all investigations into post-imperial Britain. In this essay I want to uncover those and expose them to some scrutiny. I will do this by placing Britain more firmly in a broader European context. Much of the misunderstanding that bedevils current approaches stems from a failure to do this.
Inevitably we need to begin with an account of the sources for this enquiry, and their many problems. How do we know what we know about Britain between c.400 and c.600. Indeed, do we know what we often think we know? Discussions of the evidence for post-imperial Britain can make for rather depressing reading. To be brief, there are almost no written sources that can be relied upon to aid our enquiry. The events surrounding the rebellion of Constantine ‘III’ and his ill-fated attempt to usurp the western imperial throne with the support of the British army (407-11) are well enough documented but after that an almost impenetrable darkness descends upon Britain that lasts until the arrival of the missionary saint Augustine in 597. The Life of Saint Germanus of Auxerre by Constantius of Lyon tells us how the bishop was sent to deal with allegations of Pelagian heresy in Britain in 428-9 and, while there, helped a British army to defeat an army of barbarians. This source has its problems but gives us some insights into what British society was like in the 420s.
Other than that, the only written work definitely composed in Britain between 400 and 600 was the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Destruction and Conquest of Britain) by Gildas. This is a sermon, mostly concerned with the (in Gildas’ view) shocking state of the British church and (to a lesser extent) the misdeeds of its rulers but near its beginning it sets out a brief account of Britain’s history between the Roman invasion and Gildas’ own day. This formed the basis for every subsequent attempt to write a history of Britain in our period. It is here that we hear of the Britons’ unsuccessful appeal for help to Aëtius the magister militum in Gaul, about the general Ambrosius Aurelianus and his wars against the Saxons, and about the battle of Mount Badon. Unfortunately, the account is highly rhetorical, polemical and stylised, and impossible to place in any sort of neat sequence. If we had any other written account of British history in this period, we would probably view it very differently. There is no good reason to doubt that the appeal to Aëtius (which must belong in the late 440s or early 450s), Ambrosius’ wars or the battle of Mount Badon happened, but more than that is impossible to say. We have no certain idea who Gildas was or where or when he was writing (which could have been at any time between c.475 and c.550 – perhaps later).
The other sources available to us include Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (731), the History of the Britons sometimes attributed to Nennius (829), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (880s onwards) and the Welsh Annals (c.975). Many of the features of the usual histories of the period, not least ‘Arthur’ (never called a king) and his battles (first definitely found in the History of the Britons), Vortigern and Hengist and Horsa, most of the battles recorded between Britons and Saxons and so on, are found in these sources. Unfortunately, they are, as will have been noticed, all very much later than our period. It is very clear that the earliest of these writers, Bede, like us, knew pretty much nothing about the period between Germanus of Auxerre and Augustine of Canterbury. Not only are the sources late; they all also have very clear political agendas relating to the time in which they were written. This clearly influenced the sort of history they were telling. Furthermore, although there are traces of what looks like material from ‘oral tradition’ in some of the sources, we have no idea how early or reliable it is, or how the later authors have adapted it. There are, furthermore, no indications that any of these sources were based upon lost earlier works.
The only other written sources that might help us are some early Welsh poems allegedly by the bards Taleisin and Aneirin (in whose epic Y Gododdin is also to be found an early reference to Arthur). It is from these that many of our ideas about post-imperial British warfare have been derived. Unfortunately, it is impossible to be certain of the date of these poems. They purport to belong to the period around 600 but the manuscripts are very much later. It may be that some elements belong to the early seventh century but we cannot be sure.
It is really impossible, on the basis of these sources, to construct a narrative political history of Britain between 400 and 600. This sounds like a counsel of despair but abandoning the written sources does not leave us without hope. In fact, it allows us to break free of the obsessions of eighth- to tenth-century Anglo-Saxon and Welsh authors and rethink the problems of British history in this period. We can use the plentiful archaeological material that survives on its own terms, rather than attempting to make it fit the story drawn from later, unreliable written works. We can also consider our evidence in the light of what we know from the much better written sources from the mainland of Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries.
