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Age of Arthur, Early Medieval Wargaming, Historical Wargaming

The Age of Arthur: Post-Roman Britain (400-600) for the Historical Wargamer: Part 1.

(This originally appeared in Wargames Illustrated 138 (March 1999), pp.30-34)

The period immediately after the end of the Roman Empire in Britain is currently undergoing something of a surge in popularity amongst wargamers, partly as a result of  Bernard Cornwell’s deservedly popular ‘Warlord’ trilogy of novels; a couple of new ranges of figures attest this.  Wargames Illustrated was in fact ahead of the game, here, with a pair of interesting articles on this subject appearing in late 1996: ‘The Age of Vortigern’ by Graham Vine in WI 107 (pp.36-38), and Dan Mersey’s historically rather more judicious ‘The Twelve Battles of “King Arthur”‘ in WI 108 (pp.14-15).  In this series I want to introduce the wargamer to some of the problems (and suggest how to get round them) and potentials of what has always been one of my favourite historical (and wargaming) periods.

Part 1: King Arthur: Fact or Fiction?

First, the old chestnut: did King Arthur really exist?  Let me take you on a personal voyage, if not an actual ‘journey of discovery’, at least a road to better understanding.

A:        The Age of Morris, and the ‘D-Day’ model.

I first awoke to the potentials of this period when, as an eager teen-ager, I came across John Morris’ The Age of Arthur (in its 3-volume paperback incarnation) in Blackwells in Oxford.[i] Morris, professor of ancient history at University College, London until his untimely death in the late ‘seventies, was a very learned man who wrote this huge tome from an enormous range of written and archaeological sources.  Morris’ great achievement was to alert historians to the existence of “Celtic” written sources, especially saints’ lives, which dealt with the figure of Arthur.  Morris put together, from this base of data, a complex and very detailed narrative and description of the history of Britain between 300 and 650.  All of a sudden the darkest bit of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ seemed to be bathed in light.

Morris reconstructed an account of a unified post-Roman British state caught up, first of all, in a struggle between Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus ‘the elder’ (for there were two, according to Morris), and then subject to Saxon and other barbarian attacks.  (Morris’ narrative of the early fifth century is repeated by Graham Vine in his WI article.)  A revival was led by Ambrosius ‘the younger’ in the later fifth century, before a period of British triumph under the ‘Emperor Arthur’ around 500 AD, culminating in his great victory at Mount Badon.  This stopped the Saxon advance in its tracks for over a generation, during which the British relapsed into civil war and Arthur’s ‘Empire’ fell to pieces.  In the later sixth century the English resumed their advance against the divided British ‘successor states’ and by the middle of the seventh century the picture of an English lowland and a ‘Welsh’ highland zone was established.

All this was in tune with the then current model of how Britain became England, a model which I call the ‘D-Day’ or ‘Moving Front’ model.  This sees the Anglo-Saxons as landing in a rather D-Day-like operation (find some old reconstruction drawings and see how like the D-Day landings they look!) and then moving inland on a broad front.  It was thought that certain types of archaeological evidence (kinds of cemetery mainly, but also settlement types and artefact forms) could be plotted to show where immigrant Angles and Saxons were at any given time; where these types of evidence weren’t found, it was assumed that the British were still in control.  Joining up the dots on the archaeological map would show you the ‘front line’ in the war between Britons and ‘Saxons’.  In some areas, zones of ‘treaty by settlement’ or ‘Anglo-Saxon reservations’ were discerned.  It was thought that these maps could ‘prove’ the statement of Gildas (the author of the only near-contemporary insular source, On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) that Mount Badon put an end to English advance for a generation or more.  In this view of the fifth and sixth centuries it was easy to envisage a ‘King Arthur’ figure leading the British defence against the ‘tide’ of English invasion – all good news for wargamers.

