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Age of Arthur, Early Medieval Wargaming, Historical Wargaming

The Age of Arthur. Post-Roman Britain for the Historical Wargamer, Part 7: The Nature of Post-Roman British Warfare

(This originally appeared in Wargames Illustrated 148 (Jan. 2000), pp.13-16)

So far we have had a fairly thorough look at the written and archaeological evidence for the period 400-600 in Britain.  Although this has necessitated some fairly detailed general history, I hope I have shown why this is important to the ‘historical wargamer’.  

For some reason early medieval wargaming is still mired in cherished myths (by which I mean errors of fact, not differences of opinion) and progress seems to take much longer to percolate through than in, say Napoleonic or ECW historical wargaming.  Perhaps this is because of that particular cherished myth that ‘there’s no evidence, so anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s’.  It’s true that data is scarcer for this period than for later times, and a certain amount of conjecture and debate is possible, and desirable, but it is simply untrue that there’s no evidence.  What’s more, these sources are tricky to use and are rarely to be taken at face value; understanding of them, as will have become clear from Parts 2-3 is constantly evolving.  This too means that presenting up-to-date research is important.  Put another way, by the nature of things, much research into early medieval military history will represent more or less well informed guesswork, but this is no excuse for being – let alone taking pride in being – less well informed.  I hope it’s been clear so far that the interpretations given in this series have been my own, and that they aren’t the only ones, but at least I have presented the evidence upon which they’re based, and a bibliography which the interested reader can use to track down the sources.  Anyway, this month we come to the final ‘historical’ part of the series, in which we will look at those aspects of warfare which ought to be borne in mind in constructing a historical wargame set in post-Roman Britain.

 A (Risky) Attempt at a Reconstruction

First though, (as promised in Part 1) an attempt to sketch out roughly what I think happened in Britain between c.400 and c.600.  The evidence has been, at least partly, set out in previous parts of the series, but this is – let’s be clear – entirely conjectural.  The point of this section is to provide a sort of ‘story’: a context into which to place your wargames/campaigns.

In the late fourth century, the British army was used to form expeditionary forces for usurper emperors; what remained was withdrawn to the lowlands and a new frontier was established which ran, roughly, from the Severn estuary to York.  Beyond this line defence was given over to local warleaders, who established themselves in old hill-forts and maintained themselves by receiving payments from the Empire.  Along the new frontier line, as it happens, is found the best evidence of powerful local aristocrats with large villas, industries and so on (I will refer to this band, roughly from Dorset to the East Riding of Yorkshire, as the ‘highland-lowland border zone’).  Also, I think, as part of this reorganization, barbarians from northern Germany (‘Saxons’) were invited into England, and possibly settled near the new frontier (which might explain why most of the earliest clearly ‘Anglo-Saxon’ artefacts are found north of the Thames).  Whether any of this was meant to be permanent is doubtful, but that’s the way it turned out. 

After the suppression of the usurper emperors Magnus Maximus (388) and Constantine III (411), the central government never restored its rule to Britain.  As explained before, this led to a general collapse of Roman life in Britain and to the creation of a political vacuum.  Squabbling for local power led to outsiders being invited in to settle disputes (such as St Germanus at St Albans).  The collapse also led to the rebellion of the ‘Saxon’ federates, and Saxon warlords were also invited in to lend their military muscle to settle local power struggles.  The highland chieftains also probably expanded their power down into the lowlands.  Warfare against Pictish invasions, as well as against the Saxons, took place.

In the middle decades of the fifth century a sub-Roman political unit, perhaps based around the remnants of the old Roman army, came into existence south of the Thames (could this have been the area ruled by Ambrosius Aurelianus?).  Large British kingdoms existed, not only in Wales and the West (some of whose kings are named by Gildas: Cuneglassus [Powys?], Vortiporius [Dyfed], Aurelius Caninus [unknown – maybe somewhere around the Severn estuary?  Perhaps a descendant of Ambrosius Aurelianus?], Constantine [Dumnonia] and Maglocunus [Gwynedd]) but also in the north – the later Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia seem to have taken their names from pre-existing British kingdoms (often reconstructed as being called Deur and Bryneich).  The British kingdom of Strathclyde was also in existence in the fifth century; its king Coroticus was the recipient of a letter from St Patrick complaining about his warriors enslaving Patrick’s new Irish converts.  The Cumbrian kingdom of Rheged and that of Elmet, around Leeds, may have existed in this period too, or they may as yet have been sub-divisions of Strathclyde and Deur.  As mentioned last time, the highland kings seem to have been very powerful, controlling trading links with Europe and the Mediterranean, and significant reserves of manpower.