The Anglo-Saxon Migration
One of the main areas of debate in recent decades has been about the nature and scale of the Anglo-Saxon (English) migration. The traditional view is of a massive ‘folk migration’ bringing with it all sorts of cultural influences. Thus the archaeological traces belonging to the fifth and sixth centuries in the lowlands of Britain have traditionally been thought of as ‘Anglo-Saxon’, and read as simple cultural markers of the presence of immigrants from northern Germany. Such elements include the settlements and cemeteries alluded to earlier. Metalwork and other elements of culture that can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon homelands in the north-west of Germany begin to appear in south-eastern England from c.430, a date not far out of line with the date suggested for the arrival of the Saxons (adventus saxonum) in the later written sources. It was suggested that the advance of the Anglo-Saxons could be plotted from the spread of these cemeteries and settlement-types, to the extent that the supposed forty years of peace that followed the Battle of Mount Badon according to one reading of Gildas (Gildas does not actually say this!) could, allegedly, be seen in the archaeological record.
In the 1980s and 1990s a reaction to this view set in, which at times came close to claiming that the whole idea of the Anglo-Saxon migration was something made up by Bede! Whether or not ‘Anglo-Saxon archaeology’ truly marked the presence of incoming Anglo-Saxons or was really derived from the north-west of Germany was debated. The idea was proposed that, rather than a mass ‘folk migration’, the Anglo-Saxon movement to Britain was in fact a political take-over by a smaller, élite group of newcomers. The spread of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ material culture represented not the movement of Anglo-Saxon people but the spread of Anglo-Saxon lordship. These minimalist views have not convinced everyone.
A ‘middle way’ between these viewpoints is possible. It is clear that there was a migration of people from the North Sea coastal areas of Germany into the lowlands of Britain. Some cultural artefacts – not least the English language – are impossible to account for satisfactorily without acknowledging that fact. But the English migration was not like most other ‘barbarian migrations’. It was a product of a North Sea culture that predated the migrations, with movement in all directions across and around that Sea, exchanging all kinds of cultural influences. In the fourth century these influences were overwhelmingly Roman, spreading north from the imperial provinces into barbaricum. Links between north-western Germania Magna and Britain (and northern Gaul) already existed, therefore, and Saxons were long accustomed to moving into the Roman Empire, sometimes as raiders and sometimes as recruits for the army. Saxon migration into Britain could have begun long before Constantine ‘III’ launched his rebellion. It is worth remembering that most barbarian immigrants into the Empire left no archaeological trace. When the western Roman Empire underwent a period of crisis around 400, its effects are as archaeologically visible in the Saxon homelands as they are in the northern Gallic and British provinces. Stress in the Saxon homelands and new opportunities in the Empire’s north-western provinces all fed into the matrix of factors governing Saxon migration. The appearance of ‘Saxon’ archaeology in the 430s probably marks the point at which such newcomers felt able or confident enough to proclaim their cultural identity (perhaps as the ‘Saxon rebellion’ alluded to by Gildas) rather than the date at which settlers arrived.
It is important to note, however, that movement across the North Sea was a long-term phenomenon. Unlike, say, the Gothic migration into Aquitaine, where the Goths all arrived at once, Anglo-Saxon migration took place across many decades. The numbers of newcomers or ‘first-generation’ migrants in Britain at any one time could have been very small but the continuing arrival of other Saxons would act constantly to ‘top up’ their culture.
The moving front
One of the migrations most similar to that of the Anglo-Saxons was probably the drift of the Franks across the Rhine into the far northern provinces of the Empire’s Gallic prefecture. When we come to think about how the lowlands of Britain became English kingdoms the Frankish comparison might help us. The Frankish takeover of northern Gaul has often been envisaged in similar terms to those used in the study of how the English took over lowland Britain: as a front line moving steadily southwards and westwards from the Rhine frontier. The documentary sources for this are almost (but not quite) as inadequate as those for Britain and the archaeological evidence used to plot Frankish settlement is remarkably similar (in spite of the fact that the archaeologies of the pre-migratory Frankish and Saxon homelands are quite different): furnished inhumation cemeteries (burials with grave-goods) and settlements composed of post-built halls and Grubenhäuser). The front line of Frankish settlement at a given date has repeatedly been plotted from the southern extent of the furnished inhumation cemeteries.
