The Battle of Cerdicesford
Charford in the north-west corner of Hampshire has attracted some attention from scholars of Arthuriana in the search for the site of the battle of Camlann. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records a series of battles fought by Cerdic and his son Cynric in the foundation of the kingdom of the West Saxons. In 519 AD Cerdic and Cynric fought the Britons at 'Cerdicesford' (Certiceford) and from that day on ruled the West Saxons.
The hamlets of North and South Charford in the New Forest occupy a strategic position near the Hampshire Avon. It is possible this 6th century battle resulted in the demarcation of the early border of Cerdic's realm. Of all the sites of Cerdic's battles the identification of North Charford is fairly certain as it is recorded as 'Cerdeford' in the Domesday Book of 1086.
Yet, Cerdic is recognised as a British name, in the genealogies the ancestor of the kings of Wessex; subsequent monarchs all had some level of descent claimed in the Chronicle from Cerdic. He has been identified as Cerdic, son of Cunedda, founder of Ceredigion; Cerdic, Vortigern's interpreter; Sir Caradoc Briefbras (Short-Arm) a Knight of the Round Table and ancestor to the Kings of Gwent; in Welsh legend his father is named as Llyr Marini, the Celtic Sea-God; and Cheldric in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain'.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle identifies Cerdic's father as Elesa, his grandfather as Esla, son of Gwis, descended from Woden, the god of the Anglo-Saxons. Elesa has been identified with the Romano-Briton Elasius, the “chief of the region” the man who met Germanus of Auxerre.
Sir John Rhys1 noted long ago the similarity of Cerdic's Saxon forebears Elesa, Elsa, as recorded in the Chronicle, with the Welsh king Eliseg, and his father Elis, inscribed on the pillar at Valle Crucis near Llangollen in Wales. Similarity of one name may not be significant but the duplication of both names suggests a connection. Furthermore, Cerdic's son Cynric has been identified as Cunorix, the name on a tombstone turned up at Viroconium (Wroxeter). We immediately question why the first king of Wessex should be recorded in 9th century Powys?
Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman2 flirt with the idea that the battle of Certiceford was Arthur's final campaign. Phillips and Keatman see an alliance between Cunormorus in Dumnonia in the south-west of Britain and Cerdic in the east. They suggest that Arthur attempts to drive a wedge between the two kingdoms and ventures into Wessex to engage with Cerdic at Certiceford.
Phillips and Keatman are clearly influenced by Medieval Arthurian sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth has Mordred ally with the Saxons and engage in battle at nearby Winchester before moving the battle on to Camelford in Cornwall, and Malory places the battle of Camlann on Salisbury Plain which is barely 20 miles north of Charford (Certicesford). However, although Phillips and Keatman see this as Arthur's final campaign, they have him return to his homeland, weak and wounded, to fight Camlann in north-west Wales.
John Rudmin and Joseph Rudmin3 identify CERDIC AS the legendary KING ARTHUR and the battle of Badon, the moment when he and Cynric established the kingdom of the West Saxons, at Banbury in Oxfordshire. Evidently, such theories are based on little evidence and much assumption; we cannot even be certain that Arthur's battles were fought against the Anglo Saxons; Cerdic is as enigmatic as Arthur himself.
Whereas Aelle and the early foundation of Sussex, the land of the South Saxons, may have lasted twenty years, from the mid-470s to the battle of Badon, c.495, we could argue that the dates of Cerdic's floruit mirrors the period after Badon leading up to Camlann; Gildas' golden age when external wars had ceased, the 21 years listed between the two battles in the Welsh Annals.
The Origins of Wessex
The most important historical source produced in Wessex itself is the Anglo Saxon Chronicle compiled in the late 9th century under the instigation of King Alfred. The West Saxon entries begin with the landing of Cerdic and Cynric in 495 at the unidentified Cerdicesora (Cerdic's shore). But not all sources agree that Cynric was his son, for in the earliest recorded version of the West Saxon genealogy Cynric is given as the son of Creoda, son of Cerdic.
However, the Chronicle is not the simple record of West Saxon history which it might at first sight appear. We know it was compiled by more than one individual and seems to have undergone large-scale manuscript copying and circulation. Indeed most historians regard the account of Cerdic as forming the basis for the legendary foundation story of Wessex, yet they are reluctant to abandon the only written account of the birth of the kingdom of the West Saxon kings; regardless, to many it is referred to as “The Cerdic Legend”.
Cerdic is cited in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as the founder of the West Saxon dynasty, reigning from 519 to 534:
495 – Cerdic and Cynric his son, arrived with five ships and fought the Welsh at Cerdices ora.
501 - This year Porta and his two sons, Beda and Mela, came into Britain, with two ships, at a place called Portsmouth and slew a noble young Briton
508 - This year Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king, whose name was Natanleod, and five thousand men with him. After this was the land named Netley, from him, as far as Cerdices ford.
514 – This year the West Saxons came to Britain in three ships at the place called Cerdices ora and Stuf and Wihtgar fought the Britons.
519 - This year Cerdic and Cynric undertook the government of the West-Saxons; the same year they fought with the Britons at a place now called Cerdices ford. From that day have reigned the
children of the West-Saxon kings.
