Few events in the Arthurian legends can lay claim to being undoubtedly historical. One of these rare events is the siege of Mount Badon. This battle was described by Gildas, the only contemporary insular source for the Arthurian period that we have. Let us first have a look at the background of this event and see what led up to it, as far as we can discern from Gildas and other sources.
The Anglo-Saxons were invited to Britain at some point in the early or mid-fifth century to act as mercenaries, protecting the shores of the island. However, after some time, they turned on their British employers and began seizing more land than they had been given, eventually leading to a considerable amount of bloodshed as the foreigners brutally pushed their way through the country, slaughtering the natives.
Eventually, the Britons rallied under a man named Ambrosius Aurelianus and managed to successfully defend themselves against their attackers. The war raged on, and sometimes the Britons would be successful, while at other times, the Saxons would be. This warfare more or less climaxed at the battle, or siege, of Mount Badon. The Britons were victorious at this battle, and the advance of the Saxons through the country was halted for a generation or two.
Much of this traditional narrative has been called into question by scholars in recent years, with many claiming that the arrival of the Saxons into Britain was more through peaceful migration and integration than outright conquest. Nonetheless, this story is what the earliest records (in fact, all the records) tell us.
The aggressive domination of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons is seemingly confirmed by the one truly contemporary source, The Gallic Chronicle of 452. In the entry for the year 441, this chronicle relates that the British provinces had fallen into the hands of the Saxons. Surely, this confirms that it was more than a matter of migration and integration, and was truly a matter of conquest.
Whichever view is correct, scholars generally agree that there was at least a certain level of violence present during this period. Gildas’ description of bloody warfare between the Britons and the Saxons, while perhaps exaggerated, certainly provides a degree of insight into what the era was like. And, as we have seen, the earliest source supports the notion of large scale conflict between the Britons and the Saxons.
So if we accept that there was fierce warfare between the natives and the invaders, the story of the Battle of Badon makes sense. Additionally, it arguably ties in with a fact discerned from archaeology – that the Saxons apparently advanced quite quickly through the country from the east, until their territory was made up of the entire south-east quarter of the island. The border between their territory and the native Britons’ territory was more or less a line from the Humber to the Severn.
What would cause them to stop so suddenly and definitely, around the turn of the sixth century? According to most scholars, the turn of the sixth century is when the Battle of Badon took place, and this battle, as we said before, halted the Saxon advance for at least two generations. The correspondence between this narrative and archaeological discoveries is strong evidence that the account is true.
We really do not have any valid reason to question the historicity of the event, because Gildas claims that it took place in the year of his birth, meaning that anyone the age of his parents or older could have given him accurate information about what happened. His account is not separated from the event by many successive generations, creating a ‘Chinese whispers’ scenario or anything like that.
But now, let us move on to more details about the battle and what actually took place, as well as who was involved.
The Combatants – The Britons
The identity of the victor at Badon is a hotly contested issue. A simple reading of Gildas’ description can give the impression that Ambrosius, the man under whom the Britons were first unitedly rallied, was the one who led the Britons to victory at Badon. After all, no one else is mentioned in the account. Therefore, many scholars do believe that he was the leading commander at this battle.
Nonetheless, Gildas’ De Excidio is not explicit. He mentions that the Britons were rallied under Ambrosius, and then he mentions that many battles were fought between the two nations, sometimes resulting in victory for the Britons, and sometimes resulting in victory for the Saxons. This warfare, Gildas tells us, culminated in the siege of Badon, at which the Britons won a decisive victory.
So it can be seen that, although it could be read to mean that Ambrosius was the leader of the Britons for the entire time until the siege of Badon, the account is not actually so explicit. It leaves room for commanders to have changed between the time the Britons were first united by Ambrosius and the time they fought at Badon.
In virtually all later sources, the leader of the Britons at Badon is not said to have been Ambrosius, but is said to have been Arthur. The first time this attribution explicitly appears is in Historia Brittonum, written in c. 830.
Next, in the Annales Cambriae, Arthur is described as the victor at Badon. These are the two earliest records that directly, explicitly make a claim for who led the Britons at this battle, and they both describe it as being Arthur, not Ambrosius. All subsequent records claim the same thing. In fact, there does not appear to be any mediaeval record at all which attributes the victory to Ambrosius.
