The Dark Ages.

This page contains several commentaries regarding the Dark Ages with a particular emphasis on the kingdom of Wessex..

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A Dark Age map and database.

Some Background On The Name And Roots Of Wiltshire.

Did king Arthur Fight In Wiltshire?

Egbert And The Rise Of Wessex

Sources Of Reference and Other Darkage Links

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HELMET.GIF (1117 bytes) Dark Age database


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Select Click Here to view a map of pre-unified England with some key places and spheres of influence and access a program to interogate a database compiled with relevant information. See sources of reference for further information.

The interface gives access to details on Britannia from the end of the Roman occupation through to the start of the Norman one. In particular from 383 AD to 1069 AD. Britannia is the Roman province on the British isles (modern day England and Wales). It could be argued that Britany in north-west France be included as their names suggest common ancestry (Britany and Great Britany or Britain) and the common native language of Brythonic (the linguistic root to Welsh, Cornish and Britany). This has been left as a future project. Information is stored by year, as they are perceived by the Anglo-Saxon chronicles (year end varied between September and January).

For the purpose of this database Britannia is divided into kingdoms, which existed at some point during this period. Some of the included kingdoms were known by different names and some obscure kingdoms may not be included at all. Their status varied from independence (autonomous, self-ruling areas to being a political part of a greater kingdom (for example England). At times these kingdoms would be united under an overlord, also known as Bretwalda, during which time the overlord undertook major affairs of state on behalf of any under-kings. The ruler of the kingdoms is also displayed if known. The following table lists the 14 kingdoms covered at this moment.

Kingdom Location
Dumnonia Devon and Cornwall
Dyfed Similar to modern day Dyfed (South West Wales)
East Anglia Similar to modern day East Anglia
Elmet North of East Anglia in the Fens, also known as Lindsey
Essex Essex, Hertfordshire and North London
Gwent Gwent, Brycheiniog and Glywysing (Glamorgan) in South Wales
Gwynedd Similar to modern day Gwynedd (North Wales)
Kent Similar to modern day Kent and South London
Mercia The Midlands
Northumbria North East England
Powys Similar to modern day Powys (Mid Wales)
Rheged Cumbria and North West England
Sussex Sussex and Surrey
Wessex South West England, Hampshire to Sommerset

Movement through the database is achieved using the Next or Previous pushbuttons, which moves to the next/previous year with significant information. A year can be input at the year textField and then the Go to pushbutton is used to access that year. A kingdom can be selected using the choice box. This will display relevant kingdom ruler and status information.

HELMET.GIF (1117 bytes) What's in a Name?

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The name Wiltshire derives from 'Wilton shire' or the shire of Wilton. Wilton, near Salisbury, was once the administrative centre (villa Regalis) of the Wilsętas, who settled in this area in the 5th and 6th centuries. They arrived during the migration from Europe of Germanic tribes as the Western Roman Empire was falling and might have left their name as Wilset. The name Wilton therefore loosely translates as 'settlement of the Wilset'.

The birth of Wiltshire is the story of the birth of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. It's existence and location stems from the political turmoil preceding and following the collapse \ of the Western Roman Empire. As the Empire struggled to maintain its borders in the face of barbarian incursions, a policy, used to some success, was the employment of barbarian mercenaries to fight within the Roman ranks against any marauding armies. Sometimes this policy stretched to giving land in reward for service, which led to the arrival of settlers and immigrants.

The defensive sytem in Britain was known as the 'Saxon shore' or Litus Saxonicum. Saxons had been raiding the British coast and even raiding inland along the rivers (similar to the way the Vikings raided 400 years later). The Roman administration had set up a post of Comes Maritimi Tractus who was responsible for the defence of the coast. (The word Comes later becomes the title of Count).

This Comes set up fortified towns strategically along the coast, all within a day's fast march from each other (30 miles). To supplement dwindling resources he recruited Saxon mercenaries (laeti or foederati) who settled in camps near fortified towns. By 397 AD the post responsible for the defence of the coast became Comes Litoris Saxonici indicating the substantial Saxon presence.

The Wilsętas were either a group of mercenaries or settlers, following these mercenaries.

