Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Badon Hill

Mons Badonicus, Mount Badon
Baddon, Baden, Badove, Vaddon

A hill or mountain that was the site of Arthur’s greatest victory of the Saxons, according to the early chronicles.

According to Gildas, who is the first to mention this battle, the Britons won a decisive victory over the Saxon invaders at the “siege of Mount Badon” (obsessio Badonici montis). Either a hill or a mountain. This was the climax of a struggle with varying fortunes, beginning from the counterattack against the Saxon settlements launched by Ambrosius Aurelianus. Badon brought a spell of relative peace and order. In his own time, Gildas laments, the Britons have lost respect for their fathers’ achievement and are fighting among themselves; but he has no doubt about the achievement. He does not name any British commander at the battle. Later, the commander is said to have been Arthur. Gildas is the first to refer to it in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britannie (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), but he does not mention Arthur by name.

The date of the encounter is uncertain, but it is generally placed between AD 490 and 516, sometimes more specifically about AD 500. In De excidio, Gildas is ambiguous: his statement could be variously interpreted as meaning that the battle occured in the year he was born, fourty-four years before he wrote, forty-four years after the resurgence of the Britons under Ambrosius.

As regards the first of these possibilites, it is worth noting that T.D. O’Sullivan in a study opines that Gildas wrote De excidio as a young man. Although Gildas does not name the British commander, both Nennius and the Annales Cambriae identify him as Arthur – a leader not a king. Nennius, writing around 800, names Badon as the twelfth and final battle between Arthur and the Saxons, in which “nine hundred and sixty men fell from a single attack of Arthur.” The Annales date the confrontation at 518, and note that “Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders.”

Badon presents three main problems: its date, its location, and Arthur’s connection with it.

The Date

Gildas makes a puzzling statement about the date. It is usually understood as follows:

The year of Badon… was the year of my birth; as I know, one month of the forty-fourth year since then has already passed.

Since he is probably writing in the 540s, he appears to be saying that Badon was fought in the late 490s or early 500s. This is certainly the likeliest meaning. But Bede seems to have read Gildas in another text, now lost, because he takes the “forty-four year” quite differently and reckons the period from the Saxons’ first settlement in Britain, with Badon coming at the end of it. As he dates the settlement around the middle of the fifth century, the result turns out to be quite similar. Gildas’s involved Latin has even been constructed in a third sense, as saying the battle took place in the forty-fourth year from the British counterstroke that began the war, a reading that might shift difinitely from the last decade of the fifth century into the first decade of the sixth.

On any showing, however, it belongs about the year 500. Gildas wrote when it was still living memory, and he is unlikely to be far wrong whatever his meaning actually is. The irreconcilability of the date given for Badon in the Annales Cambriae, 518, is therefore a reason for treating that chronicle’s Arthurian entries with reserve.

Gildas’s British victory ca 500, followed by a long lull, accords fairly well with archaeological and historical data. Generally speaking, there were no more Saxon encroachments for several decades, and some evidence for a reverse migration back to the Continent suggests that in Britain the advance was halted. There are even arguable traces of local withdrawals. The only question arises from entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claiming continued progress by the West Saxons in Hampshire and victories won by them, in contrast with Gildas’s assertion of a respite. Archaeology, however, shows that these Saxons were few and their progress was meager, while their battles in the Chronicle are skirmishes only, or fictious. Gildas may have regarded them as not worth mentioning. He may not even have heard of them. Bede, the next writer to mention the battle, dated it at 493 and also excluded Arthur’s name.

The Location

As to Badon’s whereabouts, it was in the south of Britain. The settlements of northern Angles were still unorganized and in most areas sparse. A defeat in that quarter would not have deterred the Saxon kings established in Kent and elsewhere. The word mons, ‘mountain’ or ‘hill’, has often been supposed to refer to a hill fort. Several place-names with the element Bad- in them do denote hill forts or locations close by. There has been speculation about a folk-hero or demigod called Badda, who was associated with hill forts and might have given his name to several. Against the year 667, the Annales Cambriae note a “second battle of Badon”, which is unlikely to have been in the same place as the firs.

Given the hill-fort assumption, historians have tried to pick out a particular one as Gildas’s. Some have favored Badbury Rings in Dorset, though it is hard to see how enough Saxons could have been there early enough. Liddington Castle in Wiltshire has a village of Badbury near its foot, and excavation has shown that its earthwork defenses were refurbished at about the right time. Geoffrey of Monmouth locates the battle at Bath (and makes the Saxon leader Colgrim), where the baths, in one of the manuscripts of Nennius, are called balnea Badonis. One or two modern authors have agreed, pointing, for instance, to the hill fort of Solsbury just outside the town. There are other candidates.

In the Vulgate Merlin, Arthur smashes the Saxons at Clarence. The battle is absent from Malory’s novel entirely, returning finally in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

Almost everything that is said about Badon rests on probabilities only. It need not have been a hill fort at all. Very likely it was, but nothing shows who was besieging whom, or which group or groups of Saxon took part. The proved British reoccupation of hill forts suggests that the Britons were the besieged, in which case the victory may have come through a sortie or a relief operation. Its impact would have been moral rather than material. No battle conceivable at that time could have inflicted such losses as to deprive the Saxons of the man power and resources for further war. Badon would have been decisive as an unnerving catastrophe far from their home bases, perhaps involving the death of a king and consequent loss of leadership.

Given its mention in Gildas’s early text, Badon was almost certainly an actual battle, though Arthur’s connection remains uncertain, as does the actual location of the confrontation. Geoffrey’s Bath is a possibility. Other suggestions have included Badbury, Baddington, and Liddington Castle in Wiltshire (near which is another Badbury). In order for the victory to have driven the Saxons back to their southeastern settlements, it would have likely been located in the south-central to southeast area of the island.

Arthur’s Connection

Lastly, there is the problem of Arthur’s role. He is first presented as the victor by Nennius in the ninth century and next by the Annales in the tenth. Both references are dubious not only because of the long interval but because of apparently legendary touches that call them in question. The early Welsh have little to say about this battle – it is not in the Triads, for instance – and it seems to have carried no great weight in the making of Arthur as they imagined him. On the other hand, there is no alternative candidates as the British commander. Ambrosius would almost certainly have been too old, and probably dead. The commander would surely have been a man of some note, remembered afterward for the victory, and it may be doubted whether a totally unconnected Arthur could have supplanted him in tradition and effaced his name.

According to the Welsh tale of Breudwyt RhonabwyOsla Big Knife (perhaps a variant of Octa) was Arthur’s opponent at Badon, which ended in a truce. Oddly, Osla appears as one of Arthur’s warriors in a separate legend.

See also
Greenan Castle | The Legend of King Arthur

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae | Gildas, c. 540
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum | Bede, 731
Historia Brittonum | Probably Nennius, early 9th century
Annales Cambriae | c. 960-980
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Breudwyt Rhonabwy | 13th century
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886