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  "Is there anything left that the careful historian can say about 'King Arthur'?"
This is an essay, written in 1996 during the early part of a history degree course at Birkbeck College, University of London. It shows another aspect of the research required when preparing to write a historical novel.

Page 1

"No figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian's time. There are just enough casual references in later Welsh legend ... to suggest that a man with this late Roman name - Artorius - may have won repute at some ill-defined point of time ..... But if we add anything to the bare statement that Arthur may have lived and fought the Saxons, we pass at once from history to romance."(1)

Much of the view of "Arthur" is created around myth. Later Medieval story-telling has clouded any careful judgment of the existence of this debatable character from the past - but is it not as unprofessional to dismiss Arthur entirely - as Myers suggests - as it is to portray him as a chivalric knight in armour, seated at his round table and searching for the querulous sanctity of the Holy Grail?

Is there nothing left to support the plausible existence of "Arthur" as a successful war-leader of some time during the late fifth, early sixth century?

The inclination of the historian today is towards selective knowledge - verging on a blinkered view of a chosen specialisation, with little broadening into knowledge that could dovetail into other, diverse, interests.

1) J.N.L. Myers The English Settlements Oxford History of England 1987

Page 2

One commonly cited dismissal of Arthur as a factual possibility is the outright disparagement of his connection with cavalry. The very basis of Arthurian legend is that of Arthur being a leader of mounted men, either fighting the Saxons, or the British, in Civil War.

Objections have usually included that "Arthur" could not have led a cavalry because the horses of the Early Medieval Period were too small/too insubstantial, that stirrups/saddles were not in use, objections that automatically negated an effective use of cavalry, ergo, Arthur must belong purely to myth/legend, the later Medieval period and the popular image of the mounted knight.

Is there any available evidence to prove this conclusion, regarding the use of cavalry, as incorrect?

Weight carrying ability ~ height of horses

By later periods, when cavalry relied upon full armour (the Knight), then the height of horses became relevant - the mean-tempered, weight-bearing Destrier was developed. It is not necessarily the height of a horse that determines ability to carry weight, but the width of bone in the leg.

Native ponies indigenous to Britain, a 13.2 hands pony of Welsh breeding for instance, is perfectly capable of carrying a man of, say, 13 stone, 5' 9" in height, for long periods of time and distance. Similarly, the modern Arabian - one of the most enduring breeds for speed and stamina - is often no greater than 14.2 hands high.

Were such breeds in existence during the period of "Arthur"? For the British breeds, most definitely - areas of Britain were noted even before the conquest of Rome, for the excellence of horse breeding. Prof. Ewart in his report on the animal remains from the Roman fort at Newstead, demonstrated that there were big boned ponies of 11 - 12 hands, slender limbed ponies of 12 - 13 hands, and horses of two types, one for cavalry, the other for transport, of 14 - 15 hands(2).

In his book A Roman Frontier Post, James Curle(3) records that "the auxiliaries .... had 14 hands horses as fine in head and limbs as modern high-caste Arabians." The measurement of horse bits, bridles and harness, confirm these heights.

2) G.W.I. Hodgson The Animals of Vindolanda 1976

3) James Curle A Roman Frontier Post and its people: The Fort of Newstead 1911

Page 3

Distance Capability ~ Feeding and Logistics

Cavalry travelling alone, unburdened with infantry - "Arthur" has often been alluded to fighting "alone" - would move faster than mixed units. It would have been quite possible to average 30 - 40 miles per day without overtaxing animals, given good feeding and the occasional day's rest.

The Elegy for Geraint, an early Welsh poem that encompasses the battle at Liongborth (probably Dorchester, Hampshire) refers to well bred horses, fed on corn :-

"Under the thigh of Geraint, swift chargers
Long their legs, wheat their fodder.

And in Aneirin's poem, Yr Gododdin, more references :-

"... Swift, long-maned stallions .... "
".... Power of horses ....


"To their horses he'd portioned out oats that winter."(4)

Caesar's commentaries frequently refer to the corn supply and rations for both man and beast, as do Vegetius, Polybius and the Codex Theodosianus. Oats, barley, beans and hay are essential for feeding horses in work (grass alone will not keep a horse fit and well muscled) cereals known to be grown abundantly in Britain. Seaweed too, can be added as a supplementary food. The logistics of supply of horses and adequate feeding was an integral part of the Roman Cavalry in Britain throughout the Occupation.

Given that the collapse of the Roman structure after the official withdrawal did not cease overnight, there seems no reason to assume that the feeding of horses could not be sufficiently maintained.

4) John Morris The Age of Arthur Weidenfeld & Nicolson

5) Tony Conran (trans) Welsh Verse Poetry Wales Press 1986

Page 4

Stirrups. saddles and harness

Until recently, there was no archaeological evidence for Roman saddlery, enough leather being rare, and the few finds being difficult to interpret. From relief carvings on triumphal arches and tombstones it was wrongly assumed that a simple pad or blanket were used, with the rider perching precariously on top. Such, would have been useless for fast travelling or manoeuvring and for fighting from horseback.

Later evidence, in particular research and experiments undertaken by Peter Donnelly,(6) has shown that a saddle was indeed used, one made of a strong wooden construction, padded, and covered with leather. Stirrups were not necessary, and would only have added to an ease for mounting. The rider was held firmly in place by four "horns" set to each cornered - these would have been much as the modern leaping head on a lady's side-saddle, to keep her seat secure, (more secure in fact, than riding astride.)

For parade purposes or special occasions, the saddle would have been covered, and obscured, by a fringed or zigzag edged cloth - hence the misleading relief carvings.

It is interesting that many examples of the Celtic horse bits are identical with the modern snaffle, apart from the metal, which would now be stainless steel, not iron. Bridle buckles, too, are similar to those found on modern "show" harness.

Training of horse and rider

Much Roman equine expertise was inherited from the Greeks, notably, Xenophon's book On Horsemanship, although from Arrian's Tactica, it seems that the Roman's adapted a slightly different approach. The methods of breaking and training horses were remarkably similar during the early centuries AD to those used today, which points to some degree of continuity. Varro and Virgil (Georgics III 191) agree that horses ought not be broken until the age of three, as is usual today, and that training ought lo be a mixture of patience and common sense.

