Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Battle of Chester

The Round Table Revealed?
Part II

Continued from Part I The Round Table Revealed?

When the heathen trumpet's clang
Round beleaguer'd Chester rang,
Veiled nun and friar grey
March'd from Bangor's fair Abbaye;
High their holy anthem sounds,
Cestria's vale the hymn rebounds,
Floating down the silvan Dee,
O miserere, Domine!

A mass grave unearthed by archaeologists at Heronbridge, near Chester, has been interpreted as evidence of a major Dark Age battle which 'Arthurian experts' on the television program 'King Arthur's Round Table Revealed', [2] (screened again last night on the History Channel at 9.00pm), claim to be evidence of the warrior Arthur's ninth battle at the 'City of the Legion' as contained within the battle list in Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum, c.829 AD, (often referred to as simply 'Nennius') : “......The ninth battle was fought in the city of the Legion”. [3]

The location of Arthur's battles has caused much debate between Arthurian scholars, not least the sight of The city of the Legion. In Part I - “The Round Table Revealed?” we discussed the main contenders that could have been known as the 'city of the Legion'; the three permanent Roman legionary fortresses of York (Eboracum) Chester and Caerleon. However, the Arthurian battle sites have defied positive identification even since the 12th Century as Henry of Huntington tells us in his Historia Anglorum;

"One historian [Nennius] tells of these battles, and the places where they were fought, though none of the places can be identified now.”
On the long procession goes,
Glory round their crosses glows,
And the Virgin-mother mild
In their peaceful banner smiled;
Who could think such saintly band
Doom'd to feel unhallow'd hand?
Such was the Divine decree,
O miserere, Domine!

'King Arthur's Round Table Revealed', claimed this was a recent discovery but the site of a previously unknown major Romano-British settlement at Heronbridge on the west bank of the River Dee about two kilometres south of Chester, was first discovered by a member of the Chester Archaeological Society in 1929. The strip settlement spanned the Roman road, known as Watling Street, heading south from the legionary fortress at Chester. Founded in the late 1st century the extensive site spread for nearly a kilometre in length, with evidence of industrial activity and coin finds on the site suggesting the site was continuously occupied until at least the mid- 4th century, then decayed into ruin.

The continuing excavations at Heronbridge during 1930-31 focused on the Roman remains but a number of later burials were discovered in some single burials and some in a mass grave. Analysis of the later burials has shown that the remains were of men aged between 20 and 40 years with almost half having injuries to the head probably inflicted by long swords wielded by mounted warriors, consistent with injuries from a battle fought against cavalry. There were no grave goods and consequently no dates could be placed on the burials at the time they were found.

Chester Archaeological Society resumed excavations in 2004, to investigate an earthwork which encloses a crescent-shaped area of fourteen acres, lying between the Roman road and the river. These excavations revealed remains of Roman buildings below the mound, a deep ditch and defensive rampart which surrounded part of the mound but had never extended along the riverside edge. The rampart had been supported by stones robbed from the ruins of the Roman buildings and tombstones taken from the cemeteries along Watling Street.

A new trench was cut at the site of the main 1930-31 excavation with the intention to locate and explore further the battle grave. Once the edge of the 1930s trench had been found excavation of a small area of previously unexplored deposits commenced which uncovered more burials and established the presence of a wider mass grave; this had without doubt been a battle cemetery. The bodies, all male, had been laid side by side in partially overlapping rows, aligned west-east, within a space measuring only three metres by two metres, there were at least fourteen individuals, most having sustained fatal head injuries.

Two skeletons were removed for analysis and radiocarbon dating with subsequent results confirming them both as males, showing that both had died as a result of several sword blows to the head. They were both well-built men and had been in battle before, suggesting that they may have been experienced soldiers. Radio carbon dating returned 95% probability within a range of the mid to late 6th Century to the first half of the 7th Century, typically 530 - 660 AD. Recent radio-isotope analysis of their teeth enamel has confirmed that the men had spent at least the early part of their life in North East England. [4]

Bede makes reference to a battle fought between the Northumbrians and the Welsh at this time in his The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book II.2 in which he states that “.... the warlike king of the English, Æthelfrith....... having raised a mighty army, made a very great slaughter of that perfidious nation, at the City of Legions.”

The early 7th Century date and the north eastern homeland of these battle victims has prompted historians to suggest that this could be the site of a battle which took place in 613 – 616 AD when the forces of Northumbria led by Æthelfrith defeated the combined forces of Gwynedd and Powys. The earthwork defence was possibly constructed when Æthelfrith's forces may have dug in before the battle and the mass grave in which the bodies were laid with some care suggests it may hold the Northumbrian casualties following the battle against British cavalry.

Bede first mentions the Northumbria king Æthelfrith with some praise as the scourge of the Britons in Book I. 34 as: “......a most worthy king, and ambitious of glory, governed the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English........For he conquered more territories from the Britons, either making them tributary, or driving the inhabitants clean out, and planting English in their places, than any other king or tribune.”

The date of the Battle of Chester lies exactly right in the middle of the date range and is the only known substantial Dark Age engagement in the area. Therefore it is not unreasonable to suggest that the mass grave seems likely to be associated with that event with Heronbridge qualifying as the earliest positively identified battle site in England.

