The Battle of Mount Badon
Sources of the TraditionThe first surviving mention of the Battle of Mount Badon is in Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britannie from around 540 A.D. The battle is referred to in Nennius' early ninth century Historia Britonum which can reasonably be viewed as one of the two sources for the entire tradition. Geoffrey of Monmouth's 1135 Historia Regum Brittaniae is the other of the two major sources that inform and shape how the battle is written about even in the present day. However, the influence of Nennius and Geoffrey tends to be more on form—the general structure of the battle—than on meaning. One of the marvels of the Arthurian tradition is its adaptability to contemporary circumstances, and while the two fonts of the tradition may provide a mold for a story, it is the individual authors whose viewpoints and programs in writing shape the way in which that form is presented and, thus, the meaning of the overall work. Badon is only one aspect of most of the stories it appears in, but as often as not is the climax of the work. This puts Badon in a unique position from a literary standpoint: since it is often the highpoint of a story, the themes and values espoused in the work are particularly raw and obvious. Even if the battle is relegated to a secondary position, the major themes do not change; the event is still clearly an account of Badon that is in line with the majority of the tradition. Of course, to understand that general style of accounts of Badon, one must begin where the genuine tradition begins: Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth.
While Nennius was not the first to write about Badon (Gildas and Bede both wrote before him), he is the first to create a widely followed literary precedent, although that following becomes most evident only in the modern period. Gildas and Bede establish only that Badon was the major British victory against the Saxons; they do not even credit Arthur with being the leader of British forces at the battle. Nennius is the first to mention Arthur's name in association with Badon.
It is no coincidence that later authors chose to follow Nennius and not Bede or Gildas, for Nennius is the first to add a level of flair and drama that transforms the battle to one of epic proportions. For Nennius' predecessors, Badon had been the event that freed the Britons from the yoke of Saxon control. While the event was clearly important, Nennius makes Badon the culmination of a series of twelve battles, even claiming that Arthur personally killed nine hundred and sixty Saxons in a single charge. Furthermore, Nennius includes the statement "and he was victorious in all his campaigns" at the end of his passage on Badon, which cements Arthur's status as an invincible warrior. Gildas and Bede both portray Badon as the culmination of the war against the Saxons, but neither of them make anything like Nennius' grand, sweeping statement. Both of their stories seem grounded in fact, while fact seems to give way to flourishing description and epic symbolism and significance with Nennius. This "all victories to Arthur" mentality begins with Nennius, but is a frequent theme that reappears throughout the tradition.
Another important change Nennius introduces is a shift away from a traditional, pious religious focus. Gildas' treatise is basically a moral excoriation of his contemporaries, but Nennius' concern appears to be much more on the glorification of Arthur's deeds than the teaching of any particular moral lesson. Nennius does introduce the idea of Arthur wearing the device of the Virgin on his shield, obviously a feature with a great degree of religious significance; his use of the image is not exactly pious, however. Rather, the Virgin is made into a Christian battle emblem. Despite this use of the Virgin device, authors of later accounts of Badons who had read Nennius made a different interpretation of the importance of the image, which makes this feature an excellent example of how forms, but not necessarily meanings or intent, were passed from work to work. Geoffrey, for example, explains that the device is present "in order to put [Arthur] frequently in mind of her," while Nennius' meaning is less about the importance of the Virgin to Arthur personally and more about the power of the symbol to put the Saxons to flight.
This minute difference in wording between Geoffrey and Nennius illustrates the type of analysis and comparison that should be done with medieval accounts of Badon in order to understand the key differences between renditions. Particularly after Geoffrey, many stories follow very similar conventions with the distinguishing features coming primarily in the form of variations in details. Minor variations or added details in longer versions are the two primary ways in which authors frame the importance of Badon; the actual content of the battle tends to undergo very little substantive change.
This is not intended to be a restriction on methods for interpretation as much as a statement about how accounts of Badon were written during the medieval period. Unlike modern writers, medieval authors tended to adhere fairly well to a standard form for the battle. This means that it is possible to look at individual, minute changes and draw conclusions about the program of the author. These minor features (or additional details) are what make reading Badon after Badon interesting, for they are what differentiate one piece from the next.
Up until Geoffrey, however, this method is hardly possible. Accounts of Badon before Geoffrey appear in Gildas, Bede, the Welsh Annals, William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and of course, Nennius, but until Geoffrey, that standard form does not really come into existence. Bede moves slightly away from the excoriatory tone that Gildas uses, but his focus remains on the dominating importance of God in the lives of the Britons to a greater extent than any later author does. William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon are nearly contemporaries of Geoffrey, both writing in the ten years preceding him, and both express their concern over popular (and, in their view, inaccurate) versions of Badon floating about. The Welsh Annals gives the date 516 for the battle and states that "Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders." Accounts of Badon tend to be short and to the point; only Nennius adds any particular flair to the story. It is Geoffrey who finally shapes Badon into a very rich narrative event.
Geoffrey of Monmouth is frequently referred to as the father of the Arthurian tradition, and his section on Badon is no exception. He builds a framework for the battle that is used even to the present day, and introduces ideas and values that come to define the importance of the conflict at Badon. He does not change the basic facts about the battle: Badon remains the final glorious battle at which Arthur repels the Saxons, and the prowess and leadership of Arthur remains of paramount importance. But for the first time, Badon is situated within a narrative, which allows Geoffrey the opportunity to provide a short-term cause for the battle: a few months earlier, Arthur and Cheldric had made an agreement requiring the Saxons to leave Britain. The Saxons renege on the deal, changing course halfway to France and returning to wreak havoc on English shores. Arthur gives a speech in which he expresses his outrage at the insult to his honor, and abandons his campaign in Scotland to go down and vanquish the Saxon hordes. This particular speech is recounted in all the medieval accounts of Badon that follow, and like the Virgin on the shield, is a conventionalized feature that undergoes slight changes which significantly alter the tone of the battle. Although Wace moves the speech to the middle of the battle, he chooses to have Arthur call on each man's memory of pain inflicted on their families by the Saxons, then encourages them to revenge that pain; there is no mention whatsoever of Arthur's personal honor. This is an excellent example, again, of how examining details in each medieval piece can greatly benefit our understanding of each account of Badon: although Wace hardly deviates from the general structure that Geoffrey provides, his choice of details has a significant effect on the tone of his battle.
Another conventionalized feature established by Geoffrey is the speech by "St. Dubricius, archbishop of Legions," in which Dubricius states that death for so noble a cause would bring instantaneous absolution for all sins. This is another convention that sees frequent alteration: in Peter Langtoft's 1295 chronicle, for example, Dubricius merely exhorts the men to fight well, then offers absolution only to Arthur and his barons.
Geoffrey engages in a long description of Arthur's battle raiment, and then the battle begins. Arthur's forces eventually push to the top of the hill. The battle drifts towards stalemate and Arthur is forced to draw Caliburn and attack the Saxons himself, killing four hundred and seventy. The numerical difference between this amount and Nennius' count of nine hundred and sixty does nothing to detract from the connection between the exaggerations; in this sense, Geoffrey is Nennius' progeny, as Nennius was the first to bridge the gap between emphasis on the significance of a 'real' event and glorifying panegyric directed towards an individual.
There are a number of other interesting details and important issues about Geoffrey, Nennius and Badon that are discussed in the bibliography, but what is most interesting about the tradition can only be seen by comparing the two to later works.
The Medieval TraditionGeoffrey in particular had a prevailing effect on subsequent accounts of Badon, but his account was not always followed to the letter. Wace, who wrote about Badon some thirty years after Geoffrey, did not alter the form significantly but did change the underlying themes to a noticeable extent. The variations in Arthur's speech, discussed above, is an excellent example of this: Geoffrey's focus is on the personal affront to his honor, while Wace is more concerned with the suffering of the British caused by the Saxons. These are not minor variations, and they reflect larger thematic differences between Wace and Geoffrey. Geoffrey is very concerned with good kingship throughout the History, and therefore tends to focus on the kings themselves by examining their reactions to events. Arthur is Geoffrey's paragon of kingship, which means that Arthur's actions should be taken as the actions of a good king. Wace, on the other hand, is hardly so programmatic with his views on kingship. This is the distinction reflected in the speeches: Geoffrey focuses on Arthur, while Wace concerns himself with the people of Britain. This analysis highlights one of the reasons for looking at Badon: it is usually at least a minor climax, and as a result, whatever values or ideas the author feels are important about the story as a whole tend to be revealed very clearly in the course of the battle.
While Geoffrey's work did have far-reaching influence, comparisons to other authors are not always as easy to make as with Wace. Although authors generally adhered closely to Geoffrey in the medieval period, some did so more than others. Layamon, in his Roman de Brut, employs verse instead of Geoffrey's prose, and while he adheres to Geoffrey's general structure for the battle, there are, again, subtle changes in how the battle is portrayed that significantly affect the overall tone. For example, Arthur insults his opponent rather unceremoniously at the beginning of the battle: "Advance towards the hills, my bold warriors! For yesterday Colgrim was the bravest of men; now he is like the goat guarding the hilltop; high on the hillside it defends itself with its horns when the savage wolf comes slinking towards it. Though the wolf were alone, away from the pack, and there were five hundred goats in a single enclosure, the wolf will set upon them and savage them all. So now, this very day, will I destroy Colgrim utterly. I am the wolf and he is the goat - the man shall die!" Many post-Galfridian authors are heavily influenced by Geoffrey's idealization of Arthur as king and step away from such violent vows. Layamon, however, works against the trend by adopting the typical blustering of heroic exchange; in fact, such bravado could be reasonably said to define his account. Although descriptions of swords cleaving through mail and flesh are quite common in works like The Song of Roland, most medieval authors choose not to include such details in their accounts of Badon, except Layamon. He revels in the violence, describing in detail death at Arthur's hands, and while Colgrim is the one to kill five hundred men, his spectacular death at Arthur's hands only serves to further emphasize that Arthur is a man of tremendous prowess. That Layamon's Arthur always addresses his troops in a sort of familiar fraternal way as "my good warriors" makes it quite clear that Layamon's desire is to tell a story of great prowess, not necessarily good kingship.
Layamon makes considerable shifts in meaning and tone, but comparing his structure with Geoffrey's hints at how difficult such analysis is when the actual details of the event become more divergent. Layamon still includes the same basic events as Geoffrey, but his account is far less similar to Geoffrey's than Wace's, for example. Comparing Wace to Geoffrey has already demonstrated that while similar structure does not necessarily result in similar meaning, similar structures certainly make it far easier to detect the important differences between accounts of Badon. The vastly different structures that characterize the battle in the modern period mean that comparative analysis requires the juxtaposition of themes instead of events, which is a slightly more difficult task.
There is no linear progression for Badon's divergence from Geoffrey's model. Although Layamon's account was noticeably different only sixty years later, John de Wavrin made an almost exact copy of Geoffrey's work three and a half centuries later. There is no dissimilarity between Arthur's opening speeches, nor between the absolutions granted by St. Dubricius. Even the death count at Arthur's hands is the same, four hundred and seventy, and de Wavrin gives the same reason for the Virgin device on the shield as Geoffrey does. One of the few differences from Geoffrey's version is that de Wavrin's account of Badon is slightly clipped, making less use of narrative and flattering adjectives.
Why would de Wavrin have composed such a remarkably similar work to Geoffrey? The latter's history was one of the most widely circulated stories in the whole of the medieval period, so it was hardly necessary for de Wavrin to reproduce it. Whatever his intent in compiling the chronicles of England, the closeness with which de Wavrein cleaves to Geoffrey emphasizes the incredible impact that Geoffrey's History has in the tradition: it is a reasonable barometer by which other accounts of Badon may be measured. There are a number of other medieval Badons, but their specific variations on the theme are well-covered in the bibliography; thematically speaking, the shifts are similar to the ones made by Wace and Layamon. More importantly, though, the overriding point about medieval accounts of Badon has been made: while the differences tend to be mostly in the details, they have a tremendous effect on the thrust of the story. The Arthurian narrative is very much about the struggle of life and rulership, the latter more in medieval than modern accounts, which means that the stories are intensely human. Inevitably, different authors believe different things about the human aspects of the story to be important and they reflect that in their writing. This is just as true in the medieval accounts as it is in the modern accounts; the similarity in structure is a mask for the thematic variations that modern audiences are perhaps not accustomed to looking through.
The Modern TraditionModern accounts of Badon is impossible to tie to any specific form, idea, or purpose. Tennyson is the first major author to begin working with Badon material again after several centuries of relative lull, and his use of the battle immediately breaks with the form of the post-Galfridian tradition. There is no typical lead-up to the battle involving the Saxons' oath-breaking, nor any speech by Dubricius, nor any of the other readily identifiable elements in Geoffrey's Badon. In fact, the connection is really only made through the name and the themes: "Yet in this heathen war the fire of God / Fills him: I never saw his like: there lives / no greater leader." Even though it is being used only in passing reference, Tennyson's 'account' of Badon demonstrates Arthur's prowess and leadership. Tennyson exemplifies what is typical for the modern period with this breaking of tradition: although almost all of the surface elements vary, modern accounts of Badon still tend to connect on a thematic level. Consequently, a very different approach from the one employed for the medieval works is required for efficient analysis. Rather than reading into small variations that illustrate larger meanings, one must look for the dominant themes that define the piece, then make comparisons at the thematic level. Tennyson's mention of Badon in Lancelot and Elaine clearly demonstrates this; Lancelot characterizes Arthur as a serious man who appreciates the joust but is not particularly attached to it, reserving his true efforts instead for real war. For Tennyson, these qualities mean that there is "no greater leader" than Arthur. Although entirely in his own idiom, Tennyson is doing the same thing that Geoffrey did by emphasizing the characteristics of Arthur that make him unsurpassed as a ruler. Also, while Tennyson has introduced the concept of Arthur as aloof from the games of chivalry and war, largely endemic to the modern Arthurian narrative, Arthur's great battle prowess remains.
Tennyson does more than reinterpret Badon with a modern eye, however. Although he does not go into any specific description of the battle, he does list eleven other battles that led up to Badon. This is identical to the series of twelve Nennius uses, not only marking this as the formal revival of Nennius' direct influence on the tradition, but also the beginning of a tradition in which authors gather their information from increasingly wide numbers of sources. Basically, Tennyson's Lancelot and Elaine represents the shift between two different methodologies for continuing the Badon tradition. As more and more sources became available to authors, and the duo of John Masefield and Charles Williams began lending their creative minds to reimaginations of the Arthurian narrative, the Badon tradition turned in at once a multiplicity of directions. No one ever returned to lock-step emulation of Geoffrey after Tennyson's decision to break form with his choice of sources.
This multiplicity of approaches has given birth to a wonderfully rich and diverse modern Badon tradition, but it also makes the task of overviewing what there is a difficult one. While the medieval tradition saw a number of subtle variations on similar themes that were all relatively comparable, the modern writing embodies a much more diverse set of themes that are far more difficult to group collectively. However, there are no accounts of Badon so thoroughly out of touch with the rest of the tradition as to be incomparable; all of them rotate around central themes of leadership and power. Even if the subsidiary ideas are exceedingly dissimilar, it is still possible to examine works on the basis of this overall connection.
Such an analysis is clearest if we begin with a style that is already familiar, and the closest thing to a reproduction of the unabashedly good vs. evil scheme that defined Geoffrey's Badon is probably Charles Williams' poem, "Mount Badon". Although the poem is a web of cryptic references, the thrust of it is a battle between order and chaos, good and evil; and order is permitted victory only after Taliesin has divined the 'Word,' the wisdom that gives Arthur's army its righteous mandate to triumph over the raucous Saxons. In Williams' poem, Badon is the event that creates Camelot more than anything else, as it was won with the mandate of a wisdom that will allow Camelot to achieve its great destiny. There is no trace of remorse about the defeat of the Saxons—they were evil creatures, hardly even human, and their deaths enabled the creation of this new, beautiful place. What makes Williams' poem virtually unique in the tradition in that it deals directly with these metaphorical questions rather than relying on indirect allegory and symbolism to make its point, as does almost every other account of Badon. Nevertheless, while the form may have changed, the ideas have not; the themes are what connect it back to the tradition. "Mount Badon" follows quite clearly from the Galfridian notion, arguably even surpassing preceding works in terms of clearly stating the importance of Arthur and the victory at Badon.
Although the form is quite different, the themes in Williams' poem are unquestionably familiar; the reverse is true of Bernard Cornwell's Excalibur. Cornwell's battle is quite the concrete, physical reality, but it contains a view of Badon that is altogether different from any that have been discussed so far. The excerpt from the battle in the bibliography opens on Gawain's decrepit corpse, tied to his horse, leading an army of filthy, bloodthirsty Irish Blackshields into the Saxon mass. Savage and cruel though the Blackshields might be, they are Arthur's allies, which immediately raises questions about Arthur's purity after having 'lain with the dogs,' so to speak. The Saxons had been on the verge of victory before the arrival of the Irish, but the appearance of a horde led by the dead Gawain turns the tide in favor of the Britons, at which point the battle becomes an "orgy of death" in which the Britons are "nothing but a pack of maddened war-dogs tearing an enemy to pieces." After rampaging through the Saxon settlement and butchering almost every Saxon man, woman, and child they could find, they had "fulfilled Arthur's dream. We were the kings of slaughter and the lords of the dead, and we howled our bloody triumph at the sky." Any righteous vengeance the Britons may have wished to exact on the Saxons was viciously overblown, making the Britons as morally deplorable as the Saxons ever were.
Cornwell is not the only one to make such a negative interpretation of Badon, but such programs are certainly unique to the modern period. No medieval author saw Badon as emblematic of Arthur's fall, or even as an event that planted seeds of error destined to bear ill fruit later. Regardless of what particular aspects they chose to play up, Badon was always a glorious thing; it was not to be tempered with gloomy foreshadowings. There is a relatively obvious concrete reason for this: unlike the internal strife represented by Camlann, Badon was a victory against an external force and vindicated the British on a number of different levels. Every time the battle was rewritten, it was recast in whatever way contemporary society needed it in order to express that feeling of vindication; Badon was a demonstration of what the British did to outside aggressors, and that was a very important concept for English nationalism in the Middle Ages. In the modern period, however, nationalistic fervor tends to come from other sources, and the purpose of the battle moves further towards the metaphorical. This makes it permissible to reinterpret the battle as a negative event, although the battle usually remains positive. Badon is released from its cultural pedestal and can now serve as a metaphor for, in Cornwell's case, the horrors of war and the dangers of becoming drunk on blood and power.
Cornwell is not the only one to take such a dark view, either. Roy Turner's King of the Lordless Country is one of the darkest Arthurian narratives ever written, and his account of Badon finishes on a similarly dismal note. The book ends in the aftermath of Badon as Arthur and his remaining men pick through the corpse-filled field; one section of the field is characterized as "a grotesque muddle of fallen warriors and mounts," a description that speaks a great deal to Turner's style. Death and pain are life's milieu, all muddled together into a gory tableau. Turner's response to the harsh reality of that life is numbness, to simply block out of any emotion associated with the pain of hardship and loss. Bedwyr, the narrator, chances across the body of a woman, Briallen, with whom he has had a troubled romantic relationship for much of the novel. His reaction is mechanical, only vaguely human: he casually breaks off the arrow lodged in her breast, wipes the ants from her lips with the arrow's feathers, kisses her, then strolls away apparently unfazed. The final sentence of the book calls for the warriors to bury themselves in their cups, for "the wise go mad without it."
A similarly gory scene occurs at the very beginning of the story in which a young Bedwyr and Emrys, who will become Aruthr (Turner's Arthur), return from a hunting trip to find their village burned and families slaughtered by a marauding band of their own countrymen. Neither says a word, blindly absorbing the pain. Bedwyr finds his mother scalped and scorched, but alive enough to speak; he graciously ends her life by methodically plunging his hunting knife into her heart. These two scenes serve as a morbid frame to Turner's book, and indeed almost any of the positivity that grows in the middle of the story is snuffed out by the ending. Although "the Cymry had a victory to remember," the personal cost to its participants had been tremendous. The story feels like an exercise in futility, the characters constantly hemmed in on all sides by death and loss. Turner's narrative begs that a question similar to Cornwell's be asked—at what cost does victory come? His scope is different from Cornwell's, however; rather than looking at the cost on the grand scale of society, the issue is one of personal loss. Bedwyr sees his friends and foes alike, stained with blood, permanently scarred by what they have experienced; he also knows that no victory in the world will bring Briallen back. What underpins all of this is a clear message about the terrible destructive capacity of war. Even under a leader as noble as Arthur, the consequences of war are cruelty, pain, suffering, and death, all of which leave the survivors ravaged.