6) Peter Connelly Experiments with the Roman Saddle Military Illustrated, June/July 1988

Page 5

Vegetius states that a Decurio of a Turma should set example to his subordinates by being a better rider and more adept with his weapons.(7)

Evidence that an effective cavalry remained in use - even if only in localised areas - after the going of Rome is conclusive from the early poems mentioned above.

There is further contemporary evidence of the successful use of military cavalry from fifth century Gaul. From the letters and poems of Sidonius Apollinaris.(8)(9) In 471 his brother in law, Ecdicius, successfully routed an large Gothic force (possibly several thousand) with only eighteen mounted men. A stunning feat, but quite possible given disciplined cavalry riding against insecure infantry.

While the evidence of an existence of a cavalry force does not prove the existence of a leader who may have been named "Arthur," the provision, at the very least, of the plausibility behind the myth does lend some amount of added credence to those "casual references in later Welsh legend".

In this area then, surely, yes, the careful historian can, perhaps, say more about "Arthur".

7) Vegetius Epitome of Military Science Liverpool Univ. Press

8) Sidonius Apollinaris & the Fall of Rome Jill Harries Clarendon Press

9) Sidonius Apollinaris poems & letters W.B. Anderson & Semple



Ann Hyland
  Equus The horse in the Roman World

  Batsford Academic

Michael Speidel
  Riding for Caesar

  Batsford Academic

Karen R. Dixon & Pat Southern
  The Roman Cavalry

  Batsford Academic


"You have certainly answered the question. I am uncertain about how far your footnotes reflect reading and how far they come from your sources but this is a well constructed essay. It raises many questions. Did the Saxons have cavalry? Or was that why Arthur was victorious? How was a mounted charge organised? Or did they just use horses for getting to the battle?"

68%  18.11.1996  J Mountain B.A. B.Sc.

  "Julius Agricola: the campaign for the Northern Frontier of Rome and the Battle of
    Mons Graupius"
This is an essay, written in 1997 during a history degree course at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Page 1

The Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, began a biography of his father-in-law(1) towards the end of AD 97, and because of this work, one of the few surviving records of the Roman period, the career of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Governor of Britain for almost six and a half years, is more thoroughly known than any of his colleagues.

The work must be regarded as biased, claiming, as it does, the virtues of a man who is a heroic member of the immediate family. One important omission from Tacitus's Agricola, annoyingly, is the absence of dates. Fortunately, Agricola's campaign in Northern Britain does not entirely owe its kudos to having a distinguished writer as a son-in-law. The subsequent archaeology of his march northward confirms that he was an adept and capable commander.

One result of the Roman attempt at conquest of the northern lands that eventually came to be known as Scotland, was the recorded naming of the indigenous tribes. Writing in Alexandria in the second Century AD, the Greek, Ptolemy, included sixteen tribes of this area on his map, adding alongside, settlements, rivers and several geographical features, information that would never, today, be discovered by the archaeologist working in the field.

There is no conclusive evidence of the political boundaries of the inhabitants of the north with whom the Romans came into contact - tribes such as the Votadini of south east Scotland; the Selgovae, central southern Scotland; the Novantae in the south west; the Damnonii of the Strathclyde area, and the Venicones of Fife. So effectively did the warriors unite against the machine that was Rome, that classical writers referred to the northern tribes as "a single ethnic group, the Caledonians", their country as "Caledonia".(2)

1) A.A. Duncan: Scotland the Making of a Kingdom p.18 cites Tacitus as Agricola's nephew, other sources used (see below) indicate he was a son-in-law

2) A.A. Duncan: Scotland the Making of a Kingdom p.19

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Ptolemy, interestingly, does refer to the Caldonii, locating them in either the Great Glen or the Grampian massif.(3)

The area roughly corresponding to the present counties of Cumbria and Lancashire, was occupied by the Brigantes. It is possible that their lands also stretched northward as far as the Solway Firth and the Tyne.(4) The Roman subjugation of Brigantia, the occupation of the southern uplands of Scotland, and the advance even further northward, occurred between AD 71 - 84 under the command of three successive Governors of Britain, Petilius Cerialis, Julius Frontinus and Julius Agricola, the latter, completing the Briganlian conquest in AD 79 and continuing northward, moving as far as the river Tay. His route is unknown, but he must have either moved up Annandale and down Clydesdale - following the present route of the A74 - or along the east coast, today's A68. Or perhaps he used both.

Whatever route, he passed through the areas of several tribes, notably, the Votadini and Selgovae, seemingly encountering little resistance, but, ,2 "not without learning that in these remote areas the climate could prove as formidable an enemy as any other that might be encountered."(5)

This advance, achieved so rapidly, was secured by the establishment of garrisons placed at strategic points, and incorporated the narrow isthmus between the Firths of Clyde and Forth. It is unclear whether Agricola's orders were to advance this far and halt, or whether, having reached that far, and acting on advice from the reconnaissance of scouting parties and local information, he decided that this would be an ideal, easily defendable line, a practical, natural, frontier. The Highlands to the north lay ahead, an inhospitable, sparsely populated area, of mountains, lochs and valleys, that did not draw much need, regarding the acquisition of trade, natural materials etc, to be conquered.

In southern Scotland, the geography would have dilated routes and the placing of garrisons to secure the land and tribes that Rome subdued. In each major river valley, Agricola built large forts, one placed in the Tyne valley, a fort of about 10 hectares, may have been used as a supply base.(6)

To the north, in the Tweed Valley, lay Newstead, (Trimontium) established on the north-west hill of the Eildons, below the oppidum of the Selgovae. This eventually became the pivotal point for the Roman road system in the area. On the Forth, there was Camelon; Milton, in Annandale; Dalswinton in Nithsdale and in Clydesdale, the construction of Casteledykes. Elsewhere, were smaller stations suitable for holding a single auxiliary unit. These, and the roads between them, formed a network common to any recently subdued Roman province, the only unusual feature of the Empire, being the frontier line of forts across the isthmus.

