Ten years after the Crucifixion, the Emperor Claudius proclaimed Britannia a Roman province. Rome would spend the next four decades battling for an area comprising most of modern-day England and Wales. But after conquering Britannia by brute force, later Roman governors pacified their subjects with auditoriums and roads. Cities like Londinium and Camulodunum (Colchester) became prosperous centers of trade. Roman bureaucracy brought farmers into towns to pay taxes and shop at local markets. The hot springs at Bath honored a local deity with a Temple of Minerva-Sulis. Other temples and shrines honored imported deities like Isis, Mithras and Christ.
As the Empire’s fortunes waned, it was no longer capable of pacifying Britannia with either prosperity or force. Legions were moved from Britannia to other fronts: in 410, the year Visigoths sacked Rome, the last Roman troops left the island. Writing a century later, St. Gildas describes the subsequent chaos:
[H]aving heard of the departure of our friends, and their resolution never to return, [the Scots and Irish] seized with greater boldness than before on all the country towards the extreme north as far as the wall. To oppose them there was placed on the heights a garrison equally slow to fight and ill adapted to run away, a useless and panic-struck company, who slumbered away days and nights on their unprofitable watch. Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground. Such premature death, however, painful as it was, saved them from seeing the miserable sufferings of their brothers and children. But why should I say more? They left their cities, abandoned the protection of the wall, and dispersed themselves in flight more desperately than before. The enemy, on the other hand, pursued them with more unrelenting cruelty than before, and butchered our countrymen like sheep, so that their habitations were like those of savage beasts; for they turned their arms upon each other, and for the sake of a little sustenance, imbrued their hands in the blood of their fellow countrymen. Thus foreign calamities were augmented by domestic feuds; so that the whole country was entirely destitute of provisions, save such as could be procured in the chase.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles entry for 443 states “This year sent the Britons over sea to Rome, and begged assistance against the Picts; but they had none, for the Romans were at war with Atila, king of the Huns. Then sent they to the Angles and requested the same from the nobles of that nation.” The 449 entry tells us:
Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. The king directed them to fight against the Picts; and they did so; and obtained the victory wheresoever they came. They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land. They then sent them greater support. Then came the men from three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the men of Kent, the Wightwarians (that is, the tribe that now dwelleth in the Isle of Wight), and that kindred in Wessex that men yet call the kindred of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the people of Essex and Sussex and Wessex. From Anglia, which has ever since remained waste between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all of those north of the Humber.
Beset by invaders on all sides, many Britons (including St. Gildas) emigrated across the Channel to northeastern France. The region where they settled is still called Brittany and Breton (Brezhoneg), a close relative of Cornish, is still spoken there today. Others labored under their oppressors until a leader arose to organize them. After a lengthy and hard-fought campaign, the Britons finally triumphed after a decisive battle at Badon Hill.
The location of Badon Hill remains a matter of great controversy. Many believe the battle took place on Solsbury Hill, not far from Bath. Others say it took place in Dorsetshire, where the ruins of a 5th century fort are famous as the “Badbury Rings.” Still others favor Liddington Castle in Wiltshire, near the hamlet of Badbury. While archaeologists have discovered evidence of Roman and post-Roman activity on each site, no smoking Excalibur has yet been found.
Neither are we entirely clear on the date of this battle. Gildas says it took place “forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.” We do not know St. Gildas’ birth date, but we know that he died at the Brittany monastery he founded on January 9, 570. If by “landing of the Saxons” he meant the 449 arrival of Hengest and Horsa, Badon Hill took place around 493. But though it lists many Saxon victories over Briton forces from 455 through the late 9th century when King Alfred the Great commissioned them, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles remain silent about any great Briton triumph.
The Annals Cambriae (Annals of Wales), compiled in the 10th Century, place the Battle of Badon at 516. They also provide a different name for the Briton leader. Gildas called this man Ambrosius, the son of Roman nobles who had been slain by Saxon invaders. The Annals Cambriae say that he was “Arthur [who] carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.”