Why Was the Battle of Mount Badon so Significant? | History Hit

Why Was the Battle of Mount Badon so Significant?

Ilkka Syvänne

10 Oct 2019
Arthur defeats the Anglo-Saxons in this 19th century drawing by John Cassell.

The Battle of Mount Badon, which happened in the late 5th century, has attained legendary importance for several reasons.

Firstly, it is believed that at Mount Badon, King Arthur achieved a decisive victory over the Anglo-Saxons. The early historians Gildas and Bede both wrote about Badon, claiming it was won by the Roman, Aurelius Ambrosius.

But, if we are to believe Nennius, a historian of the 9th century, Aurelius Ambrosius was, in fact, King Arthur. In short, the events at Mount Badon were essential to the legend of King Arthur.

A tapestry dated from around 1385, depicting Arthur wearing a coat of arms often attributed to him.

A victory fit for a legend

Secondly, Mount Badon was of huge importance to the Roman-Celtic-Britons because it resisted Anglo-Saxon invasions decisively for about half a century.

Hence, it was recorded by Gildas in the 6th century, and later in the texts of Bede, Nennius, the Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales), and writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Thirdly, King Arthur became a legendary figure during the Middle Ages. According to many Britons, Arthur was in a state of ‘suspended animation’, recovering from wounds received at the Cattle of Camblan River, on the Island of Avalon.

It was believed that Arthur would soon return and restore Britain to the Britons. This seems to be the most likely reason the Arthurian legend was so prevalent in Europe at this time.

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The fourth reason for the importance of the Battle of Badon is its modern importance within Arthurian legend. As Arthur’s exploits are recounted, read or watched world over, the events of Mount Badon are famed in their own league.

As a child growing up in Finland, I read about Arthur’s exploits in illustrated books, and later immersed myself in fiction and movies. Now, as an adult, I am so interested that I immerse myself in the original sources.

This heritage is alive and well. Is it a coincidence that so many Arthurian legends for children have been produced in Finland during the past two decades?

N. C. Wyeth’s illustration for ‘The Boy’s King Arthur’, published 1922.

Modern views

In academic discussion almost every detail concerning the battle is contested – as it should be. The nature – or science – of historical study requires everything to be challenged.

Firstly, was Arthur connected with the battle at all? A significant number of historians consider Arthur, at most, a legend of fiction.

But there is no smoke without fire. Indeed, many original texts,  such as those written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, contain decisive material, and with cross-examination the evidence is pretty concrete.

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Secondly, when did the battle take place? According to Gildas, the battle took place 44 years and one month before he wrote his text, which was also the year of his birth.

Since we do not know when Gildas was born this has given historians plenty of alternative dates for the battle – usually from the late 5th century until the 6th century.

Bede stated the battle (fought by the Roman Aurelius Ambrosius), took place 44 years after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in 449, which would date the battle to the year 493/494.

However, Bede’s argument cannot be trusted, as he placed the battle before the arrival of St. Germanus in Britain – which happened in the year 429.

If we examine other evidence, the date 493/494 is too late, so this can be discounted.  It seems likely that Bede’s referral to 44 years comes from Gildas and is placed accidentally in the wrong context.

This problem of dating is compounded by the fact that there was also a second battle at Badon, which took place at some point in the 6th or 7th century.

King Arthur depicted in a 15th-century Welsh version of ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’.

The Battle of Bath: 465?

Despite this tricky set of evidence, by calculating campaigns backwards from the campaign of Riothamus in Gaul and accepting Geoffrey Ashe’s identification of Riothamus as King Arthur, I have concluded that the events at Badon happened in the year 465.

A final question, where did the battle take place? Several place names bear resemblance to the word Badon or Baddon, making this difficult to answer.

Some historians have even suggested places in Brittany or elsewhere in France. I identify Badon with the city of Bath, following the argument of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Charles Ernest Butler’s heroic depiction of Arthur, painted 1903.

My reconstruction of the Battle

I have based my own reconstruction of the Battle of Badon on the assumption that Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius were accurate in their accounts, the only accounts to give any details of the battle.

When this information is combined with locations and road networks, it seems Arthur advanced along the road that lead from Gloucester to Bath to relieve the city from siege. The actual battle lasted for two days.

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The Anglo-Saxons occupied a strong defensive position on a hill, which Arthur occupied during the first day of the battle. The Anglo-Saxons took a new defensive position on a hill behind it, but to no avail because Arthur defeated them decisively, forcing the Anglo-Saxons to flee.

The enemy forces were mopped up by the local Britons, allowing Arthur to march back north along the Gloucester road.

This battle belongs to the category of decisive battles.  It secured Britain for the Britons for the next half century, and its status as legendary is deservedly attributed.

.Dr Ilkka Syvänne is an Affiliated Professor of the University of Haifa and lives in Kangasala, Finland. He is the author of several books, focusing on the later Roman period. Britain in the Age of Arthur is to be published on 30 November 2019, by Pen & Sword Military.

Tags: King Arthur

Ilkka Syvänne