3) G. Maxwell : A Battle Lost

4) P. Hunter Blair : Roman Britain & Early England

5) P. Hunter Blair

6) D.J. Breeze : The Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain

Page 3

In AD 82, Agricola turned his attention to the west, marching into Ayrshire and Galloway. He crossed the Solway by sea, very possibly leaving from secure winter quarters in Chester, and marched up a river valley, suggested to be that of the Nith.(7) After a series of clashes against the south-western tribes, he again established further secure forts have been identified at Loudoun, Gatehouse, Fleet, and garrisons. Agricolan Glenlochar. Evidence that the road system may have extended to the Ayrshire coast and the Rhinns of Galloway is scarce, but is a widely accepted proposition.(8)

Results of this campaign, however, may have been discouraging, for Agricola then returned to the Forth-clyde line. The ensuing pause at this frontier was reversed in AD 83. Normally, Agricola would have expected his term of office to end after three consecutive years, but he was, unusually, to continue as Governor for a further term of office. His two final seasons passed with him campaigning north of the Forth, probably at the direction of the new Emperor, Domitian.

The dangers of moving a single force along the eastern plain north-eastward to Stonehaven and then turning north-westward must have been great, for the terrain was unknown, and the inhabitants cc-operated together to form a force of resistance against the forward moving Romans to such an extent, that it was here that it was assumed the tribes of the north were one single native group - the Caledonians.

Agricola fought one opposing force which had attacked his ninth legion in a night assault, loosing one third of his men, the site of this camp is unknown. He also had lo deal with a mutiny by a recently raised regiment of troops from Germany. Tacitus remarks that Agricola divided his forces some time before this. A.A. Duncan suggests that, if this is reliable, then the division must have been in southern Scotland, reaching his conclusion by the identification of the size of subsequent marching camps. The lie of the roads, and the garrisons constructed beside them, through these southern uplands, seem to confirm that passage north was indeed made on two fronts, or at least, in two columns, one to the east, continuing a route from Piercebridge and Manchester and one to the west, from Carlisle.

Archaeological evidence supports Tacitus' writing. A great many sites, chosen by Agricola for the building of garrisons were in upland country, where disturbance by agriculture or building is rare. Although often difficult to interpret these sites by eye, air photography has discovered many locations, although some were only briefly used, marching camps. Agricola had a good eye for the placing of his garrisons, for many were re-used in the later Roman periods.

7) A.A. Duncan

8) A.A. Duncan

Page 4

The forts that he established between the Forth and the Clyde, cannot, now, be identified with any certainty', a once generally accepted view was that they were situated beneath the later structures of the Antonine Wall, but this opinion is no longer so widely agreed.(9)

Agricola built the road that is now known as the Slanegate, laying a short way south of the line followed by the later constructed Hadrian's Wall. The Tyne gap and the hills to the north, gave rise to conditions for a favourable frontier defense, and it was here that such a line rested for most of the Roman occupation, but in Agricola's time, such stability had not been reached, and it must have been expected, during these early years, to continue the advance north and conquer the whole island into a single Roman province.

Agricola's army moved along the road running from Corbridge to Risingham, High Rochester and Chew Green, the last a site for an encampment that must have been, more often than not, mist shrouded and snowbound during the winter months. It is curious why this route was chosen, as the difficulties in keeping the roads open and the garrisons adequately supplied, must have been problematic - an easier route would have been along the coast. From Chew Green, the road passed to Newstead in the Tweed valley, and finally down to the Forth at lnveresk, after crossing yet another stretch of high moorland. Hunter Blair suggests that it is here that the two divided columns re-met, as Interest is also where the road running up the western side of the southern uplands terminates, after coming up from Carlisle and climbing up via the Beattock Summit before descending into the valley of the upper Clyde. Higher than the Fodh-clyde isthmus, there is only a single road heading northward, crossing the Forth at Stirling, and then north-east to Strathallan and Strathmore, a wide fertile valley between the Grampians and the Ochil and Sidlaw Hills. Here, along this road, is the evidence of Agricola's planning', skillfully placed forts, camps and signalling stations, and including the legionary base of Inchtuthill. A series of marching camps lead on across Aberdeen, almost reaching the Moray Firth.

It was somewhere here, the exact location unknown, that Agricola fought and took victory at the only battle to be described in detail in ancient literature, between the Romans and the Caledonians (the Picts). Mons Graupius - the Graupian Mountains. An eighteenth century misreading of this battle gave rise to the modern name, the Grampian Mountains.(10)

Using common tactics, while the army marched light, Agricola sent the fleet ahead, to spread alarm among the tribes, and to plunder where and when they could.

9) A.A. Duncan

10) A. Ritchie & D. Breeze : Invaders of Scotland

Page 5

The tribes made preparation for the battle, using ground of their own choosing, and setting aside their own differences to unite against a greater and more threatening opponent. This was an unusual treaty, given the more general aversion of the British to fight together against a common enemy. Only one of the leaders do we know by name, Calgacus.

Tacitus informs that there were more than 30,000 barbarians straddling the hillside, with the van situated on level ground at the bottom, and the rest rising up the slope behind. He does not state the number of Romans, apart from mentioning that there were 8,000 auxiliary infantry and 3,000 cavalry, with an additional 2,000 cavalry as reserve.

Presumably, all four of the British Legions were present, though undoubtedly in much lower strength. Tacitus's flair for imaginative writing presumes much inaccurate detail, including fanciful, florid speeches made by the commanding officers.

The order of battle followed common methods of the British tribes, charioteers galloping between the lines, and the fighting beginning with a mutual exchange of missiles. When the Romans began to advance, the British were at considerable disadvantage, for the Romans were armed with their shod swords and shields, while the Caledonians had smaller shields and longer, slashing swords, not so suited to close combat. Those tribesmen assembled along the plain were quickly routed and pushed back, up hill. The speed of the advance, however, almost caused disaster for the Romans, for now, they were faced with an up-hill struggle, and with the cavalry joined in battle, the infantry almost fell into disarray. The Caledonians, on the more advantageous higher ground, began to advance, and almost managed to overwhelm the Roman rear, but the attack was broken when Agricola sent in the four ranks of Cavalry reserve. With the Caledonians faced by Romans on both sides, they broke rank and fled to the wolds, where they briefly rallied, but were of no match to the high discipline of the Roman army.

Again, the figures mentioned by Tacitus, are undoubtedly fictitious. 360 Romans lay dead, he claims, compared to 10,000 Caledonians, although by "Romans" he could have been referring to actual Legionaries, not the auxiliaries.