Of course, for the many scholars who do not believe that Arthur was real at all, such attributions are meaningless. They are nothing more than examples of a historical event being attached to a folkloric figure.
Nonetheless, there is very good reason for believing that Arthur was a real leader of the Britons in the sixth century. These reasons are extensively considered in the article ‘Was King Arthur Real?’ Suffice it to say, the sudden popularity of the name ‘Arthur’ among royal individuals in the latter half of the sixth century and the early seventh century is strong evidence by itself for Arthur’s historicity.
If Arthur was real, then there is no reason at all to reject the unanimous claim in all sources that specify that Badon was his victory. Although Gildas does not mention him, the reality is that he does not mention the majority of people who played parts in the events to which he referred. It is a very rare thing indeed for any personage to be specifically mentioned in De Excidio.
Therefore, with no definite evidence to the contrary, we would do well to accept the firm and consistent claim from the available records that Arthur was the one who led the Britons to victory against the invaders at Badon.
The Combatants – The Anglo-Saxons
Now that we have examined the evidence for who led the victorious side in battle, let us now see what we can discern about who led the losing side at Badon.
The evidence is not nearly so consistent regarding this matter. Gildas does not give us any helpful information at all concerning this. The first real piece of evidence we have is in the description found in Historia Brittonum.
Just before mentioning Arthur, this record informs us that a Saxon named Octa succeeded to the kingship of Kent. At this point, immediately after stating this, the account tells us that ‘then it was’ that Arthur fought against the Saxons. This is then followed by a description of twelve battles fought by Arthur against the invaders, culminating in the battle of Badon.
This could be taken to suggest that Octa was the king who fought against Arthur. In which case, this would mean that it was the men of Kent who were campaigning against Arthur in whatever parts of the country the twelve battles took place.
On the other hand, it may simply be that the author of Historia Brittonum was just using Octa’s accession as a helpful time reference, and nothing more than that. However, even if it was meant as a reference to who Arthur’s enemy was, this does not necessarily mean that Octa remained the leader of the Saxons for the entire time up until the final battle.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae provides us with some information, though the accuracy of it is, of course, questionable. According to this account, Octa died during Uther’s last battle, after which Arthur succeeded to the throne. Very probably, Geoffrey is incorrect on this point, for this does not seem at all consistent with the earlier Historia Brittonum.
Nonetheless, just because Octa’s reign likely overlapped at least a little bit with Arthur’s, this does not necessarily mean that it lasted right up to the battle of Badon or even that Octa ever had any interactions with Arthur.
According to Geoffrey, the leaders of the Saxons who fought against Arthur were three figures named Baldulf, Colgrin and Cheldric. These figures have no clear connection to any independently recorded Saxon leaders of the period, other than possibly Cheldric. As shown in the article ‘Cerdic of Wessex’, there is some reason for believing that Geoffrey’s ‘Cheldric’ was actually identical to the likely-historical founder of Wessex named Cerdic.
This identification makes more sense than concluding that Octa was the opposing leader at Badon. After all, the vast majority of scholars believe that Badon was somewhere in the south-west of the country. There are very few theories, if any, that place it anywhere near the region of Kent.
On the other hand, Cerdic of Wessex was in just the right location to have fought at Badon if it was where the majority of scholars believe it was. Therefore, on the basis of this logic, Cerdic would seem to be the most logical candidate for the opposing leader of that battle.
However, as can be seen from the article on Cerdic of Wessex, there are some problems with concluding that he was Cheldric. Most significantly, the chronology does not appear to work, unless Badon took place later than commonly believed.
Interestingly, Welsh sources describe the Saxon leader at Badon as being name ‘Osla’. It is quite likely that this character is the same as a certain ‘Esla’ who appears in genealogical lists as the grandfather of Cerdic of Wessex. Perhaps he was the elderly chief of the Saxon side, while his grandson Cerdic was the young man actually commanding the armies.
This is only a suggestion, but it would make sense of the apparent conflict between the Welsh sources and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim about who led the Saxons at Badon. It is also consistent with the placement of the battle in the south-east.
But in truth, it is impossible to know for sure who led the Saxon armies at this battle, even more so than who led the British side.
Now that we have covered the combatants, let us examine what we know about the actual battle itself. In the Historia Brittonum, this is presented as the last of twelve battles. However, it is not clear whether or not this is a description of a single campaign of twelve battles, or whether each battle was a relatively isolated event.
In Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae, on the other hand, Badon’s status is clear. While the majority of the battles against the Saxon are presented as one long campaign, with the invaders constantly moving around the country with Arthur in pursuit the whole time, Badon is somewhat different.
After the penultimate battle described by Geoffrey, Arthur defeated the Saxons in the wood of Celidon (the Caledonian Forest in southern Scotland) and had them sail back to Germany. However, partway along the journey, they changed their minds and returned to attack Britain again. They arrived in Totnes in the south-east of the island.
The Saxons are then said to have devastated the country as far as the Severn Sea, and from there, they marched to Badon and laid siege to it. This, according to Geoffrey, was the lead up to the battle of Badon.
According to the Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, the battle was actually an arranged affair between the Britons and the Saxons. In fact, the battle does not end up taking place during the story; due to certain events, they are forced to put the battle off for another time.
While both these sources are of questionable accuracy and do not fully agree with each other, we can see that, allegedly, Badon was a rather isolated battle which took place far away from the other battles in Arthur’s Saxon campaign. Now, how did the subsequent events actually transpire?
According to Geoffrey’s HRB, Arthur eventually made his way to the south of the country (for he was attempting to subdue the Picts and the Scots) and arrived in the county of Somerset (Geoffrey seems to have identified Badon with Bath). Upon seeing the siege, he gathered his men, and the chief religious leader of the area, Dubricius, made a speech to stir the men for action.
The fighting then took place over the course of two days, according to this source. Without much being accomplished from the fighting on the first day, the Saxons withdrew to a neighbouring mountain where they had their camp.
The following day, Arthur and his army attempted to ascend the mountain, which attempt cost a lot of life. Eventually, after intense struggling, the Britons managed to fight their way up to the Saxons. The fighting covered the majority of that second day, before finally the Britons began to gain the victory.
At this point, Arthur is attributed with single-handedly killing 470 men. This is a remarkable figure, for if we were to generously allow Arthur four hours in which to accomplish this task, he would have had to have killed two Saxon soldiers every minute.
On the other hand, a more realistic interpretation (for a similar claim appears in the Historia Brittonum but with an even larger number) is that this is the number of Saxons killed by Arthur and his men, as opposed to the armies of the other British kings who were allied with Arthur. Or it may simply be that Arthur alone is intended, but it is just a highly exaggerated claim.
In any case, the Britons won the battle. This is the one detail about the battle that we can be certain is absolutely true. And if we accept Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of it, Baldulf and Colgrin were slain, while Cheldric fled but was slain shortly afterwards when the Britons caught up with him.
The result of this battle, as we know from our one contemporary source, was peace from the Saxons for at least forty-three years, up to the time that Gildas was writing.
When Did it Take Place?
The next big question to answer is: When did these events actually take place? As mentioned earlier, there is a general consensus that it took place at some point around the turn of the sixth century. However, it is worth delving into this a little deeper, to examine the reasons for this conclusion and to incorporate other factors that are generally overlooked.
Gildas makes a statement that is generally understood as meaning that the battle (or siege) of Badon occurred in the year of his birth, which was forty-three years before the time he was writing. Unfortunately, he does not clearly reveal when exactly he was writing. We need to use later records to try to ascertain when this was.
Helpfully, Gildas included extensive comments directed at five named kings who were ruling different parts of Britain at the time of Gildas’ writing. One of these kings is generally identified with a king of later records called Maelgwn Gwynedd, and this king appears in the Annales Cambriae with an explicit year of death: 547.
If Maelgwn died in that year, yet he was still alive when Gildas was writing, then De Excidio must have been written prior to 547 at the latest. In turn, remembering that the battle of Badon took place forty-three years before Gildas wrote, Badon must have been fought no later than 504.
This seems quite logical, and this is essentially the fundamental reason why scholars generally place the battle at the turn of the sixth century, or even slightly earlier. However, the Annales Cambriae also gives the year of Badon itself: 516. The problem is that there are not forty-three years between this date of 516 and the date of 547, when Maelgwn allegedly died. One of the two entries in this chronicle must be wrong.
