One of the most famous and significant events in the reign of King Arthur was the Battle of Mount Badon. This is also one of the only events that feature in the Arthurian legends that can confidently be viewed as historical. For these reasons, it is definitely worth understanding.
So, what was the battle of Mount Badon? In this article, we will see:
- When this battle occurred
- What happened
- Who was involved
- Why it was important
- What Was the Battle of Mount Badon?
- Did the Battle of Badon Really Happen?
- What Happened at the Battle of Badon?
- The Importance of the Battle Of Badon
- Who Led the Britons at the Battle of Badon?
- Who Led the Saxons at the Battle of Badon?
- Sources For the Battle of Mount Badon
- The Battle Of Badon In Modern Media
- Frequently Asked Questions About The Battle Of Badon
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What Was the Battle of Mount Badon?
Put simply, the battle of Mount Badon (sometimes known as the battle of Badon Hill, or the siege of Badon Hill) was King Arthur’s climactic victory in his war against the Saxons.
Arthur was said to have fought twelve major battles against the Saxons, with Badon being the twelfth battle.
According to the ninth century Historia Brittonum, Arthur engaged in twelve battles fought at nine different locations across Britain. He was victorious in all of them.
However, the battle fought at Badon was evidently different. While the Saxons were able to recover after each of the previous eleven battles, their defeat at Badon was so crushing that it brought an end to the Saxon wars for the remainder of Arthur’s reign.
Did the Battle of Badon Really Happen?
Scholars almost universally accept that the Battle of Badon really did take place. This even applies to scholars who reject the existence of Arthur.
The reason is that the battle is mentioned in one of the only contemporary sources for sixth century events in Britain that we have – Gildas’ De Excidio.
In this record, Gildas does not mention Arthur. However, he does mention that the wars between the Britons and the Saxons continued up until the battle of Badon.
Gildas’ Latin grammar at this point has proven difficult for scholars to assess, but the most widely-accepted view is that he said that the year of the siege was also the year of his birth, and that this was forty-three years before he was writing.
This being the case, we can see that Gildas’ reference to the battle is a near-contemporary reference. Plenty of people who were adults when the battle occurred would have still been alive when Gildas wrote.
Therefore, we can be confident that the battle of Badon was a historical event.
What Happened at the Battle of Badon?
In Gildas’ record of Badon, he does not actually call it a ‘battle’. Instead, he calls it a ‘siege’. So evidently there was a fortified settlement on Mount Badon, perhaps a hill fort.
However, Gildas does not provide any more details than that. Was it a British siege of an important Saxon settlement, thus explaining why it was so devastating for the Saxons? Or was it a Saxon siege of a British settlement?
It is impossible to give a definitive answer to this question, since our only near-contemporary source does not provide any more details. Nonetheless, we can use the later, legendary material to get an idea of what might have happened.
Geoffrey Of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae
The earliest detailed source to describe the battle is found in the Historia Regum Britanniae, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in c. 1137.
Most scholars do not consider this to be a reliable source. Nonetheless, an analysis of Geoffrey’s accounts of Roman-era events shows that his descriptions are usually broadly accurate.
So although we cannot trust it completely, it is worth seeing what Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HRB says about the battle.
The HRB presents the narrative that Badon came just after one long campaign against the Saxons, in which Arthur chased the enemy directly from one battle site to the next.
This is interesting, because the earlier Historia Brittonum does not clarify whether the twelve battles were part of one long campaign or whether they were isolated battles that occurred over an extended period of time.
The Build Up to The Battle Of Badon
The HRB explains that Arthur defeated the Saxons at the previous battle, which occurred in the Caledonian Forest in the north of Britain. Arthur forced the Saxons to sail back to Germany.
While they were on their way, they changed their minds and decided to continue their attack against the Britons. They sailed to the south west of Britain, where they landed at Totnes in Devon.
From Totnes, the Saxons began ravaging the country as far as the Severn Sea. Then they travelled to Mount Badon and laid siege to the settlement there.
Another record, called the Dream of Rhonabwy, presents a different version of events. In that record, the battle of Badon is an arranged event between Arthur and the Saxon leader.
Although this does not match exactly with the HRB’s version, it agrees with it in making Badon a somewhat isolated event, rather than directly connected to a campaign of battles.
Returning to the HRB, this source tells us that Arthur was in the north of Britain, campaigning against the Picts and Scots, while the Saxons were besieging Badon. However, after being told of what was occurring, Arthur hurried to the south.
Before engaging the enemy, Arthur first gathered his men together and had the chief religious figure of the area, Dubricius, make a speech to get them ready for the fight.
With his men now highly motivated, Arthur led the Britons into battle against the Saxons once more. For the first day of fighting, the battle was inconclusive. The Saxons then withdrew to a nearby mountain, where they had established a temporary camp.
The Second Day of Fighting
The second day of fighting was much more decisive. The Britons attempted to besiege the Saxon camp. At first, this approach resulted in great losses for the Britons.
However, Arthur continued to lead his men against the Saxon camp, and they eventually reached it. For the majority of the day, the Britons and Saxons were engaged in all-out war. Finally, the Britons started to gain the victory over their enemies.
During this intense period of fighting, Arthur is said to have killed 470 Saxons by his own hand. One explanation for this immense figure is that this is the number of men killed by just Arthur and his men, in contrast to the troops of the other British kings assisting Arthur in the battle.
Whatever the case, all accounts agree that the Britons were highly successful in this battle. The Saxons were resoundingly defeated.
According to the HRB, two Saxon leaders were slain, and the third was killed after fleeing some distance.