527 - This year Cerdic and Cynric fought with the Britons in the place that is called Cerdic's leag. 530 - This year Cerdic and Cynric took the isle of Wight,and slew many men at Wihtgaraesbyrg.
534 - This year died Cerdic, the first king of the West-Saxons. Cynric his son succeeded to the government, and reigned afterwards twenty-six winters. And they gave to their two nephews, Stuff and Wihtgar, the whole of the Isle of Wight.
A few things are immediately obvious from this list: the 495 entry would appear to be duplicated 19 years later in 514. The duplication of a number of the Chronicle entries for Cerdic and Cynric 19 years apart has cast doubt on the validity of 495 as a date for the beginning of Cerdic and Cynric’s conquest of Wessex. The Cerdic and Cynric victories around the Hampshire Avon certainly suffers from a defective chronology; we should therefore view the other Cerdic entries with due suspicion. The arrival of the West Saxon's certainly bears much in common with the foundation legend of the Jutes in Kent.4
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In studying the regnal dates given in the Chronicle and in the closely related West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List, David Dumville came to the conclusion that the 5th and 6th century dates were extremely unreliable and had been artificially extended to make it appear that the kingdom was founded at an earlier date than was actually the case. Dumville's calculation on the basis of the reign-lengths given in the Genealogical Regnal List was that Cerdic’s reign was originally seen as beginning in 538, six years after his arrival in 532.
Cerdic is somewhat an enigma himself; he arrives on the south coast of Hampshire with several ships and quickly establishes his territory. However, although Cerdic may have led a British-English alliance in expanding the territory of the West Saxons it seems unlikely he landed on the south coast of Hampshire at all. Barbara Yorke5 argues that the account of Cerdic and the origins of Wessex as noted in the Chronicle seems to be based on the foundation legend of the Jutes arrival in Kent. Indeed, Bede identifies the Hampshire coast as being occupied by Jutes:
“Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany - Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent, and of the Isle of Wight, and those also in the province of the West Saxons who are to this day called Jutes, seated opposite to the Isle of Wight.”6
Bede, using information supplied by Bishop Daniel, indicates that southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were independent provinces which did not become part of Wessex until much later, in fact not until after their conquest by King Cædwalla in 686–8; these people were indeed classed as Jutes and not Saxons; the south Hampshire coast therefore seems an unlikely geographic origin for the West Saxons.
Archaeology has not helped locate the origins and expansion of the West Saxons, as too often finds are made to fit a preconceived framework based on the evidence of the Chronicle. Further, it would appear that Wessex was established from the upper Thames Valley from the 6th century; analysis of the accounts of the origins of the kingdom suggest that Cerdic was establishing his position in the 530s, around the upper Thames valley. Little more can be said until the reign of Ceawlin, son of Cynric, when Wessex began to acquire significant territory. However, it wasn't until after the reign of Cædwalla when the term ‘West Saxon’ begins to appear, whereas Cerdic’s people seem to have been known as the “Gewissae” with Cerdic named in early sources as "dux gewissorum", that is, “duke of the Gewissae”. Indeed Bede writes of “Cædwalla, of the royal race of the Gewissae,” and asserts that the West Saxons of Winchester were Gewissae,7 a Saxon tribe descended from Gewis of Baeldaeg's Folk.
The identity of the Gewissae is debated among scholars, however, it is fairly certain that they were not a Saxon tribe at all but Britons, which is supported by the British name of their leader Cerdic and perhaps the connection with Powys as we have see on the Pillar of Eliseg. Significantly, the earliest references to the Gewissae is found in the upper Thames region around Dorchester on Thames. Barbara Yorke suggests the name may be derived from the Old English word for “reliable” or “sure”, as in the “trusted ones” which would be appropriate for a British militia. If this is correct then Gewissae would be a corruption of “Gleuissae”, derived from the Latin “Gleuenses” meaning “men of Gloucester” and “men of Gwent” respectively. From this, scholars agree that Cerdic, the “dux gewissorum”, led the Gewissae from Gwent to Gloucestershire, then into Hampshire where they became known as the West Saxons.8 For a British warlord to have ultimately been accepted as “West Saxon” by writers of the Chronicle indicates his forces relied heavily on Germanic mercenaries.
We should then reconsider Cerdic's first battles around the Hampshire Avon in the context, not of Saxon expansion, but as internecine warfare among the Britons following the 21 year peace of Badon fought against Aelle of the neighbouring South Saxons c.495. According to the Chronicle, Cerdic dies in 534; there is no mention of a battle, no Camlann; perhaps old age had caught up with the battle-weary dux gewissorum.
In conclusion it is certainly unlikely that Cerdic had any contact at all with Arthur and had no association with the battles of Badon or Camlann. More likely Cerdic, whoever he was, filled the void left following the demise of Arthur at the battle of Camlann.
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
Notes & References:
1. John Rhys, Y Cymmrodor, Vol XXI, 1908.
2. Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, King Arthur: The True Story, Century, 1992.
3. John Rudmin and Joseph Rudmin, Arthur, Cerdic, and the Formation of Wessex
4. Barbara Yorke, The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the origins of Wessex, in Origins of the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms, edited by Steve Basset, Leicester University Press, 1989, pp.84-96.
6. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford University Press, 2008, Book I. XV
7. Ibid., Book 4. XV.
8. David Hughes, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, Heritage, 2007, p.229.
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