Arthur, Cerdic, and the Formation of Wessex

VI.  A Model of Cerdic's Early Career in Britain 

   We will model Cerdic's career on evidence found in the works of Gildas, Nennius, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and also modern historians. The image of Arthur that comes down to us is that of a young, vigorous, heroic campaigner, who battled Picts, Scots, and Saxons, and who eventually became an aged and beloved king.
   If Cerdic was active as a military leader by 450 and was still leading troops around 500 then he must have been born around 425 or 430. His father was associated with the sea, and was probably one of the wealthiest merchants of Britain. Since many of his ships had to be Saxon, Cerdic would have been associating with Saxons from his earliest childhood. There seem to be parallel traditions involving his being cured of a crippling disease. The legend which names Cador and Guignier as the curers seems to involve Cerdic in later life. However, if there is a common origin for the traditions, it is more likely that a cure took place in Cerdic's youth, perhaps involving St. Germanus.
   The earliest events in Cerdic's career are mentioned in Nennius and Geoffrey--his serving as Vortigern's interpreter, and then joining with Octha and Ebessa in stopping the Pictish raids along the Antonine wall. We think this activity had a very specific purpose, and was directed by a vigorous and powerful Roman leader--Aetius. We suspect that Aetius recognized the importance of Britain as a base and as a source of iron for the manufacture of weapons to supply the armies which he was gathering to fight the Huns. (Salway, 1981, p476 ff.) Cerdic's mission in northern Britain may have been part of Aetius's preparations. As part of this campaign, he would have participated in or directed the ravaging of the Irish coast to suppress the Irish marauders. (For a deeper discussion of Aetius's campaign, see Appendix C.)
   According to the Gallic Chronicle, in 442 Britain passed under the domination of the Saxons. John Morris calls this the first Saxon revolt. (Morris, 1973, p513) Gildas may have described what happened next--from the British viewpoint. "...the Romans send forward, like eagles in their flight, their unexpected bands of cavalry by land and mariners by sea, and planting their terrible swords upon the shoulders of their enemies, they mow them down like leaves .." The Romans instructed the islanders to learn to use weapons to protect their country, and "gave them patterns by which to manufacture arms." We believe that what was happening was that Aetius was sending Roman troops and loyal Saxons to Britain to restore order, to stop the barbarian raids, and most importantly to produce iron for armor and weapons. The reason patterns were needed was that many of the weapons were for warriors of other nations--Frankish battle axes and Visigoth lances and armor--and were unfamiliar to the Britons. We picture that this restoration of Roman authority was led by Ambrosius Aurelianus in the period 446-450.
   The restoration was resisted by many Celt and Saxon leaders of the island. In the first half of the fifth century, Britain was the scene of a power struggle between two major wledig-founded clans. ("Wledig" means "landholder".) One was descended from Magnus Maximus, a late fourth century usurper of Rome, through the marriage of his daughter to Vortigern. The principal leaders of this clan were Vitolinus, his son or grandson Vortigern, Vortigern's sons, Vortimer, Pascent, and Categirn, and Vortigern's grandson Riagath, (Bartrum, 1966, p46) who may have led the Britons against the Visigoths in 470. (Ashe, 1984, p44) The other clan was descended from the Celtic patriarch Cunedd, who migrated from the North with his sons around 400. Its leading members would include the likes of Eniaun yrth, Llyr merini, Caradoc Vreichvras, Maelgwn of Gwynedd, and Cuneglassus the Butcher. It may well be that the primary conflict in early fifth century Britain was between these two houses rather than between Britons and Saxons. Each side used Saxon mercenaries. Although the sons of Maximus dominated Britain before 450, Cunedd's house could be found ruling numerous kingdoms by the early 500's. Ambrosius may have influenced this outcome by bringing about the downfall of Vitolinus and Vortigern. The conflict was not monolithic. Vortimer fought against his father's warriors, and Riagath likely enjoyed widely based British support in his campaign.
