Arthur defeats the Saxons at Mount Badon
On a battlefield somewhere in Britain at a date which is in dispute the British leader, Arthur, defeated the Saxons. So great was the slaughter that the Saxons remained quiet for a generation, before they attacked again and began the final conquest of England.
The Battle of Badon Hill was the climactic event of post-Roman Britain. Before Badon there had been scattered bands of Saxon mercenaries facing forces led by Roman governors and their successors. After Badon Hill the picture changed to one of petty kings ruling agricultural societies facing each other across an ethnic divide.
Writing some 50 years later, the Briton Gildas states that Badon was almost the last battle fought between Britons and Saxons and that it was followed by decades of relative peace, lasting to his own time. The date at which Gildas wrote is unknown. However, references to other events would seem to place him in around 530 or 550. This means the Battle of Badon Hill should be dated to around 490.
A chronicle kept in Wales and copied out in the 9th century gives a date of 516 for Badon Hill and states “The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors”. The same source gives the date 537 for “The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”
No other source gives even a vague date for the Battle, though they all agree that there was a massive slaughter of the Saxons. One even makes the unlikely statement that “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”. This last source has survived in a semi-poetic form and lists 12 battles fought by Arthur. As it fails to mention his death at Camlann, it is possible the poem was written to flatter Arthur while he was still alive.
Almost as contentious as the date of the battle is its location. Scholars have tried to locate Badon Hill in all corners of Britain. The fact that the battle is said to have lasted three days would indicate a siege of some kind of defensive works. Various dark age fortifications or even refortified iron age forts have been suggested. However, Nennius, writing in the early 9th century, lists the natural wonders of Britain. One of these are the hot springs of Badon. It is clear Nennius is talking about the ruined Roman baths in Bath, Somerset.
Believing that Bath was the site of Badon makes some sense. The city stood on the meeting point of several major Roman roads and seems to have survived in some form into the 5th century. A later strategic goal of the English was to reach the Bristol Channel and cut off the Welsh from Britons in Devon. The attack on Bath may have been an early attempt at a similar move.
Whatever the truth, Badon Hill was a major victory for Arthur. Despite all the later legends about King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, the early sources are consistent about him. He is described as a mighty war leader or commander, but never as a king in his own right. Most likely he had the prestige and authority necessary to weld the forces of the various British governors and warlords together in a common struggle against the Saxon enemy.
Arthur’s death at Camlann, apparently in the course of a civil war, marked a turning point for the British. Never again could they unite against the Saxons. The conquest of what was to become England took several generations, but the advance of the Saxons and Angles was remorseless. Badon was a great victory, but it was no turning point for the British threw away their chance by internal squabbles.