Recasting Badon in this negative light is only one of many alterations modern authors make to the battle. Alfred Duggan writes the battle, in fact all of Conscience of the King, from Cerdic's perspective; in some ways, this seems to situate Duggan's work at the head of attempts to humanize the Saxons. But Duggan's Cerdic is hardly a 'misunderstood' heroic counterpoint to Arthur. He is a very proud, violent man, but is nevertheless far more sympathetic than when looking at him from Arthur's eyes, an evil man exhorting his barbaric horde to go mad with bloodlust. Hearing about Badon from the other end of the cataphract's lance gives a very different feeling to the battle. No matter how much the audience may be predisposed in Arthur's favor, it is difficult to cheer on someone charging the narrator with intent to kill. As with many other themes in Badon novels, this factor is present throughout but is at its most obvious at Badon, for that is when Arthur's lance is more than metaphorically leveled at Cerdic's head. These issues of perspective are also interestingly dealt with in Edward Frankland's The Bear of Britain, where Frankland freely moves the narration back and forth between the Saxon and Briton armies.
Another approach that serves as a culmination for a particular theme appears in Parke Godwin's Firelord. Godwin's account of Badon is quite long, but one section shifts into a style quite different from the norm. Arthur directly addresses the reader: "Battle is neither precise as the [military historian's description] nor as lyrical as the [bard's song], but give it a try". He describes a cavalry charge from an intensely personal perspective, asking the reader to step into his shoes and experience it. Although the approach is virtually unique among the various Badons, this particular choice to ask the reader to see the battle from Arthur's perspective comes from a long history. At least part of Geoffrey's purpose was to write a guidebook for kingship, essentially hoping that people would aspire to the values that Arthur embodied. Godwin, of course, has no such program to his writing, but the effect is much the same: he has asked that the reader think in Arthur's place, that they realize just what it means to be an old king riding into battle. Godwin's gift for powerful description makes the passage all the more compelling.
There are many more perspectives that authors take on the battle, but details on each one can be found in the bibliography. Some authors turn Badon into a redemption for Arthur (or the Britons); others make their narrators into outsiders and stand aside as observers; some hardly even use Badon as a physical event at all, instead relying on its perceived meaning to enhance another point they are making. These are only a few; but the Arthurian tradition will no doubt continue to grow and change as long as people continue to read it. New additions to the tradition are dependent on the flexibility of the story; as contemporary society demands it, new themes will make their way into Badon. The earliest authors were concerned with recording a real battle, but as the tradition matured, writers began to take greater and greater creative liberty, adapting it to the structure of the particular story that they were telling. As the process continued and the tradition became even profound, the variations became even more notable. Essentially, each story became less a chronicle of events that actually happened, more a story that dealt with the human condition, whether it was idealizing, excoriating, or anywhere in between. Badon's utility within this process common to all literary traditions is to give a clear vision of some of these themes that are so important to each author. It is always a highly emotional experience that significantly changes the lives of all who participate.
Primary SourcesPlease note that in this bibliography, Arthur's opponent at Badon is always referred to by the name "Cerdic" in the commentary, even if that is not the name used in that particular work. Similarly, "Badon" will always be the name used to describe the battle in the commentary, regardless of any variations in any particular work. This is done to avoid any confusion about which archetypal characters are being referenced across the whole bibliography; see the entry on Geoffrey of Monmouth or the introductory essay for justification of these points.
Gildas – De Excidio et Conquestu Britannie, 544Gildas. De Excidio et Conquestu Britannie. In Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works; History from the Sources: Arthurian Period Sources Vol. 7. Ed. and trans. John Morris. Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & Co. Ltd., 1978.
25 So a number of the wretched survivors were caught in the mountains and butchered wholesale. Others, their spirit broken by hunger, went to surrender to the enemy; they were fated to be slaves for ever, if indeed they were not killed straight away, the highest boon. Others made for lands beyond the sea; beneath the swelling sails they loudly wailed, singing a psalm that took the place of a shanty: 'You have given us like sheep for eating and scattered us among the heathen'. Others held out, though not without fear, in their own land, trusting their lives with constant foreboding to the high hills, steep, menacing and fortified, to the densest forests, and to the cliffs of the sea coast.COMMENTARY:
After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions, as eagerly as bees to the beehive when a storm threatens, and begged whole-heartedly, 'burdening heaven with unnumbered prayers', that they should not be altogether destroyed. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.
26 From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in this people the Lord could make trial (as he tends to) of his latter-day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up till the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth; as I know, one month of the forty-fourth year since then has already passed. (Pages 27-28)
Gildas is the earliest author to mention the Battle of Mount Badon that we have record of today, but notably neglects to mention Arthur at all, a fact that has sparked much debate amongst scholars. The above passage is the extent of Gildas' discussion on Badon and although it is hardly representative of the prominence Badon achieves later in the tradition, Gildas does sketch out the basic framework from which virtually all other renditions of Badon are derived; that is, Badon is 'pretty well' the conclusion to the wars of Arthur against the Saxons. It is not in Gildas' idiom to give way to long and elaborate descriptions, especially of battles. Consequently, while Gildas could was probably the first to write about Badon, he can hardly be considered the source of the Badon tradition, as the military aspects which he wholly neglects achieve great prominence quite quickly. That is not to say that Gildas' story is somehow inconsistent with the rest of the tradition, for there is an aspect to Gildas' writing that is extremely familiar – Gildas has already begun looking back at the age of Arthur (or rather, Ambrosius Aurelianus) with a great deal of nostalgia: "Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus . . . [whose] descendents in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence." Although Ambrosius seems to be only two generations dead, writers like Gildas are already lamenting the splendor of a past era.
In the pre-Galfridian tradition of Badon, it is still entirely possible to discuss the historicity of the battle itself from what the sources tell us. From the historical perspective, the most immediately interesting thing about Gildas' Badon is the seemingly precise date he provides. There is no discernable motive, from the modern perspective, for Gildas to provide an untruthful account of the battle's proper date, so there is no reason not to believe that Badon did in fact take place in the year of Gildas' birth. Unfortunately, we don't know when that is – Gildas never mentions a single solid date to work from, forcing historians to resort to other evidence and speculation when trying to nail Badon down to a year. Our best guess is that Gildas was writing in the year 540, which would place the Battle of Mount Badon in 496. This date represents one of three "families" of similar dates that Badon is frequently given. Historiographically speaking, Gildas is the author whose assessment is most likely to be correct, simply because he was the only chronicler (whose work survives) who had access to living memory of the event.
Badon is often described as being a battle by medieval sources, but Gildas actually calls it a siege. The idea of Badon as a siege atop a great hill is not frequently returned to until well into the modern period, but it catches on quickly; most modern authors place at least a makeshift fort on top of Badon hill.
Bede – Historia Ecclesiastica, 731The Venerable Bede. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Ed. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.
At ubi hostilis exercitus exterminatis dispersisque insulae indigenis domum reuersus est, coeperunt et illi paulatim uires animosque resumere, emergentes de latibulis quibus abditi fuerant et unanimo consensu auxilium caeleste precantes ne usque ad internicionem usquequaque delerentur. Vitebantur eo tempore duce Ambrosio Aureliano, uiro modesto, qui solus forte Romanae gentis praefatae tempestati superfuerat, occisis in eadem parentibus regium nomen et insigne ferentibus. Hoc ergo duce uires capessunt Brettones, et uictores prouocantes ad proelium uictoriam ipsi Deo fauente suscipiunt. Et ex eo tempore nunc ciues nunc hostes uincebant usque ad annum obsessionis Badonici montis, quando non minimas eisdem hostibus strages dabant, quadragesimo circiter et quarto anno aduentus eorum in Brittaniam.COMMENTARY:
When the army of the enemy had exterminated or scattered the native peoples, they returned home and the Britons slowly began to recover strength and courage. They emerged from their hiding-places and with one accord they prayed for the help of God that they might not be completely annihilated. Their leader at that time was a certain Ambrosius Aurelianus, a discreet man, who was, as it happened, the sole member of the Roman race who had survived this storm in which his parents, who bore a royal and famous name, had perished. Under his leadership the Britons regained their strength, challenged their victors to battle, and, with God's help, won the day. From that time on, first the Britons won and then the enemy were victorious until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when the Britons slaughtered no small number of their foes about forty-four years after their arrival in Britain. (Pages 54-55)
Bede, like Gildas, was a clergyman, and wrote his treatise with a clergyman's goals in mind. As was very much typical of the time, both chroniclers wrote their books as moral excoriations of contemporary society, no doubt using a popular story to gain audience for their views. Bede's rendition has little of the glamour and legendary quality that Badon will take on in the centuries to come, which is also very much like Gildas. Bede is clearly more concerned with the presence and prescience of God in the lives of the Britons than the glorification of battle, or even the Britons themselves; the hero Ambrosius Aurelianus is granted no panegyric, merely being described as "discreet." This indicates that although Bede does chronologically predate the more major renditions of Badon in the literary tradition, he is not the font of the tradition from which later authors draw. He introduces no new material, and barely even credits humans with the repulsion of the Saxons from Britain.
Nennius – Historia Britonum, circa 796Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals; History from the Sources: Arthurian Period Sources Vol. 8. Ed. and trans. John Morris. Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & Co. Ltd., 1980.
56 At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain. On Hengest's death, his son Octha came down from the north of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen, and from him are sprung the kings of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle.COMMENTARY:
The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Lindsey. The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas. The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Clyddon Coed. The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his shield and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The ninth battle was fought in the city of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns. (Page 35)
The Historia Britonum was written anonymously in the early ninth century, but it is generally attributed to a Welsh monk named Nennius. Although the passage is short by comparison to many of the later renditions of the battle of Badon, Nennius is clearly one of the fathers of the literary tradition drawn on in almost as many cases as Geoffrey of Monmouth. That is how it appears from a modern perspective, because we know none of Nennius' sources. It is entirely possible that he is not the original propagator of the new ideas that his story includes, but we may never know. What we do know is that the elements in Nennius' story are utilized through the ages but these elements cannot be followed back earlier than the Historia Britonum, leaving scholars with no choice but to describe Nennius as the original source. This problem is hardly unique to Nennius; many of the other early chroniclers also elude scholar's attempts to track down their original sources. Sometimes writers use texts that are no longer extant, but other times they simply neglect to reveal their sources at all.
Sources aside, Nennius introduces several major new aspects into the tradition that are not found in either of his predecessors. Probably most important is that he is the first chronicler to associate Arthur with Badon, and he presents a considerable wealth of information about Arthur's war against the Saxons that has never been seen before. Although Badon remains the decisive victory allowed the Britons to drive the Saxons from Britain, it is no longer an independent event. Instead, it is the capstone in a series of successful onslaughts against the invaders; this idea is picked up in almost every source after Nennius.
Nennius represents more than a simple change in the events being described, however. While Bede's focus was on the importance of God himself in the event, Nennius' focus is on a person. The emphasis remains religious by focusing on Arthur's piety, carrying the image of the Virgin on his shield into the eighth battle, but the focus has clearly shifted away from religious treatise and towards entertainment, narrative, and panegyric. Rarely after Nennius is the story of Arthur told with deference to God; after Nennius, we are to admire the human side of the Saxon expulsion.
This change in focus reflects itself in the way that Badon is portrayed, as well. Although Nennius chooses to have Arthur carry the device of the Virgin in the eighth battle, Geoffrey of Monmouth changes it from the eighth battle to the battle of Badon. There are many possible explanations for this fact, not the least of which being that Geoffrey wanted to emphasize the culmination of Arthur's war against the Saxons by adding a religious component to it. There is another possible explanation, however; while Nennius describes the device as having been on Arthur's shield, Geoffrey claims it appeared on a shield borne on Arthur's shoulders. The Welsh words for "shoulders" and "shield" are very similar, and it is entirely possible that the two of them may have been working from the same source but that Geoffrey made some decision about the translation of the word that differed from Nennius' interpretation. There is another, more important break between Nennius and Geoffrey that pertains to the device on the shield, this one having to do with presentation and tone. Nennius implies that the presence of the Virgin on Arthur's shield is part of what causes the Saxons to suffer such a bitter defeat at the Guinnion fort. Geoffrey, on the other hand, emphasizes that the Virgin's presence is for the purpose of making Arthur remember her in battle. The difference is minor, but indexes a difference that often crops up in the characterization of Arthur and Arthurian narratives. Some are more focused on the kingship, and some are more focused on the king; that is, some are more focused on the actions of Arthur, and some are more concerned with Arthur himself. Nennius has clearly concerned himself with Arthur's success in driving out the Saxons, but Geoffrey's is more concerned with the Arthur's personality. Geoffrey's book is very much a guide to (what he believes to be) good kingship, and as such is more prone to emphasize the features of Arthur the man that allowed him to be a successful king than just reprise his various accomplishments.
With Nennius begins the exaggeration and falsification (read: legend-making) that was arguably not present in Bede and Gildas. Neither of them mentions any great number of battles, nor do they particularly focus on any great victory won by men. Nennius, however, makes the claim that Arthur personally kills nine hundred and sixty men in a charge. That Nennius could actually have this information is obviously impossible, so looking for a reason as to why he chose to make such outlandish claims leaves historians with few straws to grasp at. Any precise understanding of Nennius' motivations is impossible, but there is at least one conclusion to be drawn: Nennius clearly meant for his story to be heard, and to entertain. He knew his audience, and he knew that they would like to hear outlandish tales of Arthur's great deeds. There can be little doubt, then, that by the end of the eighth century, Arthur was a well-establish folkloric hero.
Anonymous – Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), circa 796Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals; History from the Sources: Arthurian Period Sources Vol. 8. Ed. and trans. John Morris. Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & Co. Ltd., 1980.
516 The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days andCOMMENTARY
three nights on his shoulders [i.e. shield] and the Britons were the victors. (Page 45)
The Annales Cambriae is an anonymous Welsh source occupying the second half of the same manuscript, Harley 3859, as Nennius' Historia Brittonum. While the Annales are a simple chronology, they have clearly been influenced by a growing literary tradition. Just like Nennius, they glorify and mythologize Arthur by stating that he carries the cross "for three days and three nights." Like the killing of nine hundred and sixty men in Nennius, this fact could hardly have been known with certitude centuries later, but it is nevertheless included in a document that makes a genuine attempt at a historical progression. This mixing of mythology and history is an excellent illustration of an important fact to keep in mind about early works – they had a sense of "history" completely different from ours today. Although these chroniclers were indeed vested with the responsibility of keeping track of what had gone before, the rules of accurate evidentiary investigation that absolutely define history today simply did not exist. Chroniclers took liberties and told the stories in the way they wanted, resulting in any number of sources like the Annales Cambriae that can be quite confounding to the modern audience.
The date given for Badon in the Annales is 516, significantly different from the date that can be worked out from Gildas in his original recounting of Badon, around 496. Later accounts frequently use the date in the Annales, but often change it by a year or two, straying somewhere in the mid 510's. What has not changed, however, is that Arthur is credited as the hero of Badon. Although it is impossible to say with any certainty that Nennius was the catalyst for the switch from Ambrosius Aurelianus to Arthur, it is clear that after Nennius, Arthur is always the one leading the Britons at Badon.
William of Malmesbury – Gesta Regum Anglorum, 1125William of Malmesbury. Gesta Regum Anglorum v.1. Ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom Oxford: Oxford Medieval Texts, Clarendon Press, 1998.
8.2 With his decease the Britons' strength withered away, and their hopes dwindled and ebbed; at this point, in fact, they would have collapsed completely, had not Vortigern's successor Ambrosius, the sole surviving Roman, kept down the barbarian menace with the outstanding aid of the warlike Arthur. This Arthur is the hero of many wild tales among the Britons even in our own day, but assuredly deserves to be the subject of reliable history rather than of false and dreaming fable; for he was long the mainstay of his falling country, rousing to battle the broken spirit of his countrymen, and at length at the siege of Mount Badon, relying on the image of our Lord's Mother which he had fastened upon his arms, he attacked nine hundred of the enemy single-handed, and routed them with incredible slaughter. On the other side, the English, through the sport of Fortune's wheel, made good their wavering ranks by reinforcements of their fellow-countrymen, and more boldly rushed into the fray; so, little by little, as the natives retreated, they spread over the whole island, not without the favouring providence of God, in whose hand is every change of lordship. (Page 27)COMMENTARY
William of Malmesbury, who is writing six hundred years after the actual battle, clearly states that he aims to dispel some of the myths surrounding Arthur and get back to who Arthur "really was." To a modern audience this might seem strange, because William proceeds to give just as fantastic a description as what we have read in previous sources. What can be gleaned from this statement is not that William had no concept of historical investigation, but that he was harkening back to the very same sources that appear above in this bibliography. His criticism could not have been about a literary aggrandizing of Arthur, which meant that he must be criticizing the popular stories that were told about Arthur either by word of mouth or in texts that have not survived. For him to include such a bold statement against the popular legend of Arthur indicates that there must have been a strong tradition in addition to the literary one that he recreates. Whatever account he read (probably Nennius, or a Nennius source or derivative), he trusted it implicitly, replicating both the panegyric tone and the information that appeared in Nennius.
The legendary quality of the story begun in Nennius continues unabated with William's account; his inclusion of Nennius' numbers, as well as the symbol of the Virgin on his arms in battle represent a clear link to the earlier mythological tradition. However, there is a significant change in William's assessment of the outcome of the battle: while the Britons win the battle, William makes a point of emphasizing the eventual victory of the Saxons. While Arthur is still depicted as a great leader, he seems to be a tragic hero, rising only to fall again in the face of the overwhelming power of the invaders The invaders are no longer just barbaric "Saxons," but are instead given the name "English," which makes them seem entirely less threatening, and their success altogether less dooming for Britain. One possible reason for William to be writing this way is because of the relatively recent Norman conquest; England is again living in an age of subjugation, and William could probably do well by the authorities by writing things that portray invaders of England in a good, or at least positive, light.
Henry of Huntingdon – Historia Anglorum, circa 1133Henry of Huntingdon. The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon. Ed. and trans. Thomas Forester. Felinfach, Dyfed: Llanerch Press, 1991 (Facsimile edition of the original 1853 printing).
In those times Arthur the mighty warrior, general of the armies and chief of the kings of Britain, was constantly victorious in his wars with the Saxons. He was the commander in twelve battles, and gained twelve victories. The first battle was fought near the mouth of the river which is called Glenus. The second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were fought near another river which the Britons called Duglas, in the country of Cinuis: the sixth on the river called Bassas. The seventh was fought in the forest of Chelidon, which in British is called "Cat-coit-Celidon." The eighth battle against the barbarians was fought near the castle Guinnion, during which Arthur bore the image of St. Mary, mother of God and always virgin, on his shoulders, and by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the blessed Mary his mother, the Saxons were routed the whole of that day, and many of them perished with great slaughter. The ninth battle he fought at the city Leogis, which in the British tongue is called "Kaerlion." The tenth he fought on the bank of a river which we call Tractiheuroit; the eleventh on a hill which is named Brevoin, where he routed the people we call Cathbregion. The twelfth was a hard-fought battle with the Saxons on Mount Badon, in which 440 of the Britons fell by the swords of their enemies in a single day, none of their host acting in concert, and Arthur alone receiving succour from the Lord. These battles and battle-fields are described by Gildas the historian, but in our times the places are unknown, the Providence of God, we consider, having so ordered it that popular applause and flattery, and transitory glory, might be of no account. At this period there were many wars, in which sometimes the Saxons, sometimes the Britons, were victors; but the more the Saxons were defeated, the more they recruited their forces by invitations sent to the people of all the neighbouring countries. (Pages 48-49)COMMENTARY
This brief excerpt from Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum is a mix of several different approaches already taken to the legend. He pulls the locations of the battles straight out of Nennius, although in error identifies "Gildas the historian" as his source (Gildas does not include any listings of battles, nor does he give the locations; that is entirely from Nennius). His tone is very much mythological, another trend begun by Nennius, but he goes the post-Conquest route that William of Malmesbury also follows, depicting the victory at Badon within the larger context of a successful Saxon invasion. Henry goes a bit further, however, in saying that "the Providence of God" has masked the real locations of the battles so that the legend of Arthur does not become overly popularized and thereby disrespected. Why would he say that? His offered explanation, "that popular applause and flattery, and transitory glory, might be of no account," leaves the question of his motivation somewhat open to interpretation. The statement is reminiscent of something said by William of Malmesbury, and is similar enough to merit looking at the statement in the same way. One possible interpretation is that Henry is saying the battleground sites have been hidden and that the mythology surrounding Arthur is all that remains. More likely, however, is that Henry making the same complaint as William: there is some sort of falsification surrounding the sites of the battles going on at the time of his writing, most likely in popular oral tradition. If this is indeed the case, then Henry is calling for the "popular historians," so to speak, to back off and leave the legend to those whom he believes know how to handle it – the chroniclers.
Geoffrey of Monmouth – Historia Regum Brittaniae, 1136Geoffrey of Monmouth. At The Camelot Project, "Arthurian Passages from The History of the Kings of Britain." Edited and translated by J. A. Giles.
Also available in (page references are from): Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain. Ed. and trans. Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin, 1966.
EXCERPT (The following chapter numbers refer to Book IX.)