However, because our written evidence for fifth- and sixth-century Gallic history is better than that for Britain we know that this image is at best only a part of the whole story, and perhaps not the most significant component. Two key points that emerge from a study of the fifth-century Franks. The first is that the Frankish advance from across the Rhine was not the most decisive factor in the creation of the Frankish kingdom. The second is that straightforward ‘binary’ warfare between Franks on one side and Romans or Gallo-Romans on the other hardly featured in the process at all. To take these points in order, it is clear that the decisive military force in the period was the ‘Roman’ army based on the Loire around Orléans. This army was often referred to as ‘the Franks’ because it was composed heavily of Frankish recruits and their officers but for quite a long time it was commanded by Aegidius, a Roman general. It is even alleged that, when he was in rebellion against the imperial government in Ravenna, Aegidius used the title of rex francorum – King of the Franks. Command over this force was evidently competed for by a Frank called Childeric, also later styled their king, and his son Clovis, and Aegidius and his son, Syagrius (later styled ‘King of the Romans’ by Gregory of Tours). Clovis won out and was able to use this army and its control of the southern part of the Paris basin to subdue rival Frankish kings or leaders in the north and, eventually, defeat the Visigoths south of the Loire and cow the Burgundians of the Rhône valley and the Alamans, Thuringians and Saxons. By the time of his probably untimely death in 511, Clovis was one of the two major powers in western Europe (the other being Theoderic the Ostrogoth) and, like Theoderic, evidently allowed himself to be called augustus. Studying this course of events makes it very clear that warfare and politics in the fifth-century west was anything but the simple two-sided struggle between barbarian invaders and Roman defenders that the ‘moving front’ model envisages. Sometimes the Franks were led by Romans; the Aquitanian senatorial aristocracy was in cahoots with the Visigoths throughout the period and an Auvergnat senatorial contingent fought for them against the Franks; and the Burgundians were closely associated with the senators of the Rhône valley. Indeed, this picture, of warfare for control between regionally-based Romano-barbarian factions rather than between Romans and barbarians, applies throughout the western Empire in the fifth century – surprisingly even in the case of Vandal Africa.
So, where does this leave us? First of all, it tells us that if British politics between 400 and 600 did take the form of a ‘moving front’ war between Britons and Anglo-Saxons then it was unique: the only part of the western Empire where this sort of binary opposition occurred. But our basis for that unique picture is entirely unreliable. The late histories mentioned earlier all had reasons to portray the origins of their kingdoms or people in a simple story of invasion and conquest by one people at the expense of another. Frankish origin stories saw their history in these terms too by the time our earliest insular history (Bede’s) was written and we have seen how wide of the mark this idea was.
Another issue of vital importance that emerges more clearly from the Gallic/Frankish evidence is that the rite of burial with grave-goods is not an imported barbarian custom, but begins inside the Roman Empire. It is found in regions that underwent social competition, especially where a villa-based social system collapsed as in both northern Gaul and lowland Britain. These graves, therefore, cannot be identified as the burials of Anglo-Saxons (or Franks) rather than of Romano-Britons (or Gallo-Romans). This has the happy result of enabling us to see the weaponry in these graves not as exclusive to ‘Saxons’ but as very likely wielded by ‘Britons’ too. The other feature that has emerged from recent scholarly work is just how fluid identities like ‘Saxon’, ‘Roman’, Frank’ or ‘Briton’ could be. Evidence from the better-documented European mainland gives us numerous examples of people adopting new identities. Families could shift their dominant ethnic identity over a generation or two. We know, because our evidence is so much better, that very ‘Germanic’-looking people in seventh-century northern Gaul were actually the sons and grandsons of Roman aristocrats.
This also means that we need not see the known hillforts of the period as exclusively ‘British’. Indeed, it is worth noting that the two pieces of diagnostically fifth-century metalwork found on the Cadbury excavations were of types usually (probably misleadingly) supposed to be Anglo-Saxon.
Implications for warfare
Clearly this discussion has huge implications for how we see warfare in fifth- and sixth-century Britain and permits an entirely different vision. Frustratingly, it can never be filled in with precise details of people, places and events or be more than a hypothesis, but it does allow us to postulate a political and military history that is grounded in reliable, contemporary evidence and which better fits what we know of the fifth century more generally.
First of all, the political struggles for power in the lowlands of Britain were probably waged by different factions wherein Romano-British aristocrats were allied with particular groups of ‘barbarian’ soldiers. The command of these factions was probably contested too, between different families and perhaps between rival groups of British or Saxon origin. Although the group was probably identified by the ethnicity of the majority of (or the dominant group in) the army, we ought not to assume that all of the warriors were of that ethnic identity or origin.