In the rest of the lowlands it is possible that other large ‘Saxon’ kingdoms came into existence.  The lack of a powerful local nobility and thus the need for the backing and patronage of kings may have meant that, as in northern Gaul, kingdoms soon became fairly extensive, at least as big as the old city-districts – perhaps bigger. In the highland-lowland border zone, the socio-economic powerhouse of Roman Britain, the aristocracy seems to have been more powerful, but will have been faced with the expanding power of the highland ‘British’ chiefs.  To combat them, it is likely that they soon adopted the opposing political identity, and ‘became Saxon’: thus the Cerdic (which is the same name as Coroticus) at the beginning of the West Saxon royal geneaology, and the increasing evidence that the Gewissae, or West Saxon kingdom began on the upper Thames, rather than on the coast.[i]  In this same region we find the most powerful kingdoms of the ‘middle Saxon’ period (Wessex, Mercia, Deira), and the reasons for this power may well go back to the fifth century and earlier.  Current orthodoxy, as mentioned in Part 1, is that the post-Roman period saw a fragmentation into myriad small petty kingdoms; I’d like to suggest that, instead, kingdoms in the fifth and sixth centuries were of the same, larger order of size as they were in, say, the ninth century.  This means that, rather than being insignificant skirmishes between ‘kingdoms’ covering a few square miles and marshalling a dozen or so warriors each, warfare might have been on a fairly considerable scale and, as mentioned in Part 1, there is more scope for a ‘King Arthur’ figure in this context (perhaps in the sub-Roman south?) than in that of collapse into hundreds of tiny kingdoms.  It may be thought odd that such large kingdoms should have left next to no written trace of their existence, but it is worth remembering that the same is true of the powerful north Gaulish Merovingian Frankish kingdoms in the sixth century; just about everything we know about them was written in the south, and, I think, only two north Gallic sources survive from the sixth century (both in later copies)…

One final element in the equation is indeed the Franks.  Various snippets of evidence (written and archaeological) suggest that the Merovingians held Kent, and perhaps other parts of the south coast regions, under their sway.[ii]  This hegemony may have been a fairly loose one at times, but we must reckon with the possibility that the Frankish kings were a force to be considered in southern English politics.  This is something which it would be particularly good to know more about.  (Because, as mentioned, Frankish sources come from the south, Merovingian ‘foreign policy’ in the north is pretty much unrecorded.)

By the end of the fifth century, the sub-Roman kingdom south of the Thames had been replaced by one or more ‘Saxon’ kingdoms.  North of the Thames, kingdoms based on English (or Anglian) identity were founded.  The kingdoms of Bryneich and Deur were taken over by English political factions.

Much change took place around 600, at the end of our period.  Long-distance trade began to enter Britain through the ‘Saxon’ lowlands, new trading stations (like Ipswich) were set up, archaeology suggests changes in the social structure in the lowlands, with a more powerful aristocracy, and so on.  The Highland kingdoms may have fragmented.  This is also, of course, the period when reliable written sources begin to survive, and when we see the beginning of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity (from 597).  In these sources we emerge into a burst of military activity against the Britons (the campaigns of Æthelfrith of Northumbria, and the battles of Chester [c.613] and Degsastan [603]; campaigns by the West Saxons against the Welsh) which might reflect this shift in the balance of power between the highlands and the lowlands.  It is also possible that this period saw the break-up of earlier large kingdoms and the emergence of other, smaller units.  It is possible, from the documents, to see Æthelberht of Kent converting to Christianity to throw off Frankish hegemony;[iii] it’s also possible to see him casting off West Saxon overlordship in the south.  Perhaps (perhaps) this was when the south-eastern kingdoms broke free and established their own dynasties.  Certainly, for the rest of the ‘middle Saxon’ period the general character of Anglo-Saxon warfare is aggression by the powerful kingdoms of the highland-lowland border zone against the south-eastern kingdoms.  Thus we emerge from the dimly-lit ‘Age of Arthur’ into the comparatively well-known ‘Age of the Heptarchy (the Seven Kingdoms)’.