After the removal of the last active Roman legions from Britain from 405 AD to 410 AD, the British organised their own defence. In principle this meant the increased reliance on mercenary troops. As the economy worsened and the number of extra settlers grew, the Saxon settlements became harder to support. Rebellion occurred in part as supplies were no longer made available to these settlements and as ambitious leaders saw the chance to carve for themselves actual kingdoms out of the disorganised British society.

Several events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle give us some clues as to what occurred in Wessex. In 495 AD we are told that Cerdic and his son Cynric landed at Cerdicesora (possibly Christchurch harbour) and fought with the Welsh (translated as foreigner in Saxon), or Britons. In 508 AD they fought a battle at Natanleaga, near Netley, named after, or as a consequence, of the Welsh king Natanleod, who was slain there. In 519 AD they fought the British again at Cerdicesford (probably Charford on the Avon south of Salisbury). The reference in the Chronicle reads, 'In this year Cerdic and Cynric obtained the kingdom of the West Saxons. In the same year they fought against the Britons at a place called Cerdicesford. And from that day on the princes of the West Saxons have reigned'.

It must be noted that the Chronicle was compiled and edited at a later time and reflects a viewpoint that the rulers of Wessex wished their audience to accept, in short, the legitimacy of Cerdic as the father of the kingdom of Wessex. It also simplifies the complexity of the actual events at that time.

Cynric outlived his father for a further 26 years, fighting against Britons at Searoburg (Sarum) in 552 AD and in 556 AD. In partnership with Ceawlin, he engaged the Britons on the north Wiltshire Downs at Barbury. So, it can be said that by the mid 6th century much of what is now Wiltshire was part of the kingdom of Wessex. The union of Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset formed the early kingdom of Wessex.

Of the people that lived in Wiltshire during this period, it is most likely that the bulk were British. Although Saxons came from Europe and settled, the Saxon community would have remained fairly small. It was very much the case of replacing one set of administrators with another. In fact the name Cerdic is not even Saxon, but British, possibly the result of a marriage between a Saxon warlord and a local Princess, where the Celtic tradition passed names through the female line.

HELMET.GIF (1117 bytes) Did king Arthur fight in Wiltshire?

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From the other side of the struggle, the Britons (the indigenous people) were a Romanised Celtic race, who had lived as warring tribes before the Roman invasion. The separation from Rome followed a couple of decades marked by a substantial number of changes in the leadership of the Western Roman Empire.

In 383 AD, the Roman emperor Gratianus was considered by many high ranking soldiers to be incompetent. His main rival was a general called Magnus Maximus, who was posted in command of the imperial forces in the province of Britain. Maximus was a Roman from Spain who became remembered in Celtic folklore as Macsen Wledig (gwledig meaning ruler). He was married to a native Briton, Elen Lwddog, daughter of a chieftain named Eudaf, from whom later Celtic rulers would claim descent to legitimize their claims. In 383 AD Magnus Maximus was proclaimed emperor by the legions under his command. Taking his troops, he left Britain and sailed for Europe. He won the support ofthe legions in Gaul, conquered Italy and marched on Rome. Cratianus was soon assassinated. and Maximus took his place. The Eastern Empire, however, refused to recognise Maximus, instead proclaiming the son of Theodosius, also named Theodosius, as emperor.

In the ensuing civil war, Maximus is captured and put to death (28 July 388 AD) and his armies defeated. After the war the Western Empire was in tatters and Theodosius continued to rule from Constantinople. He sent Flavius Stilicho to pacify Britain. But there were many in the West who still regarded the family of Maximus as the rightful heirs to the imperial throne, his young daughters being made imperial wards. Maximus' widow, Elen, returned to Briton to become influential in Christianising the Island.

The first self-proclaimed emperor of Britain was Vortigern. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments for the year 418 AD, 'In this year the Romans collected all the treasures which were in Britain and hid some in the earth so that no-one afterwards could find them, and some they took with them to Gaul.' This is the year that the final Roman legions left Britain and the office of Comes Britanniarum was withdrawn.

As the last vestige of Roman administration was thrown out, it would seem that the next move by the Britons was to establish some form of ruling council or senate. Since Gildas mentions such a body in connection with the invitation to the Saxon mercenaries, it may well have been recalled on various occasions, throughout the turbulent period which followed the Roman withdrawal.