Agricola made no attempt to follow the fleeing Caledonians, but prepared instead, to return south. Collecting hostages from the Boresti, an unknown and unlocated tribe, he ordered the fleet to sail while he marched south. During this voyage, the fleet discovered Orkney and the Fair Isles, and proving, that indeed, Britain was an island.

The location of Mons Graupius is left to conjecture, with several opinionated suggestions being put forward at various times. Gordon Maxwell, the Director of the Aerial Survey Programme with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, with his work, A Battle Lost, Romans and Caledonians at Mons Graupius, collates the various antiquarian theories providing an interesting read.

Page 6

The location was undoubtedly north of the Forth - the line of first century marching camps appear to reach as far north as Auchinhove, making it possible that the battle site was north of the Mounth, where the Highlands reach almost to the coast at Stonehaven.

Victory at Mons Graupius was not conclusive to the Roman subjugation of Scotland, however, for none of the Agricolan forts north of the Forth were occupied for very long, indeed, judging by pottery evidence, all garrisons north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus were abandoned by AD 90. The Inchtuthill fortress was abandoned even before it was completed, and excavation at two further sites, Fendoch and Cardean, "has demonstrated that they were given up after brief occupations."(11) The construction and occupation of about twelve forts is, therefore, squeezed into ten brief years. Besides Tacitus, there is no literary evidence and archaeological evidence cannot be relied upon to confirm dates during such a brief time, therefore, the "history" of the high lands, north of the Forth, must be designed by the ideas of logic and by using

Tacitus as a general guide only, knowing his report to tie aided by fancy and exaggeration. Agricola was recalled to Rome soon after Mons Graupius. After serving as Governor for seven campaigns, he clearly believed that he had defeated the Caledonian tribes. His success was short lived possible because Rome had to withdraw part of its Legions from Britain in AD 87 or 88, forcing many of the forts beyond the Cheviots to be abandoned.

By the end of the century, the Roman frontier of Britain lay along the Tyne - Solway isthmus, the status quo being established in AD 122 or 123 by the Emperor Hadrian and his construction of a great wall.

11) D.J. Breeze : The Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain



Alan K. Bowman
  Life & Letters on the Roman Frontier

   British Museum Press 1994

David I. Breeze
   The Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain

   Batsford (reprinted) 1993

T.A. Dorey (ed)

  London 1969

A.A. Duncan
  Scotland, the Making of a Kingdom

  Mercat Press 1996

P. Hunter-Blair:
  Roman Britain & Early England 55 BC - 871 AD

  Cardinal 1975

Anne Johnstone:
  The Wild Frontier: Exploring the Antonine Wall

   Moubray House Press 1986

Gordon Maxwell:
  A Battle Lost: Romans & Caledonians at Mons Graupius

  Edinburgh University Press 1990

R.M. Ogilvie & I.A. Richmond (ed):
  Cornelii Taciti, de vita Agricolæ

  Penguin Classics

Anna Ritchie & David I. Breeze:
  Invaders of Scotland

  Edinburgh H.M.S.O.

Peter Salway:
  Roman Britain

  Oxford - Clarendon Press 1981


"This is an excellent essay, drawing upon your extensive knowledge of the subject and period. Your detailed account of the siting of camps and lines of communication demonstrate what will always be a problem and hindrance to any attempt to conquer the North of Britain - the physical geography. This issue has, and will continue to arise during the course. Your essay is based on a good bibliography. "

78%  26.11.1997  V Wall M.A.


  "How Important Was Technology In Early Medieval Warfare?"
This is an essay, written in 1999 during a history degree course at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Page 1

Fortifications for defense were used during the iron age - hill forts, constructed on natural high ground protected by wooden palisade fencing and earthworks of ramp and ditches. To penetrate these, the Romans used effective machinery. Eventually, the hill- fort became replaced by the stone construction of the legionary fortress and the wall enclosed town. Unrest occurring in the north of Britain between 118 - 22 AD caused the construction of a wall across the Tyne-Solway Gap, running for 80 Roman miles (120 kms). Originally conceived as an outpost line for further advancement north, fifteen forts were added in support of mile-castles. The face of the wall was protected by a ditch, in places 30ft wide, 12ft deep. It remained as a fortified line until its abandonment in 409.

By the end of the second century, Anglo-saxon sea-raiders were attacking the east and southern coast of Britain, the Romano-British siting a series of defensive forts along 'the Saxon Shore.' These forts effectively "denied the raiders entry to the river estuaries which could carry them inland."(1)

The Roman legions invaded Britain as professional soldiers under order to conquer, their organised, disciplined knowledge of warfare and the use of technology made them formidable opponents. The Anglo-Saxon "invasion" occurred by a people who were originally intent on raiding to gain loot or land. Settlement and folk-migration followed. The Romano-British resisted in places, but inter-marriage and the gradual, consequential, restructuring of political focus eventually centered inter-tribal struggles between the emerging English Kingdoms, where "guerilla warfare" tactics, skirmishing and hand-to-hand fighting invalidated the requirement of defensive buildings and siege machinery.

The Norse campaigns against England of 875-7, when the Danes skillfully evaded battle by the use of fortified defenses at Wareham, Exeter and Gloucester, may have persuaded Alfred of "the value of fortified strongholds both as providing bases for resistance ...and as a means of controlling the nearby countryside"(2) The subsequent defensive system of fortifications was in place by the time of Alfred's successor, Edward the Elder, the development therefore, must have been initiated during Alfred's reign. The fortifications of southern England placed Alfred in a position to successfully meet renewed attack, and in 886 he reached agreement with Guthrum, king of the Danes - an agreed treaty between equals rather than an imposition of terms.

Warfare was a last resort, being expensive, dangerous, and the outcome highly uncertain; instead, bribery, negotiation by diplomacy, and alliance were all extensively employed. An effective king would aim to use as little force as possible employing peaceful and legal processes rather than military. When rebellion broke out in Northumbria against Earl Tostig Godwinesson in 1065, negotiation was the foremost method of diverting costly fighting.

