Arthur said, 'Which of those marvels will it be best to seek first?' 'It will be best,' said they, 'to seek Mabon son of Modron.'

- Culhwch and Olwen

The Time & Place

Arthur is remembered in legend as a great Celtic leader who fought against the Saxon invaders of Britain in the Dark Ages. But what does this mean? What was Britain like in that time and how did the people think, live and believe? Above all, what were they fighting for - what were they defending?

Britain flourished as a Celtic land for centuries in the first millennium BC, and shared with the other Celtic lands of Europe an extensive trade with the Mediterranean. The rise of Rome and its Empire saw the Celtic world subsumed, and Britain suffered first incursion by Caesar in 55BC, then invasion in AD49 and the foundation of Roman Britain. That transition was traumatic and deadly - the revolt of Boudica stands testament to this time (In Boudica's footsteps 2002) - but once established provided four centuries of development to Britain as an integral province of the Empire. Trade, commerce and urbanised life became the way of life for the British in the empire. Towns and cities grew, and beyond them the villas where grain and cattle were managed.

After centuries of dominance, the threat of invasion on the Empire was felt in Britain as it was elsewhere - particularly from Germanic tribes to the east and Pictish tribes to the north. Strong defences were prepared along the coast in the south and east (Richmond 1963, p.60), and Germanic foederati - hired forces - were employed in the defence of the province (Snyder 1997; Wacher 1975, p.413), but around AD410 Roman rule was withdrawn (Ellis 2003, p. 218; Greene, 2001) and the province was open to attack. Saxons from the north of Germany were ready to take Britain and make it their own, but an attack of deadly consequence also came from disease and in the fifth century the towns and cities of Britain became afflicted by an epidemic introduced from the Mediterranean around AD443-5 (Edens 2003) through trade routes and causing devastation in the towns such that "the majority of the towns had ceased to function by the middle of the fifth century" (Wacher 1975, p. 421). The defendable towns became death-traps and the Saxons invaded the south-east, with a pattern of occupation indicating the avoidance of the towns - and disease - and the destruction of the villas to deny supply: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the "worthlessness of the Britons and the excellence of their land" (Killings, 1996).

In the west lay a solution to the British dilemma - the south east saw the abandonment of the Romano-British culture (Wacher 1975, p.413) and Viroconium, at the western end of Watling Street, was refurbished (Phillips and Keatman 1992, p. 142). Iron Age hill forts were also refortified as strongholds (Snyder 1997; Wilmott 2002), while many nearby towns left in a state of decay or desertion (Wacher 1975, p. 416). The famous 'Cadbury Hill' in Somerset is an exemplar of a re-occupied hill-fort (Ashe 1995, p.4) as highlighted by the excavations (Alcock 1995; Green 1998). These settlements remained defendable and provided a place to regroup and defend. In the west a new Celtic landscape was developed by the people of Britain. From here they readied themselves to retain what was theirs - their lands, their culture and their heritage - and defeat the advancing Saxons. Here, in the real chance of success, rose legendary Arthur.

Copyright © John Bonsing & S Rhys Jones 2006. All Rights Reserved


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