Arthur, Cerdic, and the Formation of Wessex

VIII. The Formation of Wessex

   Martyn Whittock (1986) presents the problem of the formation of Wessex: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles discuss only the royal family of Wessex and its immediate followers. But the kingdom was formed by the merger of Cerdic and his sons with the western Saxons, living mainly in the western Thames Valley, especially around Oxford. We will refer to the region as the Oxford basin. Many of these people had been living in that area since 410 or earlier.
   This uniting was the most significant event of the early sixth century. The British recognized it and it was mentioned by Gildas and Nennius. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives the event part of one line:

519. In this year Cerdic and Cynric obtained the kingdom of the West Saxons, and the same year they fought against the Britons at a place now called Cerdicesford.
   The date 519 is much too late for Cerdic. However, an arguable nineteen year error in the Chronicle dates (discussed below) would account for this, and allow for a suitable date of 500.
   There must have been a campaign, but we know nothing about it except perhaps the name of the major battle -- Badon Hill. Cerdic had extensive and varied troops at his disposal, including possibly Britons, Saxons, Alans, and Visigoths. Some of his allies may have come from the west or north, but the bulk of his army probably moved north from Winchester, with the opposing Saxon leaders of the area retreating before him. According to Morris (1973, p 113) Hengist's son or grandson Oesc fought there, and Morris suggests Aella may have also. The bulk of Cerdic's army, marching with armor, probably followed the lowland route through Basingstoke and Reading to Oxford, but some units, perhaps cavalry, may have crossed the hills towards Cirencester, and then angled Northeast to cut off the Saxon retreat.
   The sites of great battles often fit a pattern. Examples of this pattern include Chalons, Gettysburg, and Bastogne. Two armies are on the road, either both advancing or one retreating, and groping for each other. As the contact becomes greater, the commanders feel a need to concentrate their forces, and each directs his forces toward a site of converging roads. There the armies collide. If there is high ground nearby, both try to seize it and there the battle is fought.
   We seek a site for the Battle of Badon Hill in the Oxford basin. Alcock (1971, pp 61-71) presents a discussion of prospective battle sites of which three are in this region. One is Liddington Hill near Swindon, one is near Burford, and the third near Stratford on Avon. For linguistic reasons he prefers Bath. Michael Wood (1987, p 50-52) argues for Liddington Hill, with a nearby village of Badbury. We would like to suggest one other possibility, and that is Banbury, twenty miles north of Oxford. There valleys converge on a site that today is the hub of roads from several different directions.
   Gildas says Badon was a siege, and we can see that this is what Cerdic would have wanted. The longer he deferred his attack, the more time there was for the Saxon army to weaken and for them to consider accepting his rule. Geoffrey of Monmouth pictures Cerdic as the righteous defender, but we believe he was the attacker. He wanted to rule the territory and its people, and he was willing to wage war to achieve that goal. Some of the Saxons chose to fight rather than submit. The end must have been much like Hastings, but on a smaller scale. Probably several hundred fell, and in the end, Cerdic and Cynric "obtained the kingship of the West Saxons," and ultimately became the ancestors of the later Kings of England.
   After the battle, Cerdic had his army intact and assembled, and he may have had more vassals to settle than good estates to pay them with. He must have used the army to extend his frontiers, partly at the expense of British neighbors. Morris (1973, pp 123-30) discusses this under "Arthur's Frontier Wars". This may account for the battle at Cerdicsford mentioned in the Chronicle. He also sent Theodoric to expell the Irish intruders from southern Wales, and may have personally led troops at Caerleon on the Usk.
   Established scholars disagree on the date of Mount Badon. For various reasons, it is felt that the date of 518 given in the Annals Cambriae is too late. Alcock (1971, p111) suggests the date of 490 for the battle, Morris (1973, p39) suggests c.495, and Ashe (1985, p66) suggests 500 based on the writings of Gildas. We have shown that Arthur is Cerdic, and if Cerdic came in 495, he cannot have fought at Badon in 490. The Annals Cambriae's date of 518 for the Battle matches the Chronicle's date of 519 for when Cynric and Cerdic obtained the kingdom of Wessex. However, Yorke (1989, p86) points out that many events in the Chronicle at the time are duplicated with a 19-year separation. It is as if there are two sources with a 19-year discrepancy. Assuming then that both entries are 19 years too late, we arrive at the year 500 for the Battle of Badon, agreeing with Ashe's estimate.
   The significance of the Battle of Badon was recognized by all. Cerdic had created a large kingdom in the midst of Britain which included both Britons and Saxons content to live in peace together under his rule. His kingdom was a physical barrier between the previously hostile British and English kingdoms, and he was probably too powerful to challenge. Besides this kingdom he had lands and resources in Cornwall, Brittany, and perhaps still along the Antonine Wall in Scotland, as well as his ships and port facilities. The extent of Cerdic's kingdom is suggested by the genealogies which identify him as the founder of the houses of Gwent, Glamorgan, Powys, and Wessex. We believe that his kingdom was called Gewisse and its founding principle was the protection of its citizens against all outside invaders, whether Saxon, Celt, or Pict. In the time of Offa, two centuries later, a collection of tribes of mixed origin existed in the midlands of Mercia. They were known as the `Hwicce,' clearly a form of the name of Cerdic's kingdom. One Hwicce tribe, in fact, was called the Kendrica, after Cynric. In Offa's time, the Hwicce were still fiercely resisting outsiders. (Wood, 1987, p81-2)

John C. Rudmin, 864 Chicago Av, Harrisonburg, VA, 22801
Joseph W. Rudmin, Physics Dept., James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA, 22807
(First submitted for publication in Oct 1993)

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