The Battle of Mons Badonicus
and some speculations about Vortigern
Let us jump with both feet into that darkest of dark ages, when invading Germanic tribes were fighting the native British. The basic facts are few. The Emperor Honorius withdrew Roman forces from Britannia in 410 A.D., leaving the native inhabitants to defend themselves. What follows is not authenticated. They defended themselves by appointing a military leader called Vortigern. Vortigern recruited some alien soldiers from the Jutland peninsula to assist him. These refused to leave. They were given land on the island of Thanet in lieu of pay, and they quickly turned Thanet into a base for further conquest. The leaders of these “Jutes” were two brothers, Hengist and Horsa.
The British rallied their forces and defeated the Germanic tribes in around 500 A.D., thus confining them for a while to what is now Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Sussex. The crucial battle was fought at a place called, in Latin, Mons Badonicus. Our evidence for the battle comes from a monk called Gildas, a generation or two later, in a book called “De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae” (About the Carve-up and Conquest of Britain). Archaeological evidence seems to support the contention that the progress of the Germanic invaders did indeed receive a check at about this time.
One of the unsolved mysteries of the period is the location of Mons Badonicus. There are several suggestions:
Bathampton Down, near Bath (The Welsh for Bath is “Caerfaddon”)
Badbury Rings, Dorset
Bowden Hill, Wilts
But I am going to stick my neck out and propose the village of Bedmond, in my native parish of Abbots Langley. It lies on a steep hill, a hill that I used to cycle down as fast as I could when I was small. It is in walking distance of the Roman city of Verulamium (St Albans). There were rapid transit routes to London, Silchester via Dorchester-on-Thames, and Colchester, namely the Roman roads. (The Sichester route is lost now. My mother traced in it on large-scale OS maps. It ran between Abbots Langley and Bedmond). If the invaders were defeated at Bedmond they would certainly have been confined to the eastern counties, which is more than can be said for any of the listed suggestions above.
Now let us look at Hengist and Horsa and Vortigern. For a start, “Hengist” means “stallion” and “Horsa” means “mare”. What odd names for two fighting brothers! My suggested interpretation is that these two names indicate that the incomers brought their livestock with them. In other words, they came with the intention of settling permanently. As for Vortigern, that name is usually interpreted (modern Welsh) as “Mawr-Teyrn” (Great Prince). But I suggest differently. My reconstruction is “Mor-Teyrn” (Sea Prince). Now the Romans appointed a military official called Comes Litorum Saxorum (Count of the Saxon Shore). His job was to prevent raids from across the North Sea. It is not difficult to suppose that the abandoned British tried to maintain the familiar Roman administration. They would have appointed their own Count of the Saxon Shore, based in Camulodunum (= Camelot, = Colchester). British speakers might well have referred to this officer as “The Prince of the Sea”.
The conflation of this story with the Arthurian legends comes much later. Arthur, son of Uthar Pendragon, belongs to distant Cumbria. Camelot has to be the great Roman fortress-city of Colchester.
The first known German settlement was in the Cambridge area in the third century A.D., when the Romans created a Colonia for Germanic soldiers who had completed their eighteen years of legionary service. This would have provided a nucleus of Germanic speakers well in advance of subsequent invasions. To begin with, Frisian fishermen and casual traders would have put into creeks on the English North Sea coast to mend their boats and nets and sell their fish. No doubt some had a wife and family on both sides of the North Sea. (Just as my wife's great-great-grandfather had a family in Boston, Massachusetts, and another family in Liverpool). Raiding parties would have made any legitimate settlers insecure, and they would have had to band together to protect themselves against such forces as the Vortigern could muster.
I suggest that there was a culture shock when the Germanic incomers rubbed up against the native British. For the latter would have possessed amazing skills such as long-distance communication (letter-writing), glass and metal work, and social organisation that were completely outside the experience of Frisian fishermen. This, I would guess, is the basis of the fairy story. The fairies, short dark people with unimagined arts, were the British. Stories about them were taken back to the eastern North Sea coast and embroidered orally until they were collected by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.
However, the incomers had one technological advantage over the British that proved crucial. That was the rigid horse-collar. With it, they could pull tree stumps out of the ground and plough the heavy but rich clay soils of the river valleys. The British were confined to the upland areas where the soil was lighter and less productive. Gradually the slow push of the incomers up the river systems proved decisive. Battles at Dorchester-on-Thames and Eynsham did indeed carve up Britain. There is no evidence of genocide. On the contrary, there is evidence that the British and the English lived peacefully separately but side by side in some places for many years. West Hertfordshire, with its chalky Chiltern soil, remained an island of Britishness while surrounded by English farmers in East Hertfordshire and the Vale of Aylesbury. In Yorkshire, the British Kingdom of Elmet (Welsh Elfed) seems to have remained distinct until perhaps the Viking invasions.
The English do not appear to have borrowed many words from their British neighbours. The most familiar examples are “Mum” and “Dad”. Though there are some grammatical borrowings that have made a big difference to the English language. The best understood is the range of periphrastic alternatives (I do go, I am going) to the basic I go. This flexibility is characteristic of Welsh, but it does not exist in continental languages.
A Postscript. A late eighteenth-century confidence trickster wrote his own “recently-discovered Shakespeare play” called Vortigern. Mrs Siddons said it was rubbish and refused to act in it. Nevertheless, it was performed, in the presence of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV. The production was brought to a premature end by the audience, who pelted the actors and especially the Prince of Wales with rotten vegetables brought in from the nearby Covent Garden Market. The writer's name? Henry Ireland. Ireland was my mother's maiden name. Do I have some tenuous connection with Vortigern?