The Battle of Chester
Bands that masses only sung,
Hands that censers only swung,
Met the northern bow and bill,
Heard the war-cry wild and shrill:
Woe to Brockmael's feeble hand
Woe to Olfrid's bloody brand,
Woe to Saxon cruelty,
O miserere, Domine!

Could this Dark Age Battle at Chester be Arthur's ninth battle fought at the City of the Legion as listed by the Historia Brittonum as claimed by the television program's historians?

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, clearly following Bede, provides the following account, but, incorrectly dated for the year 607 AD: “This year Ceolwulf fought with the South-Saxons. And Æthelfrith led his army to Chester; where he slew an innumerable host of the Welsh; and so was fulfilled the prophecy of Augustine, wherein he saith "If the Welsh will not have peace with us, they shall perish at the hands of the Saxons." There were also slain two hundred priests, who came thither to pray for the army of the Welsh. Their leader was called Brocmail, who with some fifty men escaped thence.”

We also find references to a Battle of Chester in the British sources; the earliest version of the Welsh Annals (Annals Cambriae) appended to of the Harlian Manuscript 3859, which includes the Historia Brittonum, which states:

613 - “The battle of Caer Legion.
And there died Selyf son of Cynan.
And Iago son of Beli slept.”

The sources agree that this was a battle in which the English King Æthelfrith of Northumbria invaded the Welsh Kingdom in the early 7th Century. It would appear a united Welsh force were heavily defeated in the battle with the death of Kings Iago of Gwynedd and Selyf (Battle Serpent) of Powys.

This is clearly not an Arthurian battle; for reasons of chronology we cannot possibly attach it to the account of Arthur's battles in the Historia Brittonum. The Arthurian battle list in Chapter 56 in the Historia Brittonum lists twelve battles in which Arthur was victorious in all whereas the Battle of Chester was a crushing defeat for the British. Several battles from the list were fought at the same geographical site, culminating with the Battle of Mount Badon, a decisive victory for the British forces over the English. If we accept the Historia Brittonum's account that Arthur was the victor at Badon, then his 'flourit' is fixed by the date of the battle. The Welsh Annals record this as:

516 - “The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.” [6]

The Welsh Annals date is seen as suspect and too late. It has been discussed, 'adjusted' and 're-calibrated', many times by many historians but is generally agreed upon as being fought within ten years either side of 500 AD. Gildas, our only contemporary source for the battle, confirms the siege of Badon hill (obsessio montis Badonicus) as a major victory for the British against the English but fails to mention the British leader. Debate continues as to whether Gildas statement “forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity” dates this battle as forty-four years after the Anglo-Saxons arrival in Britain or forty-four years before his birth. [7] In any case we know that Maelgwn of Gwynedd was still alive when Gildas wrote and the Welsh Annals record Maelgwn's death in 547 AD. Of course we cannot be certain there was not an earlier battle at Chester in which the British were victorious but if Arthur was the leader at Badon he cannot have been present at Bede's Battle of Chester some one hundred years later from which the Heronbridge Northumbrian battle victims date.

If the Historia Brittonum was written for the 9th Century political aims of Gwynedd, as has been suggested, then the inclusion of the Battle of Chester (City of the Legion) may have been meant as a dig at the Cadelling dynasty in recalling the slaughter of the men of Powys. On the otherhand the inclusion as a victory for the British may have been intended as a rebuttal of Bede's account of the battle in which he sees it as divine retribution for the British clergy's denial of Augustine. [8]

Onto Part III: Reasons for the Battle


1. March Of The Monks Of Bangor by Sir Walter Scott.
2. 'King Arthur's Round Table Revealed' screened on the History Channel 19th July. Historian Christopher Gidlow featured prominently in the program and in the press releases leading up to the screening of the program.
3. Nennius, British History and the Welsh Annals, Arthurian Period Sources Volume 8, ed. & trans. John Morris. Phillimore, 1980.
4. David Mason, Project Director, Heronbridge Excavation and Research Project, Chester
Archaeological Society.
5. Nennius, British History and the Welsh Annals, Arthurian Period Sources Volume 8, ed. & trans. John Morris. Phillimore, 1980. Here the translator inserts 'Chester' for this battle at the 'city of the Legion' (Caer Legion).
6. Ibid.
7. De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other documents - translated by M. Winterbottom, Phillimore, 1978.
8. N J Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History, Routledge, 2002.
Selyf of Powys is recorded in the Welsh Genealogies, appended to the Harlian Manuscript 3859 (which includes the Historia Brittonum and the Welsh Annals), as son of Cynan Garwyn in the Royal Cadelling lineage (descendants of Cadell/Catell). The origin legend of the Cadelling appears in the Historia Brittonum story of Catel Durnluc and St Germanus which John Koch (Celtic Culture) suggests are likely excerpts from a lost hagiography about the saint : “....agreeably to the prediction of St. Germanus, from a servant he became a king: all his sons were kings, and from their offspring the whole country of Powys has been governed to this day”. The early Welsh poem Marwnad Cynddylan (Lament for Cynddylan) is hostile toward the Cadelling and addressed to the king of Gwynedd, who is referred to as the Lord of the Dogfeiling, violator and terror of the Cadelling.

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