   Vortigern and Vitolinus may have refused to cooperate with the plans of Ambrosius, or perhaps the Roman general knew that the clan wars would be a nuisance and felt that Vortigern's side was the greater perpetrator of the conflict. Whatever the causes, Vitolinus received a walloping at the hands of Ambrosius, and Geoffrey says that Vortigern and Hengist feared Ambrosius. Through Ambrosius's decisive action, iron was produced and the Pictish and Scottish raids were stopped. In the final weeks before the great Battle of Chalons, Vortimer may have driven unreliable Saxons onto the Isle of Thanet for security reasons. Britons and Saxons marched to the coast and joined Aetius' forces at the Battle. A considerable number of men and ships must have been employed just transporting men and supplies across the Channel.
   Archeologically, there is evidence that about this time metal production expanded in western Britain. Large buildings --probably warehouses --were erected in Wroxeter. (Wood, 1987, p45) Also at this time, for the first time in eighty years, the Irish raids were brought to a halt, at least partly because, as recorded in a letter by St. Patrick, the soldiers of Coroticus had ravaged the coast of Ireland. Just north of the Antonine wall, a large beehive-shaped stone structure was built, with a small hole at the top, and one door, and no windows. It survived until about 1700, when its stones were used to make a dam. The Scots called it `Arthur's Oven'. It was probably a coking oven, used to make charcoal or coke for iron production. [For a more extensive discussion of Arthur's Oven see Goodrich (1986).] Geoffrey of Monmouth's story of Arthur felling trees to fence in a Saxon army makes little sense. The story may have arisen from a large number of trees which had been felled for making charcoal.
   According to Geoffrey's history, Cerdic, and two sons of Hengist, Octha and Ebessa, were sent to northern Britain to defend against maruauding Picts and Scots. They were to be paid in land. Whether Cerdic was in command of this expedition, or whether Octha or Ebessa was, is not obvious. Nennius says that the expedition harried the Picts and Scots, and then encircled Scotland.
   It is clear that this had to be done. The major metal working areas of Britain were in the towns and cities of western Britain --Cornwall, Cardigan, and Cambria. Iron and coal had to be shipped from mines along the Antonine wall to Dunbarton, and then down the coast. But not only were the shipping lanes in jeopardy--even the towns were not safe from raiders based in Ireland. The fleet which encircled Scotland was to be based in the Irish sea.
   There are several bits of evidence to support this. Some versions of Nennius say that the expedition "took possession of many regions, even to the Pictish confines and beyond the Frenesic Sea (the Irish Sea)", and later "Octha, after the death of his father Hengist, came from the sinistral part of the island to the kingdom of Kent." Archeologically, there are pagan English burials dating from the later fifth century on the Ribble River near Preston, and on the Mersey near Manchester. (Morris, 1973, p107). These burials may be the sites of shipyards. Although rivers are the natural sites for the construction and repair of ships--because trees cut upstream can be floated down to the shipyard--they are not good places to base a fleet due to currents, narrow confines, shifting sandbars, lack of beaches, and occasional flooding. Looking for a more promising site, one spots Anglesey --island of the English --with abundant sheltered waters. The name is ancient, some suggesting that it dates from the conquest by Edwin around 620, but there are several reasons this is unlikely. First, it was the name used by the Welsh, and those who have lost a war seldom grant the name of seized territory to their enemies. Would the Argentines call the Falklands the British Islands? Second, Edwin's conquest was very brief, and there is no suggestion of any population changes. It is more reasonable to suppose that the island of Mona as it was known, was largely abandoned during the Irish raids of the early 400s, and then occupied by Cerdic's Saxons to stop the Irish raiders. The raids were stopped and the grateful Britons called the island Anglesey.
   The Romans had grappled with the problem of seaborn raiders for centuries, with no solid results. Enormous effort had been expended on shoreline fortresses and garrisons, watchtowers, and a fleet --the `Classis Brittaniae'. However the raiders came when the winds and tides were favorable to themselves, or they gathered forces large enough to overwhelm the defenders at weaker points, or they came at night or in fog, or they simply waited for another year of more relaxed vigilance. Cerdic's solution was decisive. He ravaged Caledonia and the Irish coast. Villages were plundered and burned, ships seized, occupants killed or enslaved.
