King Arthur at Badon Hill. Lairdxs Thoughts.

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by Lairdx, Jun 27, 2005.

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  1. Having examined Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (c1150) I was particularly interested in Geofrey's account of the deeds of King Arthur and his motives for writing this somewhat far-fetched account. Lets see if we can get our teeth into this and seperate legend from history. I am most eager to hear your ideas.

    Geoffrey of Monmouth was a Welsh monk who completed his ‘history’ during the reign of King Stephen, the Anglo-Norman ruler of England between 1135 and 1154. Stephen proved to be an ineffective king and his reign was to become a period of near civil war for almost twenty years. The contemporary chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote of Stephen

    “He (Stephen) was persistently unable to master his barons. When he indulged them, they only saw him as a weakling; when he attempted to punish them, he only guaranteed their enmity.”

    In writing his so-called ‘history’ Monmouth provided Stephen with a document which supported his claim to the English throne by attesting to his lineage. Monmouth manages to link Stephen by descent to the semi-mythical figure of Arthur and even goes so far as claim that his Norman ruler can count Roman Emperors and Trojan heroes among his forebears. Monmouth has no evidence to support these elaborate claims and as such his work must be treated with caution. It must also be considered that Monmouth probably began his work much earlier, possibly during the reign of Henry I and as such it could be an attempt to justify the superiority of the Norman dynasty over their Anglo-Saxon subjects by linking them by descent to the indigenous Britons.

    The Section of The History of the Kings of Briton which this analysis examines is an account of the Battle of Badon Hill, or Mount Badon which has been popularly attributed to Arthur. Whether this Battle actually happened or not is debatable, for one thing no historian can tell us the location of Mount Badon and indeed one of the most important documents of Early English history, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes no mention of it. Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People does briefly mention the battle in his introductory pages where he describes the end of Roman occupation and the events leading up to Anglo-Saxon dominance in England but as Bede’s history begins almost a century later, in 597, he was forced to rely on earlier texts for much of this information and as John Morris explains he inherited some of their mistakes. Bede’s Own Anglo-Saxon heritage cannot be ignored as an influential factor in his failure to make much of Badon Hill.

    The sources which do contain any information about the Battle of Badon Hill do at least agree on the outcome. It was a victory for the British against the Saxons and if it occurred it took place around the year 500. There is conflicting evidence for the date as Gildas in his Ruin of Britain dates the battle as “forty three years before” which would make 495 the correct date and as Gildas is the only contemporary source which has survived he must be to a certain extent at least trusted. In the Welsh Annals the date of the battle is recorded as 516.

    Monmouth displays a remarkable ignorance of military strategy in his description of the battle when he describes
    “the advantage which the Saxons had in their station on the top (of the hill) from whence they could pour down upon (the Britons) with much greater speed.”

    It is undeniable that a height advantage in the deployment of the Saxon force on the crest of the hill would enable the Saxons to take advantage by a speedy charge down the hill at the advancing Britons. Such a tactic would only guarantee victory if however the Saxons were present on the field in much superior numbers than their British foes. At Badon hill the opposing forces were fairly evenly matched, at least according to Gildas. A more sensible strategy for the Saxon commander to adopt would be to remain at the summit and let the Britons weary themselves trying to break through the Saxon shield-wall. If the Britons managed to break through, which they ultimately did on this occasion, it would not be without a hard struggle. Both Gildas and Monmouth describe the battle as a close fight and Gildas’ Ruin of Britain supports the shield-wall theory by describing the battle as “The siege of Badon Hill” which implies that the battle was not over quickly. The Welsh Annals also make claim that the battle lasted at least three days and nights.

    “The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were victors.”

    We are without a contemporary Saxon record and as already mentioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes “An unbroken succession of Saxon victories” which is only natural as no race deliberately keeps alive memories of defeat.

    Monmouth’s account of Badon Hill describes a stalemate which was ultimately broken by the intervention of Arthur who “with his Caliburn alone, killed four hundred and seventy men.” This is truly a remarkable feat of arms and any rational man must doubt the sincerity of this statement. It is not however unique. Nennius, an otherwise unknown British monk, in his History of the Britons makes the claim that Arthur was single handedly responsible for nine hundred Saxon casualties.

    Monmouth’s account of Badon Hill gives little real information which establishes anything about Arthur as a real historical figure in fact due to the absence of any real hard evidence some historians such as J. Campbell are prepared to dismiss the idea of Arthur altogether. Others of a more romantic nature do present an argument for the existence of Arthur, however he was a very different character than the King Arthur, romanticised by the later works of Sir Thomas Mallory and even Edward III.
    Monmouth’s work is a work of fiction and his errors can easily be explained by his efforts to make the stories contained within entertaining. Monmouth has allowed himself to use a great deal of artistic license which considering his motivations for producing the work in the first place are quite understandable. They do however render his ‘history’ unreliable as documentary evidence.

