History Files
 

 

Post-Roman Britain

The Site of the Battle of Badon: The Case for Bath

by Mick Baker (drawn from the work of Phillips & Keatman), 5 July 2002

 

 

From the archaeological evidence the Saxon / Jutish kingdom of Kent ruled by Octha must have suffered defeat in circa AD 500, as there is a break in the sequence of Saxon ceramic finds, indicating a withdrawal from this territory.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) the Saxon Kingdom of Sussex (founded AD 477 by the warrior Ælle) did not survive for long as there are no further mentions after 491, until its re-establishment over a century later. Additionally, archaeology has discovered no Saxon burials in the area between the late fifth and late sixth centuries. [There is no archaeological evidence to suggest that Cerdic's Wessex had any real influence for another fifty years.]

Britons regain the initiative

The only plausible reason for the problems experienced by these two adjoining kingdoms would seem to be a resurgence of British resistance sometime during the 490's. A crucial British victory sometime in the mid-490's tallies perfectly with what Gildas tells us of the battle [or siege] of Badon.

A Saxon presence only fifteen miles away from the Bristol Channel would threaten to cut the British nation in two. This would explain why any battle fought in this region would have been so significant.

The battle of Badon appears to have been fought against a Sussex / Kent alliance led by Ælle and/or Octha somewhere near the Bristol Channel, which was as far as the Saxons had pushed westward. As Bath is called Badanceaster - 'City of Badan' (ASC) - it is an excellent candidate.

Not only is Bath precisely where the otherwise dubious Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Arthur fought his most celebrated battle, but Nennius mentions the 'Baths of Badon' in a closing summary of British marvels. (Historia Brittonum) These are almost certainly the old Roman baths in the city of Bath.

As both Gildas and Nennius refer to the battle of 'Mount Badon', it is not unreasonable to assume that the conflict was fought for the possession of a hill-fort.

If such a fort was vital for control of the city then we need look no further than the huge triangular hill-fort on Little Solsbury Hill, overlooking the city of Bath to the northeast. Indeed, excavations have shown that it was occupied by the British during the late fifth century.

The 'other' leader

An alternative argument proposing Cerdic of Wessex as the Saxon leader [see paragraph two, above], a date of circa 520 and the location at Badbury Rings [a major rival for the location - see below], tallies with the account in the Annales Cambriæ, a document noted for its unreliability as far as precise dating is concerned. Coupled with this is the fact that this theory conflicts with all the other evidence.

A study of the origins of place names and the associated etymology favours Bath as Badon (or Bathon, deriving from the Welsh - see Gwynedd [pro. Gwyn-eth] ) as opposed to Badbury deriving as it does from the Saxon prefix - 'Bad…' Writers sometimes dropped the 'dd' in favour of a single 'd' whilst still preserving the 'th' sound.

The most plausible conclusion, therefore, is that in circa 496* the Saxon forces of Ælle and/or Octha failed to defeat the British on Little Solsbury Hill and a counter-attack (by Arthur?) drove the enemy back to the east, crushing their power for a century.

 

* Adjusted from circa AD 493 to tie in with the date used by the rest of the History Files.

 

 

     
Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.