However, any hopes of founding a British republic would have been dashed with the breakdown of order, which resulted in the rise of Vortigern. Welsh tradition lists Vertigern I as Gwrtheyrn Gwrthenau (Gwrtheyrn means 'supreme leader'). Geoffrey of Monmouth, repeating several popular traditions of the time, makes him a descendent of the famous British king Cunobelinos (Shakespear's Cymbeline) who ruled southern Britain before the Roman conquest in 43 AD. He was married to Severa, daughter of Magnus Maximus.

Celtic Britain, held in check for 350 years, begins to re-emerge. Latin was still the language for a great many Romanised southern British and the colonial families who had settled in Britain from other parts of the empire as soldiers, administrators and entrepreneurs. Just as few of the British Raj remained in India after independence in 1948, few Roman colonists probably remained as Celtic Britain started to re-emerge.

The language of independent Britain, which emerged in this period, was not a language whose structure had been changed by Latin (as among the Iberians): it was British Celtic (P-Celtic) or Brithonic, the ancestor tongue of Welsh, Breton and Cornish.

In 447 AD Britu succeeds to the kingdom, blessed by Germanus. His title prior to succeeding his father may have been Vortimer, or 'crown prince'. He would have probably then taken the title Vortigern. The saxon revolt of 455 AD led to Vitalinus (possibly Britu's son) assuming power. Nennius names Ambrosius as the main rival of Vortigern and includes a legend concerning their first meeting, paraphrased here.

'Vortigern is attempting to construct an impregnable fortress high in the Welsh mountains in the kingdom of Gwynedd, following his defeat by the Saxons. However, the work is constantly disrupted by a strange series of disasters. The king summons his magicians, who advise him that in order to complete the work he must sacrifice a boy and sprinkle his blood on the site. Eventually, such a child is found, but in order to save himself the boy challenges Vortigern to tell him what lies beneath the foundations. When he cannot do so, the boy reveals a pool containing two dragons. one red and one white, which proceed to fight one another. interpreting this mysterious omen, the boy tells Vortigern that the two creatures represent the Britons and the Saxons, and the victory of the red beast means that the Britons will eventually triumph. The king's admiration is assured when it is revealed that the boy's name is Ambrosius, the son of a Roman consul. At the end of the passage, Vortigern is persuaded to give Ambrosius authority over the western part of Britain.'

A new and different type of leader emerges; a man who appears to have reorganised the country and turned the tide on the advancing Saxons. He is someone whom Gildas not only seems to have admired but, uncharacteristicallv, he even names.

'Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus. a gentleman who. perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents who had worn purple, were slain in it.'

This describes a man of high ranking birth, whose parents died during the Saxon onslaught. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Ambrosius' father was Constantine, a prince from the kingdom or Armorica, in northern Gaul. Gildas' admiration points to Ambrosius having an alternative viewpoint to Vortigern, who he describes as a 'Proud Tyrant'.

In circa 488 AD, Arthur, whose real name was likely to have been Owain Ddantgwyn, assumes power in Powys. The title Arthur is an amalgamation of the Brithonic Arth and the Roman Ursus, thus Arthursus, both meaning bear. A political expedient to bind an imperialistic (Roman) and a nationalistic (British) society against a common enemy (the English).

Possibly the most significant battle fought while Arthur was alive was the battle of Badon. It may well have preceded his rise to power. A series of battles between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons had culminated in the siege of Badon Hill - Mons Badonicus.

A likely contender for the site of the battle is the hill fort near Bath (Little Solsbury Hill). In Brithonic, 'dd' is equivalent to 'th' in English. Badon could well have been Baddon, or Bathon, an old version of Bath. The Chronicle calls Bath, Badanceaster (City of Badan) and Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Arthur fought his most celebrated battle there. Furthermore Nennius' Historia Brittonum mentions the 'Baths of Badon' in the summary of British marvels at the end of his work.

Militarily an English victory at Bath would have split Britain in two (Wales/midlands/cumbria and cornwall/devon/somerset) and gained control of the Severn. An alliance between Sussex and Kent under the leadership of Octha, Aelle or both may have been crushed pushing Sussex out of the Chronicle after 491 AD. Also, archaeology has not discovered any Saxon burials in Sussex between the late .5th and the late 6th centuries.

The site of the battle is surrounded by controversy, as much about this era is based on such scant information.