    Arthur has despite the lack of evidence for his existence provided the British and later the English with the mythology which a nation needs to bind itself together. Accounts of Arthur do appear in some of the early records of British Christian Saints. One such account is Lifris’ Life of Saint Cadoc which interestingly depicts Arthur as a villainous robber and an enemy of the church who is bested by the wily Cadoc , this contrasts with the Arthur who “carried the cross” on his shoulders in the Welsh Annals but does give us a more human, more rounded and therefore more realistic picture of Arthur. This account was however more than likely an early attempt to give authority to clerical power over the secular authorities - Cadoc lived a generation at least after Arthur and was probably a contemporary of Gildas.

    The few brief accounts of his battles, the somewhat dubious later discovery of his tombstone and the history as recorded on medieval romances are the only traces which can be found and as J. Campbell explains

    “On that little all the imagination of the learned and unlearned has run riot.”

    The Anglo-Saxon Age, D.J.V. Fisher (New York, 1973)
    The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 360, John Morris (London, 1973)
    Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede. Eds. B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969)
    History of the Britons, Nennius. Ed. T. Mommsen (Paris, 1929)
    The Ruin of Britain, Gildas. Ed. M. Winterbottom (Chichester, 1899)
    The Anglo-Saxons, Barbara Yorke (Stroud, 1999)
    The Anglo-Saxons, Ed J. Campbell (London, 1982)
    Kings and Queens of the British Isles: A History of the Monarchy, Thomas Cussans (London, 2002)
  2. Why do the English always go on about Arthur being a national hero etc, when in reality he was the enemy. Its just daft.
  3. According to Adam Smith who has wrote several books on the subject of nationalism a Nation needs a mythology in it's formative years to help ferment a national identity. Fair enough. I can go along with that.

    Here's my theory why Arthur is important to the English even though, if he existed he was Welsh (Welch is the saxon word for foreigner.) The Anglo Saxon mythology was more or less identical tothat of the people who inhabited Scandinavia. This was a problem during the formative centuries of English nationalism. The Danes were the Enemy initially Christianity provided the difference and for a time it was sufficient that the Danes could be villified for being Pagan. As the Danes embraced Christianity new social and cultural differences were needed. The English adopted the tales of Arthur, a warrior hero as part of a nationalistic culture which they didn't really have a claim to.

    This kind of thing wasn't unusual and various sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth have done the same thing. Geoffrey claimed that the ruling Norman Dynasty after 1066 was decended from Brutus of Troy and claimed that Brutus had first settled in Britain. This fabrication allowed the Normans to make a claim to Britain more legitimate than that of the previous Anglo-Saxon Kings.

    History is written by the victors and in those days whatever nationalist properganda could be employed to legitimise a rocky situation would be used.
  4. Unknown_Quantity

    Unknown_Quantity War Hero Moderator

    Again, congratulations and thanks for a very interesting peice of research.
  5. I thought the word Welsh originated from the roman word for slave but a quick google reveals:
    "The word Welsh is actually an Old English word meaning “foreigner; slave” and at first was applied by the Anglo-Saxons to all the native peoples of Britain."

    I must of been half asleep in that history lesson (again) :lol:

  7. Is there any substance to the stories of Arthur, his knights of the Round Table and the search for the holy grail? When did these tales first surface and does anyone know who might first of penned them?
  8. Arthur crops up in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth and several of the Saint's 'Lives'. Sir Thomas Malory put the Arturian legends into the knights in shining armour context which is more familier today when he wrote, La Mort De Arthur. King Edward III encouraged the arthurian romances to support his ideas on chivilry and the establishment of the order of the garter.

    Geoffrey is traditionally said to have been a Welshman, born somewhere in the region of Monmouth around 1100, though one or both of his parents may have come from Brittany. His father’s name was apparently Arthur, a man who would perhaps have told his son stories of his Royal namesake from an early age.

    Local tradition makes Geoffrey a Benedictine monk at Monmouth Priory, if not the actual prior. However, this seems to be due to a misidentification with his contemporary, Prior Geoffrey the Short of Monmouth. Certainly ‘Geoffrey’s Window’ at which he is said to have sat and written his famous works and ‘Geoffrey’s Study’ used as a schoolroom within the Priory Gatehouse are only of late 15th century date. At most it seems that Geoffrey might perhaps have been educated at Monmouth Priory. Some say, erroneously, that his tutor was an uncle named Uchtryd who made him Archdeacon of Llandeilo or Llandaff when he became Bishop of the latter in around 1140.