Post-Roman British warfare: Some key features

The most important key word to bear in mind in reconstructing post-Roman British warfare, as with other warfare in the same period, is flexibility.  Trying to nail aspects of warfare in this era to hard-and-fast categories based upon later periods of history only clouds the issue.  The first area where this will be apparent is when we consider the purpose of warfare and campaigning.  I’ve argued before that there were different levels of warfare in the early middle ages, with different objectives, different scales of acceptable violence, and so on.  Much warfare will have been concerned with the acquisition of movable loot, especially cattle, as it was in later periods, particularly in the ‘Celtic’ regions; this is a prominent feature in the possibly early Welsh heroic poetry.  In such cases the aim of warfare will have been to acquire as much booty as possible, and get away with the lowest possible losses.  In such endemic, raiding warfare, armies will have been small, mobile élite affairs: mounted aristocrats and their followers, numbered probably only in the hundreds, and perhaps with armour stripped to the barest essentials (perhaps an analogy with later ‘Reiving’ on the borders is not inappropriate).  Battle, if it took place, will largely have been concerned with honour and ‘face’, rather than extermination and the decisive defeat of the enemy.  On the other hand, there was a lot at stake in the immediately post-Roman centuries, and much warfare will have been concerned with conquest: potentially decisive encounters between rival kings and their armies, with the ‘winner taking all’.  In the fluid politics of Britain between 400 and 600, it may be that this major level of warfare was, relatively, more common than it was when the ‘system’ of the established kingdoms of the ‘Heptarchy’ had evolved.  In these encounters, armies will probably have been larger-scale affairs, with numbers of levied warriors as well as the aristocrats and their retinues; pitched battle will often have been ‘to the death’. The different scales of warfare, and the different ‘rules of combat’ which they involved should certainly be built into the wargame, however.

Another aspect of fluidity concerns mounted and dismounted warfare.  It is clear from the poetry that British warriors could fight mounted.  Their method of fighting was very mobile, throwing javelins at the enemy before closing for hand-to-hand fighting; again warfare was mobile, fluid, fast and furious.  But it is also clear from the poetry that these warriors were capable of fighting dismounted too.  There was no rigid division between ‘cavalry’ and ‘infantry’; the specialist post-Roman warrior was a master of several forms of fighting: on horse and on foot; individually and in formed bodies; at a distance and hand-to-hand.  It may be that fluid mounted skirmishing between aristocrats was more common in the ‘endemic’ raiding level of warfare, and that in larger scale warfare, aristocrats might dismount to stiffen the ranks of ‘levied’ spearmen.  Remember, though, that this was an age before the introduction of the stirrup.  Although it has been shown that the stirrup was not decisive in creating ‘shock cavalry’, it has also been argued that the stirrup is important in striking downward blows, and they certainly anchor a horseman more securely.  In this period, dismounted warriors who got in amongst riders might more easily tip them from the saddle.  The commander of mounted troops would then be concerned with keeping his troops out of the range of a sudden rush by foot-warriors, or being pressed up against an obstacle.  Instead he would try to wear down an enemy by skirmishing until they were demoralized or disorganized; close combat should ideally be brought about by a charge, when the extra impact of the horse and rider could be more decisive, and the morale effect of which might break an opponent before contact.  On the other hand, the commander of dismounted warriors would want to keep in good order and press forward against mounted skirmishers until they were driven off, pushed up against an obstacle, close enough to be hit by volleys of javelins or other missiles, or sufficiently near for a short rush to be able to get his spearmen in amongst the horsemen.

