Each October I lead a walk at Badbury Rings as part of Dorset Archaeology Days. The weather is generally fine, I meet some great people and it’s an opportunity to share the stories of the place.
At the end, we walk up to the top of the rampart, we look out across the hillfort and surrounding landscape and I say.
“Some people believe that the battle of Mount Badon took place here”
“But perhaps you know of Arthur. Not the romantic medieval mythical king but the person he’s based on”
Someone smiles “Yes but was he a real person?”.
“Well, there are different views. He’s the hero from a time when the Roman legions had withdrawn from Britain and left her citizens to fend for themselves ( many of them thought of themselves as Roman. Britain had been part of the Empire for nearly 400 years)”.
Badbury lies on a hill top at a route centre. It seems to have defended a crossroads on a border. To the east at Christchurch and north near Salisbury have been found Anglo-Saxon pagan warrior burials of 5th-6th century date. To the west at Tolpuddle, around Dorchester and on the Isle of Purbeck, contemporary burials are of Christian type, east-west without grave goods.
The invading Anglo-Saxons were taking the land. Bit by bit the British were being pushed west. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle documents their triumphs but at the end of the 5th century the tide of conquest is halted.
A leader in the west united the British forces and defeated the Anglo-Saxons at Mount Badon. This battle stopped the Saxon advance for about 50 years. Rare scraps of historical evidence survive. Gildas, a British 6th century monk, comments that the battle took place in the year of his birth although he does not mention when that was or name Arthur.
The Welsh Annals do though
“The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights upon his shoulders and the Britons were the victors”
I particularly like this time (it’s a bit like an end of the world science fiction story). The fading of the old civilisation and the emergence of a new order. The lantern bearers holding back the dark. Traces of history merged with rare archaeological remnants.
…but was the battle in Dorset? Most people don’t think so. Some say it took place in Somerset near Bath on Bathampton Down. Others think it was in Wiltshire near Swindon at a place on the Ridgeway called Liddington Castle close to another Badbury.
So.. back to last week when we stood on the windswept rampart looking out across the Dorset countryside…
“Nobody had ever recorded an excavation inside Badbury.. so in 2004 we asked for permission to dig a trench. We expected Iron Age occupation and we found it …but above it there was an unexpected floor of rammed chalk and scattered on its surface were scraps of occupation evidence. Fragments of worn late Roman pottery, a spiral bronze ring, a few nails, a worn 4th century coin and patches of charcoal perhaps remains of cooking fires.
Badbury’s population had left when the Roman army arrived in the 1st century. Most of them had probably shifted their homes down to Vindocladia, the small town beside the Stour a mile to the south…then about AD 410 the Empire ended in Britain, the legions left and the world became uncertain. A storm was brewing in the east. The old fortification was re-occupied.
We took the charcoal and sent away samples for Radiocarbon dating. All three dates came back as AD 480-520.
We cannot prove that the Battle of Mount Badon took place at Badbury in Dorset and that Arthur was there ..(although all patriotic Dorset people would like it to be true) but we now know that the place was certainly occupied then.
We can stand on the ramparts and imagine… a society on the edge..drawn back to the old secure place guarding the crossroads, people looking towards the threat from the north and the east as though a storm was approaching.
…as it is this evening.