CHAP. III. -- Arthur makes the Saxons his tributaries.. . . From thence they pursued their furious march to the town of Bath, and laid siege to it. When the king had intelligence of it, he was beyond measure surprised at their proceedings, and immediately gave orders for the execution of the hostages. And desisting from an attempt which he had entered upon to reduce the Scots and Picts, he marched with the utmost expedition to raise the siege; but laboured under very great difficulties, because he had left his nephew Hoel sick at Alclud. At length, having entered the province of Somerset, and beheld how the siege was carried on, he addressed himself to his followers in these words: "Since these impious and detestable Saxons have disdained to keep faith with me, I, to keep faith with God, will endeavour to revenge the blood of my countrymen this day upon them. To arms, soldiers, to arms, and courageously fall upon the perfidious wretches, over whom we shall, with Christ assisting us, undoubtedly obtain the victory."
CHAP. IV. -- Dubricius's speech against the treacherous Saxons. Arthur with his own hand killsWhen he had done speaking, St. Dubricius, archbishop of Legions, going to the top of a hill, cried out with a loud voice, "You that have the honour to profess the Christian faith, keep fixed in your minds the love which you owe to your country and fellow subjects, whose sufferings by the treachery of the pagans will be an everlasting reproach to you, if you do not courageously defend them. It is your country which you fight for, and for which you should, when required, voluntarily suffer death; for that itself is victory and the curse of the soul. For he that shall die for his brethren, offers himself a living sacrifice to God, and has Christ for his example, who condescended to lay down his life for his brethren. If therefore any of you shall be killed in this war, that death itself, which is suffered in so glorious a cause, shall be to him for penance and absolution of all his sins." At these words, all of them, encouraged with the benediction of the holy prelate, instantly armed themselves, and prepared to obey his orders. Also Arthur himself, having put on a coat of mail suitable to the grandeur of so powerful a king, placed a golden helmet upon his head, on which was engraven the figure of a dragon; and on his shoulders his shield called Priwen; upon which the picture of the blessed Mary, mother of God, was painted, in order to put him frequently in mind of her. Then girding on his Caliburn, which was an excellent sword made in the isle of Avallon, he graced his right hand with his lance, named Ron, which was hard, broad, and fit for slaughter. After this, having placed his men in order, he boldly attacked the Saxons, who were drawn out in the shape of a wedge, as their manner was. And they, notwithstanding that the Britons fought with great eagerness, made a noble defence all that day; but at length, towards sunsetting, climbed up the next mountain, which served them for a camp: for they desired no larger extent of ground, since they confided very much in their numbers. The next morning Arthur, with his army, went up the mountain, but lost many of his men in the ascent, by the advantage which the Saxons had in their station on the top, from whence they could pour down upon him with much greater speed, than he was able to advance against them. Notwithstanding, after a very hard struggle, the Britons gained the summit of the hill, and quickly came to a close engagement with the enemy, who again gave them a warm reception, and made a vigorous defence. In this manner was a great part of that day also spent; whereupon Arthur, provoked to see the little advantage he had yet gained, and that victory still continued in suspense, drew out his Caliburn, and, calling upon the name of the blessed Virgin, rushed forward with great fury into the thickest of the enemy's ranks; of whom (such was the merit of his prayers) not one escaped alive that felt the fury of his sword; neither did he give over the fury of his assault until he had, with his Caliburn alone, killed four hundred and seventy men. The Britons, seeing this, followed their leader in great multitudes, and made slaughter on all sides; so that Colgrin, and Baldulph his brother, and many thousands more, fell before them. But Cheldric, in this imminent danger of his men, betook himself to flight.
four hundred and seventy Saxons in one battle. Colgrin and Baldulph are killed in the same.
CHAP. V. -- The Saxons, after their leader Cheldric was killed, are all compelled by Cador to surrender.The victory being thus gained, the king commanded Cador, duke of Cornwall, to pursue them, while he himself should hasten his march into Albania: from whence he had advice that the Scots and Picts were besieging Alclud, in which, as we said before, Hoel lay sick. Therefore he hastened to his assistance, for fear he might fall into the hands of the barbarians. In the meantime the duke of Cornwall, who had the command of ten thousand men, would not as yet pursue the Saxons in their flight, but speedily made himself master of their ships, to hinder their getting on board, and manned them with his best soldiers, who were to beat back the pagans in case they should flee thither: after this he hastily pursued the enemy, according to Arthur's command, and allowed no quarter to those he could overtake. So that they whose behaviour before was so cruel and insolent, now with timorous hearts fled for shelter, sometimes to the coverts of the woods, sometimes to mountains and caves, to prolong a wretched life. At last, when none of these places could afford them a safe retreat, they entered the Isle of Thanet with their broken forces; but neither did they there get free from the duke of Cornwall's pursuit, for he still continued slaughtering them, and gave them no respite till he had killed Cheldric, and taken hostage for the surrender of the rest. (Pages 216 - 218)
It is impossible to study the Arthurian tradition, Badon included, without consulting Geoffrey of Monmouth. Completed in 1136, his History of the Kings of Britain was perhaps one of the most popular books ever written. It circulated with remarkable speed after its publication, making it to places even outside of England within only several years. Geoffrey claims to have worked from an "old book," but we have no way to ascertain the truth of that claim now, let alone actually read the book which is purportedly his source, the Britannici sermonis liber vetustissimus as only Geoffrey's work has survived the passage of time. Nevertheless, Geoffrey's History is the single most influential book in the entire Arthurian tradition.
It is fair to say that Geoffrey of Monmouth made the Arthurian story what it was then, as well as what it is today. A simple comparison between the story of Badon found in Geoffrey and the stories told by his predecessors is enough to see that much. Although Nennius was instrumental in establishing Arthur as a folk hero it was Geoffrey who took the time to fill out the details of the story, or at least record the details that were being popularly circulated. Characters like St. Dubricius, Colgrin, Baldolph, and Cerdic make their first appearances at Badon, as does Caliburn, Arthur's sword, and Ron, Arthur's spear. Most of all, though, Geoffrey lends causality to the battle. Most of his predecessors in the tradition explained the battle simply as the British defense of their homeland, but Geoffrey is more specific, turning the battle of Badon into a redemption of honor. After the Saxons "disdained to keep faith with [Arthur]," he is forced to take them to task. What Geoffrey has done is to translate an old story into contemporary terms. It is the same thing that William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon did in softening the image of the invaders, but Geoffrey's changes are far more sweeping. This is yet another important reason to think of Geoffrey as the father of the tradition – he filled out the story, but he had the acuity to do it in terms that would appeal to a contemporary audience. It is the same thing that hundreds of authors since Geoffrey have done, and it is what defines the Arthurian tradition for what it is – flexible enough to fit any age.
The extreme popularity that Geoffrey's text enjoyed meant that many subsequent tellings of Arthur's life would be very heavily based on it, a reflection, again, of the medieval sense of history and sources. Authors would, to varying degrees, copy what Geoffrey had written, adding embellishments here and there as they saw fit. In fact, there are virtually no post-Galfridian medieval accounts of the Battle of Mount Badon that do not derive, more or less exactly, from Geoffrey. Not until the beginning of the modern tradition is there finally a shift in the general character of these stories, finally departing from the basic structure laid out for the battle in Geoffrey's 1136 text. Even in the modern tradition, however, there are few who go in a pointedly different direction when it comes to Badon.
With Geoffrey's tremendous addition to the Badon tradition comes a great problem of reconciliation, however. Up until Geoffrey, the only enemy who has been explicitly identified at Badon is Octha, Hengest's son. Geoffrey introduces a new arch villain, one who more or less remains leader of the Saxons and Arthur's primary opponent in every Badon account written after 1135. A significant problem arises with the name Geoffrey chooses for his villain: Cheldric. Cheldric is a Germanic name, and although it is the name Cheldric (or a variant thereof) which is used throughout the medieval tradition, there is a sharp break with the modern period. In the modern Arthurian Badons, the villain is not Cheldric, but Cerdic, whose name may appear similar to Cheldric in the modern eye, but is actually Celtic. Cerdic occupies a place in medieval Arthurian narratives, but it is not as the leader of the Saxons at Badon; he and Cheldric are two entirely separate people. Unfortunately, there is another problem presented by Geoffrey's storytelling, as well: Geoffrey never actually identifies the place of the battle as Badon. Instead, Badon becomes the battle of 'Bath,' and while most scholars generally agree that if there was to be a historical site for the battle of Badon, it would be a large hill outside of the city of Bath, it is by no means a proven fact.
Despite these problems, the literary evidence is pervasive enough to believe that Bath and Badon refer to the same battle, and that Cheldric (and variants) and Cerdic (and variants) are intended to refer to the same character. The clearest example is the wholesale borrowing of the cross borne by Arthur into battle. It is a concept introduced by Nennius and quickly shifted by subsequent writers from Guinnion fort, the eighth in Nennius' series of twelve battles, to Badon. The connection between pre-Geoffrey Badon and Bath is also quite clear simply because the both are the battle in which the Britons succeed in driving the Saxons from England, at least for a time.
The problem with Cerdic is a bit more difficult. The medieval writers never made the mistake of calling the battle-leader Cerdic, nor do many, if any, modern writers call the leader Cheldric. There is no clear crossover point either, unfortunately; while Jehan de Wavrin gives the name Cedric, it is still a variant on Cheldric. Edward Frankland is the first in this bibliography to use Cerdic. The best explanation seems to be that somewhere along the line, people got confused over two similar-sounding names (and perhaps ideas, as Cerdic was a Saxon sympathizer even in the medieval tradition) and Cerdic simply caught on with modern authors. Inferences aside, once established as the villain of Badon, Cerdic quickly took on every aspect that Cheldric had ever possessed – most notably Cheldric's being German – so there can be little doubt that these two different names are intended to represent the same villain. Having explained these problems, "Badon" and "Cerdic" will be the words used to reference the archetype of the battle and the villain throughout the bibliography in order to avoid confusion.
When doing a study of Badon, the characterization of Cerdic is actually one of the best indicators as to what the program of the author is. In some renditions, Cerdic is very courageous, civilized, and even a sort of misunderstood hero; in others he is insidious, craven, and underhanded in his dealings with Arthur. Because he is usually Arthur's greatest nemesis, however, it is often easy to see the values being glorified in Arthur by examining the portrayal of Cerdic. Geoffrey is no exception to this rule: Arthur wears gold armor and a golden helm, is girded with weapons of nigh-divine grace, bearing the device of the Virgin, and is out to avenge an insult to his honor. Cheldric's most notable action is to flee the battle after his brothers are killed, eventually being hunted down by the Duke of Cornwall, apparently too filthy to be dealt with by Arthur himself, Geoffrey's greatest king.
Although Geoffrey marks the beginning of a tremendous literary tradition, he also marks the end, by modern standards, of a historical tradition. After Geoffrey, very few people actually bother to return to any pre-Galfridian sources except for Nennius. Arthur is about what Geoffrey has said, and with all the fanciful things he has put down on paper, any value that Geoffrey's text or subsequent texts have in terms of revealing information about the "real" King Arthur is pretty much gone. That is not to say that they are without historical merit, however. Geoffrey, as was stated above, was a trend-setter in that he framed his tale in a context that would make sense to a contemporary audience. One of the various ways in which he did this is evident right inside his section on Badon: the speech of St. Dubricius. Geoffrey was writing in the mid-12th century, right in the thick of the Crusades. As more and more men went to the Holy Land and died, speeches like this became more and more common, sort of religious pep talks given before battle. There is a well-documented one given by Pope Urban II at the end of the first Crusade in which Urban II uses almost the exact same language – if you die on the field of battle against your enemies, then your soul is guaranteed safe flight to heaven, for death will be the ultimate absolution of all sins. The idea was tremendously popular among knights of the day, and remained a popular idea for centuries thereafter; the replication of Dubricius' speech, or at least this key idea, in later works reflects this fact.
There is, oddly enough, no actual mention of Badon whatsoever in the excerpted paragraph, nor is there in text immediately before and after the passage. It is the assumption of scholars, based largely on literary evidence such as Arthur's wearing of the Virgin's device on his shield, that leads us to conclude that Geoffrey made the jump between Badon and Bath. Geoffrey's assertion seems to be that a particular hill outside the modern-day city of Bath was, in fact, the site of the Battle of Mount Badon. Much research has been done about possible sites for the actual battle of Badon, and there is archaeological evidence to suggest that it is indeed possible, but there is archaeological evidence that also suggests the possibility of several other sites, as well. Unless significant new evidence is ever brought to light, it is highly unlikely that the question of a "real" Badon will ever be definitely resolved.
Wace – Roman de Brut, circa 1160Wace. Wace & Layamon: Arthurian Chronicles. Ed. and trans. Eugene Mason. London: Aldine Press, 1962.
I know not what was their hope, nor the name of him who put it in their mind, but they turned their boats, and passed through the channel between England and Normandy. With sail and oar they came to the land of Devon, casting anchor in the haven of Totnes. The heathen breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the folk of the country. They poured forth from their ships, and scattered themselves abroad amongst the people, searching out arms and raiment, firing homesteads and slaying Christian men. They passed to and fro about the country, carrying off all they found beneath their hands. Not only did they rob the hind of his weapon, but they slew him on his hearth with his own knife. Thus throughout Somerset and a great part of Dorset, these pirates spoiled and ravaged at their pleasure, finding none to hinder them at their task. For the barons who might have made head against them were in Scotland with the king. So by road and country, laden with raiment and all manner of spoil, the Saxons came from their ships to Bath. But the citizens of the town shut fast their gates, and defended the walls against them.COMMENTARY
Arthur was in Scotland, punishing the folk of that realm, because of the war they had made upon him, and of the aid they had afforded Cheldric. When the king learned what mischief the pagans had done to his land, and of the siege they laid to Bath, he hanged his hostages straightway. He dared tarry no longer in Scotland, but hastened south, leaving Hoel of Brittany lying sick at Dumbarton, I know not of what infirmity. With what men he might, Arthur came to Bath as swiftly as he was able, since he was resolved to chase the Saxons from before the gates, and succour the burgesses of his city. Now, near this town a wood stands within a wide country, and there Arthur arranged his men and ordered the battle. He saw to the arming of his meinie, and for himself got him into his harness. Arthur donned thigh pieces of steel, wrought strong and fairly by some cunning smith. His hauberk was so stout and richly chased, even such a vesture as became so puissant a king. He girt him with his sword, Excalibur. Mighty was the glaive, and long in the blade. It was forged in the Isle of Avalon, and he who brandished it naked in his hand deemed himself a happy man. His helmet gleamed upon his head. The nasal was of gold; circlets of gold adorned the headpiece, with many a clear stone; and a dragon was fashioned for its crest. This helm had once been worn by Uther, his sire. The king was mounted on a destrier, passing fair, strong, and speedy, loving well the battle. He had set his shield about his neck, and, certes, showed a stout champion, and a right crafty captain. On the buckler was painted in sweet colours the image of Our Lady St. Mary. In her honour and for remembrance, Arthur bore her semblance on his shield. In his hand the king carried his lance, named Ron. Sharp it was at the head, tough and great, and very welcome at need in the press of battle. Arthur gave his commands to his captains, and ordained the order of the combat. He caused his host to march in rank and company at a slow pace towards the foe, so that when the battle was joined none might flinch but that he was sustained of his comrades. The host drew near to a certain mountain of those parts, and began to climb the hill. The Saxons held this mountain strongly, and defended the height, as though they were shut fast and safely behind walls. Small cause had the heathen for such assurance of safety, for a mighty captain was upon them, who would not endure their presence in his realm. Arthur led his spearmen upon the slope, and there admonished his men. "Behold," said he, "and see before you those false and scornful heathen, who have destroyed and ravished your kith and kin, your near ones and neighbours, and on your own goods and bodies have done so much mischief. Avenge now your friends and your kinsfolk: avenge the great ruin and burnings: avenge all the loss and the travail that for so long a space we have suffered at their hands. For myself this day I will avenge me for all these bitter wrongs. I will avenge the oaths these perjurers have broken. I will silence the crying of my fathers' blood. This day I will exact the price for all they have cost me in loss and in sorrows, and avenge the bad faith which led them return to Totnes. If but this day we bear us in the battle like men, and smite the heathen in their fastness, never again will they array themselves proudly against us, but will be for ever before us as naked men without a shield." With these words Arthur set his buckler before him, and hastened to the playing of the swords. I know not the name of the Saxon who ran upon him in the stour, but the king smote him so fiercely that he died. Before Arthur passed across the body he cried aloud, "God aid, Saint Mary succour. He gives twice," said he, gaily, "who gives quickly. Here lies one whose lodging for the night I have paid." When the Britons saw this deed they aided the king mightily, beating down and slaying the Saxons very grievously. They pressed upon them from every side, thrusting shrewdly with the spear, and striking lustily with the sword. Arthur was of marvelous hardihood. Strong beyond the common strength and of great prowess, with lifting shield and terrible sword he hewed a path towards the summit of the mount. He struck to right and to left, slaying many, so that the press gave back before so stout a champion. To himself alone he slew four hundred heathen that day, working them more mischief than was done by all his men. To an evil end came the captains of these Saxons. Baldulph lay dead upon the mount, and dead also was Colgrin. Cheldric and some others fled from the field, and would have got them to their ships that they might enter therein and garnish for their needs. (Pages 47-49)
Wace is another of the very important authors in the Arthurian tradition, writing only twenty years after Geoffrey. However, the significant contributions that he makes, namely the integration of Celtic materials, are not particularly noticeable in the passage about Badon. Although Wace is the first of the major post-Galfridian chroniclers, he did not draw his material directly from Geoffrey, as he was unable to locate a copy of Geoffrey's text when writing; instead, he may have used the same source that Geoffrey adapted into his Historia, the Britannici sermonis liber vetustissimus, of which there are no extant copies. Wace wrote in romanz, the Old French vernacular, and in its original form the Roman de Brut was in octosyllabic verse form. (NAE, 501)
Wace's account of Badon is very similar to Geoffrey's, but there are some significant and interesting variations that are doubtless an outgrowth of the fact that they both came from the same source, rather than Wace working directly from Geoffrey. While the single most noticeable aspect is probably Wace's use of the name Excalibur instead of Caliburn above, this is a good example of how the modernizing and translating of a text can be problematic for scholars; Wace, in fact, used the name "Chaliburn" in his original text, but the translator updated it to the now more frequently used "Excalibur."
There is one other major difference between the two works, one which is very illustrative of the difference in style between Wace and Geoffrey. The Arthur of both authors gives a similar speech, Geoffrey's upon hearing the news of the Saxon return and Wace right before the start of the battle, both dealing curtly with the issues that are central to the concerns of each author. While Geoffrey's speech focuses on the challenge to Arthur's kingship and Arthur's personal vengeance, Wace's focuses on avenging the pain and suffering the Saxons have inflicted upon Arthur's people. This focal difference is a reflection of what will become a much more noticeable demarcation in later literature between a chronicle tradition and a romance tradition. Both traditions are clearly Arthurian and obviously related, but tend to relate and react to events in different ways. Wace's concern with righting an emotional and societal injustice is much more a reflection of the chronicle tradition; romance tends to see more of a focus on the actions and "feelings," as much as that was ever discussed, of the main characters.
Layamon – Brut, circa 1200Layamon. Layamon's Arthur: The Arthurian Section of Layamon's Brut. Ed. and trans. W. R. J. Barron, and S. C. Weinberg. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1989.
Arthur saw Colgrim climbing the hillside, fleeing to the hill which stands above Bath, and Baldolf following him with seven thousand soldiers; they planned to resist stoutly on the hill, defend themselves with weapons and do Arthur injury. This Arthur, noblest of kings, saw where Colgrim turned at bay and made a stand; and so the king called very loudly:COMMENTARY
"Advance towards the hills, my bold warriors! For yesterday Colgrim was the bravest of men; now he is like the goat guarding the hilltop; high on the hillside it defends itself with its horns when the savage wolf comes slinking towards it. Though the wolf were alone, away from the pack, and there were five hundred goats in a single enclosure, the wolf will set upon them and savage them all. So now, this very day, will I destroy Colgrim utterly. I am the wolf and he is the goat - the man shall die!
Then Arthur, noblest of kings, continued:
"Yesterday Baldolf was the boldest of warriors; now he stands on the hill and looks upon the Avon, sees how steel fish lie in the river trammeled with swords, their swimming impaired; their scales gleam as if they were gilded shields; their fins drift in the water like spears floating there. This is a marvelous thing come to pass in this land, such beasts on the hill, such fish in the water!
Yesterday the emperor was the boldest of all rulers; now he has become a hunter pursued by horns; he flees over the broad plain, his hounds barking. He has abandoned his hunting close by Bath; he is fleeing from his quarry and we shall put an end to his hunting, bring to naught his bold boasting; and so we shall regain our rightful possessions.
As the king spoke these words, he raised his shield on high before his breast, grasped his long spear and spurred on his horse. Swiftly almost as the flight of a bird, five and twenty thousand brave men, armed and enraged, following the king, advanced upon the hill in great strength, and fell upon Colgrim with most bitter blows And Colgrim engaged them there and felled the Britons to the ground, fully five hundred in the first onslaught. Arthur, noblest of kings, saw that, and grew furiously angry; and Arthur, the great leader, called out thus:
"Where are you, my Britons, my bold warriors? Here, before us, stand our enemies, most worthy opponents; let us strike them down, my good warriors."