As was proposed in part 5, ‘Saxon’ as well as ‘British’ armies should be allowed to include mounted warriors.  The idea that the Britons fought on horseback and the Saxons on foot is based upon an outdated view of a rigid racial/cultural binary division between two ‘peoples’.  Later Old English poetry makes it fairly clear that even later ‘Anglo-Saxon’ armies included mounted troops.  Spurs and horse-gear are sometimes found in furnished burials in this period; mound 19 at Sutton Hoo covered a young warrior buried with his horse, and another ‘horse-burial’ has recently been found.  Given the nature of the burial display with its emphasis on warlike aspects, it seems that the horse was an integral – and symbolic – part of the warrior’s equipment; this suggests that the horse was more than just any old nag to move a foot-sore ‘Saxon’ from A to B.  Later seventh-century saints’ lives make the same point about the noble Anglo-Saxon warrior.  The Life of Wilfrid[iv] in fact mentions King Ecgfrith of Northumbria defeating the Picts with a mounted army.  Clearly ‘Saxon’ warriors could fight mounted as well as on foot.

As should also have become clear from part 5, dismounted warfare in the fifth and sixth centuries also seems to have been a rather more open and mobile affair than it would be later in the Anglo-Saxon period.  We have seen that shields were often quite small ‘targets’ with bosses aimed at catching and deflecting blows, and that armament included a large number of missile weapons, although archery may have been limited to skirmishing by younger warriors; the Welsh poem Y Gododdin does not, apparently, mention archery at all.  Nonetheless, throwing spears (including heavy throwing spears of the ango type) and javelins seem common, and throwing axes are known from the south.  Rather than being drawn up in solid, dense ‘shield-walls’, post-Roman British foot-warriors seem have fought in more open fashion, although they could on occasion be drawn up closely for defence.  The poetry of Taliesin seems to refer to ‘shield-wall’-like formations of spearmen.  Archaeology suggests that the close-fighting shield-wall became more common and more central in the seventh century.  In this situation it may have become more common for aristocratic and other specialist warriors to fight on foot to stiffen the line.

One key feature of such warfare, and one very nicely brought out in Cornwell’s ‘Warlord’ novels, is that two such formed bodies of foot-warriors do not simply crash straight into one another.  There is a phase where the two sides will attempt to ‘psych-out’ their opponents – to establish a moral advantage allowing a charge to be pressed home.  Hurling of insults and challenges will have been part and parcel of this, as well as the exchange of actual missiles, and attempts to disorganize or otherwise physically shake up the enemy.  Because of all this, it does not seem unlikely that warriors went into battle with a certain amount of ‘Dutch courage’; the Welsh poetry frequently mentions mead-filled warriors.  Another key element in attempts to create a psychological advantage would be single combats between champions.

Warfare was clearly very much the business of individuals; the poetry sings the praises of individual heroes.  Single combat between champions seems to have been a regular part of warfare, and this ought to be built into the wargame too.  As well as an overall tactical situation, points should be awarded to individuals, so that one might win a ‘personal victory’, and even win a sort of victory ‘of reputation’ if one dies gloriously. 

The poetry frequently mentions battles at fords.  This is not surprising.  Blocking the line of advance (or retreat) of an enemy army on one of the well-known campaign routes would be one of the best means of bringing an enemy to battle.  In the better-documented period 600-850 over a third of recorded Anglo-Saxon battles were fought at river crossings.  This could form the basis for a number of game scenarios.  Sometimes individual heroes would gain prestige by holding the ford against enemy champions.  This is an aspect which might vary according to the nature of the warfare involved.  In small scale raiding warfare, an enemy whose champions failed to fight their way across a ford to make their escape might be forced to yield up their booty as the price for being allowed to return home in shame.  Otherwise, one might allow an enemy across the ford, after first demonstrating that one could have held it if one had wanted, so that, if defeated, the enemy could be driven into the stream or river and slaughtered.  The ford would be the location of challenges and the site of much ado about honour and reputation.  This certainly should feature in post-Roman wargames.

