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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 Jutish kingdom of Kent which was ruled by Octha must have suffered defeat around AD 500, as there is a break in the sequence of Germanic ceramic finds, indicating a withdrawal from this territory.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) the kingdom of Sussex (founded AD 477 by the high-status 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 West Saxons would have any real influence on major events 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 490s. A crucial British victory sometime in the mid-490s tallies perfectly with what Gildas tells us of the siege of Badon.

A Saxon presence only fifteen miles away from the Bristol Channel would threaten to cut the British lands 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 that was led by Ælle and/or Octha - the former is acclaimed as Bretwalda, the highest level of authority in the lexicon of the invaders, and someone who clearly commanded obedience from any lesser Germanic kings. The event took place somewhere near the Bristol Channel, which still further than any Saxons had so far pushed westwards from the Thames Valley. As Bath is called Badanceaster - 'City of Badan' (ASC) - it is an excellent candidate.

Not only is Bath precisely where the not-always-reliable Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Arthur fought his most celebrated battle, Nennius also 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 '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 north-east. Indeed, excavations have shown that it was occupied by the British during the late fifth century.

The 'other' leader

An alternative argument proposes that Cerdic of Wessex was the Saxon leader at this time (there is something in the argument for a slightly later date for Arthur and the battle, but it fails to have as strong a likelihood as a late fifth century date). 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 that is 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 Brythonic - see Gwynedd, pronounced Gwyn-eth) as opposed to Badbury, deriving as it does from the Saxon prefix, 'bad-'. Early writers sometimes dropped the 'dd' in favour of a single 'd' whilst still preserving the 'th' sound.

The most plausible conclusion, therefore, is that around 496* the Saxon forces of Ælle and/or Octha failed to defeat the British on Little Solsbury Hill and a counterattack (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.