Another plausible scenario sets the siege of Mons Badonicus between the Saxons who had settled the Thames valley and the British under their commander Ambrosius Aurelianus. Ambrosius' stronghold could have been Amesbury (called Ambresbyrig in 880 AD). Ambrosius could have interrupted the Saxon forces at Liddington Castle, near Swindon in Wiltshire. The nearby village of Badbury, or Baydon is the most elevated village in Wiltshire. These are both next to each other on the Ridgeway, on two main roman roads and prevents forcing of the Wansdyke.

It is quite possible that a certain Artorius, who led in this siege, later became the Arthur of legend. In Nennius' History of the Britons, 'The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill where 960 men fell in one day at a single onset of Arthur; and no one killed them but he alone, and in all the battles he came out victorious.'

The fact that a decisive British victory prevented further Saxon settlement and led even to Saxon immigration back to the continent is shown by Gildas and Procopius.

In 519 AD Arthur leads a successful campaign against Cunomorus of Dumnonia and Cerdic of Wessex, driving a wedge between the enemy forces. He is weakened at the battle of Certicesford. Soon after. perhaps on returning north, he is killed by his own nephew, Maglocunus, at the battle of Camlan on the Powys/Gwynedd border.

Arthur was probably the last 'Roman Emperor' as far as Britain is concerned. After his death, Britain was divided by his heirs and the loosely held together confederation was never resurrected. What with internal power struggles and a renewed offensive by the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at the end of the sixth century, Britain steadily became England, land of the Anglo-Saxon.

The legend surrounding Arthur is a combination of his dramatic military success and the total breakdown of his unifying influence when he died. A hope of his return and the unity enjoyed remain with us in the tales, that have been embellished as time went by.

HELMET.GIF (1117 bytes) Egbert and the rise of Wessex

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After 802 AD, when Egbert or Ecgbryht (802 AD to 839 AD) became king of Wessex, the Chroniclers begin to fill out events in some detail. In 827 AD they describe him as Bretwalda, or ruler, of Britain.

In 802 AD king Beorhtric (a probable puppet of Mercia) of Wessex passes away and is suceeded by Egbert. It is probable that Egbert waited until Beorhtric's death to enable a peaceful transition of power. Egbert needed to assert his independent control of Wessex. Ealdorman Aethelmund rode from the Hwicce over the Thames, at Kempsford, and was met by ealdorman Weohstan with the men of Wiltshire. Both ealdormen were slain. The men of Wiltshire won the day. There was a lunar eclipse on the 21st of May.

In 825 AD there was a battle at Calford between the Cornish and the men of Devon. King Egbert defeats king Beornwulf of Mercia, in one of the most decisive battles in Anglo-Saxon history, at Ellendun (Wroughton, near Swindon), in country which had long been in dispute between Wessex and Mercia. Immediately after the battle Egbert sent Ęthelwulf his son, the bishop of Sherborne, and the ealdorman of Hampshire, with a large army into Kent, where a certain Baldred was ruling, apparently under Mercian overlordship. Baldred was driven beyond the Thames, and the men of Kent, Essex, Surrey, and Sussex submitted to Egbert. Ęthelwulf ruled as sub-king to Egbert in these three kingdoms until his fathers death. The king of the East Angles and the nobles of his household, who were already in revolt against their Mercian overlord, turned to Egbert for protection. Before the end of the year Beornwulf was killed by the East Angles, presumably in the course of an expedition intended to force them back into his allegiance, and one of his ealdormen, named Ludeca, succeeded him in a kingdom which was now reduced to Mercia, Lindsey, Middle Anglia, and the provinces of the Hwicce and Magonsętan. Four years later Mercia itself and all its dependencies were conquered by Egbert.

The battle of Ellendun was fought between king Beornwulf of Mercia and king Egbert of Wessex in what was supposed to be a punitive attack by Beornwulf on Egbert. After Mercia's defeat here, the dominance of Wessex in future English politics was in the ascendency.

Neither Ludeca nor Wiglaf, who succeeded him in 827, was Egbert's equal in birth, or in the wealth which attracted warriors into a king's retinue. The enlargement of Egbert's kingdom in 825 had placed the resources of all south-eastern England at his service. In 829 he threw his whole power into a campaign which made him for a time the immediate ruler of Mercia and enabled him to exact a recognition of his overlordship from the Northumbrians. The submission of the Northumbrians was made on the border of their country, at Dore near Sheffield, on the divide between the valleys of the Derwent and the Don. The ceremony was probably intended to forestall an invasion, and so far as can be seen it had no political consequences. But the Mercians were reduced to complete, if temporary, subjection. Egbert took the title Rex Merciorum, and coins bearing his name were struck in what had been the Mercian port of London.