1) Smurthwaite p.24

2) Blair p.76

Page 2

Negotiation also prevented civil war between Earl Godwine and King Edward in 1052/3. The northern Earls of Northumbria and Mercia (Siward and Leofric) were agreeable to supporting Edward, but not to the extent of committing themselves to outright war.

One of the most effective replacements of war was that of monetary payments and bribery. The "Danegeld" was a tribute to pay off the Danes from inflicting warfare on the 'Midlands' of England. It proved cheaper to pay the invaders directly to obtain peace, rather than pay the cost of maintaining an army. After the battle of Maldon, "£10,000 was given to the slayers of Byrhtnoth in 991"(3)

Early policy towards warfare rarely involved a total overthrow of the enemy and today's military historians frequently regard medieval warfare as indecisive, lacking strategic planning, and devoid of the important 'decisive battler'. Such a view misunderstands the overall strategy of early warfare, and misinterprets the policy behind medieval wars. In general, this was limited in terms of ambition for gaining territory and was, for the most part, aimed at the defensive rather than offensive.

"Pitched battles were few and far between, even minor encounters were rare."(4) Battles were avoided until they became an absolutely necessity. The use of hand held weapons, the skill of using and making them, along with personal armour, was the only "technology" required for battle. The craft of the weapon-smith was a skilled precision and the obtaining of metal to make weapons a priority, It was partially this factor that drove the "Vikings" to initially plunder the English coast, especially in the areas of wealthy monasteries and such, where precious metals, lead iron etc., were in abundance

"Money was the fuel that made the military machine run."(5) The payment and maintenance of troops formed only a part of the vast expense of war. England remained a rich country with a strong economy, perhaps because much of it wet not squandered in unnecessary warfare.

After c1000 one of the processes of building state economy and providing stable government in Europe was the attempt, by various princes, to limit the escalation of private warfare and turn the advantage of war into a personal monopoly. After the battle of Val-és-Dune in October 1047 the Truce of God was declared near Caen, Normandy, by the hierarchy of the Church. "Private war was prohibited from Wednesday evening until Monday morning and during the seasons of Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost"(6) Among the penalties for violation of the Truce, was excommunication - and it is notable that Duke William and Henry I of France (at the time, allies,) were excluded from the terms of the truce.

Set apart from the more normal aggressive warfare, Duke William of Normandy's campaign against Harold II of England in 1066 was to claim land. The battle at "Hastings" is almost a unique event. Partly because of its scale and also because it was one of those rare, outright, decisive battles.

Hastings is a battle that effectively demonstrates that the Anglo-Saxon and Norman system of warfare was similar. Both armies were almost identical in formation and ability, both employed the same weapons', their opposing core groups of elite warriors were surrounded by rural men who owed service through one form or another to their overlord.

3) Loyn p. 322

4) Morillo p. 136

5) Morillo p. 17

6) Douglas p. 5l

Page 3

Nor were the two armies tactically different. Armour for both sides was similar, and remained so throughout the early medieval period. The most important armour for the soldier being the hauberk, a shirt or tunic constructed of chain maid, a garment that required skill and lime to create, and the conical helmet complete with nose guard. Each soldier provided his own armour and weapons. The higher his status, the better his armour and weaponry.

Within two months of Hastings, William had completely destroyed any immediate resistance by the English, consolidating his conquest at the expense of the ruling classes. Yet the outcome of the battle was a result of a series of accidental factors, not through any deliberately planned tactics or method - namely Harold's death and the lack of any alternative viable claimant to the throne. lf Harold had not been killed, William may still have won that particular battle, but probably not the war, for it would have been almost impossible for him to acquire reinforcements in sufficient time and number.

The warrior lifestyle and the structure of accumulating power by early medieval rulers had been based largely on methods of aggression and predation, more for plunder, either of goods or land, rather than outright conquest. These common tactics were becoming rarer by the late eleventh century as secular aristocratic princes began to prefer profit for their own ends, a factor which the church soon adopted for the crusades. The establishment of hereditary lineage also limited opportunities for predation and enhanced the pretexts for the changing face of warfare.

As a direct means of forcibly taking an enemy position, the besieging of fortifications and castles accounted for the majority of Anglo-Norman tactical action. The Conquest brought the prolific building of castles to England, transforming the military geography. Fortifications before the conquest were limited to town defenses and a few castles built by King Edward's Norman kindred (i.e. Ralf of Hereford) Norman technology introduced the motte-and-bailey construction, which had originated in France and the Rhineland before the mid-eleventh century. Of simple and effective design, it was difficult to assault because of the height of the mound - the matte was often from 5 - 10 metres in height, could be built in as little as eight days and erected almost anywhere with mostly unskilled labour.

However, the timber of its construction needed frequent repair and it was vulnerable to fire. Stone was better than wood, the bailer palisade and the ring wall being the first components to be replaced. Wooden matte towers could not be replaced until the earth mound supporting it had settled. New castles were built immediately of stone, the White Tower in London being one of the best examples. Keeps, or conjoins, were square in plan and depended entirely on the height and thickness of its walls for defensive strength. Builders chose the location of castles for tactical reasons, according to the local physical or political geography, the siting being for the offensive or defensive, as required. AII castles required certain essential built in features, the foremost being the internal well and provision for the grinding of corn and the baking of bread.

The wales of castles were additionally defended by the construction of dry ditches - the later wet moats were rare in this period. Attackers were required to in-fill these ditches where they wished to approach the wails, often under harassment of crossbow, arrow, spear and javelin fire etc.

6) A.A.M. Duncan : Scotland, the Making of a Kingdom p. ll6

Page 4

The first stage of a siege was to block access and egress from the fortification and deploy methods of destruction to the defenses. Bombardment machines were used to pound a breach in the wall and to inflict damage to the buildings inside, in addition harassing maiming and killing the defenders. Missiles ranged from rocks, stones etc, to the more grisly parts of the human body - hands, feet and decapitated heads. Closer, more dangerous, assault methods were the use of battering rams and under-mining.

The mangonel gained its firing force from a torque of tightly twisted rope or other material - the Romans preferred human hair. The ballista, a machine to hurl spears and javelins etc, with great accuracy at human targets, was operated by tension, ice the same principle as a bow. It was basically a large crossbow, although in fact, the crossbow is a handhold version of the ballista. One of the most well known examples of the effectiveness of the ballista is from a Roman siege, found during the archaeological dig at Maiden castle, Dorset. A skeleton was discovered with a ballista bolt piercing the spine.