Arthur grasped his sword firmly and struck a Saxon warrior so that the sword, an excellent one, lodged in the teeth. And he struck another who was that warrior's brother, so that his helmet and his head fell to the ground. Instantly he delivered a third blow and cut a warrior in half. Then the Britons were greatly heartened, and inflicted very fierce strokes upon the Saxons with their long spears and their stout swords. Saxons fell there, met their doom, sank in their hundreds to the ground; thousands upon thousands without cease fell to earth there. Then Colgrim saw how Arthur was advancing upon him; and, because of the carnage, Colgrim could not flee in any direction. Baldolf fought at his brother's side there.
Then Arthur called out in a loud voice:
"I am coming now, Colgrim; we two shall contest the kingdom. We shall now divide this land between us in a way which will please you least!"
As the king spoke these words, he raised aloft his broad sword and brought it fiercely down, striking Colgrim's helmet so that he split it and the coif of mail beneath in half and the sword lodged in the chest. And he swung at Baldolf with his right hand and struck off his head along with the helmet.
Then the noble King Arthur laughed, and began to speak thus with mocking words:
"Now lie there Colgrim, you who had climbed so high, and your brother Baldolf shall lie by your side. I now entrust this whole kingdom to you in person, hills and dales, and all my worthy subjects. You climbed very high upon this hill as if you would climb up to heaven - now you shall sink down to hell! There you may meet many of your kinsmen. And greet Hengest there, who was best of warriors, Ebissa, and Ossa, Octa, and others of your kin, and bid them remain there for evermore. And we shall live in this land well content, shall pray for your souls that no good ever come to them; and your bones shall lie here beside Bath."
King Arthur called to the valiant Cador - he was the earl of Cornwall, a very brave knight:
"Listen to me, Cador, you who are my own kinsman. Childric has now fled and taken himself off, hoping to sail home in safety. But take five thousand men from my army and travel swiftly by night and day so that you reach the sea before Childric does; and all that you can seize, take it with pleasure. And if you can kill the evil emperor there, I will give you all Dorset as reward."
Layamon, a priest at Arley Regis in Worcestershire in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, was the first to write an Arthurian narrative in English. He worked almost entirely from Wace's Brut, occasionally drawing upon Bede, but doubling the length of Wace's original text. He shies away from Wace's tendency towards courtly romance, however, choosing chivalry and prowess instead as his focus, as is probably clear from a quick comparison of the excerpts.
One of the more subtle changes, however, is that Arthur is not credited with some vast slaughter of enemies, but rather seems more remarkable for his ability to lead. When the battle begins to go badly, Arthur calls out to his warriors from the fray, attracting all attention to himself, and viciously slaughters three Saxons. The grisly killing boosts the morale of his men, and the Saxon armies fall shortly thereafter, but by the efforts of Arthur's army, not his own sword arm. Geoffrey, Wace, Nennius, and others all credit Arthur personally with the deaths of hundreds of Saxons, but Layamon is more interested in Arthur's ability to induce prowess in others. This begs a historical question, of course – why does Layamon care more for an Arthur that moves mountains of men with his voice than one who does the same with his sword arm? Perhaps the answer is merely an outgrowth of earlier experiences that Layamon had, but it is also possible that it reflects a feeling that he lives in a time of a warrior king who is more the former and less the latter. What complicates the issue even further is that Colgrim is described as killing five hundred of the Britons, entirely reversing the usual pattern. Of course, it is Arthur who delivers the deathblow to Colgrim, making him the superior warrior and, by proxy, the killer of 500 men. Nevertheless, Layamon's choice is to place emphasis on Arthur's leadership and power on a human scale rather than with the typical exaggeration of prowess. Regardless of one's interpretation, there does not seem to be any judgmental subtext to the description of Arthur's prowess, so whatever has motivated Layamon to break with tradition, it was not something that he thought an undesirable quality.
The Dream of Rhonabwy, circa 1200The Mabinogion. Trans. Jeffrey Gantz. London: Penguin Books, 1976.
Then a proud and handsome man of bold and eloquent speech said that it was a wonder how a large force could be contained in such a confined area, the more so as they had promised to be at the Battle of Baddon by noon in order to fight against Osla Big Knife. "You may choose to go or not to go, but I will go," he said, and Arthur answered, "What you say is true. We will set out together." "Iddawg, who is the man who spoke so boldly to Arthur?" asked Rhonabwy. "A man who has the right to speak as bluntly as he wishes: Caradawg Strong Arm, son of Llyr of the Sea, Arthur's chief adviser and his first cousin." (Page 183)COMMENTARY
The Dream of Rhonabwy comes out of the Welsh tradition, which largely explains the utter lack of similarity between this Badon reference and most others. The Welsh maintained their own strong Arthurian tradition, with the first mention of Arthur in history actually appearing in the Welsh Y Gododdin from around the year 600. There is rarely any mention of Badon in the Welsh tradition, however. It would seem to be an entirely unimportant part of their conception of who Arthur was, in obvious marked contrast to the English and French. Rhonabwy is very nearly alone in the Welsh tradition with its inclusion of the battle, which makes the manner of its appearance even more peculiar. The particularly offhand way in which it is described seems to imply that Rhonabwy's intended audience not only knew of the battle, but knew it quite well, and that the battle occupied some particular place in Welsh historical culture. Then again, Rhonabwy is a dream-vision, which makes applying normal logic and sense to it something of a risky endeavor. What makes the assertion of Badon holding a place in Welsh popular culture is the penchant Welsh storytellers had for intentionally confusing their audiences; their bards would often compete to see who could include the most obscure references in improvised songs and ballads. This sort of off-handed reference to Badon may well be an attempt to confuse on the part of Rhonabwy's author, although it is not in the form in which most Welsh bards frequently practiced the art of obscure composition.
Although many more differences would probably become apparent if more was said about Badon, the single big departure from the English and French tradition is with Arthur's opponent. Cerdic is generally the leader of the Saxons throughout that entire tradition, but Rhonabwy's author here names the enemy as Osla Big Knife. However, because Osla appears as a part of Arthur's entourage in Culhwch and Olwen, it seems somewhat doubtful that he would also be found at the head of the Saxon armies. Some scholars have explained this confusion by positing that "Osla" is actually a mis-translation of Offa Big-Knife (Offa Kyllelvawr urenhin Lloegr), a powerful eighth-century Mercian king who could easily have been the subject of Welsh ire.
Pierre (Peter) Langtoft – The Chronicle of Pierre de Langtoft, circa 1295Pierre de Langtoft. The Chronicle of Pierre de Langtoft. In The Rolls Series, vol. 47, pt. 1. Ed. and trans. Thomas Wright. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, Dyer, 1866.
Quant els sunt en mer, tost changent corage,
Dyent k'il ne lerront, pur clerk ne pur hostage,
Ke Arthur ne destruent, e trestot son manage.
Retornent, e prenent terre, vile, e boscage,
Tote de Totenesse dekes à la grant rivage
De Saverne vers la mer: à Bha funt estage,
E tuent les waynours ke suent le waynage.
Quant Arthur l'oyt dire, fist pendre lur hostage.
Dist, "Ceus mescreans mult sunt de fauslynge;
Des covenauns me fayllent, e me font damage.
Ore, Brettons, combatez, e pernoms le vayage;
Les Saxonays sunt noz, les testes lerront pur gage."
Lors dist saint Dubrik, eveske de Karlioun,
"Ws ke estes Kristiens, escotez ma resoun;
Deu morust pur ws, combatez en son noun,
Defendez voster terre de confusioun,
Ke payen ne la gayne." Arthur e ly baroun
Resceyvent de l'eveske absolucioun.
Arthur prent l'esku, le ymage de la Marie
Purtrait fu dedenz, ke Arthur ne l'oblye.
Se ceynt ke Caleburne, la meyllur espeye
Ke unkes en Brettayne fu forgé ou furbye.
As Saxonays se mette, ke ne fuent mye,
Combatent jekes la nouyt, severé est là partye.
Les paens sur un mount sunt tuz endormye;
Arthur les survent al jour par grant vaidye,
Devotement ahoure la mere Deu, e prye
En totes ses bataylles de counsayl e aye.
Il soul of Caleburne ad mort e honye
Lxx. hommes de la renaerye.
Colegrym e Ralduf tuez sunt, e fuye
e E le duk Cordik, of sa companye.
Ben unt la victore Arthur e sa gent.
Cador de Cornewaile, par comaundement,
Vers Albanyes'en va, of Oel, privement,
Nevuz le ray Arthur, fu grevé malement;
Cordike ke fuyst assally durement
Aclude, où Oel fust, mè Cador of sa gent
Lour nefs prent of les bens, la mer lour defent.
E Cordik of sa route assalt taunt egrement,
Ke Cordik est pris, e mort par jugement,
E li remenant tuz tuez nettement.
When they are at sea, they soon change their minds,
Say that they will not cease, for truce nor hostages,
From destroying Arthur, and all his people.
They return, and take land, town, and wood,
From Totness to the great shore
Of Severn towards the sea; at Bath they make a halt,
And slay the labourers who are following agriculture.
When Arthur heard tell of it, he causes their hostages to be hanged;
And said, "Those misbelievers are of very false lineage,
They break their covenants with me, and do me much damage.
Now, Britons, fight, and let us undertake the battle;
The Saxons are ours, they will leave their heads for pledges."
Then said St. Dubricius, bishop of Caerleon.
"You who are Christians, listen to my discourse;
God died for you, fight in his name,
Defend your land from confusion,
That a pagan may not win it." Arthur and the barons
Receive from the bishop absolution
Of sins, and go forth with his benediction.
Arthur takes the shield, the image of Mary
Was pourtrayed within it, that Arthur might not forget her.
He girds himself with Caliburn, the best sword
That ever was forged or furbished in Britain.
He attacks the Saxons, who do not fly at all,
They combat till night, when the combatants are separated.
The pagans are all gone asleep on a hill;
Arthur falls upon them at daybreak with great craft,
Devoutly he worships the mother of God, and prays
In all his battles her counsel and aid.
He alone with Caliburn has put to death and shame
Seventy men of the infidel army.
Colgrim and Baldulf are slain, and flies
The duke Cerdic with his company.
Well gained the victory have Arthur and his people.
Cador of Cornwall, by command,
Proceeds towards Albany, where Hoel, privately,
Nephew of king Arthur, was in great sickness;
Cerdic in his flight assailed hard
Alclud, where Hoel was, but Cador with his people
Takes their ships with their goods, and shuts the sea against them,
And with his forces attacks Cerdic so furiously,
That Cerdic is taken, and put to death by judgment,
And the rest all slain entirely.
Although Wace, Layamon and Geoffrey can arguably be seen as writers of a single group, Peter Langtoft seems to have entered into his own phase. His source, at least for Badon, is unquestionably Geoffrey, but Langtoft is already 150 years removed from Geoffrey's work. Langtoft is working in the chronicle tradition; although he omits the flourish and detail of Wace, he is similarly focused on , and coming nowhere close to the stylization of romantic writers like Chrétien. Langtoft's interest clearly lies more with how the particular events from Geoffrey are related than rewriting them for particular effect. He is, in the best sense, a chronicler, for his interest lies in the transmission of 'fact,' not the frills of a highly detailed narrative.
The particular differences between Langtoft's version of Badon and Geoffrey's are small, but significant. The speech given by St. Dubricius in Geoffrey no longer guarantees entry into heaven for any man who dies in service to his king, and Langtoft's absolution is offered only to Arthur and his barons. These changes are interesting given changes that are developing in history around the time of Langtoft's writing: there is a growing disillusionment with the Crusades, with the Knights Templar in particular coming under heavy criticism for the handling of their outrageous wealth. Although the concept that death on the field of battle was the ultimate absolution remained very popular in knightly circles, it had gone out of fashion somewhat with the church. It is more likely, however, that Langtoft did not include the absolution clause simply because it wasn't terribly pertinent to his point. He is much more focused on the social injustice of the Saxons' actions and seems to believe that that should be enough motivation to get the men on the field; St. Dubricius' actions seem mostly perfunctory.
Castleford's Chronicle or The Boke of Brut, circa 1327Castleford, Thomas. Castleford's Chronicle or The Boke of Brut, v.1. Ed. Caroline Eckhardt Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Wiȝ samed to him an oste ful grete,
He entred þe schire of Someresete.
Qwen he com so ner Bathes cite
Þat alle þe sege he might ouerse,
Of þe Saxons þat his treuȝ brak,
Þat alle might her, þis wordes he spak:
'Lo, þe Saxons, so fals of fame,
Of falsed and of weked name!
'Ful weked and fals þai mai be cald,
Treuȝ to me þam dedeignes to hald!
'In þe faiȝ I haf my Godde to queme,
Anens var treuȝ I salle þam deme.
I anenter strengh salle me afors
Þis daie to venge me on þar cors -
I salle me venge þis ilke daie,
Manli in feld if þat I maie,
Of blodde schedde of my citisains,
Sen falsli þai rise me agains.
'Armes yow, men, armes yow now!
Lo, þe tratours er befor yow!
To fight on þam makes yow boune,
Haf na dout to ber þam doune.
Als tratoures treuȝ haf þai broken,
And wikedlie opon vs w'r'oken.
'Þoru þe help of þe vertu
Of Criste of Heuen, of Lorde Ihesu,
Þe maistrie of þam sal we win -
Dotes yow noght on þam to rin!'
Her Britons and Saxons togedir yode;
Gret Scheddyng þar was of mannes blod. [VI.] xxxv
Qwen Arthur had þus said and doune,
Vp ras þan Saint Du[b]rice ful sone,
Þe archebishcope of Legions,
In resens of alle þe Britons.
He clame vpon a litel montaine
Þat for him was so eise and gaine;
Wiȝ hegh voice, on þis maner
He cried þat alle þe folk might her:
'Yie Cristen men, in Britaine won,
Þat haldes Cristen profession,
Hafes in yow now reuȝ and pete
Of our neghburs and þe contre,
Þat þoru treson of þe paigiens,
Þat yitte agains yow sustiens,
Wel ner yitte þoru your herd drifen,
In endelise sorow for to lifen,
Bot yie fight wiȝ wapen in hende,
Your awn countre for to defende.
'For your contre wiȝ wille yie fight,
On your famen dies for y'our' right!
Die for your right es victorie,
To your saul it es remedie.
'Qwaso hafes in wille and rede
For his broþer to suffer þe dede,
He offers himself wiȝouten ende,
Qwilk sacrifice til Godde to wend.
'Criste he folghes in His traces,
Þat man in þis warld has þe graces
For rightwisenes stand in strif,
And for his broþer to gif his lif.
'If any of yow, qwatso he be,
In bataile die wi3 willes fre,
Þat ilke dedde he þis daie inrinnes,
Standes in penance of alle his sinnes.
I grant him absolucion
Bifor Ihesu Criste, Goddes Son,
Of alle þat he has done biforn
Sen he was of his moder born,
Qwarþoru he noght refuys þis daie
Die for his broþer, so I yow saie.'
Of þis in ded was na targing -
Þai tok þe haly manes blissing
And armed þam son, wiȝ willes gode,
And vnto his biddyngs þai stode.
Kyng Arthur tok on ane auberk,
So lik a kyng of worthi werk,
And on his heid a helm of gold
In dragons forme, slik vse he walde,
And on his schuldres a scheld ful bright,
Þat name was Pridwen it heght -
Þe ymage þat in it was paint
Of Marie, Goddes moder so saint,
For haf her in memor he wald,
Sen in alle nedes to her he calde.
He tok his suerd hight Calborn,
Girde him þarwi3 he wald no3 Scorn,
Wroght in þe hile of Auelon;
And his sper þat was cald Ron,
In his right hande, lo, he it takes,
Wide wondes and brad in fight it makes.
Arthur he ordaind his oste,
In batailes he and þam asoste -
Ful hardelie he tok þe strete
Wi3 þe Saxons in feld to mete.
Togider strak, lo, þar batailes,
Aiþer on oþer harde dinttes deles;
Þe Britons harde opon þam yiode
And manli þai agains þam stode.
Þai laide on faste, gaf many a dinte,
Noþer oste for oþer wald stint,
Ilke man oþer to sla was boune,
Na man might knaw qweþer side yied doun.
Neuer þai ceds, bot euer þai fight
Alle þe lang daie, til it was night;
Aiþer on oþer þar wapen brak,
Noþer side, forso3, gaf bak,
Bot alle þe daie aiþer oþer sloght.
And qwen þe son to reste it droght,
To a montane neghum þai yiede
Þe Saxons sone it occupede,
Þai tok it þan for þar castelle,
Þe night þaron to hofe and duelle.
Of Saxons þan þe number so grete,
Fra þai þis ilke montane might gete,
Þam alle þaron þe night to halde.
Alle about þam þai ordained wache,
Harmes bi night fra þam cache.
And þe Britons þe vale þai tok
For þar resete; sum of þam wok.
Colgry[m] was sclane her wi3 his breþer;
Saxons was chast, now her, now þeder. [VI.] xxxvi
Þe night it paste. Son on þe morn
Þe son it ras, fair þam biforn.
Arthur biheld vnto his face -
Lo, he auised him of þe place.
Þe monte he bigan to ascende,
Þe Saxons þam for to defende.
Þoru fors he wald, and no3 þoru sleght,
Of þe montain win to þe heght,
Bot in vp clauering of his oste
Ful many of his men he loste -
Saxons doune fra on hegh þai ran,
Þai wondede and sloght ful many a man,
Sen better þai had donward fra hegh,
Þat Britons vp climbande might dregh.
Bot þe Britons, wi3 fors ful grete,
To þe heght of þe hille aboun þai gete.
Þar reght schuldres þai sette to thring,
To þar famen schuldres þai bring,
Saxsons þar bristes agains þam sette,
Win þe hille on þam for to do lette -
Schuldre to schulder, briste to briste,
In slik brussing fele many periste.
Britons vpward þoru fors þai wald,
Saxons donward þam for to halde -
Vpwarde, donwarde, þus þai thrang,
Aiþer folk on oþer, durand ful lang.
In þis maner alle daie þai faght,
And yitte þe hille to win in waght.
Qwen mikel of þe daie was paste,
Dedeing þught Arthur, at þe laste,
Þat þai þam sulde þe feld so warn
And þe maistre in point to tharn.
His suerde in hand out he drogh,
Hight Caliburn, aknawen anogh,
Þe nam of Saint Marie he criede,
And to þe thikeste prese he hiede -
Lo, qwar his enemise thikest preste,
To entre þar neuer he ceste.
He criede to God, wi3 willes gude,
And smate on alle befor him stude.
Of his enemise he spared nane,
Alle þase he toched þai fel doun slan;
To sla his famen neuer he stint,
Ilke man he toched dede of þe dint.
Wi3 Caliburn stik neuer he lefte
To he of fele þe lifes had refte -
Bi numbre he slogh þat tid of men
Four vndre3 and sextie and ten.
Britons sagh Arthur on þam gatte;
In thik batailes þai folgh in þatte.
Þai sued þar king wi3 ful gret ruth,
Þai slogh an dfeld doun all abouth -
Colgrim slane and Baldulf, his broþer,
and many thousandes of þe oþer.
Duk Cheldrik sagh þe gret perille,
His side yiod doun, he stod ful ille,
Wi3 þe oste þat lefte he tok þe flight,
Naui to gette if þat he might.
Castleford's chronicle is significant mostly for what it physically is: a 39,437 line chronicle, one of only seven chronicles written in Middle English before the year 1600 (http://www.rps.psu.edu/jun94/castle.html). The length of Castleford's work is abundantly clear even here in his account of Badon, which is considerably longer than even Geoffrey's version. Castleford expands the length of the battle over Geoffrey, making it into the night, then into the following day. Castleford also elects to have the Saxons retreat into a castle for the night, an interesting choice, given that no author has described the battle at Badon itself as a siege since William of Malmesbury. There is little else that Castleford has to add to the tradition, however, except a lot of frills. The major features of the story, such as the absolution by St. Dubricius and the reason given for the Virgin's presence on Arthur's shield are all exactly the same as in Geoffrey's rendition.
Robert Mannyng – The Chronicle, 1338Mannyng, Robert. Robert Mannyng of Brunne, The Chronicle. Ed. Idelle Sullens. State University of New York at Binghamton: Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1996.
With alle þe folk Ohelle mot spare
toward Bathe Arthure was 3are.
Cheldrik sege he wild remue,
his men within he þouht rescue.
In a pleyn vnder a wod side,
Arthure did his folk abide,
to arme þam alle & ordeyne
whilk suld go with whilk seyne.
Himself was armed fynly wele
with gode chambres of iren & stele
& a hauberk þat non was suilk
abouen an acton mad of silk
& gird with Calaburn, þe gode bronde,
a better com neuer in kynges honde;
ten fote long was þe blade,
in Rameseie þe merk is made;
fro þe hilte to þe pomelle
tuelue inche grete þat tyme as felle,
þe brede of þe blade seuen inche & more.