B.        The day of Dumville: scepticism sets in

Morris’ book is a marvellous and inspiring read.  Sadly it is also complete hokum; I sometimes wonder if (especially given its continued availability in paperback, and its on-going use, in good faith, by wargames writers like Graham Vine and Phil Barker) it wasn’t one of the greatest historical hoaxes ever perpetrated on the Great British public.  If it was Morris’ intention to be deliberately provocative, and, by proposing an intentionally outrageous theory of post-Roman British history, to make people think hard about the possibilities and problems of the sources for the period, then he certainly succeeded.  The book received a barrage of criticism, most notably by David Dumville of the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNAC) at Cambridge, who contributed an absolutely devastating critique of the book to the journal History in 1977 (in an ideal and honest world it would be given away free with every copy of The Age of Arthur).[ii]

Dumville took the insular (British) sources for Morris’ book in turn and, with merciless scholarship, showed how they were more or less without evidential value for the sort of questions which Morris was asking about the fifth and sixth centuries; we will come back to this issue next month.  A more generous, but still irresistable, critique of Morris’ evidence and thus of his interpretation, was written by James Campbell of Oxford University, one of the most prominent Anglo-Saxon historians.[iii] From ‘Celticist’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ perspectives, then, Morris’ book was shown to contain more holes than a Swiss cheese: a tremendous shame, but there you go.

Moreover, Morris himself was less than ‘up-front’ about his evidence. The Age of Arthur has one of the most labyrinthine referencing systems I have ever encountered, covering Morris’ tracks very efficiently and making it very difficult to find the evidence for his statements.  If you do persist you will often find that the evidence cited does not say what he would have us believe it says, or is of extremely dubious worth.  As examples of this we can first of all take Morris’ account of the war of the Frankish king Chlothar I against his rebellious son, Chramn, and his Breton allies (559-60).  Some readers will know that, to date, most of my own academic research has been on the Merovingian Franks, and when I read this section of Morris again, after something like fifteen years, I was quite shocked.  Morris plays havoc with the evidence of Gregory of Tours, reverses events and characters, and intersperses it, more or less ad hoc and certainly uncritically, with data from late Breton saints’ lives.  None of this mucking about is in any way evident from the text, where it is woven into a seamless narrative.  Secondly, let us take the account of Saint Finian losing out in a sort of military praying contest to Saint Columba at the Battle of Cuil Dremhni.  This is an episode which has made it into wargames lore:

‘Saint Columba was given the main credit by contemporaries for the Ui Neill victory over king Diarmait in 561 AD, decisively outpraying Saint Finnian on the other side’.[iv]

Though not sourced, this is all from Morris’ Age of Arthur (p.377), and if you can track down the reference to this praying contest, not evidenced in any early medieval source, you will find that Morris got it from a seventeenth-century collection of O’Neil folklore!

Sadly, then, as I did after I first read Dumville in the mid-‘eighties, we have to abandon Morris’ work.  Well worth a read for historiographical purposes, it is hardly a sound basis for wargames reconstruction – or anything else.  But where does all this leave “King Arthur”?  The criticism provoked, perhaps deliberately, by Morris leaves us in no doubt that the surviving evidence from the early middle ages does not constitute reliable testimony to Arthur’s historical existence.  Nevertheless, though Dumville pooh-poohed it, he never really dealt effectively with what he termed the ‘no smoke without fire’ approach to Arthur’s existence.  It cannot be denied that whilst Dumville’s article left the thesis of the historical Arthur dead in the water, it did not sink it definitively.  Being a cynical sort, though, that was enough for me, and from the mid-eighties I became I die-hard Arthurian ‘minimalist’, the more so since other work was effectively demolishing the ‘plausible’ politico-military historical context for an Arthur figure.

