Ancient Celtic Warriors: Britons Battle Anglo-Saxons


Part Eleven

Ancient Celtic Warriors: Britons Battle Anglo-Saxons

The Saxons Invade Celtic Britain

The Saxon conquest of Romano-Celtic Britain began with an error in judgment. For hundreds of year, Roman armies had employed Germanic barbarians as auxiliaries. At the beginning of the 5th century, Vortigern, the Romano-British overlord, was assailed on many fronts. Aside from Irish and Pict invaders on his northern and western frontiers, there were Germanic raiders on his eastern coasts, and from within he faced a challenge of Ambrosius, who had powerful allies in Gaul. In order to secure his position, he invited a large group of Saxon to settle with their families on the island of Thanet on the river Thames. The Saxon commander, Hengist and his brother Horsa, understood Vortigern’s weakness and recommended he bring in more of his countrymen to help. Vortigern agreed, and nineteen more ships landed. In order to pay these warriors, Hengist suggested they be granted land in Kent. By the time Vortigern realized his control was slipping away, it was too late.

Historic Vortigern seems to have been a minor king who makes a military movement for power amongst the chaos of invasion. According to history, he is responsible for bringing in the Saxons (including the powerful Saxon brothers Hengist and Horsa) both to fight the Picts and Scots, as well as fight Vortigern's own British enemies to increase his power and rule. Bede said Vortigern married Rowena, daughter of the Saxon brother Hengist, and it would eventually lead to his downfall.

British Romano-Celts Corner a Saxon Invader
by Angus McBride
[Britons fight Saxons] The legend goes on to state that Vortigern was popular for a short time, but as more Saxon invaders arrived and began settling large areas of land, he begins to lose that popularity. Eventually, sons of a former High King of Britain return from exile at the head of an army and Vortigern is forced to flee to Wales, where he plans to build a fortress. The legend brings into the story a mysterious character originally identified as 'Myrddin'. Merlin appears, historically at least, to have been created by Geoffery of Monmouth who wrote one of the first set of "histories" of Arthur and Britain, even if highly unreliable historically. Although probably invented by Monmouth, Merlin is not without a historical connection, even if remote. There was a northern British (some claim he was Pictish) bard named Myrddin, whose name Monmouth used, changing it to Merlin. Other accounts tell of a historic Merlin as a Pictish tribal leader whose pagan tribe was wiped out by a newly Christianised rival Pictish tribe. Only Merlin, it is said, survived -- he went insane and wandered the forests casting spells and talking to spirits and animals.

So, as you can see it is obviously a very murky area historically. According to Monmouth again, Merlin (Myrddin) lived around the year 573, and was somehow involved in a battle near Carlisle. (It could be that Pictish battle mentioned in the legends). But if he actually ever met a 'true' Arthur, he would have been a boy and Arthur in advanced age. Even apart from magic, his legendary role is historically impossible. However, he figures prominently in the Vortigern story and therefore shall be included here.

Again, according the legend, When Vortigern fled to Wales to build his stronghold, he chose a site quite unfortunate. Every night, all the progress made by his workmen was undone by rumblings and shaking under the ground, thus collapsing the days work. Vortigern somehow learns from his advisors, possibly Druids, that he needs the blood of a fatherless child, spilled on the stones of the stronghold. This, they tell him, will ensure the completion of the fortress. A search begins for this child. Vortigerns's men find young Merlin at Carmarthen (according to Monmouth this is 'Caer Myrddin', Merlin's town or fortress). Again, according to the legend, Merlin is the son of a Welsh princess but an unknown father. They are brought before Vortigern. The princess tells a wild story about being visited by a golden being, and that she is devout and pure. She further explains that this golden being fathered the child Merlin. Vortigern doesn't buy this story, but Merlin speaks out in defence of his mother, and challenges Vortigern's wise men and Druids to explain the real reason the tower will not stand.

