Tuesday, 20 November 2012

In the Footsteps of Arthur, Part Three: Badon Hill

Bardon Hill, Leics: one of the lesser candidates for Badon

'...After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might in this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Bath-hill, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity'.

  So wrote the holy man Gildas, in his 'On The Ruin And Conquest of Britain', composed in the first half of the sixth century. It is our earliest reference to a battle which, embellished by the legends of centuries, has come down to the modern age as Arthur's greatest triumph, the strife in which he beat back the Saxon hordes for generations and thus established (relative) peace in his time.

  Our earliest reference... yet it fails to mention the leader of  'our countrymen' during this engagement. It fails to mention which army was under seige. And, crucially, it fails to provide any context for the location of 'Bath-hill', in Gildas' original Latin 'Mons Badonicus'.

  Many claim that the leader of the Britons is named. The passage above is derived from Chapter 26 of Gildas. The closing paragraph of the preceding chapter has this... 'Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory'.
  Ambrosius, descended from parents of significance in Romano-British society, united the Britons to fight the encroaching Anglo-Saxon menace. Many have concluded that the juxtaposition of these passages means that Ambrosius was the war-leader at Mons Badonicus, others have pointed out one of the many frustrating problems with Gildas' vague text: the gap between chapters, indicating a passage of time, and the more direct 'After this' that opens Chapter 26. Scholars are also undecided on the date of the battle, although many agree that it took place in the years around 500 C.E.

Statue of Gildas

  Not until the ninth century do we find further pertinent references to the battle, now known as Badon or Baddon. In the Annales Cambriae we find this mention accompanying the year 516: 'The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors'. Rendered a secondary source by the passage of centuries, this nevertheless gives us a leader... although no clue as to who was beseiging whom. In the Historia Brittonum, part of the British Historical Miscellany, we find 'The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor'. Here, Badon is the culmination of a dozen victories, although the Historia's bombastic description makes it rather difficult to take seriously.

  What of the claim in the Annales that Arthur carried a cross? This cannot be taken literally, as it would be physically impossible. It is the first reference to Arthur being a Christian, perhaps following on from various 'Lives Of Saints' that often portrayed him as something of a brigand who was not beyond raiding monasteries to finance the war effort... although in some cases the piety of the holy men made an impression on him. The 'cross' reference is also made in the Historia, although on that occasion it is attributed to Arthur's eighth battle. It is now assumed that 'shoulders' was a mistranslation of a word meaning 'shield'. It would certainly make more sense for a cross to be painted on a shield rather than carried into battle on shoulders.

A page from the Annales Cambriae

  Later, in the first great flowering of the Arthurian romances during the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Brittaniae claims the city of Bath as the site of the siege, and Arthur as the attacker. However, the definitive collection of Arthurian legends, Thomas Mallory's Morte D'Arthur of c.1470, fails to mention Badon - although he has Arthur fighting eleven Kings, as opposed to twelve battles. Modern versions of the tale make little mention of Badon - it is referenced once in the satirical 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', and used as the setpiece battle in the 2004 movie 'King Arthur' although, curiously, it is set at Hadrian's Wall - the location usually proposed for the later Battle of Camlann.

  To sum up: the pre-Galfridian sources initially make reference to a victory over the encroaching Anglo-Saxons by an unknown British warrior... that later becomes a Christian called Arthur who kills everyone with his own hands.

  Regardless of fanciful mythological embellishments, it remains almost certain that the Battle/Siege of Badon was a historical event. The dating of various archaeological digs has shown that the gradual westward advance of Anglo-Saxon culture was checked at some point during the sixth century, that for a period of about two generations they did not proceed any further from the lands they had already settled. This could certainly be explained as the result of a British victory that was decisive enough to create a demographic status quo. It wasn't until the Battle of Dyrham in 577 that the Saxons pierced Gloucestershire and drove a permanent wedge between the Britons of Wales and the Britons of the South-West. The Annales even mention a Second Battle of Badon, taking place during the busy year of 665 during which the Anglo Saxons converted to Christianity and a figure called 'Morgan' died. Once again, unfortunately, they fail to specify a location (or even the participants), but calling it the second battle, they may add weight to the tradition that there was a first.

  So what of the location? In the absence of historical or archaeological proof, many sites have been posited, often as a result of linguistic or toponymic investigations. This has proven something of an investigative minefield, as many scholars cannot agree even if the word Gildas used was derived from English or British. Three sites in the south of England, however, continually top the lists of most likely suspects, and we shall take a closer look at them: Liddington Castle, a hillfort in Wiltshire; Little Solsbury Hill, a hillfort to the east of Bath in Somerset; and Badbury Rings, a hillfort in Dorset. I have driven past the first on many occasions, seen the second from a train window, and physically visited the third.

Liddington Castle

  Regular travellers along the M4 through Wiltshire will be familiar with this landmark, even if they do not know its name. It stands just south-east of  Junction 15, the Swindon/ Marlborough exit, and stands 277 metres above sea-level. The Ridgeway, the long-distance footpath between Bedfordshire and Salisbury Plain, passes over the site.

