Arthur and the Anglo Saxon Wars

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The Sutton Hoo Burial of a 7th Century East Anglian leader included this famous masked helmet. Modeled on late Roman calvary parade styles, it is almost certainly much earlier than the burial, perhaps dating from around 500 AD. (British Mus)



The warrior aristocracy of Arthurian Britain
generally fought as light cavalry with sword and javelin, but rarely as cataphractlii with heavier lances. Those Britons who fled to Armorica were later famous as horsemen, and cavalry clearly pre- dominated in southern Scotland, the Pennines and West Midlands. The men of Wales, however, were mostly infantry. The loss of horse-raising areas such as the Cotswolds, Salisbury Plain and Hampshire must have been a serious blow to the Britons. What little written evidence survives suggests that surprise dawn attacks were a favourite tactic, as was the defence of river lines with consequently frequent battles at fords. In the rarely recorded sieges the Britons were almost invariably the besieged, and here the defenders were probably a form of urban militia. British resistance, in fact, probably re-assembled a guerrilla campaign from fortified base-areas by small groups of horsemen against scattered Anglo-Saxon settlements. The foot-slogging Saxons were, by contrast, better able to build field fortifications and so to consolidate their territorial expansion.

Very few Romano-Celtic weapons have been found, particularly in the south, where a deeply engrained Christianity ensured that the dead were not buried with their weaponry. What little is known suggests that British equipment was similar to that of their foes, even including a large sax dagger. Celtic swords do, however, seem to have been smaller than those Of the Anglo-Saxons. The Britons were at first richer in such armours as the Iluric and seirch (From the Latin lorica and perhaps sarcia) according to sources such as the 'Gododdin'. This Celtic poem also mentions 'square-pointed spearheads' which might parallel the 'four-sided mail-piercing weapons of early Scandinavian sagas. Archery played a minor role, even though sophisticated composite bows of Hunnish type had been widely used in the last years of the Roman Empire. Javelins--heavy, light or of the barbed angon type---were the normal missile weapon.


The Pagan English

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes, the three peoples who traditionally conquered England, are believed to have come from Denmark, northern Germany and part of Holland. These Ango-Saxons may have been pushed into migrating by pressure from other Germanic tribes as much as by the lure of plunder, and so many came that parts of their homeland were deserted for centuries. Unfortunately we have little archaeological evidence from these territories to compare with the wealth of weaponry found in Anglo-Saxon England.

...Following the Saxon Revolt of the mid-5th century much territory fell into the hands of these Anglo Saxon mercenaries. Their conquest was in places blookdy; but elsewhere the newcomers settled down either a neighbours ato the Celtic poplation, or as a newly dominant minority which had driven out the omano-British aristocray, these differences depending upon time, place and political circumstances. The English conquest also had its setbacks. After Arthur's semi-legandary victory at Mount Badon the Anglo-Saxons were driven back towards the eastern and southern coasts, where they consolidated their hold. Many even left in search of easier plunder on the Continent. One highly characteristic form of Anglo-Saxon spearhead suddenly reappeared in north-western Europe around this time, and might reflect a reverse migration that was also encouraged by the Frankish rulers of Gaul. These Merovingians not only needed fighting men, but perhaps also hoped to draw Britain into their empire....

Duelling with swords and shields in a dearly marked area in which each opponent had his own square' of a pegged-out cloak was a prestigious way of settling quarrels. In war the method of fighting was much the same, at least for a sword-armed elite. Even this elite fought on foot. A leader might remain mounted until all preparations were completed, and hence his saddle could be called a hildesett or battle-seat. To throw the shield over one's back and wield a sword with both hands was considered exceptionally brave; it might also have been the origin of the term berserk or 'bare-breasted' fighting. The majority of men were armed only with spears or javalins, plus the sax, a large dagger or short sword. Anglo-Saxon tactics were much the same as among most German peoples, namely a rush in a roughly wedge-shaped formation followed by individual combat with spear and shield. The troops involved were normally a local militia perhaps stiffened by a royal bodyguard. Periods of hard hewing, in which honour lay in the strength rather than the number of blows, could then be followed by a mutually agreed pause for rest. Yet tactics did evolve over the years and in response to different situations. A more defensive manoeuvre was the close-packed scild-weall or shield-wall which, like the wedge-shaped formation, was probably learned from the Romans.

The appearance of such an Anglo-Saxon army could be fearsome. Judging from the East Anglian
Sutton Hoo grave goods, some ruling dynasties sought to imitate the insignia of Imperial Rome. On the other hand the Northumbrian elite described in the Celtic 'Gododdin' appear in barbaric splendour
with gilded armour (one apparently of scale construction), white sheaths for knives rather than
swords, four-piece spangenhelms and animal-skin cloaks. Anglo-Saxon body armour would normally have consisted of a mail byrne. Iron splinted armour for the limbs, of probable Oriental inspiration, may also have been known. It is, however, worth recalling that northern Germany, whence these invaders originally came, was relatively richer in armour than southern Germany in the immediate pre-migration period. Other defences might have been of leather, but their construction remains unknown. Some short-sleeved mail hauberks from pre-migration Denmark incorporate gilded rings, and one early medieval German mail shirt even included a coif. In these early centuries most northern European mail, much of it imported from the East, was made of alternating punched and riveted rings, the former being smaller and flatter than the latter. In addition to a probable splinted vambrace lower-arm defence with mail mitten for the right sword-arm, comparably splinted greaves with mail foot-covering sabatons have been found at sites of the so-called 'Vendel' culture in pre-migration Sweden.