C. The ‘FA Cup Model’ and other recent approaches

In the late 1980s three excellent books appeared on the emergence of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.[v] These embodied the results of the then burgeoning research, documentary and archaeological, on the origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  Amongst this can be found more critical work, further revealing the utter lack of value of the written sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, purporting to deal with the fifth and sixth centuries.  Of particular importance, though, is Steve Bassett’s introduction to his now classic edited collection, The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.  Here, he expressed very clearly the current model for the creation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  The assumptions are common to most of the work done on this topic, but Bassett put it across in especially (perhaps courageously!) clear form, as the ‘competitive exclusion’ or ‘FA Cup’ model.  Put very briefly, after the end of Roman authority in Britain, the former provinces experienced fragmentation into myriad tiny political units.  Some of these units, according to Bassett (and others), are retrievable through very close study of later charters, placenames and topography.  Gradually, over time, the number of these units was reduced as one tiny kingdom conquered its neighbours, only to be conquered in turn by another kingdom.  By the seventh century, when reliable written sources are first available to us, this process has left about seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria) still in the competition (the analogy with a knock-out contest now becomes clear, which is why Bassett memorably likened the process to the FA Cup).  Eventually, by the ninth century, the process is completed with the ‘cup final’ win by Wessex over Mercia.

This approach, as stated, is common, but usually only implicitly, in most work on the period.  Work on the end of Roman Britain[vi] revealed very clearly a dramatic collapse of Roman civilization, with the abandonment of traditional Roman urban life and villa sites, and the end of organized industries such as potteries, all within a generation of 400.  Archaeological study of early Anglo-Saxon sites, especially cemeteries, also seemed to show local societies which were not especially stratified socially, and which did not reveal clear evidence of powerful, established leaders.  Some writers proposed, on this basis, that the Anglo-Saxons did not establish true kingships until about 600.[vii] Reassessment of the material evidence also questioned the extent to which one could identify various forms of archaeological data directly with immigrant Anglo-Saxons.  Recent work has shown that post-Roman ethnic identities were malleable and could be adopted for social and political reasons.  In the Welsh areas, analogous work was also suggesting fragmentation into many miniscule kingdoms by the sixth century.[viii]

With all this barrage of detailed, critical recent work the political context for ‘King Arthur’ is difficult to envisage.  We no longer see a neat ‘moving front’ between invading ‘Saxons’ and defending Britons.  The picture has become much more confused, and the arena reduced to hundreds of local communities working out their own little struggles for power. On this reading, the sort of military/political context in which a traditional ‘king Arthur’ could possibly plausibly exist only comes into existence in the very late sixth century, a good century or so after the supposed date for his existence, and at a time when we have enough evidence to know that he did not exist.

As if that weren’t enough, the critical onslaught against the documentary base for the period continued apace.  Gildas has come in for particular attention, with the result that we no longer know when he was writing, let alone where.[ix] More to the point, Oliver Padel has taken up where Dumville left off, and written a formidable attack on the ‘no smoke without fire’ approach to Arthur’s existence.  Padel shows that even in Nennius’ (early ninth-century) Historia Brittonum, the earliest work certainly to mention Arthur, Arthur does not feature only in apparently sober historical snippets like the list of ‘Twelve Battles of Arthur’ but also already inhabits a legendary world inhabited by giants and monsters.[x]