Towers, constructed in situ of a siege, built of timber, and covered by animal hides soaked in urine to prevent burning, were effective machines. Ballistas sited on the higher platforms could fire down directly into a stronghold, greatly increasing their deadliness.

The trebuchet used a counterweight that was released suddenly to fling missiles - this machine was a later invention, however, probably being used circa 1135. It was a carried more accuracy and power than previous technology.

Defensive measures to resist a siege were limited. The arrival of a relief force was the optimum help. Brief sorties carried out at opportune moments were intended as hit-and-run tactics, accompanied by the firing of various missiles at the attackers, encounters that could occasionally become a fine line between siege warfare and face- to-face battle.

Siege tactics, and the subsequent demand and use for technology had not changed greatly since classical times, remaining basically similar for several more centuries - until the use of gunpowder significantly altered the entire course of warfare.



Peter Hunter Blair
  An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England

  Cambridge University press 2nd edition 1995

David Douglas
  William the Conqueror

  Methuen 1964

H.R. Loyn
  Anglo-Saxon England d the Norman Conquest

  Longman 1991

Stephen Morillo
  Warfare under the Anglo-Norman Kings 1066-1135

  Boydell press 1994

David Smurthwaite:
  The Complete Guide to the Battlefields Of Britain

  Michael Joseph 1993

Dorothy Whitelock
  The Beginnings of English Society

  Pelican History of England 1966


"This is an interesting essay but you have concentrated too much on establishing how medieval rulers avoided warfare and too little on the warfare itself While there is a case for not including ships on the grounds that battles were fought on land and not sea, ships got people to battles in large numbers. The design of swords and shields varied. The period is characterized by technological conservatism but weapons technology existed! The use of underground digging to undermine fortifications began in this period and was still in use in World War I."

63%  20.4.1999  J Mountain B.Sc. B.A.


  "It isn't what actually happened, it's the story which matters."

    Discuss with reference to the Anglo-Saxons or Viking migrations.
This is an essay, written in 1999 during a history degree course at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Page 1

As a published author of historical fiction, I am naturally biased towards extensively agreeing with the above quote, if for no other reason than because the telling of stories provides me with a suitable means of earning a living! As indeed, the same telling of tales gave a living to the British bard and the Saxon scop - the king's poet and singer. Such men, in the time before the written word was used, were the "memories of English, Saxon and Jutish tribes and their dynasties."(1) The story-teller would "unlock his wordhoard,"(2) enable the kings and queens, long buried in their grave, to live on. Their job, to rekindle the telling of heroic deeds and to ensure that the important historical events that happened were not forgotten.

Today, there is a degree of conflict between those who write/read historical fiction, portraying a "what might have happened" scenario and the serious minded historian who is intent purely upon pursuing undisputed facts. To a degree, everything written down, in various Chronicles or repeated orally through early tradition and only written in later years (e.g. Beowulf) is, as a matter of course, bound to become distorted in some way, either through exaggeration, propaganda, personal bias, later additions or the miscopying of one script to another.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, for instance, can not be reliable as to the accuracy of the recorded dates of its entries, nor can all of the entries, especially during the earlier accounted years, be regarded as infallible evidence. Written by Christian monks in Wessex during the early ninth century, a notable number of the earlier references have been corrupted, either deliberately by Christian based belief or through translation, copying, or reasons of political necessity. As example, the West Saxon tradition preserved in the Chronicle, unlike Bede, makes no mention of the settlement of the Jutes. As Hunter Blair expounds, "It may well be that the absence of any reference .... was due to a deliberate attempt to avoid perpetuating a tradition which did not agree with the .... spirit behind the West Saxon annals."(3)

In addition to the Chronicle literary sources, historical references are often taken from the writing of Gildas and Bide. Gildas wrote his De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain) probably during the late sixth century. it is an epistle in three parts with a "historical" preface. To many, his writing is for the purpose of mere raving against the un-Christian ways of the degenerative barbarian, but he was also the nearest contemporary writer to this "dark age" period, and many of his references have therefore, been taken seriously by several historians.

1) Kathleen Herbert p. 5

2) Kathleen Herbert p. 5

3) Peter Hunter Blair p. 34

Page 2

On the whole, Gildas 'presented his social and political views in an insular and wholly Christian scheme "(4)

Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History, which was completed in AD 731 , which although rich in contemporary detail is often selective and didactic, highly biased towards his Christian views. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was heavily reliant upon Bede, but included early English traditional accounts of battles. Many scholars have made use of these sources for primary reference while "overlooking the chronological difficulties altogether"(5)

Gerald of Wales, wrote a "travelogue" of his journeying through Wales in 1191 , which is a mixture of fact and myth (as any good historical novel should be!) and tries to make sense of all the stories he has been told. Historians tend to ignore the romantic bits and pick out the parts they like. "If you cannot trace the history of a story back to it's sources, it should be disregarded." (David Dumville) Alternatively, not all stories that are initially disbelieved are untrue; rumours of the disintegration of marriage between Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, for instance, were formally dismissed as fabrication and eventually proven to be correct.(6)

Much of the historian's reason for dismissing the relevance of stories in the accountability of researching fact, has been prompted by the two main, probable inaccuracies, of the post-Roman early Anglo-Saxon period. The stories of King Arthur and Hengest and Horsa and the legends surrounding the initial settlement of the Germanic tribes. "Constant repetition of a story can obscure its originality."(7)

Early stories often refer to the number of boats used by the first migratory groups, a "fact" which has been frequently dismissed as irrelevant because of its romantic correlation. Boats were extremely important, however. The number may be immaterial; one, or a few, of the boats from a flotilla become prominent perhaps because the king, or the captain, or the leader of the expedition, has that particular vessel as his "flagship." The historical relevance of The Mayflower is an example. Many boats carried the emigrants from Britain to the Americas, but it is The Mayflower that is commemorated.