Second, it may be that the key areas in this struggle, where English political dominance was first established, were on or near the coast. The western band of the villa area, on the border with the highland zone (running from the Dorset coast to the East Riding of Yorkshire) was the most prosperous zone of late Roman Britain. Note that the furnished burials suggestive of societal stress are rare in this region perhaps suggesting a greater degree of political stability. This band was also the area where the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms emerged (Wessex, Mercia and Deira) and this is unlikely to be coincidence. Whoever controlled these areas could lord it over regions nearer the coast, including areas settled by incoming Anglo-Saxons. This would resemble the pattern we saw in northern Gaul, and indeed the domination of the south-eastern coastal regions (East Anglia, Essex, Kent and Sussex) by the powerful ‘inland’ realms was the norm through most of the documented periods of Anglo-Saxon history.
Another feature that emerges from the study of the European mainland is just how fragile many kingdoms were. Many evaporated after a single serious military defeat, leaving little trace. The kingdoms of the Thuringians, the Vandals and the Burgundians were all extinguished in the 530s and would be entirely unknown to us if the documentary record was as exiguous as it is in Britain. Syagrius, ‘king of the Romans’, who competed with Clovis for the control of the southern Paris basin and the Loire army, is known to history thanks only to his appearance in a lost saint’s life used by Gregory of Tours. In this light it is clear that there is every scope for great war-leaders to have risen in Britannia, and for their kingdoms to have subsequently vanished, without leaving any trace. Ambrosius Aurelianus may have been a mighty figure but, were it not for one comment in Gildas, he would be lost to history. In this context there might equally well have been a successful war-leader or king called Artorius or Arthur. If he fought against both Romano-British and Saxon rivals, and if his family or faction lost control of their realm or army to another group that was, or claimed, an Anglo-Saxon origin, he would have served no one’s historical purposes by the eighth century, when our narrative sources begin. This would explain why he was barely remembered in any insular sources before the Norman conquest and why his story was evidently so little known.
What we have seen is that the factions involved in fighting for the control of what had been Britannia in the fifth century were probably a fluid mix of ‘Saxon’ and ‘Romano-British’. It is worth remembering that the fourth-century Saxon homelands were very exposed to Roman influences and that many Saxons evidently served in the Roman army – as the official Roman belt-buckles and brooches that were cremated with them when they died testify. Conversely, the Britons, like other provincials, were fully familiar with Saxon soldiers, and many probably fought alongside them in some of the late Roman army’s regiments. This makes it extremely unlikely that there were drastic differences between the fighting styles of Romano-British and Saxons. The idea that the Saxons always fought on foot – based in any case on a handful of late Anglo-Saxon references taken mostly out of context – is improbable. The equipment from the famous bog-deposits in Denmark and northern Germany shows that warriors in that region were entirely familiar with mounted warfare. It is most likely that, as across the early medieval West, élite warriors fought on horseback or on foot according to the needs of the situation.
The archaeological evidence from the lowlands, especially, suggests that warriors made much use of throwing weapons – in the late Roman tradition. Throwing axes of the francisca type, heavy iron angones descended from the Roman pilum, and other throwing spears are known. Analysis of the shields of the period suggests that they were smaller than later (although it may also be that they were taller and oval, rather than round). There is some evidence of archery. Sling-stones are known from the western hillforts but may equally belong to their earlier Iron Age occupation. Armour and helmets are more or less unknown from the fifth and sixth centuries (all of the surviving examples are later) and swords are rare, but this probably stems simply from the fact that (unlike in some mainland areas) such items were not used in the funeral ritual rather than necessarily from a real scarcity or absence. Warfare may, thus have been quite open and fast-moving with much use of missile weapons before the fight was decided in close fighting with sword and thrusting spear.
In Britain, as across the rest of Europe, archaeological and other evidence suggests that important changes took place in the decades around 600. The practice of warfare was one of the things affected by these transformations. It seems that fighting became larger in scale and more based upon the clash of the close-packed ‘shield-walls’ familiar from accounts of Viking warfare. These changes buried the ‘world’ of Arthur, the historical details of any actual Arthur figure, and the type of warfare he may have engaged in for ever.