   Around 450, St. Patrick wrote a letter addressed to the `Soldiers of Coroticus' condemning the ravaging and enslavements. It is generally asserted that this Coroticus was Ceredig of Dunbarton, who had a different genealogy than Cerdic. It is unlikely that Ceredig of Dunbarton ravaged Ireland with a different fleet and army than the one which Cerdic had brought to the Irish Sea. Possibly the two Ceredigs collaborated in the campaign, or else there may have been a confusion of the two. Possibly St. Patrick assumed that the Ceredig responsible was the Dunbarton Ceredig, or perhaps the letter was sent to Cerdic, and later authors made the confusion. It is even possible that Ceredig of Dunbarton is Cerdic and was inserted by the Strathclyde genealogists to explain a period of rule at Dunbarton by Cerdic.
   Sometime after the Battle of Chalons came the second Saxon revolt. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is probably alluding to it when it says that Hengist fought Vortigern in 455. It may have been a year or two earlier. Geoffrey and Nennius say that the Saxons plotted a mass slaughter at a banquet and from the number of deaths it would have involved hundreds of plotters. Another possibility is that it was a brawl, made likely by the mixing of Saxon warriors, British nobility, and alcohol. Many of the Saxons may have been veterans disgruntled over the lack of expected rewards. Nennius says that the occasion was to establish a treaty of peace and friendship. Instead, the result was a massive loss of British leadership and the opportunity for raiders to run rampant throughout Britain.
   At this point, the Britons sent the second plea for help to Aetius, beginning with Gildas' famous line "To Aetius three times consul--the groans of the Britons." But Aetius had been stabbed to death by Valentinian in 453, and Rome died with him. Gildas reports that Ambrosius organized British resistance and led the counter-attack against the barbarians. Geoffrey says that Ambrosius killed Vortigern, and then he and Eldol defeated and killed Hengist. Nennius says that Vortigern later died in a castle fire and that Octha became the king of Kent after his father's death.
   Following Ambrosius's victories, there seems to have been a period of general prosperity, and Cerdic would certainly have shared in it. He was probably one of the leading figures in shipping and iron production, and perhaps dominant. He was a great grandson of Cunedd and respected or feared by Britons, Romans, and Saxons. We can imagine Strongarm's ships to have been the first choice of passengers and merchants.
   If the British were not monolithic, neither were the Saxons. We can classify at least six distinct groups with some overlap. Basically these were farming folk, land mercenaries, and seafarers, each subdivided into those living under Roman or regional authority, and those who were immigrants, raiders, and members of independent warbands. These groups can be subdivided still further. For instance land mercenaries under Roman or regional authority could include men and their families who had been in Britain for decades or centuries, and those from the continent who were in the military units sent in by Roman authorities such as Aetius to restore order. Besides these there might also be the soldiers of various British royal clans, garrison troops hired by independent towns, and personal guards hired by merchants and wealthy landowners.
   One very numerous group undoubtedly consisted of people whom we would today call refugees. When the Huns came west, the empire, especially Gaul, was flooded with fleeing Germanic tribes. Rulers such as Aetius could do little else except settle them where they went, and hire some of them to control others and defend borders. We can well imagine Germans of the northern lowlands flooding into the traditionally seafaring areas of Jutland, Frisia, and the Angle, and trying to purchase passage for themselves and their families to the safety of Britain. Once put ashore, they were an unmanageable problem for the British and Saxon authorites such as Vortigern and Hengist. "Too numerous to feed", according to Nennius and Geoffrey, they could be contained for a while, but when authority lapsed in the aftermath of the banquet massacre, they exploded into the island creating the havoc of the second revolt.
   Immigration may have again been a problem even after Ambrosius restored order. The security which made it possible for British troops to leave for Gaul to aid Syagrius in 470 and the prosperity reported by Germanus' biographer in 480 inevitably attracted refugees to Britain. Also, good times often result in waxing troubles being overlooked. The continual migrations throughout the late fifth century would have eventually produced pressures and strife and may have moved Cerdic to march inland from Southampton and take control of Southwest Britain in the 490's. This will be discussed more thoroughly again.