In perhaps the same way, the "three boats" were the initial important vessels that marked a certain turning point for the Anglo-Saxon settlers - many of whom were already well established within Britain from military service within the Roman armies, through trade, intermarriage, slavery, etc. . to ,

J.N.L. Myers says of Arthur, "no figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historians time."(8) As a novelist and avid reader of fiction, I would condemn this as an assuming and conceited statement. Much of irrelevance, fantasy and outright nonsense has indeed revolved around this character of British "history", but the contemptuous proving of something or someone not existing is perhaps, in certain circumstances, as time wasting! Much historical information has also been discovered purely by the interested pursuit of "King Arthur" - the extensive excavations undertaken at Cadbury Castle between 1966-70 illustrate this conclusively.

4) Christopher Snyder p 48

5) Christopher Snyder p 48

6) From course notes, "Dark Age & Anglo-Saxon Society" Tavistock Square. Lecturer Jacqueline Mountain B.SC. B.A.

7) From course notes, "Dark Age & Anglo-Saxon Society" Tavistock Square. Lecturer Jacqueline Mountain B.SC. B.A.

8) J.N.L. Myers p.16

Page 3

The possibility that Cadbury was associated with Arthur was revived in the mid-fifties after an amateur collector systematically discovered, and recorded, finds of pottery, flints and other artifacts. Her finds were examined by Dr Ralegh Radford, the leading figure in Dark Age studies in Western Britain at the time, who recognised some of the pottery as dating from the late fifth century (later linked with 'Tintagel Ware') As an eventual result, the Camelot Research Committee, composed of many eminent archaeologists, historians and scholars was formed, and after the difficulties of raising funds, a professional, selective excavation was undertaken.

Even if the primary intention - to discover Arthur - was not successful, Cadbury yielded evidence of a late fifth century post-hole timber dwelling, a major defensive in earthwork and a gate-tower, which at the time of excavation was a unique discovery for this period. It is possible that a similar excavation could have occurred anyway, but in this particular instance it is doubtful. The stories and myths of Arthur may be "red herrings" in the content of the character and events, but the enthusiasm and love for the story, has, as in the Cadbury instance, led directly to archaeological, and subsequent historical, knowledge.

Hengest is known in tradition as the founder of the Jutish settlement of Kent after the departure of the Romans, c. 410. Bede, writing in the eighth century, incorporated the story of Hengest, and his brother Horsa, almost in its entirety from the traditional tale as told by Gildas, but with certain modifications. Gildas's story was vague in detail, but Bede fitted the story into the chronology of his History. A later work than Gildas, the Historia Brittonum by a monk named Nennius, carries the most detailed account of the arrival of Hengest and his brother in Britain,an account where romance establishes a firm footing in the context of "history." Possibly because of these mythical inaccuracies and also because of his inclusion of Arthurian details (notably a list of twelve battles) Nennius is often disclaimed by historians. It seems incongruous to me, as a personal view, that traditional stories are concurrently "pooh-poohed" by historians on the basis of their mythological content, while on the contrary, details of Gildas and Bede are widely accepted - even though they also are often imbibed with "mythology" - albeit of a Christian element.

It is not only in story form that historical detail can be misrepresented. Certain areas of archaeology can be open to personal interpretation and cannot in many cases, be ascertained as the definite. Postulated theory is often as damaging as straightforward story. Interpretations behind the purpose of Stonehenge, for instance, or the explanation behind the ship burial of Sutton Hoo - that the buried king is Raedwold. A theory that is now widely accepted but has no proven historical fact. The absence of the remains, in any form, of a body can not corroborate any precise detail.

There is, therefore, much historical evidence that is stated as fact, but Which should be questioned in its accuracy. The historian's overall dismissal of the worth of historical fiction is, in some instances, somewhat arrogant. Fiction alone is not totally accountable for inaccurate portrayal. Victorian and early twentieth century archaeological and historian's interpretation have been accountable for many an unwarranted "historical fact" that is still widely believed, by the lay person, to this day - the mass migration of the British to Wales at the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, horns on warrior Viking helmets, the scythes of Boadicea's chariot, Alfred burning the cakes, Bruce and the spider, all good examples of assumptions that have gained favour and credibility as fact.

Page 4

"The barrier between fact and fiction is as brittle as sheet glass. History is not an exact science; its practitioners deal in probabilities"(9)

Although indeed, there is a gulf of difference between the research and investigation/interpretation of fact and the complete, entirely imaginative quest of the story teller. For the historical novelist, "writing, is the art of creating reality from the imaginary."(10) The historian is, on the contrary and understandably, interested only in corroborated, undeniable fact.

'71 isn't what actually happened, its the story which matters. " The telling of the story based on the known events or people of the past, is as important as the discovered fact of their lives, in order to keep a sense of the social aspect of the past alive. Story - however inaccurate in the detail of fact - can still provide an insight and feeling of the human element of our ancestors. Put the mundane clinical reality into the context of laughter and tears, love and war, the birth and death of children, the fears and the pleasures of everyday life.

"As long as there is someone willing to tell the story and another eager to listen, a man such as you will be forever remembered."(11)

But the 'factual' content of any story, novel, saga or poem, must always be regarded with care, taken with a "pinch of salad's for it is pure interpretation at best, deliberate illusion and imagination at worst. The anomaly occurs when what can almost amount to "fiction" is intentionally portrayed as scientific fact, a common occurrence with today's media journalism where a panache for sensationalism, in cause of selling papers, etc., is uppermost before the more mundane telling of the, often less glamourous, facts. Various works by a variety of authors concerning the "Quest for King Arthur" is a good example. A few books discussing the possibilities of factual evidence regarding his existence - a character who is unknown as a factual historical figure - offer good argument for or against the debate of his existence, while others purport "The Truth Of King Arthur" giving account of Arthur's discovery as inarguable fact purported non-fiction works, of which the only existing fact is that of the author's opinion and on occasion, cumulative imagination.

Much detail, the minutia of history, has been lost. Our surviving understanding of the people of the past survives only through the telling of tales in the form of saga, poem or story. Stories that can offer a unique contemporary, or near contemporary vision, offer an additional knowledge of social structure that would not have been obtained through artifacts unearthed by archaeology, or the various, bare facts, of Chronicles and historical documents.

Had there been a surviving verbal, and subsequently written, "legend" of Sutton Hoo, for instance, thin perhaps-we would have more knowledge with which to interpret the significant details of this important burial site, beyond the existing, bare-boned, factual archaeological details.