Vortigern's men cannot explain so Merlin tells them. He tells Vortigern there is a pool beneath the hilltop and that inside it is a stone coffer containing two dragons: one red and the other white, who battle every night, thus causing the workmen's building to collapse. Vortigern has his workers dig into the hill and discovers Merlin to be correct (for the legend). Then Merlin explains that the red dragon symbolises Britain and the white one the Saxons. He also predicts, that in time, the white will overcome the red dragon.

To this day, the red dragon is the national symbol of Wales.

Merlin, again according to the legend, goes into a trance and prophesies the future; foretelling the coming of Arthur, "the Boar of Cornwall", which will bring relief from the Saxon invaders, and warns Vortigern of his forthcoming death. Thus the legend of Merlin is born through the legend of Vortigern.

History? Not likely. In fact, as we have already determined, if there was indeed a Merlin, he was based on Myrddin, and he lived long after Arthur, not before. But the legend shows the power of the Arthur Tradition. Wales got the Red Dragon as their symbol; the two 'dragons' did collide in the form of native British Celts aganist invading pagan Anglo-Saxons, and indeed the Anglo-Saxons did win the long struggle for dominance. A legend is born.

The Saxons spread over southeast England, but Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, led a counterattack, and many bloody battles were fought. The story goes that Hengist recommended a summit with all the leading Celtic warlords, including Vortigern, to discuss peace terms. This was the second great lapse of judgment. As agreed, Vortigern and the Romano-Celts arrived unarmed, but Hengist had instructed his warriors to keep knives in their boots, and the trap was sprung. Some 300 leading Romano-Celts were slaughtered, and the Celtic command of England never fully recovered from this blow. The war between the Saxons and the Romano-Britons carried on for centuries, with the Celts gradually being pushed back to the lands of the west, such as Wales and Cornwall.

One of the few-recorded actions between the Romano-British and the German invaders is mentioned in a poem by Aneirin from around 600 AD. He describes how the Gododdin of Lothian (near Edinburgh, now part of Scotland), a Romano-British tribe controlling the eastern end of the Antonine Wall, spent a year preparing for a raid against the Angles of Northumbria. The warlord Mynydogg lavishly feasts his followers, giving them mead and wine, an indication of the feudal loyalties binding a warlord and his retinue of leading warriors, or, as Aneirin simply puts it, “they paid for their mead-feast with their lives.” With three hundred leading horse warriors and their followers, Mynydogg rode south to attack the Angles at the Battle of Cattraeth in Yorkshire. They wore coats of mail, leaf-bladed swords and had gold torcs around their necks. As brave and well equipped as they were, they nevertheless came to grief and the hands of the Angles. All three hundred were slain, and the realm of the Celts was pushed further back. Lothian wouldn’t be recovered by the Scots for centuries.

The Celts of Britain were not alone in their struggle against the Germans. In France, Romano-Gauls depended on warlords such as Ecdicius, who led a spirited defense of central France the incursions of Goths. Supported by the great landowners, Ecdicius led a war band of horsemen to pursue the gangs of barbarian bandits. So hard did he press them, it is said the Goths were forced to leave the bodies of their comrades behind, but chopped off their heads so Ecidicius could not tell from their hairstyles the number of Goths he had slain. After a successful campaign against the Goths, he arrived in the town of Clermont and received a rapturous welcome from the relieved citizens. “What tears and rejoicing greeted you!” recalled his brother-in-law Sidonius. “Some townspeople kissed away the dust that covered you. Others caught hold of your bridle, thick with blood and foam. When you wished to take off your helmet, the clamoring citizens unclasped the bands of iron. Some entangled themselves in the straps of your greaves (leg armor). Some counted the dents along the edges of your sword blunted by slaughter. While others fingered the holes made by blade and point amid your shirt of mail. You bore all these stupidities of your welcome with good grace!” Not only an expression of Celtic desperation, but also an unwittingly good description of the equipment worn by a Romano-Celtic warlord at this time.

Next, in Part 12 of Celtic Warriors -
  • Picts & Scots - The Picts battle the Scots for control of a country yet to be called Scotland.

  • Ancient Celtic Warriors - Menu

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