I trow þat wild smyte sore.
Arthure luffed it wele inouh
mishapped him neuer whan he it drouh.
His helme was gode, non better on molde,
þe naselle befor was alle of golde;
þe bendeles of gold burnyst bright,
a dragon aboun selcouth in sight.
About his nek hang his schelde,
Pridwen it hight, many it bihelde;
þer on was purtreid next him bi
þe image our suete Lady,
in ned to behold hir face,
ageyn his enmys to haf grace.
His lance grete, he cald it Ron,
with iren befor suilk was non.
Whan þe kyng was armed wele
& his folk ilk a dele,
alle softly he had þam go
þat non suld befor oþer þro,
tille þei com to þe batale;
bot þe Sessons durst not assaile,
bot fled vnto a hie hille
þat non mot wele wyn þam tille;
þei held þat hille as castelle strong
& defendid þam fulle long,
as þei were closed within a walle;
bot at þe last it stode no stalle.
Arthur sauh þe hille was taken
& long mot þei hald þam waken;
Tene him þouht þei fro him brak,
& to his men þus he spak:
"Lordynges," he said, "þis hille is hie
& we may not com þam nehi
bot it were long destresse;
þe length wald I schorten lesse.
Agayn to Scotland wald I be.
Ohel, my cosyn, fayn wald I se."
He monessed þam with wordes smerte
& bad þam be gode of herte.
"Lo, here befor vs þan ere þo
þat has vs wrouht mykille wo;
venge vs now we se þam here,
late þam bie our godes dere.
Þei haf don vs many trauaile,
quyte þam þat þei scored on taile,
& I salle 3elde, if þat I may,
þat other þei suore þe toþer day.
If I may not with þam mele,
Hand to hand strokes dele,
þei salle neuer eft haf powere
in bataile to negh me nere."
With þat worde he smote his stede,
Befor þam alle, vpward he 3ede.
His lance fulle wele he bare þe poynt,
þe schelde befor fulle wele ioynt;
þe first Sesson þat with him met,
his daies were no lenger set;
þan bigan Arthur to crie
agayn þis paiens, "Help me, Marie!"
& bare on þam þe brest before.
After him þe Bretons gan bore,
"Þe first stroke þan is myne,
on I mette & mad his fyne."
Þan mot men se þe Bretons strike
& felled þe Sessons douhtilike.
Ilkon wald haf bien þe breste
& at his power Arthure neste,
& he þam egred so with sawe
for schame þat non mot þam withdrawe;
þei bihalued þam aboute
& riden þorgh þe Sessons route;
on ilk a side doun þei fleih
& euer Arthure vpward steih.
Caliburne drawen in his hand,
was non his dynt mot wythstand
þat ne him behoued nedis deie,
þerfor þei fled & gaf him weie.
So fele he slouh & brouht to schame,
for þus þei counted þat couth þam ame,
fyue hundreth he slouh mo alone
þan his oste did ilk one.
Dede was Balduk, slayn Colgrine;
Cheldrik fled with mykelle pyne;
toward þer schippes to Totneis
þei fled & left þer oþer herneis.
Lightli to go, wightli to fle,
þei left alle & fled to þe se.
Arthure perceyued wele inouh
þat to þer schippes þei fled & drouh.
He bad Cador of Cornwaile
tak ten þousand of gode aparaile
& after þam suyth him spede,
& ouertak þam þat fled.
For Arthur to Scotland went,
Ohel a messengere him sent
& said þe Scottes had seged þe castelle
& had nere taken sir Ohel.
Cheldrik fled to his nauy,
bot Cador was quaynt & wily;
be a bigate to Toteneis lay,
Cador & his tok þer wey,
& to þe hauen wele ore cam
ar any Sesson to schip nam.
Cador þe mene folk toke
þe schippes, gaf þam to loke,
& bad þam houe fer fro þe land
þat Sessons rauht no bote in hand.
Siþen went he with alle his oste
& in þe cuntres kept þe coste
& kept þam euer as þei come.
Bi ten, bi tuelue, vmwhile þei nome,
armour, robes, had þei cast
þat þei were light to fle fast;
þei had bot suerdes on þer hippes,
son to com vnto þer schippes.
As þei passed þe water of Tyne,
were þei war of Cador syne.
Whan þei it sauh, þei held þam schent;
vp & doun away þei glent.
Als þei tok þe hille of Tenwik,
was he slayn, Kyng Cheldrik;
þe toþer þat wend wele haf scaped,
to þe dede were alle to fraped.
Whan þe com þer, þei wer vnfayn,
þo þat scaped to þe hauen vnslayn,
for þei were kept at þe brynk,
into þe water did þam synk.
On alle halue wex þam wo,
to woddes, to hilles, fled som of þo,
þam to hide þat non wist
tille þei died for hunger & thrist.
Whan Cador had mad þe cuntre clene
þat no Sesson was more sene,
he hied fast toward Scotland;
in Aklud, Arthure he fand
& Ohel with him, his cosyn,
of his sekenes warissed fyn,
þe Sessons þer sege remued.
Whan Arthur com, Ohel rescued,
alle þe cuntre gan þei weyue
& fled away vnto Moreyue;
þer þei hoped best to be
& klosed þam in a strong cite. (Lines 9871-10032)
Mannyng's is another chronicle that cleaves very closely to Geoffrey. So much so, in fact, that when first edited in 1725 by Thomas Hearne, Hearne didn't bother to present the first part because it was so close to Geoffrey's Historia Regum Brittaniae. (See Introduction to Idelle Sullens' edition) One feature, however, that occasionally deviates is exactly when and where the reference to the Virgin is placed. Some of the other chroniclers have the reference mid-battle, usually when Arthur sees his men are losing and spurs them on through an act of prowess; Mannyng, however, has largely abbreviated the battle itself (twenty-five lines, versus a hundred in Castleford, for example), removing that mid-battle rallying cry and placing the call to the Virgin with the initial charge.
John (Jehan) de Wavrin – A Collection of the Chronicles and Ancient Histories of Great Britain, Now Called England, 1474De Wavrin, John. A Collection of the Chronicles and Ancient Histories of Great Britain, Now Called England. Ed. and trans. William Hardy. In The Rolls Series, vol. 40, pt. 1. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864.
... Notwithstanding the faith they [The Saxons] had sworn, and the hostages they had given, they agreed to shift their sails in order to return to Britain, and managed so that they arrived at the port of the Couthonisians (Totnes), ravaging and destroying all along the sea coast as far as the Severn sea, after which they went through the country, making great havoc of men, women, and children, without sparing any of whatever condition they might be, after which they took their way towards Pague, and besieged the city of Bladone (Bath). These things being made known to the valiant King Arthur, he was greatly surprised at the detestable iniquity of the Saxons, so he took immediate vengeance on their hostages; and abandoning the war which he had undertaken for the subjugation of the Scots and Picts, he determined to go at once to raise the siege of Bladone (Bath), and to crush the pagan traitors without mercy. King Arthur was in great trouble and sorrow at leaving his nephew, King Hoëlus, lying very ill in the city of Aclud; but he hastened, so that in a short time he entered the province of Surmeseteuse (Somerset), in which the siege was being carried on; and when he came in sight of the army of the enemy, he was filled with wrath, and began to threaten them in these or the like words: - "These cruel men, called Saxons, have disdained and refused to keep the faith which they solemnly swore to me before God and my Creator; but in the maintenance of my own faith vowed and sword, I will, with His help, avenge to the utmost of my power the blood of my loyal citizens by their faithless blood. You then, my knights, my followers, and my friends, take up your arms, and let us with all our might attack these traitors, over whom, with the help of Jesus Christ our Lord, we shall certainly obtain the victory, and His shall be our glory."COMMENTARY
CHAPTER XV. How Dubricius exhorted the Britons to fight boldly against the pagans, and how they defeated them through the prowess of their King Arthur.
When King Arthur had thus spoken to encourage his knights, the holy sage Dubricius, archbishop of Caerleon, being upon a little mound which adjoined the camp, began in this wise to address the knights of the army in a soft and pleasing voice: - "O ye men, ennobled by the profession of Christianity, knights of Jesus Christ our Saviour, keep before your eyes the sight of your country and fellow-subjects, and think that it will be to you a matter of great reproach and eternal infamy if you allow these pagans, so full of detestable treachery, and do not resist their fury with all your might. Fight, then, for your country have no fear of death, for if you die here, you will no more suffer either grief, or pain, or tribulation, for to die for our country and our faith is certain of our souls; truly, whoever shall suffer death for sacrifice before the God of paradise, because he follows the footsteps of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, who disdained not to give His life for His brethren. If then any of you suffer death in this battle, that death shall be given him as penance and full absolution of all his sins and offences." After these words had been spoken and the benediction of the good archbishop had been received, each in joyful mood hastened to arm himself without further delay, and to obey the command of the holy man Dubricius. Arthur then equipped himself in notable and excellent armour, as became the majesty of so great a king; he put on his head a noble helmet resplendent with fine gold, on which the image of a flying dragon as a crest was skillfully set, then placed he on his shoulders his shield, called Pridgem, on which was engraven the image of the glorious Virgin Mary, whom, prompted by the remembrance of her likeness, he often invoked to his aid. Afterwards he girt on his good sword Caliburn, which had been forged in the isle of Avalon, and in his right hand he took his lance Ronth, which added much to the splendour of his appearance, for it had a long broad blade, while at the same time it was easily managed in battle. When King Arthur and his men were armed and equipped, he marshaled his troops and led them to attack the miscreant Saxons, who were drawn up in a circle according to their custom. When the battle began, the onset was very cruel and severe, for the Saxons fought desperately the whole day, so that many a good Christian there perished. King Arthur perceiving this, and that the day was now declining, began with great vigour to collect his people on the top of a hill, which would serve them as a castle and fortress for the night; but in getting up he lost many of his men, for the Saxons, who were on the summit of this hill, inasmuch as they had a stronger run upon the Britons who were ascending, were enabled to do them the greater injury. Nevertheless, the Britons, though with great labour, succeeded in dislodging the enemy, gained the summit of the hill, again joined battle with their adversaries, and with renewed courage and fresh heart fought most valiantly, resisting bravely with all their force. Although the Saxons were dislodged from this hill, the battle was still pretty equal on all sides, for they fought desperately everywhere, and thus passed the greater part of the day; Arthur was very angry at this, and he was amazed that they continued to resist, and that he had not been able to obtain the victory; so grasping his good sword Caliburn, and crying aloud, Holy Mary! he rushed with great force into the ranks of the enemy, slaying them and scattering their ranks, invoking the while the divine aid; at a single blow he severed from their bodies the souls of all those within his reach, nor did he cease to fight till, with his good sword Caliburn, he had killed 470 men.
The Britons, seeing their leader thus acquit himself, being inflamed with anger, followed him and broke the ranks of the enemy by a desperate effort, slaying them on all sides. In this defeat fell the Duke Colgrinus, and Baltucus his brother, and many thousand pagans were slaughtered and killed there. But Duke Cedric of Germany, seeing the misfortune of his companions, turned and fled for his life.
Although John de Wavrin is writing more than three hundred years after the creation of the Historia Regum Brittaniae, his chronicle is nearly a word-for-word duplicate of Geoffrey's original text. The only substantive change that de Wavrin introduces at all is to expand upon the role of the device of the Virgin on Arthur's shield: she is no longer merely present for Arthur as a reminder of the importance of piety and holiness, but is a protective symbol to which Arthur can pray. This is hardly a surprising development, because the Virgin was seen throughout the Middle Ages as a protector of good knights, and many knights would pray to her before going into battle. Aside from this change, however, the story is absolutely the same as Geoffrey's original.
If de Wavrin had written at the same time as Layamon, for example, then this duplication of Geoffrey would be far less interesting. However, the fact that he is writing more than three centuries after Geoffrey, yet still faithfully reproduces the material is quite amazing. People living in the middle ages didn't maintain a history of their culture in the modern sense; while they maintained good legal history and made use of it frequently, for cultural history they were largely dependent on anecdotal evidence and these very chronicles that were passed down through the ages. This allegiance to the chronicles as a genuine history is demonstrated by the remarkably faithful rewriting of Geoffrey's material here by de Wavrin – he was quite content to reproduce a story that had been written 340 years before his time. No historian from today would be willing to unquestionably stand on the word of a historian from 1660.
Alfred Lord Tennyson – Idylls of the KingTennyson, Alfred Lord. Idylls of the King. Ed. J. M. Gray. London: Penguin, 1996.
EXCERPT From Lancelot and Elaine
Then the great knight, the darling of the court,COMMENTARY
Loved of the loveliest, into that rude hall
Stept with all grace, and not with half disdain
Hid under grace, as in a smaller time,
But kindly man moving among his kind:
Whom they with meats and vintage of their best
And talk and minstrel melody entertained.
And much they asked of court and Table Round,
And ever well and readily answered he:
But Lancelot, when they glanced at Guinevere,
Suddenly speaking of the wordless man,
Heard from the Baron that, ten years before,
The heathen caught and reft him of his tongue.
"He learnt and warned me of their fierce design
Against my house, and him they caught and maimed;
But I, my sons, and little daughter fled
From bonds or death, and dwelt among the woods
By the great river in a boatman's hut.
Dull days were those, till our good Arthur broke
The Pagan yet once more on Badon hill."
"O there, great lord, doubtless," Lavaine said, rapt
By all the sweet and sudden passion of youth
Toward greatness in its elder, "you have fought.
O tell us—for we live apart—you know
Of Arthur's glorious wars." And Lancelot spoke
And answered him at full, as having been
With Arthur in the fight which all day long
Rang by the white mouth of the violent Glem;
And in the four loud battles by the shore
Of Duglas; that on Bassa; then the war
That thundered in and out the gloomy skirts
Of Celidon the forest; and again
By castle Gurnion, where the glorious King
Had on his cuirass worn our Lady's Head,
Carved of one emerald centered in a sun
Of silver rays, that lightened as he breathed;
And at Caerleon had he helped his lord,
When the strong neighings of the wild white Horse
Set every gilded parapet shuddering;
And up in Agned-Cathregonion too,
And down the waste sand-shores of Trath Treroit,
Where many a heathen fell; "and on the mount
Of Badon I myself beheld the King
Charge at the head of all his Table Round,
And all his legions crying Christ and him,
And break them; and I saw him, after, stand
High on a heap of slain, from spur to plume
Red as the rising sun with heathen blood,
And seeing me, with a great voice he cried,
'They are broken, they are broken!' for the King,
However mild he seems at home, nor cares
For triumph in our mimic wars, the jousts—
For if his own knight cast him down, he laughs
Saying, his knights are better men than he—
Yet in this heathen war the fire of God
Fills him: I never saw his like: there lives
No greater leader." (Lines 260-316)
Tennyson is commonly considered to be the father of modern Arthurian literature, reinvigorating a genre that had become largely defunct over the previous few centuries. The life Tennyson breathes into the tradition extends beyond the post-Malory lull that the Arthurian tradition saw, however; instead of simply picking up where the late medieval writers left off in copying down Geoffrey, Tennyson goes a step further and looks back at the pre-Galfridian work, primarily at Nennius. The list of battles described by Lancelot to Elaine are the very same ones that Nennius created more than a millennium earlier, and have been largely ignored since Geoffrey told his version of the story. Tennyson also marks the first time that the name Badon has returned to describe this event since, again, Geoffrey in 1135; although everyone from Gildas up until Geoffrey called the battle Badon, the name was changed to Bath in Geoffrey's story, and did not return to being called Badon until Tennyson's Idylls. Tennyson's most important contribution, however, is simply the contemporary vitality that he brought back into the tradition. Malory was gaining some readership, but Tennyson recrafted the story into something that made sense in the nineteenth century, and the popularity of Arthur was returned, revitalized, to the mainstream.
Tennyson is an excellent place to begin looking at the modern tradition because he is the first really modern author to make the story of Arthur a reflection of his own age. Looking at this bibliography can be deceiving about the extent and vibrancy of the tradition in the Middle Ages because Badon does not appear in many of the more major romances (Malory, the Vulgate Cycle, for example). By Tennyson's time, however, that creative tradition was mostly gone, so his reinterpretations of the material within a context that made sense for a nineteenth century audience were energizing for the tradition as a whole. Tennyson's Arthuriana does not, by any means, come completely out of his own mind. Tennyson read Malory at a young age, and did his best to read other medieval Arthurian texts as well, and as a result, his work is a blending of many different stories. The combination of Elaine, a post-Galfridian figure, with the battle sequence created by Nennius in the excerpted passage above is a perfect example. His literary eclecticism is made much easier, of course, by the relatively ready availability of sources compared to what medieval authors had to work with, but his work set the tone for later writers as well; the modern Arthurian period is characterized by the tendency to draw from multiple sources, especially Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius, but really everyone from Gildas to works published in the last few years.
John Masefield – Badon Hill, 1928Masefield, John. Midsummer Night and Other Tales in Verse. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1928.
Lines 17-20 (of 180)
Then, as his gang dissolved, he went alone
Upstream from there, exploring the unknown,
And reached a reed-mere, whence a trackway led
Up to an ancient fort called Badon Head.
Under the grasses where the cattle browse,
King Loki's army kept eternal house
In Badon earth, for none escaped alive.
Thereafter Arthur's realm was free to thrive.
For many years, no pirates had the will
To band against him, after Badon Hill.
Masefield's poem on the Badon appears on pages 28-36 of the 1928 edition and includes a considerable lead-up to the battle, which itself only occupies the last third of the poem. Loki, leader of the Saxon raiders, leads an expeditionary force into England, where he sees a huge field full of thousands of cattle, unspoilt by any raids. He is driven off by "Ambrose the Briton," clearly Ambrosius, but vows to return and raid that field. The opportunity for it does not come in his lifetime, or in the lifetime of his son. The action is instead taken up by this original Loki's grandson, whose name is also Loki. This Loki is counselled against sailing against Arthur by one of his advisors, Wolf the Red Fang, but he repeatedly disregards Wolf's good counsel, and ends up paying the price.
There are many interesting little aspects that Masefield put in this poem, but one of the most powerful recurring themes right from the beginning is a red-versus-white dragon battle that seems to come straight out of an earlier section of Geoffrey, or the Welsh tale of Gwion Bach. In both cases, a metaphorical battle is played out between two worms, or dragons, one red, and one white. The white one is ordinarily representative of Arthur, the red one the Saxons, for they are his primary enemy at the time when this prophecy is usually unveiled. The opening sections of the poem are abound with red and white dragon imagery; the Britons are identified by proxy as dragons through the first Loki's epithet, "the Dragon killer," and the red longboats the grandson Loki invades England in are called "Dragons" as well. The first expeditionary force that Arthur destroys is resting at a chalk-brook, "water-crowfoot-white." Even more interesting is that when Arthur's men go to burn the longboats, "Their pine-plank, painted red, the hot July / Had burned to be like bonework, blister dry." The white-bleached red wood is then consumed in "spangs of flame / That writhelled red." The imagery could not be more clear; Masefield has set up a sort of prophecy within this introduction to the battle.
The battle itself is quite short, but it sees a return to an earlier style of panegyric; Arthur is not merely the general, but is the one who singlehandedly holds a breach in place while the remainder of his men fight the rest of the battle. Masefield did not quite reach the exaggerated level of hundreds of men being killed by Arthur in an open field of battle, but the parallels to earlier Badon renditions of exaggerated prowess are eminently clear.
Charles Williams – "Mount Badon", 1938Williams, Charles. The Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 1982. Pp. 16-18.
Lines 1-9 (of 69)COMMENTARY
The king's poet was his captain of horse in the wars.
He rode over the ridge; his force
sat hidden behind, as the king's mind had bidden.
The plain below held the Dragon in the centre,
Lancelot on the left, on the right Gawaine,
Bors in the rear commanding the small reserve:
the sea's indiscriminate host roared at the City's wall.
As with his household few Taliessin rode over the ridge
the trumpets blew, the lines engaged.
The tor of Badon heard the analytical word;
the grand art mastered the thudding hammer of Thor,
and the heart of our lord Taliessin determined the war.
The lord Taliessin kneeled to the king;
and candles of new Camelot shone through the fought field.
Charles Williams is one of an early twentieth century cadre of writers, including John Masefield and C.S. Lewis, who took a great interest in the Arthurian tradition, adding many of their own ideas to the tradition in often very creative and uncommon forms, a rule to which this poem is no exception. The poetry of Charles Williams is well-known for being at least somewhat cryptic, but decidedly worth working through the exterior to understand his intent that lies beneath.
This particular poem is Charles Williams' take on Mount Badon, which differs in a number of ways from many other accounts of Badon. First and foremost is the prominent use of Taliesin as the main character in the poem, not Arthur or his knights; it is Taliesin who determines the outcome of the battle, and Taliesin whom the action follows. The other prominent difference is the level of metaphor employed; most Badons are actual, physical events, won by actual physical actions. However, the most concretely 'real' thing in Williams' poem is Taliesin himself; the armies of Arthur are represented variously as the "City" or the "City's Wall," while the hordes of Saxons are called the "sea" or "pirates." The depiction of a battle between order and chaos is clear, much as it is clear in most Badons; Williams has simply elected to make the connection more explicit by using metaphors to describe the players.