In Wessex the conquest of Mercia was regarded as an achievement which entitled Egbert to a place among the greatest figures in English history. Ignoring the age of Mercian supremacy, the Chronicle represented Egbert as next in succession to Oswiu of Northumbria among the overlords of the southern English peoples.

The events of 825 and 829 have always, and rightly, been regarded as marking an important stage in the advance of the English peoples towards political unity. After 825 Kent, Surrey, and Sussex were never separated from the West Saxon monarchy. Essex was only detached from it by a Danish conquest. The annexation of Mercia and the submission of the Northumbrians foreshadowed the appearance of a kingdom of all England.

On the other hand, none of Egbert's genuine charters gives him any higher title than 'king of the West Saxons and Kentishmen', no other king acknowledges his overlordship in any written instrument which has survived, and on all grounds it is doubtful whether he exercised any authority outside Wessex and its eastern dependencies during the last nine years of his reign. In 830, according to the Chronicle, Wiglaf, the king of Mercia who had been defeated in 829, 'obtained the Mercian kingdom again' ('Her eft Wilaf onfeng Miercna rices'). In view of this neutral phrase it is hard to believe that Wiglaf can have received the kingdom from Egbert's hands. No ninth-century writer would have recorded the gift of a kingdom to a dependent ruler in this oblique way. The appropriate phrase occurs in the Chronicle itself eight years later, where it is stated that Ęthelwulf, king of Wessex, 'gave the kingdom of the Kentishmen . . . to Athelstan, his son' ('He salde his suna Ęthelstane Cantwara rice and Eastseaxna and Sužrigea and Sužseaxna'). If Wiglaf had been restored to the Mercian kingdom by Egbert, a West Saxon chronicler, anxious to emphasize Egbert's greatness, would certainly have recorded the gift in some such way as this.

In 839, when Egbert died, he was ruling a territory wider than had belonged to any of his predecessors since Ine, if not since Ceawlin. But his overlordship of the southern English had ended when Wiglaf returned to the Mercian kingdom in 830. Nevertheless, Egbert was the real creator of the kingdom which formed the basis of the English resistance to the Danish invasion a generation after his death. His annexation of Kent and its adjacent provinces made him the protector of the most venerable of English churches, and brought his dynasty into a new relationship with continental powers.

At the other end of his kingdom he completed the long process by which the Britons of the south-west were gradually brought under English rule. In 815, probably in reprisal for a British raid into Wessex, he harried Cornwall from east to west, and made himself so far the master of that country that he was able to devote a tenth part of it to religious uses. His lordship was resented by its inhabitants. There is a record of a British raid into Devon in 815 and in 838 the Britons of Cornwall joined an army of marauding Danes in preparation for an invasion of Wessex. The last recorded event of Egbert's life is the defeat of this force at Hingston Down on the heights to the west of the lower Tamar. It was probably this victory which made Cornwall finally a part of England, for there is no evidence of any later movements for Cornish independence, and fifty years after the battle of Hingston Down King Alfred's will deals as freely with land in Cornwall as with any of the ancient possessions of his house.

Egbert was succeeded by his son Ęthelwulf, who had already been reigning for several years as under-king of Kent and the other eastern dependencies of Wessex.

HELMET.GIF (1117 bytes) Sources of reference


  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated and edited by G.N. Garmonsnway. J.M. Published by Dent & Sons Ltd. New edition 1972.
  • Roman Britain. Peter Salway. Published by Oxford University Press 1981.
  • The English Settlements. J.N.L. Myres. Published by Oxford University Press 1985.
  • Anglo-Saxon England. Sir Frank Stenton. Published by Oxford University Press 1971.
  • Wessex to AD 1000. Barry Cunliffe. Published by Longman Group UK Limited 1993.
  • In Search of the Dark Ages. Michael Wood. Published by BBC Books 1981.


HELMET.GIF (1117 bytes) Dark Age Links


  • Britannia - An American source of on-line British history.
  • Old English - Associate Professor, Catherine Ball, of Georgetown University (Washington DC) explains Old English.