Scholars generally reject the date of Badon and place more weight on the date of Maelgwn’s death (and then work backwards from that to get the ‘true’ date for Badon) even though, in reality, there is no reason at all to conclude that this chronicle’s date for Maelgwn’s death is the accurate one – it could easily be the other way around.
Bearing this is mind, Gildas may well have been writing later than 547, and the battle may well have taken place in 516, or even later. It is wholly inconsistent to accept the AC’s date for one event but reject it for another, especially since they are both so far removed from the date of composition.
Where was Badon?
The one question concerning this battle that has been debated more than any other aspect of the battle is the question of where it actually was.
Unlike some of the other battles mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, Mount Badon is not the name of a famous city or place that appears in numerous Roman and post-Roman records of the island. It first appears in De Excidio, and the references to it by Bede, the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae do not offer any additional insight into where in Britain it might be.
There are a considerable number of locations throughout Britain that have been proposed as the true location of Badon, ranging from Somerset to Scotland. It is true that Geoffrey of Monmouth did directly claim that Somerset was the county in which it was located, and while this is worth noting, it should be acknowledged that the geography in HRB is not always accurate. It may well be that Geoffrey placed it in that county because he identified it with Bath.
This town, Bath, has been a very popular candidate for centuries, and it is easy to see why. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is called ‘Bathanceaster’, meaning ‘fortified settlement of Bathan’. The similarity between ‘Bathan’ and ‘Badon’ is tantalising, but recent scholars have not been so favourable towards the identification.
One particularly popular suggestion in recent years is Badbury Rings in Dorset. This was a large hill fort, and we know that there must have been a settlement at Badon for it to have been a siege, as Gildas tells us. There is some evidence that the area around this hill fort was refortified in the early Post-Roman Period.
Another proposal is Liddington Castle in Wiltshire. It was a rather strategic site, and is situated above the village of Badbury. Also nearby is the hill of Baydon, which some researchers see as deriving from ‘Badon’. However, there is little archaeological evidence for any activity here in the Arthurian period.
An even weaker candidate is Bowden Hill in Scotland. While the name has a general similarity to ‘Badon’, the fact that it was in Scotland essentially makes it a non-starter. It is true that many of the battle sites in Historia Brittonum’s list of twelve battles may well have been in the north, but the idea of Badon likewise being in the north is extremely illogical.
This was meant to have been the battle that halted the Saxon advance for over a generation. And this is particularly from the perspective of Gildas, whose writing primarily concerns the south-west quarter of the island (all five of the kings to whom he directs his comments were from that quarter of the island).
This being so, how could a battle in Scotland halt the Saxon advance in the south-west? The answer is that it could not. So Bowden Hill is not a viable candidate.
A site in the south-west, where most scholars think it was, does seem like the most likely location. Not many suggestions have been in Wales, but this is a distinct possibility. One suggested location in Wales is Mynydd Baedan in Bridgend.
A location such as this, near the south-east border of Wales, would have been a logical location for the battle. With the Saxons being driven back across the Severn River, this would have created a very definitive divider that would have discouraged them from attempting to attack that part of the country again for many years thereafter.
While we cannot be certain which particular site was the true location of Mount Badon, a site in that general area is supported by The Dream of Rhonabwy, which puts the site close to the Severn.
In conclusion, we see that the Battle of Badon was one of the most significant events of the Arthurian era. It halted the Saxon advance and drove them back for at least several decades, possibly even driving them out of territory which they never subsequently conquered in the history of the British Isles.
This event is also one of the only events in the Arthurian legends which can be definitely confirmed to be historical. Whether it actually involved Arthur or not is still debated, but there is good reason for believing that it did.
We have also seen that it is difficult to ascertain with any degree of certainty who led the opposing side of the affair, though it is reasonably likely that it involved the dynasty of Wessex in some way, perhaps involving both Esla and his grandson Cerdic.
This decisive battle may well have taken place at some point in the first quarter of the sixth century, though some scholars, on inadequate grounds, place it in the latter part of the fifth century. In truth, there is no good reason to push it further back than the date of 516 given in the Annales Cambriae.
Finally, suggestions for the location of the battle have been made for centuries, but there is a general consensus that somewhere in the south-west is the most likely region. A location specifically in the south-east of Wales is favoured by the information in the only extensive Welsh description available, but this is late and legendary.
In truth, virtually every aspect of this immensely important event in Post-Roman Britain is shrouded in mystery.