The Saxons had been raging around the countryside for years. The Britons had been fighting them off as best they could, but the hordes were too strong, the desire for legitimacy too great. The Britons needed a victory bad. Their country was at risk of being overrun by Germanics.
Enter Arthur. He had been making a name for himself in winning a range of battles over what seemed the entire island. He was some sort of battle commander. Maybe he was a king. Maybe he was a Roman soldier. Maybe he was a cavalry commander. No one is really sure what he was. One thing everyone agrees on is that he was a winner.
We have seen (last week) how Arthur, according to the 9th-century monk Nennius, won 12 great battles. Tradition says that the last of these 12 great battles stopped the Saxon migrations for a generation. This must have been a great battle indeed.
Gildas, a 6th-century monk, mentions Mount Badon, saying that the Britons won a great victory there. But Gildas doesn’t mention Arthur. Instead, Gildas says the British took up arms under Ambrosius. Now, Gildas doesn’t say Ambrosius was the commander at Badon Hill; indeed, he doesn’t name that commander at all. Still, Ambrosius is the last commander named by Gildas. Why doesn’t he mention Arthur? No one knows.
Nennius, who spoke so eloquently of Arthur’s victories elsewhere, says Arthur was the commander of the British forces at Badon Hill, going on to say that he killed 940 “by his hand alone.” This is probably a fancification, but the mention of Arthur’s being in charge of the Britons is there.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in teh 12th century, says Arthur commanded the Britons at Badon Hill and that he killed 470 by himself. Geoffrey also says the battle was at Bath-Hill.
This is the first of the curiosities about this epochal battle. Nowhere is there a Badon Hill in Britain. Badon doesn’t exist, nor did it then. We are left to puzzle out where it was. Geoffrey says Bath-Hill. Indeed, one would think that Bath would be a good location because it was about midway between the British stronghold in southern Britain and the Saxon settlements in Kent. And in the language that was spoken at the time, Badon would have had the same pronunciation as Bath-on. One tradition has it that Badon Hill was Badbury Rings, some miles away from Bath. This is certainly possible, since these rings amount to a natural hill-fort atop a tall hill that could be classified a mountain. However, the strategic importance of this hill is not as great as Little Solsbury Hill, just outside of Bath. Now here is a prime candidate. The hill is very tall; atop it you could see for miles. It is also naturally fortified as well as being easy to fortify manually. You command the high ground in a sea of lowlands. You can see for miles in all directions. By your very presence atop this hill you can command life as far as you can see.
Unlike some of the other parts of the Arthur story, we know Badon Hill existed. It wasn’t called that at the time, but the name has come down to us. The Latin is Mons Badonicus, from which we get Badon Hill. We know that the Britons won a smashing victory that day, ending the Saxon insurgence for many, many years. We’re not sure who fought at this great battle. Arthur is said to have fought there. Saxon leaders are said to fought there as well. It could have been no more than a border skirmish. Tradition tells us otherwise. No matter how Saxons Arthur killed atop Badon Hill, he convinced them to wait quite a while before coming back. And by the time they did come back, he was gone.