Evocative: Liddington Castle

  It is not a castle in the conventional medieval sense, of course. Liddington is a hillfort, a hilltop site surrounded by a defensive ditch and rampart. Most hillforts date to the Iron Age, and Liddington is an early example - first traces of occupation on this elevated spot have been dated to about 700 B.C.E. It does not seem to have achieved the longevity of most hillforts, being abandoned after about two hundred years, although traces have been located of Romano-British activity a few hundred years later. No occupation has been traced dating to c.500 C.E., and no relics of ancient battles. Its heightened position makes it the highest point in the Borough of Swindon, and as such it commands views north to the Cotswolds and south toward the Marlborough Downs. It is unsure which tribe used the site, as it stands in a borderland area beween the Dobunni and the Durotriges.

Liddington Castle (aerial) (c) Google Maps

  Three reasons exist for suspecting Liddington to be Badon Hill. It stands close to the strategically important area that was later lost in the Battle of Dyrham, an area which provided the link between British tribes of Wales and the South-West, and we can therefore assume that it would have been hotly contested. It stands close to the important Roman roads between CORINIVM (Cirencester), VENTA (Winchester), CVNETIO (Mildenhall) and CALLEVA (Silchester), and those arteries would have been the routes used by travelling armies. Thirdly, the toponymic argument: a hamlet at the foot of the hill is called 'Badbury'.

  Although Ridgeway ramblers may be familiar with the site, the lack of a carpark means that Liddington is not much frequented by the casual visitor, and as such can be a lonely yet evocative site. Its prominence in the landscape certainly promotes flights of historic imagination.

Liddington: Ditch and Rampart

Little Solsbury Hill

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night 

  So wrote - and sang - the musical artist Peter Gabriel, about his visit to a place that clearly had an effect on him. The 'city' overlooked by Solsbury is Bath. One would certainly imagine that it is windy, and no great leap of ther imagination is needed for time to stand still at any remote historic site. As for the eagle... well, we'll leave that for others to ponder.

(c)Ordnance Survey

  Solsbury is a popular contender for Badon, and the reasons are clear. Agreements/disagreements continue to be expressed regarding the linguistic connections between Bath/Baddon ('Bath-on')/Badon. Indeed, the Historia Brittonum makes mention of the 'baths of Badon'. Like the other serious contenders, it stands close to major Roman roads; from the east came the road from LONDINIVM, still followed in places by the modern A4, the old Great West Road. From the SW came the Foss Way, starting at ISCA (Exeter) and passing through Bath on its way to LINDVM (Lincoln). It is easy to imagine an invading Saxon horde approaching from the east and being checked by a British force from the Southwest at this spot. Bath still existed around 500 C.E., the approximate date of the battle, and one can evoke the army of Arthur bivouacking in the crumbling city of AQVAE SVLIS while the defiant Saxons roared derision from the hillfort above. Even today, the ruins of the Roman springs at Bath, the Waters of Sulis, are remarkable.


Solsbury probably derived its name from Sulis, the Celtic goddess of the spring. She was being venerated at the hot springs as far back as the Iron Age, and the Romans conflated her with their goddess Minerva. Her name may possibly have left traces further along the road to London, at the Wiltshire sites of Silbury Hill and Swallowhead Spring, both of which are also associated with waters rising from the ground.

  The hill became a fort, almost certainly of the Durotriges tribe, around 300 B.C.E when a single ditch and rampart, with drystone facing both inside and out, was thrown up to protect a triangular plateau on the peak. It was abandoned about two centuries later. At its peak it contained wattle-and-daub roundhouses, but many seem to have been destroyed during a period of disturbance which may have coincided with a Belgic invasion about a century before the Romans arrived. This destruction seems to have signalled the end of Solsbury as an occupation site; the only other evidence of later activity lies in two small, abandoned quarries on the W and NW of the hill.

  The author Bernard Cornwell, in his Warlord Chronicles, used this site as Mynydd Baddon, and had Arthur scoring a major victory against the forces of Aelle the Saxon. This follows from Geoffrey of Monmouth's supposition that the battle took place here. In Cornwell's version, however, it was the Britons who were beseiged behind the rampart (eschewing the ambiguity of earlier references).

  The case for Solsbury being the site of Badon seems quite strong on etymological grounds, yet some linguists have argued otherwise. Gildas was the first to mention 'Badon', yet others point out that this is an English word - and why would Gildas, writing in Latin but with a British background, use an English word for a place that was not yet in England? The argument goes that, if 'Badon' is derived from a Celtic word, it probably has a completely different - and now lost - meaning from 'Bath'.

View of Bath from Solsbury Hill

  Still, the possibility exists that Gildas, for reasons unknown, may have opted to use an English word... and if Badon Hill was indeed an imposing hillfort near a crux of roads, then Little Solsbury Hill is as good a contender as any. For those - like me - who have never got around to climbing it, good views can be had from the A4 as it heads from Bath toward Chippenham, and also from the Great Western Railway on the east of the city.