Williams' poem opens with the armies coming together all properly arrayed for battle, which begins at the end of the first stanza. Although Taliesin is in the midst of the battle, he does not participate in any of the physical action. Rather, he sits down and goes into a sort of meditative state while the battle rages around him. Arthur's men begin to falter for lack of proper discipline, order and command, and it eventually becomes clear that only the "word" can save the battle for Arthur. Taliesin's meditation eventually bears fruit: his consciousness is whisked away from the battle, seeing instead Virgil "standing on a trellised path by the sea." Virgil's importance is as a composer of the word, and he is probably chosen because of his relevance to the idea of city-building with The Aeneid, for Williams clearly explains his meaning in the following lines: "the Roman sought for the word, sought for his thought, / sought for the invention of the City by the phrase." Although Williams uses the word "City" with a double entendre: Arthur's forces cannot claim victory without order, order cannot be created without knowledge or wisdom, and those are attributes that are possessed by poets. Questions about whether or not Arthur has won Badon (or many of the other steps along the way throughout his life) are a frequent topic for medieval and modern authors alike to focus on, each in his own way. For most, however, the physical realities are what define the outcome of the battle, which leaves the author free to speculate on the moral validity of the battle. In Williams' case, however, such validity is the only real prerequisite for victory, for once Taliesin has completed his vision, the battle rapidly goes in favor of Arthur's men, with pen-as-sword imagery abounding: "the flame of song streaked the spread spears," or "he saw the hexameter spring / and the king's sword swing."
In the end, victory at Badon begets Camelot–the next poem in Williams' series is "The Crowning of Arthur"–and Williams' ideal here is clear, and very much in line with the traditional idea of Arthur. Taliesin's visions and the subsequent victory over the Saxons have validated Arthur's rule, proving his worthiness of receiving the quasi-divine sanction of "the word," order, so that he might rule justly. Again, this is a theme that is at least indirectly addressed by most Badon authors; it is the explicit imagery Williams employs that really sets him apart.
Edward Frankland – Arthur, The Bear of Britain, 1944.Frankland, Edward. Arthur, the Bear of Britain. Oakland, California: Green Knight, 1998.
A man awakened Cissa where he lay with his head pillowed on a saddle. All round him in the chilly air he heard the words running through the camp like a ripple on a still pond: "Cerdic has come."COMMENTARY
"The best news we have had for many a day!" said Cissa, getting stiffly to his feet. Everywhere folk were scrambling up and making way for a long, narrow column of men coming with a steady swinging step and the haughty bearing of warriors who had not yet met their match. Out from the ranks came a rider on a big bay stallion, cantering recklessly up the slope and waving a naked sword.
"Here am I, Cerdic!" he cried. "Follow me, Cissa, Sigbert and Erkenwine! Wake all of you and gather on the hills. Eastward we must go and choose a battle place, for the Welshmen are upon us. Wake, I say, and take your weapons! To-day shall decide the fate of Britain."
He rode on over the skyline, shearing away from the untaken fortress, his voice growing fainter amid the roar of voices and the clatter of arms that went surging after him.
On the slopes where Badon dipped eastward into thorny scrub Cerdic pulled in. A mass of men flowed after him like a torrent and among them came Cissa and Erkenwine, urging on their drowsy horses. Stirrup to stirrup they closed up beside Cerdic.
"What is there to fear?" they said in a breath. "We have lessened the Welsh to a handful. Let us turn now and make an end of them."
"It is not those men that I fear, Conan's champions licking their wounds on the top of Badon," answered Cerdic in a somber voice. "It is what lies down there in the mist; the whole strength of the West marching from Caer Ceri. My spies have been among them already before they crossed the Severn; I know their plans and I have come like the wind leaving all I have won, leaving Gereint wriggling like a snake with a broken back among his shaggy hills."
"Conan's strength is broken too. A heavy blow we dealt him yesterday," said Erkenwine.
"He has more men than you have set eyes on, and with him come the hosts of Maelgun, Cuneglas, and Vortipore, and at the head of all is Arthur. A luckless day it was for us when the Bear of Britain slipped from our hands, west of London."
The sun threw a pale gleam over the jeweled turf and the snowy hawthorn brakes. Below them rolled the fog, tossing up wisps like swansdown in the morning breeze.
"Where lies Sigbert?" asked Cerdic suddenly.
"In the plain north of the hill," said Cissa. "He moves now. I hear his men driving the beasts together."
"He moves too late," said Cerdic. Out of a rumbling uproar down in the depths of the vaporous sea sounded the shrill notes of a trumpet. . . . Screaming cries, a thunderous yell, an answering shout of triumph from the fortress.
"Sigbert is being ground between two millstones. Shall we go to his aid?" said Erkenwine doubtfully.
"We shall fight, but not on ground of Arthur's choosing. Let us get away from this accursed hill," said Cerdic, grinding his teeth.
"Our plan was to draw Arthur across the Severn and then fall upon him," muttered Cissa.
"You have sown the wind and now you will reap the whirlwind." Cerdic gave a wild laugh. "Let us see whether we can stand against it on that great hill circled with ramparts like a torque on a chieftain's head."
He pointed to a further stretch of down, grey-green bosoms of turf shadowed in every fold and fading into dim featureless horizons. On the nearest swell was the crater-like silhouette of an abandoned fortress.
Edward Frankland writes one of the earliest of the historical novels, a genre which has its roots primarily in the medieval chronicle tradition. One of the reasons that Badon is a particularly interesting lens through which to view modern stories is because it is frequently the high point in a dramatic narrative; all roads lead to Badon, and all outcomes depend on what happens there. Frankland's The Bear of Britain is no exception, although Frankland does other things as well that set him apart from the rest of the tradition.
Frankland tells his story from multiple perspectives, sometimes from Arthur's point of view, and sometimes from Cerdic's. The clearest result of this choice is that Frankland's novel deals with the Saxons as people, rather than a mere "enemy horde," as some books prefer to characterize them. There is more than that to it, however; Frankland's story is no exception to the rule about pivotal Badon, and the result in this case is that Arthur refuses absolute power after defeating Cerdic. The achievement is then whittled away to nothing by the petty greed of lesser people, and the book ends in despair. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia claims that this conclusion to the story draws from the advisories made by Gildas against "greed, folly, treachery, and corruption of the British rulers." (NAE, pg. 159) Given that Frankland completed the book between the middle and end of World War II, it is hardly surprising that his outlook is dark.
John Masefield – Badon Parchments, 1947Masefield, John. Badon Parchments. Kingswood, Surrey: Windmill Press, 1947.
John Masefield is among the most important of the modern Arthurian authors; poet laureate of England from 1930 until his death in 1967, Masefield wrote a vast quantity of Arthurian poetry, as well as this novel, Badon Parchments, which is essentially an expansion upon the events leading up to the Badon. In the novel, he makes two major changes to the story; first is the narrator, John of Cos, who an emissary from the Byzantine emperor, and second is the near elimination of Arthur as a physical person from the story. Arthur appears only twice, at the beginning and at the end. These changes, however, do not have as far-reaching an effect in terms of making a genuinely unique plot as one might hope from the title; the 150-page total achieved more through extensive description and drawn-out scenes than original content. The additions that he does make are details more than any overarching themes.
Although the modern tendency toward the use of Cerdic and Arthur are yet very well-developed, Masefield has still departed from most of the previous traditions in his choice of characters. The British are led by Cador, who is described as an incredibly effusive, charismatic leader: "[Cador] had a charm able to win any heart, and a courage able to lead anyone into the pits of hell, if need were." (pg. 138). Over and over again in the course of the battle, the British seem to be on the brink of defeat, but Cador rides in and re-galvanizes them. Arthur eventually does save the day, riding in during the final stages of the battle with the reinforcements necessary for a British victory, but most of the responsibility clearly falls on Cador's shoulders.
Cerdic (Masefield spells it "Ceretig") is not entirely absent, but like Arthur, he is away from the battle. It is the threat of reinforcement by Cerdic that is most worrisome in this particular rendition; his troops are expected at any time, so much so that the narrator initially confuses Arthur with Cerdic when he rides up to save the day. Cerdic is dealt with separately, though, in the sort of epilogue to the battle. The leader of the Saxons (Heathens, Masefield collectively refers to them as) is Osla. There aren't many sources that use Osla as the leader of the Saxons; in fact, the Dream of Rhonabwy is the only one that explicitly connects him to it, which illustrates again the eclecticism of the typical modern author's approach.
Alfred Duggan – Conscience of the King, 1951Duggan, Alfred. Conscience of the King. New York: Ace Books, 1951.
I was just bracing myself for the oblivion that wise men hope for, or the unpleasantness that the outraged gods will have in store for me if they really do exist, when I had an inspiration. No leader can get undrilled barbarians to manoeuvre, especially when they see the enemy charging, but there are two commands they always understand; one is to retreat, and that was useless for lack of time; but the other is to attack. Naturally the best warriors in the army had been sharing my dinner, and they were still clustered round me. I yelled as loudly as I could, and began trotting up the hill-side at the steady double.COMMENTARY
Just before the collision I stole a glance over my shoulder; not a blow had yet been struck, but already my army was dissolving; some comrades were trying to form the shieldring for a defensive fight, a great many had already taken to their heels, and those who looked to their leader in a crises were climbing the hill.
When the charge met us it was not as bad as I had expected. I know nothing about cavalry and how they ought to behave in battle and I have never ridden a horse in a charge; but I imagine that it is difficult to stop the silly creatures once you have started. Anyway, for a moment I saw a horseman rushing towards me, the head of his lance growing larger and larger; then the point had glanced off the smooth of my little red shield, the sky seemed to be full of hoofs, and I picked myself up to find that they were galloping away. Artorius had a second line, and I suppose their duty was to spear those of us who were lying on the ground, but in the excitement they had got too close to the front, and their horses seemed, to jump over us as we lay flat. In short, that first charge scattered the army as a fighting force, but did not kill many men.
When the only hoofs I could hear were in the distance, I stood up very cautiously, and continued straight up the hill. Cynric was also unhurt, and so were many of my companions; by the time I reached the top I was at the head of quite a considerable body of shaken and frightened troops. It is a very sound rule, when you are caught in an ambush, to go straight for the attackers; they have usually made elaborate arrangements to cut off your retreat, but never expect you to push farther into the trap.
Duggan's story is told from the point of view of an aged Cerdic, making the title somewhat ironic – Cerdic is virtually without any conscience at all. This passage is from the opening of Duggan's Badon, the event that Cerdic openly labels his one mistake. Cerdic and his men had been eating their dinner and the sentries had missed the advance of Arthur's troops. Their only warning had been trumpets, just before Arthur's cavalry crested the hill. The excerpt begins in media res, as Cerdic tries to figure out exactly what to do. His reaction is typical Duggan Cerdic – he prepares himself for the inevitable, then has a flash of intuition, then takes on a scorning air after the event is over. It is also interesting that he refers to his own men as barbarians, repeatedly pointing out their inferiorities, especially when compared to Arthur's trained cataphracts. Conscience of a King is one of several texts that attribute Arthur's great success to an army of cavalry. Effective cavalry was impossible before the invention of the stirrup, which was centuries after Arthur's time, making the use of cavalry one of the most popular glaring historical inaccuracies in the modern tradition despite the fact that many modern authors gravitate towards cavalry as a concrete explanation for Arthur's great success in battle. This desire to explain Arthur's success as a king crops up throughout the tradition, but is answered in some very different ways. Medieval sources tend towards a more abstract, frequently religious explanation. Giving Arthur the symbol of the Virgin on his shield, for example, is a clear sign that Arthur possesses a heavenly mandate to win, and while that is enough of an explanation for a medieval crowd, it is a stretch for a modern audience to believe. Of course, like everything else in Conscience, Cerdic cannot wait to undercut the greatness of the cataphracts, explaining that he only survives for two reasons: one, the amateurish failing of the second wave of cataphracts to stay far enough back from the first line, and two, because he had the wit and will to march his men up the hill towards the charging enemy. Duggan's Cerdic can find self-glorification in anything he does.
Godfrey Turton – The Emperor Arthur, 1967Turton, Godfrey Edmund. The Emperor Arthur. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1967.
At last Arthur rode forward, drew up his horse on the brow. The sun caught the golden cross on his helmet, it gleamed as if alight with fire from heaven. He could accept political compromise with Merlin, show consideration for the worshippers of Flora, but he fought against the heathen Saxons under the emblem of Christ. He drew his sword, raised his arm. I was too far off to read the name inscribed on the hilt; but the metal shone red as blood, I recognised Excalibur.COMMENTARY
We pulled down the mesh over our faces, adjusted our mailed grip on the reins. The sword was the given signal; when he dropped his arm we must charge.
Beneath us the first of the Saxons approached the bridge, recoiled from the shower of javelins with which the defenders greeted them. Others pressed on tumultuously to reinforce them, gathered in overwhelming numbers to take the crossing by storm. Arthur let his arm fall.
"For Christ and Britain," he called. Already he was galloping ahead of us down the steep hill.
We followed at breakneck pace. The size of our horses, the immense weight of armour that they carried gave a momentum to our progress that we could not have checked if we wished. I prayed that my horse would not stumble, then forgot even apprehension in the exhilaration of speed.
The slope flattened out, but still we rushed on. We hit the Saxons like a thunderbolt, cutting through them like a knife through butter. Few survived who met our onslaught. The bridge was saved, and we turned to attack the main body, drive the whole force back down the road.
I can offer no coherent account of the battle, I was too involved in it, slashing and parrying, to spare attention for what was happening elsewhere. There came a moment however when I knew that resistance was turning to rout, that we were opposed no longer, were pursuing a beaten enemy. Recalling the slaughter now I am amazed that I could take part in it without disgust. I was invulnerable in mail, mounted against an enemy on foot. I felt neither exultation nor pity, plunged my sword into the bodies of living men with as little compunction as when in the barn at Salictum I knocked down rats with my stick.
The Saxons believed that the cataphracts were not human at all, were born with a skin of iron scales, monsters conjured up by sorcery. I know that I am of flesh and blood, I hope that I am a civilised man, humane and enlightened. It is true however that when I put on the equipment I transformed myself into an engine of destruction, and no less true that the battle of Badon Hill, the torn limbs, the reek of death, the plain littered with carrion, turned back barbarism from Britain, preserved peace in our time.
Arthur was proved right in his choice of battlefield. The Saxons had no ready outlet for flight except the pass by which they came, and few reached it, fewer still got safely through; the space was too confined, pursuit too close on their heels. Large numbers of fugitives sought escape over the ridge of hills to the south; but as they struggled up the steep escarpment they were overtaken by our horsemen, ridden down and hacked to death. Others turning north were stopped by the river, and many who leapt in were drowned; those who swam were exposed to a shower of arrows and javelins, seized and butchered when they climbed out on the farther bank. Massacre awaited the wretches wherever they fled.
The Saxon army destroyed at Badon Hill was the largest ever gathered to invade Britain; no such effort was known before to reconcile jealous tribes, unite them under a single command. The scale of the invasion was equaled by that of the disaster. All the most active of the leaders, the pick of the fighting men were killed. The Saxons lost heart, their spirit was broken.
Godfrey Turton numbers among those who explain Arthur's greatness by his use of the mounted warrior, the cataphract. Turton is like most Arthurian authors who give Arthur cavalry – the cataphractii are the saving grace of Arthur's army. The biggest departure from this portrayal of the mounted warrior appears in Alfred Duggan's work, whose Cerdic delights in depicting Arthur's men as overeager greenhorns. To Turton, on the other hand, the cataphract is a mind-numbingly terrifying opponent to the dumb, barbaric invading Saxon tribes. He even goes so far as to say that the Saxons believed the cataphractii were some sort of monstrous melding of man and machine; the superstitious tone which Turton takes in describing this Saxon misconception is quite consistent with his choice of stupid and warlike Saxons over a more charitable view. He elects to portray the Saxons as barbaric and animalistic, another choice that is sometimes made by authors when particularly invested in casting the Saxons as the bad guys (usually to make Arthur look all the more virtuous).
Because the modern author tends to be more free with his or her sources, it is frequently difficult to pick out pieces that actually come straight out of an older tradition. On the one level, it is clear that Turton considers both the religious and political aspects of this important, much like the medieval authors, because he includes the line "For Christ and Britain." There are also some smaller items that are slightly reminiscent of Geoffrey: the description of Arthur's helm gleaming in the light, or describing Excalibur's appearance in Arthur's hand, both at the beginning of the passage. The connection between these features and the actual text of Geoffrey is slight, so it is entirely possible that it is coincidental, that Turton had not intentionally emulated Geoffrey in any of these aspects. Whether or not he actually meant to imitate Geoffrey is almost irrelevant; what is important is that the resemblance is there, serving to demonstrate how dominant features of the earlier tradition continue to make at least subtle appearances in the modern period. Perhaps it is as simple as Geoffrey having told the story in a very effective way, that his form enabled his message well, and that those elements naturally resurfaced in another well-told story, this one by Turton.
Roy Turner – King of the Lordless Country, 1971Turner, Roy. King of the Lordless Country. London: Dennis Dobson, 1971.
We had won a peace for our people; we had won a place for our justice, our love and our everything; we had given the Cymry a victory to remember, a story to hand from generation to generation. The name of Aruthr will not easily be forgotten. Perhaps Arthur may live even in barbarian memory, and foreign bards — if any there be — make the warriors of The Circle into alien poetry. We had won a great battle at Caerfaddon. Now it could be Baddon Hill again, and know a gentle summer in the country of Gwlad-yr-haf — for we had paid a full price.COMMENTARY
The sun was settling towards the west, where it should go; and those who wandered on the battlefield sought not foe, but friend. Cei was sullen and Aruthr as if dreaming . . . "Eang," said Cei, moving a shape with his foot. And Aruthr nodded.
A little earlier we had found Urien's broken bow, and now I paused for a moment. You could not tell the face any more, but I recognized the supply boy's carefully bound thigh. Now Cei clambered over a grotesque muddle of fallen warriors and mounts. I moved to follow him and he waved me back, shaking his head. "There are no great friends of yours here," he said, walking in an entirely different direction. His pace was quicker than before.
"Are there not?" I said, and went to see for myself.
Briallen might still have been alive but for the ants on her face and the arrow in her breast. The bowman's aim had been quite true, so she had known little suffering. I pulled the arrow and, since it would not come out, I snapped it at the point of entry. I brushed the ants from her lips with its flight feathers, and I claimed a last kiss of her . . . "Take no risks," I whispered . . . "Wherever you journey . . . take no more risks."
I threw the broken shaft away, and I think a part of me went with it.
Aruthr and Cei were waiting for me, and we went a little further before returning to the village. There we learned that March had also been victorious. As I said, the Cymry had a victory to remember. And Eirian had wept a long time for me, for men had died in her arms. Her clothing was as stained as mine or Gwenhwyfar's — or Aruthr's — or Cei's — or Peredur's — or Owein's — or Meirig's — or Urien's — or Eang — or Briallen's — or Baldulf's. But whose clothing is not stained with something? Eirian had Briallen's sons to bear, in a pleasant and honourable land, which I had lived to guard.
Myrddin called for wine. The wise go mad without it. (Pages 205-6)
The above passage is the ending of Turner's story and the aftermath of Badon. It should be clear just from reading the passage that Turner has dark inclinations. The end is no exception; morbid cruelty is a defining feature of the story. The book opens with the narrator, Bedwyr, and his boyhood friend Emrys (who becomes Aruthr), out on a hunt away from their village. When they return, their village has been sacked by some of their neighbors, fellow Welshmen. Bedwyr comes back to his father's body grotesquely impaled upon a spear, his sister raped and murdered, and his mother burnt and scalped. He is only able to identify his mother because they didn't quite kill her, and she speaks to him. His reaction is to emotionlessly ends her life by sticking his hunting knife into her heart.
Bedwyr's moroseness continues throughout the story as his method for dealing with the death of Briallen, who had been an object of his affection for some time. Clearly, Turner's focus is on the tragedy of the story of Arthur, as though he is interested in problematizing what is frequently considered and portrayed to be the ideal of kingship. Even with Arthur leading a battle, battle itself is still a terrible thing. A number of lines jump out from the description of Badon that highlight this attitude – "We felt far from glorious. A battlefield has more place for stamina than glory," (page 204) or "[Aruthr] lifted his sword, and a great roar came from the warriors behind us. That roar swiftly followed us forward. But there is no skill in striking fleeing men. It is as interesting as ridding your house of vermin." (page 205) are two good examples. Many (if not most) authors of Arthurian legend simply overlook the fact that the violence is grisly, whether perpetrated by Arthur's men or not; Turner's purpose in using the abysmal Bedwyr was perhaps to highlight this often overlooked fact.
Monty Python – Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1974Monty Python. Film: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. National Film Trustee Company Limited: Monty Python Pictures, Ltd., 1974.