Helmets were rare among the Angle-Saxons, and some were at least partly of leather. Visored helmets of the Sutton Hoo type were probably only for a ruler's ceremonial purposes, and such styles stemmed from late-Roman cavalry parade armour. The semi-visored Vendel type of helmet was worn for war. The later Benty Grange spangenhelm was originally covered with a 'chevron pattern' of horn plates riveted to each other and to the framework. Some sagas also refer to painted helmets, and there is conclusive evidence for the use of the Asiatic or Byzantine-style mail aventail in both Scandinavia and England. The newly discovered mid-8th century Northumbrian helmet from York has just such an aventail. All warriors would also have had a shield, normally round and of leather-covered lime wood with a large iron boss.

The spear was the most common weapon, and it also had heraldic significance among the pagan Angle-Saxons. The names given to such weapons showed that some were for throwing, some primarily for thrusting, and others also for lateral cutting, while certain excavated examples may have been Long enough for use as pikes. An extraordinary variety of spearheads have been found, and these indicate differences between major cultural zones, from the Anglian East Midlands and upper Thames to the Jutish south-east. A Celtic influence may also be seen in Wessex and the Thames basin, but most spears were clear developments of pre-existing Continental forms. Interestingly, square-section armour-piercing blades disappeared in the late 7th century, which suggests that armour was becoming less common. Perhaps mail shirts of late-Roman manufacture were finally wearing out. Delicate long-necked spears also died out at this time, perhaps indicating that the hard press of more disciplined shield wall tactics was precedence over disorganized individul combat. Cords fastened to some javalin shafts were not, of course, to retrieve these weapons, but either spun the javelin as it was thrown or added extra momentum to a throw.

The well-documented British migration across the Channel stemmed largely from western Britain, and included some 11,000 of the Romano-British aristocracy. These formed a useful fighting force who laid the foundations of a future 'Brittany' in Armorica. Those members of this elite who remained in Britain organised a British counter- attack, first under Ambrosius and later under the even more mysterious figure of Arthur. It was largely successful, although the invaders retained control of enclaves along the eastern and southern coasts. The centre of British resistance seems to have been in the Severn Valley, and much of the fighting appears to have taken place in Wiltshire, near the Icknield Way or in the Cambridge area.

Arthur was probably a military rather than a civil leader; but who was he? Was he one real man, or a legendary figure assembled from the exploits of two or more forgotten historical figures? The epic quality of the Arthurian tales was later inflated by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c·II36 Historia Regum Bnitanniae) as a British rival to Charlemagne of France and various other Anglo-Saxon and Norman 'national' heroes. Yet Arthurian tales had been popular in both literature and art across much of Christendom long before Geoffrey's day -- Arthur's memory had been cherished for centuries by the defeated and frequently oppressed Celts of Wales, southern Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany, just as that of Drustan had been by the conquered Picts and in fact this latter 8th century northern leader was subsequently incorporated into the Arthurian Cycle as 'Tristan'.

Clearly, the man or men upon whose exploits the epic figure of Arthur was built made sufficient impact in their own day for their memories long to outlive them, particularly in folk tradition and oral tales. Equally clearly, something dramatic did happen in late 5th century Britain for which 'Arthur', justifiably or otherwise, was given credit. It is a historical fact that in Britannia, alone among the western provinces of the Roman Empire, a native population halted the wave of Germanic invasion for a significant time. One or more military leaders appear to have united the disparate Celtic tribes and citizens of Britannia. This must have been essential to their temporary success, just as the inability of 'Arthur's' successors to maintain such a unity was a primary cause of the Saxons' final victory.

There is also reason to believe that at some level 'Arthur' created a unity embracing all of Celtic Britain, even beyond Hadrian's Wall, and perhaps exercised suzerainty over the first Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Such fleeting authority probably extended to Armorica (Brittany), while the traditional exploits of various heroes suggest that the Celts continued to involve themselves in the turbulent politics of early Merovingian Gaul.

The minimal written historical or Literary record, first in the Gododdin (c.An 600) and later in Nennius (C.AD 80o), the Annales Cambriae (G.AD 955) and the Spoils of Annum (10th century), are probably less significant than the fact that an oral tradition preserved memories of effective leadership, Celtic unity and successful cavalry warfare. The record of place-names along the known 5th-6th century Angle-Celtic frontier further supports the fact that both Arthur and Ambrosius existed as separate individuals.

Paradoxically, the very success of the Celtic resistance contributed to the ultimate Anglicisation of most of Britain. The devastatingly swift Germanic invasions of Gaul, Iberia and Italy created a very shallow aristocratic veneer which was then rapidly absorbed by the Latin or Latinised-Celtic native population. In Britain the invaders were at first contained in a small area which was soon thoroughly Germanised.

All images and text on this page are from "Arthur and the Anglo Saxon Wars" by David Nicolle PhD.

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