D. Full circle: The ‘Arthurian context’ reborn?

This, then, is the current, critically-informed academic view of the period,[xi] and it is fair to say that it does not make cheery reading for those who wish to believe in the historical Arthur.  So is it all doom and gloom?  I don’t think so.  I have recently returned to work on late and post-Roman Britain after a decade or more spent studying the Continent, and from the perspective of someone used to the Merovingian world, the current approaches to, and conclusions drawn about, post-Roman Britain seem to me to have a number of important flaws.  Firstly, although extremely scholarly and judicious, they do suffer from insularity.  We have very similar archaeological data in northern Gaul to that which exists in England, yet we know, because we have much better written evidence there, that rather than experiencing a long-lasting collapse into hundreds of tiny kingdoms, by 507 most of Gaul was part of a single Frankish kingdom ruled by Clovis.  The sort of cemetery and settlement evidence found in England is not, therefore, incompatible with the existence of large political units.  Furthermore, if one only had narrative written evidence in Gaul from the seventh century, as in England, one could hypothetically put together a similar ‘FA Cup Model’ culminating with the empire of Charlemagne around 800 – many of the other forms of evidence used to compose this picture in Britain, charters and archaeological data, exist, and could be drawn on, in quite the same ways in Gaul.  Yet this would be entirely wrong, as we know because in Gaul we do have reliable sources for the fifth and sixth centuries.  History doesn’t move in neat straight lines.  Large kingdoms grow, fragment and are put back together as other kingdoms, and so on; five minutes’ aquaintance with the political history of early medieval Gaul would show you that.  What’s more, Anglo-Saxon history from the seventh century does not reveal a picture of a neatly ordered ‘knock-out contest’ where the number of kingdoms is gradually reduced to one by conquest and ‘competitive exclusion’.  The numbers of kingdoms remains more or less the same until the Viking attacks change the situation completely.  Kingdoms knocked out temporarily, like East Anglia or Kent in the eighth century, reappear or revive later on.  In short, the political history of seventh- to ninth-century Anglo-Saxon England provides no grounds for back-projecting a process of the gradual elimination of tiny units; and none of the evidence, written or otherwise, provides any reliable testimony to the existence of such tiny kingdoms at any time in any case.  The Tribal Hideage a (probably) Mercian tribute list of (possibly) the late seventh century includes a lot of names of small subsidiary peoples, but, with the possible exception of the Hwicce of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, there is no evidence that any of these were ever independent kingdoms.  Perhaps more importantly, there is good evidence to suggest the existence of powerful political units in the highland areas of Britain.

Thus, in sum, we do not need to hypothesize a complete political fragmentation of Britain in the fifth century.  I would argue that political units could have been quite big in the fifth and sixth centuries.  In that context, although I would have to say that there is absolutely no reliable evidence for his existence, there might very well be a political context for an ‘Arthur figure’ in the fifth century after all.  I will return to my own conjectural reconstruction of post-Roman British history in a future part of this series.  First, however, we need to look more closely at the evidence available to us.

Notes 

[i] J. Morris, The Age of Arthur (London, 1973).  Three-volume ‘limp edition’ Chichester 1973.

[ii] D.N. Dumville, ‘Sub-Roman Britain – History and Legend.’ History vol.62, no.205 (1977), pp.173-92.

[iii] J. Campbell, ‘The Age of Arthur’, reprinted in J. Campbell, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London 1986), pp.121-30

[iv] Phil Barker, Army Lists for use with Wargames Rules 3000 BC to 1485 AD, Book 2, 55 BC-1000 AD (Worthing, 1982), p.4. Sentence repeated verbatim, eleven years later, in P. Barker & R. Bodley Scott, DBM Army Lists for use with De Bellis Multitudinis Wargames Rules. Book 2: 500 BC to 476 AD (Devizes, 1993), p.48.

[v] S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester, 1989); B.A.E. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1990); D.P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings. (London, 1991).

[vi] A.S. Esmonde Cleary, The Ending of Roman Britain (London, 1989) is by far the best book on the topic.

[vii] e.g. C.J. Arnold, The Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London, 1988); M.Carver, ‘Kingship and material culture in early Anglo-Saxon East Anglia’, in Bassett (ed.) Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (above n.5), pp.141-158; C. Scull, ‘Before Sutton Hoo: Structures of power and society in early East Anglia’ in M. Carver (ed.), The Age of Sutton Hoo (Woodbridge, 1992), pp.3-23.

[viii] W. Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, 1982).

[ix] M. Lapidge & D.N. Dumville (ed.), Gildas.  New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984)

[x] O.J. Padel, ‘The nature of Arthur’, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (Summer 1994), pp.1-31.

[xi] I ignore pulp fiction like Holmes’ King Arthur: A Military History and Gilbert’s (even worse) Holy Kingdom.  These works are entirely uncritical and unreliable, for reasons which will become clear over the coming months.

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