Badon is mentioned in the popular Monty Python movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. After Arthur recruits Bedevere, there is a short narration sequence describing the other people who join with Arthur, including Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, and:
Sir Robin, the not-quite-so-brave as Sir Lancelot, who had nearly fought the Dragon of Angnor, who had nearly stood up to the vicious Chicken of Bristol, and who had personally wet himself at the battle of Badon Hill.COMMENTARY
There is little to say about this reference, except that Monty Python did their homework well. In most renditions of the story, Badon is one of the largest battles that Arthur fights, and would be more appropriately worthy of a soiled suit of armor on Sir Robin's part than would, say, Camlann. Also, Camlann almost necessarily comes at the end of an Arthurian narrative, whereas Badon will sometimes be situated in a different location as the needs of the author dictate.
Douglas Carmichael – Pendragon: An Historical Novel, 1977Carmichael, Douglas. Pendragon: An Historical Novel. Blackwater Press, 1977.
The brass trumpet sang clearly over the distant bull horns. Artorius nodded to Bedwyr, and the advance party went cantering breakneck across the slope, quartering it slightly to reduce the grade. The troops assigned to the breakthrough followed more slowly in echelon. Artorius took a quick look back along the ridge before joining them. A dense mass of Saxons had now emerged from the tangle of brush and was slanting south at a dogtrot, about two hundred paces from Gwalchmai's cataphracts. If there was any delay . . . . He glanced down the hill to see how Bedwyr was progressing.COMMENTARY
An outcry from the rear guard pulled Artorius' attention back. Like some old war god in glinting mail, Lanceolatus was hurtling all alone along the ridge toward the very center of the Saxon army. A length behind him, uttering futile cries, followed Hector.
This must have been the death Lance had in mind, to be hacked to shreds in the midst of a throng of barbarians, delaying them for a precious fraction of time by his very daring. In his anguish Artorius started to kick heels into Llamwyr to follow, then checked himself and looked down to where Bedwyr's men were starting to drag off trees amid a shower of throwing axes and javelins. Six hundred men and five provinces he had to save, not just one friend. In his moment of indecision he saw that Gwalchmai had decided already. Ever since Lance had urged his acceptance on his first arrival at court, Gwalchmai had loved him, and with a mind less accustomed to Roman complexities, he acted more directly. At the head of his squadron he was charging after Lanceolatus, now barely visible above a tossing sea of Saxon helmets.
Artorius saw the unexpected opportunity. "Caius! Tell Bedwyr to drop the trees and act as rear guard! Burrus! Lucanius! Gruffydd! Left wheel and charge in echelon!"
Gwalchmai's onset had already brought the Saxons in that area to a stumbling halt. The three ponderous troops Artorius had in hand lumbered back up the hill and broke from laborious trot to headlong gallop as they neared the crest. Their successive impacts threw back the disorderly mob of barbarians who had started to follow the original downhill movement. Recoiling against the tangled maze of their own abatis, they frantically tried to organize a shield wall.
Let them. They were pinned against their own siege lines, with only the one narrow gap to retreat through.
Artorius had his trumpeter blow the recall. The cataphracts withdrew fifty paces, reformed, and took fresh lances as needed from the auxiliaries who had rejoined them. Baldulf and Octha's men had little room for maneuver. It would be a good situation for an archery attack, but too many bows had been ruined, Cerdic was pressing Bedwyr slowly up the hill, and men were starting to appear from Guecha's camp on the north. There was no time for arrows. Artorius sent word to Gwalchmai on the left to strike this time for the gap in the abatis, and if he got there to face both ways and block it. With luck Lance must now be with him. The three other squadrons he sent in one hammerstroke after another, each of them an iron wedge tipped by the armored men on the armored horses, with the lighter troops behind to exploit any breaks in the shield wall.
By the fourth charge both Burrus and Lucanius had penetrated to the abatis, and Gruffydd was close. Saxons everywhere could be seen dropping their arms and crawling into the wall of brush where horsemen couldn't follow except with thrusts of their long lances. Bedwyr rode up with Tor's cataphracts. Cerdic had apparently given up his allies for lost. Sending Tor to bolster the auxiliaries on Gwalchmai's left, and Burrus and Lucanius to sweep further down that side, Artorius at last felt he could join in the fray himself.
Drawing Caliburn, he flung himself against the press of Saxons crowding toward the gap where Gwalchmai's men, like the stopper on a wine jar, held them from escape. Llamwyr reared and whinnied, striking out with his hooves. Artorius hardly noticed the spear thrusts against his shield, the swords that struck his greaves. For a few moments his whole strength and being flowed down his arm to the blade of Caliburn. Somewhere ahead he saw the raven standard and turned Llamwyr toward it. A tall Saxon rushed at him from the right, his sword raised in both hands. A backhanded cut, and it fell harmless to the ground. The raven standard tottered, and when Artorius reached it, it lay on the ground beside Baldulf.
Then he was among Gwalchmai's men, with a broad avenue now leading to the gap. Lanceolatus stood in the middle of it, leaning on his sword, pale and bleeding. Artorius jumped to embrace him and ask why he had ridden alone. "Why, Lance, why? Any number of us would have joined you."
Lance looked at him curiously. "You gave me the rear guard. I used my judgment to hold the rear." He wavered a moment on his feet, and Artorius steadied him. "What does it matter? God doesn't mean I should die today." (Pages 384-388)
The most immediately notable feature of Carmichael's Badon is his use of tactics to explain Arthur's victory. Like many others, he puts Arthur on horseback and calls the cavalry 'cataphracts,' although Carmichael's understanding of exactly the role that cavalry, particularly heavy cavalry, played in hand-to-hand warfare is greater than that of the average writer. Carmichael lays out the battlefield carefully: in a section prior to the above passage, he discusses the steepness of the hill, which he then references when he mentions that the horses "[quarter] it slightly to reduce the grade." Although it does not appear in the above passage, this final charge by the Britons depended entirely on a sudden turn in the weather which froze the mud, enabling them to ride their horses. Without the change in weather, they would have been starved out inside the fortress.
While many authors use a convenient turn of events like the changing of the weather to make the sudden difference between death and victory, Carmichael's work runs deeper than that. It would make more sense to think of Carmichael's precise use of tactical language as structure for producing his story, and producing the drama therein–that is, the tactical word choice is more than a mere aesthetic effect. Rather, it informs the writing, giving it a sense of time and urgency particularly noticeable at the beginning of the passage during Arthur's moment of indecision: the only event after Lancelot begins his charge is a checked decision and a reminiscence in Arthur's mind of Gwalchmai's first arrival at court. Nevertheless, time flows on, and by the time the narrator returns to "observing" what is going on in the battle, Lancelot is already in the fray. This grants a sense of motion to all the events, because things are quite clearly proceeding outside of the reader's vision.
All of this analysis fits neatly within the larger context of the book – Pendragon is, in fact, about the twelve battles fought by Arthur originally described by Nennius. Carmichael follows the trend and truly "modernizes" the story, dropping magic for tactics and exchanging external examination for internal psychology.
There are other interesting aspects to Carmichael's Badon, as well. He places his Saxons on the stupider side, although not quite as densely superstitious as, for example, Turton's Saxons, who believe the cataphracts to be the mechanistic spawn of scale and sorcery. His Arthur is also not as assertive as many make him; it takes a while for Artorius to "feel as though he could finally join in the fray himself"–not exactly the description of the brave and dashing king. Like most Arthurs, however, Carmichael's is the complicated hero who bears more than just the weight of his sword and his honor. Again, Lancelot's suicidal charge above provides a good example of this; while Arthur's first reaction is to go after Lancelot, he reconsiders and decides to let Lancelot pursue the death he clearly desires because Arthur's own responsibility at the battle is to "six hundred men and five provinces...not just one friend."
Susan Cooper – Silver on the Tree, 1977Cooper, Susan. Silver on the Tree. New York: Atheneum, 1977.
He stared round the square room, filling the length and breadth of the tower, into which they had just come. "Look!"COMMENTARY
Brightness was everywhere: a soft, greenish light filtered through the quartz-like walls of the room. It could be a cave of ice, Will thought. But this was a cluttered, busy place, as if someone had left it in a hurry while preoccupied with some great complex matter. Piles of curling manuscript lay on the tables and shelves, and on the thick rush mat that covered the floor; against one wall an enormous heavy table was littered with strips of shining metal and chunks of glass and rock, red and white and greenish-blue, all among an array of delicate gleaming tools which reminded Will of the workshop behind his father's jewelry shop at home. Then his eye was caught by something high on the wall: a plain round shield, made of gleaming gold.
Gwion leapt light-footed up on to a table and took the shield down from the wall. He held it out.
"Take this, Will. Three shields, once in the days of his greatness, King Gwyddno made for the Light. Two of them were taken by the Light to places where danger might come, and the third they left here. I have never known why — but perhaps this moment now is why, and has been all along. Here."
Will took the round gleaming thing and slid his arm through the holding-straps on the inner side. "It's beautiful," he said. "And-so are the other two that he made. I have seen them, I think. In . . . other places. They have never been used."
"Let us hope this one need not be used either," Gwion said.
Bran said impatiently, "Where is the king?" He was looking up at a curving wrought-iron staircase, wonderfully curli-cued, which spiralled its way up to disappear through an opening in the high glassy ceiling of the room.
"Yes," Gwion said. "Up there. We shall go up, but you must let me lead. We shall come to certain rooms in which you will see no one, and at the last we shall come to the king."
He set one hand on the curving rail of the staircase, and looked hard at Will. "Where is the belt of Signs?"
"It is at the Battle of Mount Badon," Will said wistfully. "Where Merriman took it to the great king, for as much of the winning as can be achieved there. And it will be at the last encounter too, when the Lady comes and all the power of the Light is joined. But not until then. And then only if — " He stopped.
Silver on the Tree is the last in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series which relies heavily upon various different mythologies to constitute much of its ethereal backdrop; the Arthurian legend is just one of those mythologies. There is significant reliance on it, however, in the use of some characters. Although the main character, Will Stanton, does not hail from Arthuriana, many other characters do. Cooper's stories actually tend to make use of the Welsh Arthurian tradition as much as the English, which makes some of their connections less immediately obvious. The most immediately noticeable example above is her use of the name Gwion, Taliesin's childhood name (the king later calls him this, in fact). Although Taliesin's roles in Welsh literature are myriad, one of his frequent portrayals is as an advisor to a king, so his place here is not at all out of character. The king she names Gwyddno, not Arthur, but the allusion is clear nonetheless.
Looking beyond the particular scene above, however, Silver on the Tree is sort of one huge, prolonged Badon. Cooper's perpetual conflict between the Light and Dark is the very same idea many authors strive to portray in a multitude of ways with their Badon battles. Of course, much of the Arthurian tradition is ideologically devoted to a struggle against evil, but it is particularly noticeable with a climactic event like Badon, because it is a contest to see who will possess the future. Silver on the Tree ends, of course, with its own climactic battle between Light and Dark, and while most Badon accounts do not make their meaning so explicit, the message is present nevertheless.
John Gloag – Artorius Rex, 1977Gloag, John. Artorius Rex. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977.
Cerdic's army came in sight of our camp early on a hot summer's day; morning mists still floated over the little streams that threaded the valley, partly concealing the tents and huts, so the Saxons blundered into our outer defence lines. A storm of arrows drove them back, but only for a short time. They were not marching in orderly ranks or in any military formation, but in bunches and groups, and some rode on wild hill ponies and farm horses; but Wencla harrying them on the march, made their horses his chief target. Very few survived.COMMENTARY
Two-thirds of the Band had been on morning exercises, when the trumpeters sounded the alarm; no time was lost as we were mounted and ready for instant action, so Cerdic and his Saxons quickly had their first experience of a charge of heavy cavalry. We herded those big, bewildered men like cattle; for what we had to deal with was not just a disorderly retreat, but a stampede. They were led by a stocky, elderly man, whose dirty yellow hair was mixed with grey; and that was Cerdic, not an heroic or inspiring figure, though he was obeyed and followed. In their anxiety to get away from the Band, they climbed the hill I have spoken of; tall, rugged and steep, with sides of slippery turf and those old, crumbling fortifications crowning the summit. Our big horses could not follow them, but our arrows did until they were out of range.
They stayed in the ancient fort for two days, without food or water before they attempted to challenge us. They must have known that unless they made a sortie, thirst and starvation would reduce their strength to such an extent that they would have been unable to fight an army of children, let alone mailed horsemen. But nothing deterred them once they decided to move. Cerdic was obviously a leader with courage and cunning — they tried breaking out at night, but we had dug trenches and pits that circled Badon hill and the nights were moonless so the big heavy lumbering Saxons fell into these traps and could easily be slaughtered with arrows shot at random in the dark.
The Saxons made little use of the bow. Like the Easterlings they preferred hand-to-hand fighting and that is where their height, weight and enormous muscular strength always tells. Finally they broke out of the hill fort early in the morning just after dawn, raced down to our camp and were among the tents and huts before the Band could get mounted, and while the men of the allied kings were still heavy with sleep.
These big yellow-haired men were starving and they went for the camp kitchens, emptying the cooking pots, killing the cooks, scattering the cooking fires around the tents, causing as much confusion as possible and howling like wolves the whole time. There is something chilling about the Saxon war cries. They are animal noises, inhuman and terrifying. When at last our Band was mounted they found that Cerdic's men had attacked the horse lines, hamstrung many of the horses and reduced our strength considerably.
We expected them to retreat to their hill fort again but they were too wily for that and marched away in a body. We could ride round them shooting arrows but they had a few weapons that often prevented us from closing with them. When we tried to ride them down they lashed at our horses and our legs with long-handled, double-headed axes, heavy and sharp. Wielded by a big man such an axe could do immense damage to a limb, even when protected by chain mail. We had to let them go, bringing down as many as we could with arrows shot from the saddle, but they were soon among trees where our horses could not follow and after an exhausting day battling through oak scrub and gorse and tangled undergrowth we gave up the pursuit. But that was not the end of Cerdic and his Saxons. He regained his lands and stayed there.
One thing that Saxons and other German tribes have in common with the British; they are never hopelessly downcast by defeat. Instead they tend to glorify their military failures, remembering them as magnificent and heroic occasions. So we heard later that Cerdic got far more credit and fame, and indeed congratulation, after his defeat at Badon than he had ever received before, for although he had been a consistently successful soldier, perhaps his followers could not quite forgive him for being very cautious in war, especially the young warriors who admire recklessness and dash, and are suspicious of cunning and usually get killed through sheer stupidity. Give me old soldiers every time; the young don't know that the best soldier is a live one, and they learn that lesson too late.
The Saxons never allowed Cerdic to forget that defeat. They praised it, sang about it, and their wretched camp and court poets, who are even more of a nuisance than British bards, are likely to go on using Badon as an example of glory and a subject for songs for generations to come.
For Artorius it was a great and final victory. (Pages 179-181)
Gloag has a different narrative style from many modern authors, choosing to describe the battle in a less dramatic manner, partially due to the choice of past tense. Although he gives details, his words do not convey the sense of the urgency and emotion that both Cerdic's men and Arthur's men no doubt would have been experiencing in "killing the cooks . . . causing as much confusion as possible and howling like animals the whole time." Instead, Gloag describes the situation from a relatively emotionless, outside perspective, methodically explaining the tactical realities of the battle. Gloag's is a significant departure from many of the longer and more detailed descriptions of Badon, although it is characteristic of his narrative style. Gloag's choice to pull some of the drama out of Badon is at least partially due to the fact that it is not the final climactic battle in his story, but instead just another battle Arthur fights.
Gloag also presents an interesting point about the post-battle mentality of the Saxons – Cerdic's loss actually grants him as much fame as if he had prevailed, if not more. This is a concept virtually unique to the works presented here, but is not by any means unique in the annals of medieval literature. For example, the Welsh Y Gododdin glorifies the death of all but seven men in an army of three hundred after they recklessly charge a fortification manned by a much larger force.
Parke Godwin – Firelord, 1980Godwin, Parke. Firelord. New York: Hearst Corporation, 1980.
[Battle] is neither precise as the [military historian's description], nor lyrical as the [bard's song], but give it a try. You are King of Britain and leading trained cavalry. Forty-five years old; still hard and strong, but the life-or-death dance of war takes your muscles an eye blink longer than before and you pay more for it afterward. Couched under your right arm is an ashwood lance ten feet long with a needle point. On your left arm is a heavy shield of bull-hide stretched over wood, bronze-bossed and rimmed with iron.COMMENTARY
You charge in line, hoping that line will stay intact, praying you won't go down with the next rank too close behind, because you'll be crushed or caught by the nimble Saxons who dodge between the horses to drag men out of the saddle.
You have a moment before the lance strikes a shield, one moment when everything seems frozen still and you can see with heightened clarity every detail of the death in front of you: shields locked under cold eyes, cone helmets with the broad nose guard that makes the wearer look remote and inhuman. You see the spears and the stakes suddenly thrust out from behind the shields like a wolf baring fangs.
At the last moment you brace yourself forward against the collision, head ducked in behind your shield, and then you hit with the composite shock of war-tortured wood and iron, jarred sinew and the scream of metal on metal, the explosive grunt of men slammed together like brutal lovers.
The line of shields buckles and gives. For a murderous instant, you feel like plunging on through, but that's folly. Your knees transmit their message to the trained horse and you swing aside, already feeling the rumble of the second line behind you coming to hit them again, and you'd damned well better be out of the way or become part of the landscape. But that's for green boys, beginners. You've been too long at this and you dance clear of the carnage as the second line goes in.
But there's four of them dashing out at you from one side — Jesu, where did they come from — at you, precious mortal flesh, you. Too close for you to get up any momentum in the hoof-sucking mud, and as you tighten rein for quicker control, you almost feel their unstoppable determination. They're going to kill you. Bleeding, cold, starved or crippled, they're going to kill you.
You stop thinking and let your muscles react. You back the horse craftily, apparently unsure, as if you're boxed, drawing them further and further out of their ranks. The vicious pleasure gleams in their eyes when they realize they've got you.
"Artur! Ha, Artur!"
And now they're unprotected, too far out and know it too late as the rider hurtles down on them, sword raised like an archangel's vengeance before it whirs through flesh and bone.
"Back to the line, Artos. I'll cover you!"
Out of the chaos the line forms again. You lift in the stirrups for all to see: you still live and while you do, so does Britain.
Your arm comes down. The great scythe whistles forward again. And again. The rain falls, men fall. Again. And all through this, all through the screaming welter of fear and rage and agony petrified inside seconds like flies in amber that will be remembered in troubled dreams, you ride an animal mortal as you but, for all its endurance, remarkably stupid. As you execute the movements refined by a lifetime of training and intelligence, the brute under you may lose its footing at any moment or be hamstrung by a darting sword, may blunder into one of the myriad holes dug for the stakes that took so many of your men. Stakes, where are they?
Then you know: the next time you hit, the stakes are thrust out suddenly, followed by an avalanche of spears. The horses go down; you don't look, don't want to recognize the men already good as dead on the ground. You swing the brute under you, kick clear, slash with the sword, dance away. Back to the reforming line. Your arm goes up — "Forward!" — and you dash in again. This time you're ready and wary for stakes or spears behind that shield-wall. But not for what happens. The wall opens suddenly and lets you through, and coming at you is another wall of long stakes, each driven by two leg-churning, long-haired men while two running files of them snake out along your flanks. (Pages 309-311)
Parke Godwin is one of the more well-known of the Arthurian authors, and Firelord is one of his most well-known books. Simply reading the above passage should make it abundantly clear why; Godwin's style is compelling and engaging, and he is very good at making Arthur into a dynamic and human character. He is also an inherently modern author. The medieval versions tend towards making Arthur the good and Cerdic the bad, plain and simple. Godwin's approach is much more varied and subtle, recognizing that battle does not play out as a meta-epic struggle between the forces of light and darkness. This world view was not a particularly popular one in the middle ages, especially in the romantic tradition, but clearly has found its way into the Arthurian narrative with the passage of time.
Godwin's description of the battle stretches on for far longer than this passage, and its plot turns on some interesting points. The conflict that brings armies together for Godwin is between Gweneviere and Arthur, who were both significant overlords before ever being married. Additionally, the success of the battle does not rest wholly on Arthur's head; before the armies meet, Arthur sends Gareth off to take out the Saxons' supply train. If Gareth had failed in his objective, Arthur's forces would have inevitably been overwhelmed. Although there are many different ways to interpret such a choice, Godwin gives the impression that his Arthur chose to stay with his men instead of pursuing the supply trains himself simply because it was more important to be with his men, win or lose, than to be the one who bore the decisive responsibility for victory.
