Most of the British history books the author has read focus on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms between Rhun’s campaign and the alliances of Urien and the Gododdin on one end and Cadwallon on the other, ignoring the British people completely in the process. Historians do this because we know very little about the British people during this time, little more than the names of several kings really.
Several people have offered their theories. Hamerow argued that the Germanic peoples’ local and extended kin-groups gave them a distinct advantage over the British social structure.1 However, we are not exactly certain how those kin-groups functioned but judging by existing kingship customs and the extant law codes of the period they seem to have been similar to the Celts. In both cases, an extended cousinhood protected each other among the freemen. It could be argued that the English tradition was closer to the modern system of justice with its concept of crimes against the state, but that would not have given the English any obvious advantages in warfare.
In studying the period, Professor Higham realized the unusual weight Badon had on both British and Germanic histories,2 and suggested that it might have been important independent of Gildas. He suggested that after the battle some sort of a compromise was worked out between both sides that in the short term forced the Anglo-Saxons to pause in their advance into British territories, but in the end allowed them to develop whatever political structure or military strength they needed to conquer Britain.3
The problem with that theory is that it requires some unlikely assumptions. The first is that the battle had islandwide importance. Gildas’ interests and knowledge were fairly local within his lifetime; he focuses on modern Wales and Cornwall with the kings for instance. It is at least feasible that the Battle of Badon was only locally important too. The knowledge we have gained about political development supports that possibility; we have learned that the British kingdoms were only just forming in the late fifth century and regional alliances were still decades off, while the Germanic people of the late fifth century were still organized into clans controlling individual villages.4 While it might have been possible for several British chiefs to band together, bringing hundreds of villages under a confederation, unless they were being invaded themselves, would have been a impractical.
The fact that the Germanic people were still organized into local clans also means that there would have been no way to work out a compromise after the battle, either. It would have been difficult to make dozens of British chieftains agree on terms, but negotiating with hundreds of Germanic clans would have been impossible unless they had been virtually annihilated – and Gildas makes no claims about that.
Logistics. If a war-band was mounted it might travel thirty or forty miles in a day. At that speed and allowing at least one full day for a battle, it is possible that most Germanic and British war-bands would be able to get to and from the battle in only three days. However, for those three days the entire kingdom would be vulnerable to attacks.5
Finally, Badon itself. Gildas claimed it was the major battle of an entire generation, and if it was the absolute victory he claims it makes sense why English historians never delved into the details. But, if the battle was followed by a compromise which eventually allowed the Germanic people to dominate the island, the English reaction should have been different. One would think that the eventual benefactors would have remembered it with pride as another instance when they had outwitted the British (like Hengest) and as a more important event than the regional accomplishments of Cerdic, Ceawlin, or Ælle. The fact that they did neither probably means that Badon was a major defeat for them. As that seems more likely, we need to look elsewhere for an explanation about why the British kingdoms decline after the mid-sixth century.
To this scholar, the behavior of the British kingdoms after Urien and Rhun’s careers seems like the state of ancient Greece after the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, or the aftermath of a wild New Year’s Eve Party; maybe both comparisons are valid. By the end of the sixth century the British had been in a state of perpetual raiding and warring for over a hundred years, with battles growing larger and more intense as kingdoms grew and allied together in an attempt to control ever larger portions of the island. On the other hand, we hear almost nothing of the Germanic peoples after roughly 500 for decades. While the British were involved in larger and larger battles, the Germanic people were still just raiding. Is it possible that British manpower had been sapped? Battles would deplete the warrior ranks, while invasions would have meant the loss of farmers, without whom there was no food.
At the same time, England has the best farmland on the island.6 While the British lost warriors and peasants to internecine warfare from the late fifth to the late sixth century and survived on lesser farmland, the Anglo-Saxons lost little or nothing and had better crops to grow their population on.
Of course, battles alone did not reduce the British from the dominant power on the island to victims in just a century. It must have strained them, but not so much that they might not have reconquered Britain. There were other issues. Dr. Andrew Breeze has pointed out to me some major volcanic activity in 535-6 which caused major climatic changes throughout the world.7 This would have affected crops and livestock.
At mid-century, Justinian’s Plague hit Britain,8 and that must have put the Britons over the edge. Some scholars have suggested that the British were hit harder and the resulting deaths weakened the British enough that they never recovered.9 That theory seems unlikely on its own though. For one thing, scholars have shown that the Germanic peoples traded both with the continent and the British peoples, demonstrating more than enough contact with bubonic plague regions to have infected their entire population.10
But, if the undermanned British kingdoms had been stretched by nearly a century of war before the plague hit and the Anglo-Saxons had thrived in the meantime, the disease could have hit both groups equally but effected the British much more.
The plague was just the anima though. In organizing the Germanic areas to make tribute-taking more efficient during the early and middle sixth century, the British had inadvertently created the political structure for the Germanic kingdoms – leader, hall, warriors, and villages giving tribute. Once the British people no longer had the strength to control them because of the pandemic,11 the Germanic tax collectors would have simply stopped paying tribute.
So, why do the British kingdoms have an interlude from history after Urien and Rhun of Gwynedd? They were recovering, and the Germanic peoples were too focused on developing from local chieftainships to kingdoms. That focus would allow for the rise of the first Germanic over-kings like Ælle, Ceawlin, Æthelberht, and Æthelfrith while giving the British kingdoms time to replenish their numbers.
1 Hamerow, Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 2012).
2 Badon is in both British sources, is mentioned but not explored in Bede, and its effects seen in lower England with The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
3 Higham, “From Tribal Chieftains to Christian Kings”, The Anglo-Saxon World, eds. Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan, (New Haven, 2013), 126-78.
4 One major hiccup a reader may have with this theory is Gildas’ testimony, but a close look at his account suggests that the British fought raiders looking for food and supplies, not kings and their war-bands attempting any sort of conquest or even cattle raids.
5 Having no knowledge of the relations between villages the author must acknowledge that several warriors from each clan/war-band might have come to the battle. That possibility would have made it important islandwide without endangering all the kingdoms represented.
6 “Why farming matters: Wales”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: Scotland”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: Northern Ireland”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: England”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015.
7 Baillie, “Dendrochronology raises questions about the nature of the AD 536 dust-veil event”, The Holocene 4.2 (Washington D.C., 1994), 212-7; “Marking in Marker Dates: Towards and Archaeology with Historical Precision”, World Archaeology 23.2 (Abingdon, 1991), 233-43.
8 “Annales Cambriae”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), entry 547.
9 Wacher, The Towns of Roman Britain, (Berkeley, 1974), 414-422; Russell, “Late Ancient and Medieval Population”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 48.3 (Philadelphia, 1958), 71-99.
10 “The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Stephen Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 55-74; Brown, History and Climate Change: An Eurocentric Perspective, (Routledge, 2001), 94-5.
11 Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, (New York, 1982), 31.