As was mentioned last time, the centres of at least the highland kings and their chieftains were fortified strongholds.  These would have formed the foci for campaigning.  The ‘Twelve Battles of Arthur’ include several which seem to have been sieges of, or battles by, such hill-forts.  The aim of serious warfare would be annihilate such strongholds and capture and kill the enemy king or chief.  Another way of bringing an enemy to battle would be to position one’s army by such a well-known centre, effectively challenging one’s opponents to come and give battle.  To look, again, at the location of Anglo-Saxon battles between 600 and 850, another third were located by hill-forts or ‘ancient monuments’ of some sort: again, the commander positions his army by a well-known landmark and says ‘come and get me’.  Trapping or surprising an enemy which was besieging a fort would be another strategy to aim at (dawn attacks are also mentioned in the poetry and in seventh-century Anglo-Saxon sources).  Surprise attacks, possibly, may have been more acceptable in the larger-scale level of warfare.

Finally, a few words on terrain features.  I discussed hill-forts last time. Villas and Roman towns should be depicted as ruined and largely abandoned.  Post-Roman buildings were wooden and with thatched roofs, although stone-built buildings are more common in Wales and Scotland.  Contrary to popular belief, wild woodland did not cover most of Britain in this period.  It is thought that primeval forest had long been cleared by this time, especially in the Roman period.  Woodland was a managed resource, and though much more common then than now, should not be thought of as unbroken, impenetrable tracts of forest.  Rivers and streams, as mentioned, were common features on the post-Roman British battlefield.  A final feature which one might want to consider are large-scale earthworks.  A number of dykes cutting across the British countryside are thought to date to this period (the Wansdyke, for example; a series of dykes to the south-west of Cambridge).  These too suggest a mobilisation of manpower which argues for larger rather than smaller political units.  Battles at the crossing points of, or skirmishes around, such banks and ditches (including a raiding army trying to return with its loot) could make interesting gaming scenarios.  As with the ‘linear features’ of rivers and streams, the constrictions of such an obstacle could give rise to much ‘heroic’ single combat, and other concerns with honour and shame.


[i]            B.A.E. Yorke, ‘The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the origins of Wessex’, in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester, 1989), pp.84-96

[ii]           I.N. Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (Alingsås, 1983); I.N. Wood, ‘Sutton Hoo and the Franks’, in I.N. Wood and N. Lund (eds.) People and Places in Early Medieval Northern Europe, 500-1000 (London, 1991), pp.1-14; I.N. Wood, ‘Frankish hegemony in England’ in M. Carver (ed.) The Age of Sutton Hoo. The Seventh Century in North-Western Europe (Woodbridge, 1992), pp.235-41

[iii]           G. Halsall, ‘Social change around 600 AD: An Austrasian perspective’ in Carver (ed.), The Age of Sutton Hoo (see previous note), pp.265-78, at p.278.

[iv]              Life of Wilfrid, ch.19:  The Age of Bede. trans. J.F. Webb & D.H. Farmer (Harmondsworth (Penguin Classics) 1983), pp.103-82; The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus. trans. B. Colgrave (Cambridge 1927); extracts in English Historical Documents Vol.1, c.550-1042. ed. & trans. D. Whitelock, 2nd edition, London 1979, doc.154.



2 thoughts on “The Age of Arthur. Post-Roman Britain for the Historical Wargamer, Part 7: The Nature of Post-Roman British Warfare

  1. Read with great interest your “(Risky) Attempt at a Reconstruction”, Guy. I was surprised that you think substantial Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had come into existence by the end of the 5th c, rather than the end of the 6th; especially with what the likes of Yorke, Higham and Wiickham say about its fragmentation? What leads you to think this? Although it does appear as if Kent may have been a force to be reckoned with, and the East Anglian coast … although this is all from the mind and (limited) knowledge of a layman, so probably not worth much! As you say, it certainly gives more scope for a King Arthur figure!

    Posted by badonicus | August 25, 2011, 2:11 pm
    • You can find the evidence and argument in my Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West (CUP, 2007) at the end of ch.10 (I think). More will be said in my forthcoming Worlds of Arthur: The History and Archaeology of Britain after the Romans, if a publisher takes it! I think that the reasoning of Higham, etc, for fragmentation is flawed, especially if you compare the British evidence with the northern Gallic evidence. I’m surprised you were able to comment. I thought I’d shut down all the comment facilities!

      Posted by Historian on the Edge | August 25, 2011, 2:55 pm
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