Post-Roman Britain is signified by the slow loss of Roman culture as the British were inexorably smothered by the overwhelming forces of the Germanic peoples. The Welsh Annals and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are filled with the dates of battles in which the former lost ground to the latter. Odd to imagine that the primary military actions of the period were cattle raids.
The phrase means exactly what it suggests, a king and his group of warriors coming to another king’s hall and stealing his cattle. Sometimes it could be done with stealth, but very often there was at least some skirmishing. The most famous raid was remembered in Tain Bo Cuailgne, in which the Irish hero Cu Chulainn held off the entire army of Munster for a month before the rest of Ulster came to his aid. Raids are suggested in the twelve genuine Taliesin poems and the mindset of the raid is present in many of the early Arthurian materials – “Preiddeu Annwn”, “Pa Gur”, Vita Cadoci, Culhwch ac Olwen, and so forth.
In imagining how the cattle raids were so common, a person must first imagine the period. Certainly British kingships developed as a response to Germanic settlements and as a means to stop them, which means that they did fight in open battles. However, as was seen in an earlier blog, war-bands were not very large. At the beginning of the period, perhaps a dozen warriors might have made a typical war-band. A group that large could not have absorbed many losses, which means they could not have survived for length of time fighting time of consistent pitched battles.
And yet without the threat of being plundered the villages who gave them the food and supplies they lived off of would have had no reason to continue funding them and war-bands would have had no practical function. However, in raiding and being raided by other local warlords the illusion of danger was maintained and the villages were willing to continue paying tribute. Cattle raiding had several other purposes as well; it allowed the warriors to let off a little testosterone, it kept them sharp for combat, and it may well have helped to weed out the weakest kings and war-bands. After all, the king who has his cattle taken but can’t steal any himself is not as fit to rule as those he is competing against. This in turn meant that the villages he had ruled would be absorbed by better kings, thus helping them to expand their power and bring the Britons under a smaller number of rulers.
It can be argued that cattle raiding doesn’t sound very heroic, nor were the stakes quite as high if warriors were simply stealing from opposing kings. However, cattle raids were the basis of Celtic kingship. However, in a period where populations were small and armor often amounted to leather cuirasses, they were the one safe way of maintaining the size of the war-band, keeping the warriors in fighting shape, and working out a pecking order among them. Men like Arthur may have fought in significant battles during their careers. However, if the careers of later kings are any indication, these were limited to two or maybe three. Cattle raids were probably where Arthur made his name, raids like the one immortalized in “Preiddeu Annwn”.