   When next we hear of Cerdic, he is coming to Britain in 495. We can only guess at what happened previously. Legends which place Caradoc or Arthur in Brittany suggest that he ruled at Vannes or Nantes (or both) at a time when it was Visigoth territory. He may have been captured by the Goths on the ill-fated expedition of the British king Riotimus (possibly Riagath), who was defeated by Euric, king of the Visigoths, near Deol in France around the year 470. (Ashe, 1985, pp50-59) If this is the case, Euric must have forced Cerdic into vassaldom, perhaps by threatening to massacre his men. Under the Saxon tradition, vassaldom was for life (Bloch, 1970), so Cerdic may have been bound until Euric's death in 484. Furthermore, one of Euric's most important elements of military strength was his naval power based on the west coast of Gaul. (Wolfram, 1979, p188) The "curved ships of the Saxons" would have been the preferred vessels for both merchants and naval commanders, and we can picture Cerdic being active in both of these roles.
   There is some archeological evidence to support the idea that Cerdic was in Nantes from about 470 to 495, and that is the evidence of seaborne trade between Europe and the British Isles. With the Vandals controlling Africa and the open Mediterranean, there were three possible trade routes. Two involve shipping up the Rhone River, and then down the Seine or Somme through northern France, or down the Rhine, and the third would be sailing up the Aude to Carcassone, and then overland to Toulouse, and down the Garonne through Aquitaine to Bordeaux. The northern French route was blocked by hostile Franks, but there is some evidence of trade from Saxony, and much more from Aquitaine. (Alcock, 1971, pp 202-219) Some of the pottery imported into Britain at this time seems to come from Nantes, and Columban travelled from Nantes on a ship engaged in the Irish trade (Morris, 1973, p441). Morris (1973, p223) presents archaeological and historical evidence for vessels of Nantes regularly engaged in trade with the British Isles. It is evident that some shippers were active in this area, and the only one mentioned is Caradoc Vreichvras, ruler of Nantes.
   Did Sidonius Apollinaris write about Cerdic? Possibly. He wrote one letter to a Gothic admiral who loved to go Boar-hunting on the Island of Oleron on the west coast of Gaul. In this letter he praised the seamanship of the Saxons, but cautioned the admiral against Saxon treachery and barbarism. If the admiral's name was "Namatius", then it is probably not Cerdic. He could have been another admiral who was based farther south, and whose tastes and duties were similar to those of Cerdic. But if "Namatius" is a title, meaning lord of Namnates (Nantes), then it may have been Cerdic.
   Cerdic may have had no obligation to serve Euric's successor Alaric, and by 494 the time was ripe to return to Britain. With his son or grandson, he landed and seized Southampton. Support for both Arthur's involvement in Brittany, his association with Visigoths, and his relocating knights and navy to Britain, are found in Morris (1973, p127) under his discussion of one of Arthur's knights named Theodoric:
   The appearance of a Goth in Britain suggests a date and context, for such commanders are commonly enlisted with their men, not empty-handed. Theodoric's later career implies that he had ships at his disposal, and argues that a Gothic admiral who lacked employment was available to aid the British. The troubles of Gaul suggest that such an officer was driven out in the middle years of Arthur's reign, and at no other time. The kingdom of the Visigoths had maintained a Biscay fleet in the later fifth century, but in 507 the kingdom was destroyed by Clovis the Frank, and the Goths were expelled over the Pyrenees into Mediterranean Spain. Their fleet lost its Atlantic harbours. No writer reports what happened to the ships and crews; but it is evident that a commander who had lost his homeland and his base might find it prudent to transfer all or part of his fleet to the service of the British; and Arthur's campaigns had a use for a naval force.
   We differ with Morris in some ways--the Franks may not have conquered Vannes until several centuries later, and in our view Theodoric was a cavalryman, not an admiral. However, the relocation of some units was undoubtedly necessary, and as we have seen, Cerdic began this relocation about a decade earlier, around 495.
   Besides the advancing Franks, Cerdic may have had another motive for returning to Britain. During the prosperous time described by Germanus's biographer, Cerdic's navy may have helped protect the coast of Britain from Saxon marauders. However, population growth and increasing tensions between rival chieftains were causing disorder by the 490's and, over time, some aggressive Saxons such as Aelle, Oisc, and Cissa had slipped through the defenses of Cerdic and others. At some point Cerdic decided to move his base from Vannes to Southampton and restore order as Ambrosius had done three to four decades before.
   We will return to this last phase of his career shortly, but now pause to make a detailed comparison of the writings concerning Cerdic and Arthur.

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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