9) Derek Wilson : The Historian's Business p. 31 Solander October 1997

10) Helen Hollick - used as accompaniment to book signings

11) Helen Hollick p. 558

Page 5

It must be borne in mind, however, that present day television drama, the various "soap" series, do not portray an accurate portrayal of human life. "Eastenders" for example, is not a true depiction of families living and working in the East End of London in the nineteen nineties, but is instead, a condensed exaggeration Of the trauma and drama of human experience in general. A fictional tale evolved around the roots of life. In much the same way Beowulf, tells the "everyday story of sixth century Scandinavian folk."

It is not the imaginative and highly creative plot of Beowulf that would interest the historian, but the rich detail of the background essentials. Although written down later than the oral telling of the tale, Beowulf retains much good example of the social and daily interactive conditions of this particular period - although fictional portrayals must also be moderated with care; television "soaps" depict the characters reacting together in close, integral groups around the home environment. In practical society, neighbours rarely interact on such a regular, intimate and consistent basis. Details of living accommodation, transports costume etc. are, however, successfully portrayed.

Composed in Old English verse in the early nth Century, the "building blocks" of Beowulf date from two centuries earlier. The surviving manuscript, in the British Museum, was copied probably around the year 1000. "The value of the poem .... lies .... in its wealth of allusion and in its power to recapture something of the atmosphere, and perhaps something also of the history, of a distant age."(12) There is no evidence to suggest that Beowulf himself was a living person, whether he is a man from history or legend, but there is historical accuracy of the people mentioned - Swedes (Sweon) Geats (Geatas) Danes (Dene) etc. One incident of the story, the raid by Beowulf's 'uncle' Hygelac, King of the Geats against a tribe living near the coast north of the lower Rhine, can be confirmed by an independent source in the Historia Francorum of Gregory of Tours, who, writing at the end of the sixth century, sets the incident as c.521. An anonymous Gaulish history, written during the first half of the eighth century, also refers to Hygelac's death.

It is the incidents of life of the tale of Beowulf that can be of interest; the details of funeral rites, for instance, and customs inside the mead-hall of Heorot - "When evening came they cleared away the benches, covered the floor with beds and bolsters, the Geats placing by their heads their polished shields ...."(13)

English literature is often wrongly described as beginning with Chaucer, but in actuality there were six centuries of literature before his birth. Although nothing still in existence can be comparable with Beowulf, other Anglo-Saxon works are as interesting. There are seven short poems of human interest in the Exeter Book, where mood and a feel for that particular time come across to the reader with compulsive passion. In "Deor" for instance, where the scop is unhappy because he is estranged from his lord. He reminds himself of sorrows of the past, adds "the grief passed away; so may this sorrow pass." (14)

Within this historical framework, therefore, the atmosphere of time past, a compilation of heroic, legendary deed and actuality, is combined to evoke the memory of fact within the entertainment of story. Within story telling lies an interest in the actuality, particularly within today's society where a concern for the past - fictional or factual is regrettably lacking. Indeed, my own great interest for the realities of discovering historical fact is totally derived from the pleasure of reading historical fiction.

12) P. Hunter Blair p. 341

13) Beowulf

14) Ifor Evans p 4

Page 6

Through reading the late Rosemary Sutcliff, historical fiction written for teenagers, I became fascinated by the documentation and archaeology of Roman Britain. It is interesting that after Ms Sutcliff had first published her story "The Eagle of the Ninth" almost forty-five years ago, she discovered, to her horror, that there was no actual trace of Roman military occupation at Exeter, where she had placed a proportion of her characters. However, "twenty five years after publication, traces of the Second Legion are being dug up all over the city."(15) Writer's luck, maybe?

Few historians are prepared to accept the dates and events of the early years of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as entirely accurate. As a novelist, I leave the nit-picking of fact to the professional historian, and write for the pure joy of entertainment, attempting to relay invented characters and action onto a believable scenario of past actuality - as the creator, the scop, who first told the tale of the hero Beowulf did - and no one, not the devoted reader of historical fiction, nor the most ardent supporter of historical fact, would, surely, doubt the relevant importance of the invigorating story of Beowulf?

"In the end, we have no proof that the reconstruction of a mentality is right; it simply feels right."(16)

15) Rosemary Sutcliff, Author's note "Frontier Wolf" Puffin Books 1984

16) Prof Dean Miller : Historical Fiction: Problems & possibilities of an awkward genre p. 6 Solander May 1998



Leslie Alcock
  By South Cadbury is that Camelot...

  Book Club Ass. (by arrangement Thames & Hudson 1972)

Peter Berresford Ellis
  Celt and Saxon the struggle for Britain
  Book Club Ass. (Constable & Co.) 1993

Ifor Evans
  Portraits of English Literature

  Sidgwick & Jackson 1979

Juiian Glover (adaptation from translation by Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan)
  Alan Sutton 1987

Kathleen Herbert
  Spellcraft, Old English Heroic Legends
  Anglo-Saxon Books 1993

Helen Hollick
  Shadow of the King

  William Heinemann 1998

Peter Hunter Blair
  Anglo-Saxon England

  Cambridge University Press 1995

J.N.L. Myers
  The English Settlements
  Oxford History of England - Clarendon Press, Oxford 1987

Christopher Snyder
  An Age of Tyrants Britain & the Britons AD 400 - 600

  Sutton Publishing 1998

Rosemary Sutcliff
  Frontier Wolf

  Puffin Paperbacks 1984

Dorothy Whitlock
  The Beginnings of English Society
   Pelican History of England Penguin Books 1966

  Solander, quarterly magazine of the Historical Novel Society


"This essay is well argued and is based on passionate feelings. It is, of course, well written and ranges over a wide theme, with wit and verve. Your conclusion is interesting but as you talk of Alfred's cakes and Viking horns remember these Victorian details are more revealing about those telling the story than they are about ninth century England. The problem with Beowulf is exactly which period is it describing? It was told for a long time before being written down. It does tell us the story they enjoyed."

75%  23.3.1999  J Mountain B.Sc. B.A.


Extra Mural Certificate:  A Distinction was awarded in 1999 on the basis of these essays.

Extra Mural Diploma:  I graduated the course in 2000 with Merit.