The Importance of the Battle Of Badon
The importance of Badon is highlighted in the very first source that mentions it. Gildas explains that the wars between the Britons and the Saxons continued since the time of Ambrosius Aurelianus (in the fifth century) until the battle, or siege, of Badon.
Technically, Gildas actually says that Badon was ‘almost the last, and certainly not the least’ slaughter of the Saxons. Logically there would have been a number of other conflicts as the Saxons retreated.
The key point is that the decisive victory at Badon brought the warfare that had been a presence in Britain since the time of Ambrosius to an end.
Gildas himself refers to the ‘present peace’ that had been established since those wars had ended. He even explains that it caused the subsequent generation to become complacent, which led to civil wars.
But the civil wars notwithstanding, the Battle of Badon provided the Britons with at least 43 years of peace from the Saxons.
This is also borne out through archaeological evidence and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, both of which show that the Saxons did not advance further west through the country for several decades across the mid sixth century.
Who Led the Britons at the Battle of Badon?
Traditionally, the leader of the Britons has been identified as Arthur. He is credited with the victory in the earliest source which described Arthur’s activities, the Historia Brittonum. This is also the first source which specifically credits the victory at Badon to any one leader.
All later sources agree that Arthur was the victor at Badon. However, Arthur is not mentioned by Gildas, nor is he mentioned by Bede, an eighth century writer who mentioned the battle.
Was it Ambrosius?
On the basis of this evidence, some scholars conclude that Arthur was not actually the British leader at Badon. Instead, they believe that it was Ambrosius Aurelianus.
The basis for this is that Gildas makes no mention of Arthur. Rather, he mentions Ambrosius just before referring to Badon. He says that Ambrosius led the Britons in warfare against the Saxons and enabled them to gain some victories against them.
He then says that the success in the war kept on going back and forth between the Britons and the Saxons, until eventually the battle of Badon established the present peace in which Gildas was then living.
The obvious issue with identifying Ambrosius as the leader at Badon is that Gildas does not say how much time passed between Ambrosius’ initial Saxon campaign and the climactic battle at Badon. It could have been just a few years, or it could have been decades.
Really, then, there is no basis for disagreeing with the unanimous testimony of later tradition that says that Arthur was the victor at Badon.
If Ambrosius really had been the victor at such an important battle, it is strange that the number of sources crediting him with the victory is exactly zero.
Who Led the Saxons at the Battle of Badon?
This is a much more difficult question. There are a variety of opinions about this, and it really depends on when and where the battle took place.
One popular suggestion is that the Saxon leader was Ælle, the king of Sussex. His reign is usually believed to have stretched from about 477 to about 514. This is exactly the era in which most scholars place the Battle of Badon.
Since Ælle was said by Bede to have been the overlord over the rest of the Saxons, it makes sense why some scholars believe that he was the leader at Badon.
However, Welsh tradition calls the Saxon leader ‘Osla’. Furthermore, Geoffrey of Monmouth names three Saxon leaders. The primary leader seems to be Cheldric.
Interestingly, the king of Wessex in the first half of the sixth century was a king named Cerdic. His name could easily be the origin of Geoffrey’s ‘Cheldric’.
Furthermore, Cerdic’s grandfather is recorded as being ‘Esla’, who could be the origin of the Osla of Welsh tradition. Perhaps Cerdic was a young ruler leading his grandfather’s armies.
Most scholars agree that the location of the battle was in the south west of Britain, meaning that Cerdic’s territory (Wessex) was even closer to Badon than Ælle’s territory was.
Sources For the Battle of Mount Badon
The earliest source that mentions this battle is De Excidio, written by Gildas at some point in the sixth century.
Bede also wrote about Badon in his Ecclesiastical History, written in the eighth century. However, this is an almost verbatim copy of Gildas’ description.
After this, the Historia Brittonum, written in the ninth century, provides more details of the battle. It presents Badon as being the last of a group of twelve battles by Arthur against the Saxons. It also says that Arthur carried the cross on his back for three days and three nights.
Dating to c. 1137, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae contains by far the most detailed account of Badon of all the early sources.
The Battle Of Badon In Modern Media
Badon has not featured particularly heavily in modern media about King Arthur. But some examples include:
- Prince Valient: The battle is depicted in a 1967 edition of this American comic strip series, created by Hal Foster.
- Excalibur: A Novel of Arthur: This 1997 novel by Bernard Cornwell prominently features the battle of Badon, which he calls Mynydd Baddon, depicting both Ælle and Cerdic as the Saxon leaders.
- King Arthur: This 2004 film by Antoine Fuqua features the siege of Mount Badon as the film’s climax, placing it near Hadrian’s Wall.
Frequently Asked Questions About The Battle Of Badon
When did the Battle of Badon happen?
The battle is thought to have occurred within a decade either side of the year 500. The Annales Cambriae dates it to 516. Chronological references in the Historia Regum Britanniae place it closer to the middle of the sixth century.
Who won the Battle of Badon?
The Britons were victorious against the Saxons.
Where was Badon?
There is no universal agreement about the site of the battle, but most scholars agree that it was in the south west of Britain. Some suggested locations include Mynydd Baedan in Glamorgan, Badbury Rings in Dorset, Badbury in Wiltshire, and Bath or Solsbury Hill in Somerset.
- Norris Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra Mancoff – The Arthurian Handbook (Second Edition)
- Alan Lupack – The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
- Ronan Coghlan – The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
- Anonymous – Lancelot-Grail, the French Vulgate
- Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte d’Arthur
See also my ever-expanding list of primary and secondary sources.