There are not many cases where looking at a particular event like Badon as it appears in the works of different authors within a tradition will show sharply contrasting opinions, but Godwin's Firelord and Gloag's Artorius Rex offer one such rare opportunity. Gloag directs his praise towards the old soldier, scarred and knowledgeable, while Godwin prefers the young soldier with a fire in his belly. Such stark contrasts occur relatively rarely, but this simple disparity nicely illustrates the vast number of different perspectives that can be adopted in approaching the Arthurian narrative, even with something as specific as Badon. In the context of his generally emotionally distant and matter-of-fact story, Gloag's preference for the wisdom of an old soldier is a microcosm for the way he confronts his entire Arthurian narrative: He is concerned with the success of an empire, the more realistic components of diplomacy that would have inevitably played a major role in any real Arthur's life. Godwin's choice of the young soldier is no less of a microcosm: his story is designed to impassion the reader by illuminating the powerfully human story that drove Arthur to lead his world into something of a golden age. Godwin's focus is the personal struggle and eventual, hard-won successes, while Gloag is concerned more with questions of government. Both authors cover many of the "same" events, like Badon, but find different facets to focus on in the construction of their story. It is this flexibility and adaptability that is one of the hallmarks of the Arthurian tradition.
Stephen Lawhead – Arthur (Third book of The Pendragon Cycle), 1989Lawhead, Stephen R. Arthur. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1989.
Upon my cry, the ala charged once more. This time we let the foemen hurl themselves at us. We held back at the last, and they plunged headlong onto our spears. It was a simple trick, but it worked laudably well. The barbarians learned quickly enough and reeled back — leaving hundreds dead and wounded upon the ground.COMMENTARY
Still, though we pushed after them, our horses foundered on the higher slope. We fell back once again and the enemy pursued us, striking wildly at our backs. Upon reaching the bank of the upper ditch, we were met by the footmen charging up from below.
I gave command of the division to Owain, and rode quickly to Arthur. "It is no good," I told him. "We cannot carry an attack up here — it is too steep and there are too many of them."
Arthur saw that I spoke the plain truth. "It is as I feared. Very well, save the horses. We may need them later. We will carry the attack on foot." His blue eyes searched the wall line looming above us, and his finger pointed. "That place there — do you see it?"
"That low place? I see it." "We will center the attack there. Follow me!" I hurried back to my division and passed along Arthur's order. Rhys signalled the dismount, and a moment later we were racing back up the hillside, scrambling over the rocks, falling, picking ourselves up, running on.
The enemy saw that we had abandoned our horses and took this as a good omen for them. They raised their evil screams with renewed vigor, and danced their frenzied war dances along the top of the wall. They were frothing mad with blood-lust.
As soon as we came within range, the enemy loosed their throwing axes at us. We threw our shields before us and stumbled on. Some among us picked up the hateful axes and hurled them back. More than one barbarian was killed with his own weapon.
The sun had risen higher, and I could feel its warmth on my back. My blood pounded hot in my veins, and I drew the cool morning air deep into my lungs. It was a good day for battle, I thought, and then remembered that in numbers and position, Cerdic boasted the advantage.
The place Arthur had found proved the only weak place that side of the wall. He had chosen the eastern side for assault because the incline was easiest, but the enemy realized this, too, and had built up the wall on that side. The low place Arthur saw was a section that had been hastily repaired, and some of the stone had fallen in when the first foemen swarmed over.
We drove toward this place, all of us, our force becoming a spearhead to thrust up under the enemy's defenses and into his heart.
It nearly worked.
But there were simply too many barbarians, and the incline too steep. Though we stood to our work like woodmen felling trees, we could make no headway. Picti, Cruithne, Angli, and Scotti, Saecsens and Frisians and Jutes . . . there were too, too many. We could not come near the wall.
For every pace we advanced, the enemy pushed us back two. For every foeman we killed, three more sprang up before us. Our warriors were being dragged down by the enormous crush of the enemy hosts. They rushed down upon us, hacking with their cruel axes: eyes wild, mouths twisted, arms swinging like flails.
But our warriors had fought barbarians before and were not unnerved. We lowered our heads and stood to our grim toil. And the battle settled into its awkward, lurching rhythm. (Pages 296-298)
Lawhead's book is an interesting mix of Welsh sources with chronicle and romance material. The majority of his names come from Welsh traditions, and are chosen fairly judiciously – Cymbrogi, for example, is clearly derived from Cymru, the Welsh word for themselves (it translates to "the people"). Before the battle of Badon itself, a duel takes place between Cerdic and Arthur; although the duel is not included in the above excerpt, it is worth mentioning because it is very similar thematically to what is accomplished at Badon. Lawhead's Arthur is a young Arthur, very much untested, and when Cerdic rides up to Arthur's gates with Bors as his prisoner, Arthur is put to a difficult decision about how to handle the situation. It is a testament to Arthur's abilities as a leader that he defuses Cerdic's advantage through negotiation and words, but Lawhead also has Arthur fight Cerdic. Arthur wins the duel, but his sword is broken by the final blow, a clear commentary on Arthur's choices as leader. In many ways, this kind of clear metaphoric commentary on Arthur's leadership ability is very much a modern convention, not a medieval one. Some elect to use it, such as John Boorman in the film Excalibur, where nearly the same thing happens in Arthur's fight with Lancelot. The imagery in medieval works tends to be more frequent and integrated, rather than oriented towards single sharp events like the snapping of a sword; the frequent exaggeration of the number of enemies slain by Arthur is a good example. The feat itself is clearly impossible, but is repeated over and over until it becomes clearly metaphoric for Arthur's particular kind of prowess. The modern metaphor is often more grounded in reality with things like snapping swords, probably largely because the dreamlike quality of medieval metaphor can be confusing or even detracting for modern audiences.
Lawhead's book is divided into three sections, each narrated by a different character in Arthur's entourage, but never Arthur himself. This section belongs to Bedwyr, and as such, the account of the battle is first-hand. His rendition of Badon is a sort of direct "translation" of the events from early chroniclers, mostly Geoffrey, into a modern frame of mind. As with most other retellings, the Saxons are portrayed as bloodthirsty, pagan, and one-sidedly evil.
Lawhead's book is very much about kingship and realm-building, and this battle represents one of the final steps that Arthur must take to succeed as king of Britain; this is very much parallel to the objectives in the Galfridian tradition. Perhaps the most interesting comparison to be made lies in Lawhead's translation of religion; it has been said that "in medieval Europe, God was on both sides of every battlefield," but the medieval interpretation was more geared towards a God that rested at the tip of their swords than one who surrounded them in a nimbus of divine protection. Medieval people had to finish the battle themselves, with divine blessing, rather than simply rely on Providence to save the day; that is a more modern conception, and the one that Lawhead here uses. He also employs it in a description of a fight between Morgaine and Merlin (Myrddin), in which Merlin is saved from Morgaine's spells quite literally by divine intervention that he receives only for the pacifism in his heart. This idea of victory through a refusal to fight is an inherently modern conception, for the concept of pacifism simply made no sense in the Europe of eight hundred years ago.
Bernard Cornwell – Excalibur, 1997Cornwell, Bernard. Excalibur. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
When suddenly a horn sounded from Mynydd Baddon.COMMENTARY
At first few of us heard the horn, so loud were the shouts and the tramp of feet and the moans of the dying, but then the horn called again, then a third time, and at the third call men turned and stared up at Mynydd Baddon's abandoned rampart. Even the Franks and Saxons stopped. They were only fifty paces from us when the horn checked them and when they, like us, turned to gaze up the long green hillside.
To see a single horseman and a banner.
There was only one banner, but it was a huge one; a wind-spread expanse of white linen on which was embroidered the red dragon of Dumnonia. The beast, all claws, tail and fire, reared on the flag that caught the wind and almost toppled the horseman who carried it. Even at this distance we could see that the horseman rode stiffly and awkwardly as though he could neither handle his black horse nor hold the great banner steady, but then two spearmen appeared behind him and they pricked his horse with their weapons and the beast sprang away down the hill and its rider was jerked hard backwards by the sudden motion. He swayed forward again as the horse raced down the slope, his black cloak flew up behind and I saw that his armour beneath the cloak was shining white, as white as the linen of his fluttering flag. Behind him, spilling off Mynydd Baddon as we had spilled just after dawn, came a shrieking mass of men with black shields and other men with tusked boars on their shields. Oengus mac Airem and Culhwch had come, though instead of striking down the Corinium road they had first worked their way onto Mynydd Baddon so that their men would link up with ours.
But it was the horseman I watched. He rode so awkwardly and I could see now that he was tied onto the horse. His ankles were linked under the stallion's black belly with rope, and his body was fixed to the saddle by what had to be strips of timber clamped to the saddle's tree. He had no helmet so that his long hair flew free in the wind, and beneath the hair the rider's face was nothing but a grinning skull covered by desiccated yellow skin. It was Gawain, dead Gawain, his lips and gums shrunken back from his teeth, his nostrils two black slits and his eyeballs empty holes. His head lolled from side to side while his body, to which the dragon banner of Britain was strapped, swayed from side to side. It was death on a black horse called Anbarr, and at the sight of that ghoul coming at their flank, the Saxon confidence shuddered. The Blackshields were shrieking behind Gawain, driving the horse and its dead rider over the hedges and straight at the Saxon flank. The Blackshields did not attack in a line, but came in a howling mass. This was the Irish way of war, a terrifying assault of maddened men who came to the slaughter like lovers.
For a moment the battle trembled. The Saxons had been on the point of victory, but Arthur saw their hesitation and unexpectedly shouted us forward. 'On!' he shouted, and 'Forward!' Mordred added his command to Arthur's, 'Forward!'
Thus began the slaughter of Mynydd Baddon. The bards tell it all, and for once they do not exaggerate. We crossed our tide line of dead and carried our spears to the Saxon army just as the Blackshields and Culhwch's men hit their flank. For a few heartbeats there was the clangour of sword on sword, the thump of axe on shield, the grunting, heaving, sweating battle of locked shield walls, but then the Saxon army broke and we fought among their shredding ranks in fields made slick with Prankish and Saxon blood. The Saxons fled, broken by a wild charge led by a dead man on a black horse, and we killed them until we thought nothing of killing. We crammed the bridge of swords with Sais dead. We speared them, we disembowelled them, and some we just drowned in the river. We took no prisoners at first, but vented years of hatred on our hated enemies. Cerdic's army had shattered under the twin assault, and we roared into their breaking ranks and vied each other in killing. It was an orgy of death, a welter of slaughter. There were some Saxons so terrified that they could not move, who literally stood with wide eyes waiting to be killed, while there were others who fought like demons and others who died running and others who tried to escape to the river. We had lost all semblance of a shield wall, we were nothing but a pack of maddened war-dogs tearing an enemy to pieces. I saw Mordred limping on his clubbed foot as he cut down Saxons, I saw Arthur riding down fugitives saw the men of Powys avenging their King a thousandfold. I saw Galahad cut left and right from horseback, his face as calm as ever. I saw Tewdric in a priest's robes, skeletally thin and with his hair tonsured, savagely slashing with a great sword. Old Bishop Emrys was there, a huge cross hanging about his neck and an old breastplate tied over his gown with horsehair rope. 'Get to hell!' he roared as he jabbed at helpless Saxons with a spear. 'Burn in the cleansing fire for ever!' I saw Oengus mac Airem, his beard soaked with Saxon blood, spearing yet more Sais. I saw Guinevere riding Mordred's horse and chopping with the sword we had given her. I saw Gawain, his head fallen clean off, slumping dead on his bleeding horse that peacefully cropped the grass among the Saxon corpses. I saw Merlin at last, for he had come with Gawain's corpse, and though he was an old man, he was striking at Saxons with his staff and cursing them for miserable worms. He had an escort of Blackshields. He saw me, smiled, and waved me on to the slaughter.
We overran Cerdic's village where women and children cowered in the huts. Culhwch and a score of men were working a stolid butcher's path through the few Saxon spearmen who tried to protect their families and Cerdic's abandoned baggage. The Saxon guards died and the plundered gold spilled like chaff. I remember dust rising like a mist, screams of women and men, children and dogs running in terror, burning huts spewing smoke and always Arthur's big horses thundering through the panic with spears dipping to take enemy spearmen in the back. There is no joy like the destruction of a broken army. The shield wall breaks and death rules, and so we killed till our arms were too tired to lift a sword and when the killing was done we found ourselves in a swamp of blood, and that was when our men discovered the ale and mead in the Saxon baggage and the drinking began. Some Saxon women found protection amongst our few sober men who carried water from the river to our wounded. We looked for friends alive and embraced them, saw friends dead and wept for them. We knew the delirium of utter victory, we shared our tears and laughter, and some men, tired as they were, danced for pure joy.
Cerdic escaped. He and his bodyguard cut through the chaos and climbed the eastern hills. Some Saxons swam south across the river, while others followed Cerdic and a few pretended death and then slipped away in the night, but most stayed in the valley beneath Mynydd Baddon and remain there to this day. For we had won. We had turned the fields beside the river into a slaughterhouse. We had saved Britain and fulfilled Arthur's dream. We were the kings of slaughter and the lords of the dead, and we howled our bloody triumph at the sky. (Pages 246-249)
Cornwell's description of the battle actually begins long before this conclusion – the excerpted passage above is only the final wave of attack that occurs after Liofa, a Saxon warchief, kills Cuneglas, a king and ally of Arthur's, in man-to-man combat. As with much of Cornwell's novel, though, the ending to Badon is rife with mixed metaphors. Yes, Arthur achieves victory over the Saxons, but his saviors are bloodthirsty savages led by a decrepit corpse, and when they arrive, everyone becomes utterly absorbed in the slaughter of anything that even smacks of Sais. The implication is made that the Saxon women are raped or murdered by the drunken party that ensues after the carnage of the battle, and the narrator relishes the mowing down of men trying only to protect their families. The juxtaposition of ideas in the penultimate paragraph of the excerpt emphasizes this – "We had saved Britain and fulfilled Arthur's dream. We were the kings of slaughter and the lords of the dead, and we howled our bloody triumph at the sky." In a way, this is similar to the Pyrrhic victory depicted in Lawhead, as well as in John Boorman's Excalibur; while victory is attained, it is at the expense of the humanity of Arthur's men. While the Britons may only be visiting the same pain upon the Saxons that their own people have experienced, it reduces the them to the level of the Saxons they hate so desperately.
Helen Hollick – Shadow of the King, 1997Hollick, Helen. Shadow of the King. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
'Geraint?' Ambrosius ventured. 'It could be Geraint.' Ragnall was squatting on her heels before him, the bowl in her hand, the spoon forgotten, tipping, dripping broth. She met her father-by-law's excited eyes, matched them with her own eagerness. 'Or Arthur,' she ventured, in almost a whisper, as if to say the name aloud would chase this avenging spirit away. 'Could it be Arthur?'COMMENTARY
Ambrosius touched her hand with one finger. 'I hope so, my child, in the name of our God, I do hope so!'
The horses came in at the gallop, bringing the corpses of the watch, some still kicking the last of their life-thread as they were dragged like meat skewered on the spit. Some riders wielded sword or club, others carried fat-spitting torches that were tossed inside the openings of tents. The hearth-fires, and the sleepers curled beside them, were deliberately trampled. Difficult for a war-horse, trained not to tread on a body laying on the ground, but obey they did, for Arthur's horses had always been as disciplined as the men when it came to battle. Fire, too, held no fear for these brave-hearted creatures, nothing could stop one of the Artoriani war-horses, save for its rider's hand on the rein or a spear clear through the heart or jugular.
The screams, the panic flared and grew along with that rising blaze of fire. Unprepared, swilled with wine and mead, satiated from the comfort of a warm whore and the belief that the fortress would be theirs come the morrow, the English barely fought back. Those camped nearer the rampart walls stood greater chance, for the alert had given them time to arm themselves, to form rank, to fight back. Aelle stood within his shield ring of thegns, bellowing orders, calling to his sons who fought their way to join him. What had happened to Aesc of the Cantii he knew not, nor had he time to ponder long on the matter; he was fighting for his very life, or already gone to join the gods. Either way, there was little, at this moment, that Aelle, Bretwalda, Lord of all the Saxon kind, could do about it.
Dawn brewed, reluctant to face the dull, persistent drizzle, the bleaching light casting over what had been not two hours before, a besieging camp-place. The coming of light showed tents ripped or fallen, many smouldering, with bodies scattered around. Men huddled, weeping, dying. Blood, dismembered limbs. The horror of carnage.
It was not over. The cavalry, the riders, were beating the Saxons back, but the English had made formation now, a solid wedge, impregnable, determined to survive. It was the Pendragon, the British could see that now, from the vantage-point of the high ramparts, they could see the Dragon Banner as it dipped and swayed. Several times, men would point and shout, 'There! There he is, on that brute of a chestnut!'
'Arthur. Arthur has returned to save us!'
When he was certain with his own eyes that it was indeed the Pendragon, Cadwy had the gates ready to be thrown open and formed the men, those still able to fight — and God's praise, there were many of them, some bandaged, some limping, one with his face half-torn and hacked from an unlucky stopped arrow, another without a hand, one without an eye — serious, hard-borne woundings, but still they came to form up into line, still they wanted to be a part of this glorious thing that was happening. It was, surely, to be a battle that would be sung about to the children of their children's children, and they did not want their sons telling that the father lay doing nothing save nursing a bloodied wound in the Hall of Badon while the Pendragon rode to victory outside.
The gates swung open and the men marched out, clamouring the battle-cry to add their weight to Arthur's men, Arthur's three hundred men, who had, in that one, astounding, triumphant charge, slaughtered more than nine hundred of the English.
Aelle and four, five hundred of his men stood firm, their wedge formation as solid as the trunk of a mature oak, back-pacing steadily, foot by foot, giving ground to the Artoriani, but not giving men or lives. Then there a came a disturbance from the rear, men were pouring from the fortress, cheering, spears and swords raised, come to join their comrades — but met by Aesc of the Cantii instead!
Somehow, later, he said by the protection of Woden himself, Aesc had fought his way clear of the British, managed to scramble around, attempted to link with Aelle. They saw the fortress gates open, unprotected, and changed direction and tactic as easily as a hawk pulls from a dive. Aesc drove hard for the fortress, fought like a man crazed to win his way in, and almost managed it.
The fighting at the gates was furious, bloody, and soon over; but Arthur had to call some of his men away, ride hard to intercept and deal with it, and once his own formation was distorted, it gave chance for Aelle to break and run. The Saxons headed for the easy path of the road, intending to head to the Via Ermin, then swing east for the relative safety of Vicus, that they called Wickham, the Roman settlement.
Arthur cursed as he felled a fair-haired brute coming at him open-mouthed, screaming abuse and baying for blood. A bay horse was beside him, rearing, blood gushed from the man's crushed skull as he came down, Gwenhwyfar's sword finishing what the hooves had not completed. She had kept close to Arthur throughout, her horse Onager's shadow, fighting alongside him, blow for blow; his Cymraes as he affectionately called her, a tribeswoman of the British. Her father had taught her how to fight, how to use sword and shield or spear, her father and her brothers, some of whom were now dead and passed to the Otherworld, the kingdom of God's heaven. (Pages 345-347)
Hollick has made significant and notable changes to the medieval version of the Arthurian story. This book is the third in a series of three, and her Badon marks Arthur's re-entrance into Britain after a period during which he was thought dead by Britain's populace. Ambrosius had ruled in Arthur's absence, while Arthur spent time in France under the control of Morgaine. Gwenevere went to France to get Arthur back, and returns with him just in time to fight the Saxons at Badon. His return is a welcome one for the soldiers, all of whom remember his leadership abilities with awe; they had not been so impressed with Ambrosius. Arthur's claim to fame in Hollick's retelling is his use of the heavy cataphract, as is clear from the terror it strikes into the hearts of the unsuspecting Saxons in the passage above.
Hollick's Badon re-introduces Arthur to the task of reigning over Britain, so questions of kingship remain at the heart of her book, but she confronts them in a very different way than many authors do. There is a passage, later in the description of the battle, in which Arthur's fear of re-entering battle is discussed in a particularly deep and insightful way; that psychological approach characterizes Hollick's work as a whole, and sets it distinctly apart from both medieval and many modern retellings. Her concerns are very much more with "Arthur the man who was king," than "Arthur the king."
About This Project
This project was an Undergraduate Research Internship at the University of Rochester in the Spring of 2004 by sophomore and Medieval Studies major Sam Boyer. Supervised and guided by Alan Lupack, director of the Robbins Library, he undertook this project to increase his knowledge of the Arthurian legends, as well as increase his experience with research and webpage design. Additional assistance for this project was provided by Annie Heckel and Rosemary Paprocki.
The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Ed. Norris J. Lacy et all. New York: Garland Publications, 1996.
Arthurian Period Sources: Places, People, and Saxon Archaeology, vol. 4.Ed. John Morris. Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore and Co. Ltd., 1996.
Fletcher, Robert Huntington. The Arthurian Material in the Chronicles. New York: Burt Franklin, 1966.
Morris, Rosemary. The Character of King Arthur in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982.
Williams, Charles. Arthurian Torso. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948.
The Battle of Mount Badon, a battle widely attributed to the mythical King Arthur, has a long and colorful tradition in Arthurian literature. This project aims to compile that tradition into an easily readable and searchable form by way of the annotated bibliography, as well as offer some insight into the tradition's themes by way of an overview essay.