Solsbury from the SE

Vindocladia/Badbury Rings

  There are several hillforts known as Badbury Rings, but the best-known - and the one with which we are concerned here - lies in Dorset, almost equidistant between Bournemouth and Blandford Forum. It is the only one of our three prospective sites which I have personally visited.

  Thanks mostly to Roman activity in the area, more is known of the history of this site than our previous two contenders. There was activity here in the Bronze Age, as evidenced by the presence outside the complex of several 'round barrows', burial mounds of the period. There are multiple defences dating from the subsequent Iron Age. Originally, a triple rampart-ditch defence (known as trivallate) was thrown up surrounding an area of 18 acres. This occurred in about 800 B.C.E. At a later date, possibly in anticipation of Belgic or Roman invasion and in common with other forts held by the Durotriges tribe, the defences were enlarged. A single ditch and rampart (known as univallate) was thrown around the existing area, enclosing some 41 acres.

Badbury Rings (c) National Trust

  Of our three contenders, this is the site that almost certainly saw a battle. Four and a half centuries prior to the Battle of Badon, in 43 C.E., the Romans invaded under the orders of Emperor Claudius. One of the invading legions, Legio II Augusta, was commanded to sweep across the south and pacify the hostile tribes they might encounter. The Durotriges had constructed the mightiest hillforts in the country - Maiden Castle, Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill standing as magnificent examples - so it may be assumed that the Durotriges were hostile. The legion, under the command of the future emperor Vespasian, is recorded in Roman sources as having subdued twenty hostile settlements. It can be safely assumed that Badbury Rings was one of them.

  Two Roman forts were established in the area - a large vexallation fortress at Lake Farm to the south-east, and a smaller fort at Shapwick to the southwest. The displaced residents of the hillfort seem to have been settled in a new community outside the ramparts, a site known as Vindocladia. It would have been a convenient place for passing trade, as a Roman road network met here. From the south came a road from Poole Harbour, from the north a road leading possibly to stone quarries at modern Lady Down. From the southwest came Ackling Dyke, the road from DVRNOVARIA (Dorchester) to CALLEVA (Silchester).

Badbury Rings information board

  By the year 500 Vindocladia was gone, but the road network and the impressive defences of the abandoned hillfort remained. The Saxons approached, and evidence remains of attempts to stem the tide; an earthwork named Bokerley Dyke, built right across the Ackling Dyke between Old Sarum and Badbury, may be evidence of this resistance. Alternatively, a Saxon fleet could dock at Poole Harbour and head north. Either way, they would have followed the Roman roads and come upon Badbury Rings.

  In these circumstances, it would be tactically reasonable to assume that a British force would station itself at Badbury to guard the Ackling Dyke threats from both directions. In this instance, it would be the British under seige.

The approach to Badbury Rings

  Badbury is an evocative site, its plateau now wooded, its ramparts still mighty, traces of the Roman roads still visible on the ground. When I visited in 1995, I was with a 'sensitive' companion who could feel vibes of foreboding from the site, the fearful sense of approaching conflict. Whether this harks back to the Roman invasion, the Battle of Badon or the briefly recorded Second Battle of Badon in 655, is a matter of conjecture.

  We do, however, have evidence of a later military use of Badbury Rings. In the year 899, King Edward the Elder - son of Alfred the Great - was challenged by his cousin Athelwold. As the would-be usurper was based at nearby Wimborne Minster, Edward stationed troops at Badbury to counter this threat.

Barrows outside Badbury Rings. The track behind the hedgerow is a Roman road. Image (c) Hamish Fenton at 'The Megalithic Portal'


  Very few conclusions can be reached, on the basis of available evidence. We have three main contenders for Badon Hill. Liddington and Solsbury are lofty plateaus defended by a single ditch and rampart. Badbury is not so lofty, but its defences are far mightier. All of them stand in strategically important areas, and all of them stand near the junctions of Roman roads.

  I am inclined to favour Badbury, not just because I've seen it up close (which I can't deny affects objectivity), but because the activity in the area during Roman times shows its importance. That same importance would have been pertinent in the Dark Ages, with another invading army coming from the same direction, and we have evidence from that period of defensive works being commissioned along at least one of Badbury's approaches. In the absence of 'smoking gun' evidence, nothing can be claimed with any degree of certainty - yet one thing remains true. It is the search that matters. It is the slow, gradual accumulation of knowledge and experience, the awakening to the rich tapestry of British history, the interwoven web of history and folklore, and the chance - when following Arthur - to visit some of the most evocative places in these Isles.

Soon: In The Footsteps of Arthur, Part Four: Camelot

Further Reading

Liddington Castle:
Megalithic Portal
The Modern Antiquarian

Little Solsbury Hill:
Megalithic Portal
The Modern Antiquarian

Badbury Rings:
Heritage Trail
The Modern Antiquarian

Badon Hill:
Gildas: On The Ruin And Conquest of Britain
Bath as Badon?
12 Battles



  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.