    A variety of obscure medieval records give only glimpses of the man’s real life. By his late twenties, Geoffrey certainly seems to have travelled eastwards to become a secular Austin canon at the Collegiate Church of St. George at the castle in Oxford. He was a member of the college community there, and a tutor of some kind, for at least the next twenty years - witnessing a number of charters during his residence - but he turned to writing not long after his arrival. The ‘Prophecies of Merlin’ appear to have been a series of ancient Celtic prophecies which, at the request of Alexander of Salisbury, Bishop of Lincoln, Geoffrey translated into Latin, perhaps with some additions of his own. Whether they had previously been attributed to the Northern British bard, Myrddin, is unknown. As with all his works, Geoffrey hoped the prophecies might bring him a lucrative preferment in the Church, and he used its dedication to ingratiate himself with Alexander who was Bishop of his local diocese. Geoffrey made a more appreciative acquaintance while at St. George’s, in the person of Walter the Provost, who was also Archdeacon of the city. In his writings, Geoffrey tells us that Walter gave him “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” and, probably because he was unable to read Welsh (or Breton) himself, the Archdeacon encouraged Geoffrey to translate it into Latin.

    So, in about 1136, the Welshman set about writing his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Waleran, Count of Mellent. Whether this was a straight translation of an ‘ancient book’ or contained considerable embellishments, if not worse, from Geoffrey himself has been the subject of heated debate for many generations. At the time, the work was taken at face value and accepted by most as a true history of the Welsh nation from around 1100 bc to around AD 689. Merlin appeared again, as an advisor to Kings Ambrosius and Uther, but the work was most notable for its extensive chapters covering the reign of the great King Arthur. Since the 17th century, however, its author has been largely vilified as an inexorable forger who made up his stories “from an inordinate love of lying”. Modern historians tend to be slightly more sympathetic. Parts of Geoffrey’s work certainly seem to have their origins in ancient Celtic mythology, others could have come from works by authors such as Gildas, Nennius, Bede and also the Mabinogion. But there are also hints that he had access to at least one other work unknown to us today. His ‘King Tenvantius of Britain,’ for example, was otherwise unknown to historians until archaeologists began to uncover Iron Age coins struck for a tribal leader in Hertfordshire named Tasciovantus. Some people consider the several copies of a Welsh version of Geoffrey known as the ‘Brut y Brenhinedd’ to be his original ‘ancient book’. However, the ‘Chronicle of Saint Brieuc’ makes reference to several of Geoffrey’s characters apparently from a source called the ‘Ystoria Britannica’.

    At the end of 1150, Geoffrey appears to have come into the possession of further source documents concerning the life-story of his original subject, the bard, Myrddin (alias Merlin). Unfortunately, these did not line up terribly well the information he had given about this man in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ - perhaps indicating that this part was either invented or, more probably, that Merlin’s name had been rather over-eagerly attributed to an otherwise unknown Royal adviser. Keen to put across the true story, without loosing face, Geoffrey wrote the ‘Life of Merlin,’ correctly placing its events after the reign of Arthur, but thus giving his title role an impossibly long lifespan. It was dedicated to his former colleague at St. George’s, Robert De Chesney, the new Bishop of Lincoln.

    The following year, Geoffrey’s sycophancy at last paid off. He was elected Bishop of St. Asaphs, for good service to his Norman masters; and was consecrated by Archbishop Theobald at Lambeth Palace in February 1152. As a Welsh-speaker, he was probably chosen in an attempt to make the diocesanal administration more acceptable in an age when Normans were not at all popular in the areas of Wales which they controlled. However, the strategy seems to have been unsuccessful. Owain Gwynedd’s open rebellion was in full swing and Geoffrey appears to have never even visited his bishopric. He died four years later, probably in London.


    Barber, R. (1961) King Arthur: Hero and Legend. London: St. Martin's Press.
    Harrison, J. (2001) “Geoffrey of Monmouth” in Monmouth Priory. Monmouth: Vicar & Parochial Church Council of Monmouth.
    Kissack, K. (1996) The Lordship, Parish & Borough of Monmouth. Hereford: Lapridge Publications.
    Lacy, N.J. (ed.) (1996) The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. London: Garland Publishing Inc.
    Roberts, B.F. (1991) "Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae and Brut y Brenhinedd" in R. Bromwich et al. (ed.s)'s The Arthur of the Welsh Cardiff: University of Wales Press
    Thorpe, L. (1976) “Introduction” in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

    Ford, David Nash (2003)
  10. Law student you need to cite Ford, David Nash (2003) for the above text. You will be in breech of literary copywright if you fail to do so. Please edit your post accordingly.

    That's quite a good text though.
  11. There are about six sites that I know off which are referred to as "probably the model for the legendary Mons Badonicus". Interestingly Cadbury hillfort is the only one I know off to be referred to as Badon AND as "Camelot" (sic). The other one I know off and have tramped over is in the Borders but it is not really sufficiently significant a feature to have involved a three day siege/battle.