Jeff Caruso's King Arthur

Sub-Roman British
(407- 945 AD)

DBA II/81

> Armies > DBA Resources > Fanaticus

According to Phil Barker's DBM notes, the Sub-Roman British list covers the Roman-influenced armies of Britain from the departure of Constantine III until the defeats to the Angles/Saxons at Dyrham (577 AD) and Ebruac (York) (580 AD), after which the lowland British kingdoms quickly folded under the pressure of Saxon expansion. 

The list continues, representing the southwestern kingdom of Dumnonia until its fall to the Saxon King Athelstan, who redrew its boundaries in 936 AD.  It also represents the western Celtic kingdoms in Wales (until the start of the Early Welsh, DBA III/19, in 580 AD) and those of Northern Britain and the Scottlish lowlands, in particular Rhegged, Strathclyde and Goddodin.  Strathcylde was the last of the northern British kingdoms to fall, surviving until Edmund I of English defeated and killed King Dunmail in 945 AD, plucked out the eyes of his heirs, and then ceded the region of Cumbria to his ally Malcolm I of Scotland.  

The list also encompasses Armorica (until the rise of the Breton DBA III/18 list in 580 AD), representing the peninsula and coast opposite Britain between the Siene and Loire Rivers in Gaul.  This region was closely bound to Britain by the cross-channel trade and occasional tribal migrations.  British merchants, nobles, and others fleeing Saxon expansion during the 5th-6th centuries sought refuge in Armorica, and came to dominate the region, a large segment of which became known as Brittany (land of the Britons).

Army Composition

The Sub-Roman list is divided into four periodic sub-lists:

  1. Pre-Saxon (407-428AD): 1x3Cv (Gen), 1x3Cv, 1x4Ax or 2LH, 8x4Ax, 1x2Ps.
  2. Saxon Mercenaries (429-441AD): 1x3Cv (Gen), 1x3Cv, 1x4Ax or 2LH, 5x4Ax, 3x4Wb (Saxons) or 4Ax or 4Sp, 1x2Ps.
  3. Saxon Revolt and Rise of Arthur ( 442-539AD): 1x3Kn or 3Cv (Gen), 2x3Cv, 1x4Ax or 2LH, 7x4Sp, 1x2Ps.
  4. Post-Arthurian Britain (540-945AD): 1x3Cv (Gen), 2x3Cv, 1x4Sp or 2LH, 7x4Sp, 1x2Ps.
Type Description
3Kn A tip of the hat to Arthurian romantics, representing King Arthur or similar Sub-Roman leader and his most motivated, impetuous hard-charging horsemen, possibly including the descendents of 5000 Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry lead by Lucius Artorius Castus that protected the northern frontier circa 183 AD.
3Cv These represent the full time teulu (Latin comitatus) or bodyguard of a sub-Roman chieftain or king, and may have been well armed and armoured, with javelins and shields, helmets, chain or leather body armour and spatha-style swords.
2Lh Javelin-armed skirmishing horse.
4Ax or 4Sp British Peydt or footmen (from the Latin Pedites or Peditatus or foot soldiers)  The evolution from Auxilia to Spear suggests the transition from armies comprised largely of the drilled "regulars" of the Dux Brittanniarum's frontier limitanei and lowland militias to common spearman of later armies, whose drill was limited largely to fighting in close shieldwall formations.
4Wb Saxon mercenaries in British employ beginning with the invitation by Vortigern to Hengist and Horsa in 429 AD.  Or if you are so inclined, you could field them as the untamed Celtic warriors of highland Britain.
2Ps The British light troops used bows, javelins and slings.

The following options are not provided for in the Sub-Roman British DBA list, but can be extrapolated from the Sub-Roman British DBM list for specific historical scenarios or to add period flavor:

  • Theodoric's Visigothic Navy (1 x 3Wb) (507-550 AD)
  • Irish mercenary foot (1x3Ax) or Votadini (1x 3Wb)
  • Praying monks (1x 7Hd) (before 664 AD)

Enemies

The enemies of the Sub-Roman Brits vary by sublist, but include the Scots Irish (II/54ab), the Early Visigoths ( II/65b), the Picts (II/68ab), the Early Anglo-Saxons (II/73), themselves (II/81abcd), the Later Visigoths (II/82a), the early Welsh (III/19a), the Middle Anglo-Saxons (III/24ab), the Vikings (III/40ab), and the pre-Feudal Scots (III/45a).

Tactics

Sub-Roman Cavalryman riding over Picts

The sub-Roman British offer a challenging mix of mounted and heavy foot.  It is often difficult to use both types together effectively; and there seems to be a common tendency to leave the foot behind and try to win with the mounted, which can lead to defeat in detail.   Then again, there is nothing more glorious than to see Arthur and his Knights ride over Saxon, Pictish and other foes like a hot knife through butter.

Against most historical foes (such as Saxons or Vikings), the British are faster and more maneuverable, but lack a killer element (except the single Knight option in the c sublist).  Against Saxon warband or Roman blades, the Sub-Roman spear or auxilia are lighter weight and risk being pushed around unless used carefully.  The army's low aggression should give it a terrain advantage in most games

In his original essay on the Sub-Roman Brits for Fanaticus, Daniel Mersey suggested:  "Your best bet is to mimic the believed tactics of the Britons themselves.  Place your cavalry as a front line, and your Infantry as a solid wall behind them, trying to win the battle using the strengths of the cavalry (or rather, without using the weaknesses of the Aux.). My own preferred tactic is to pin down your enemy's main line with your cavalry, and try to outflank them using the weaker (but fast) Aux or Ps."

Camps and BUAs

Just about any dark age camp subject is suitable from a section of hillfort or log pallisade, to supply-laden carts, to Roman British dwellings (which can range from roundhouses to square stone storehouses), livestock, generic campfire scenes, or even a Roman ruin.

Suitable BUA subjects include a re-occupied Iron Age hillfort (with a stone or wooden rampart) or a dilapidated walled town.  Cadbury in Somerset is perhaps the best known British hillfort, often associated with King Arthur.

Arthurian enthusiasts might try their hand at modeling Camelot, the sword in the stone, the Lady in the Lake, Merlin, or the Round Table as a camp subject.  And there is no reason why you couldn't put your Ancient British Stonehenge camp/BUA to use as well.

Miniatures


Interpretation of Sub-Roman Peydt
circa 5th century

Appropriate figures for a Sub-Roman British army will depend significantly on which time period you are seeking to represent.  The late Roman influence in arms and equippage circa 400 AD gives way over time to the typical round shield, conical helms of the Dark Age periods.   Once you decide how you envision your Sub-Roman army, you can then draw on a number of resources for your miniatures.

In 15mm, specific "Arthurian" ranges are offered by Donnington, Old Glory, Outpost Wargames Services and Tin Soldier.  Quite servicable Sub-Roman armies can also be put together with figures from Late Roman and Dark Ages ranges offered by a host of manufacturers, including DBA army packs.  My Strathclyde British army, for example, is comprised of tfigures from the Essex Dark Age range, with a few Viking and Saxon figures added for variety.  Jeff Caruso has created a quite convincing Sub-Roman army using figures from this Gothic Pass o' the North range.  His POTN Late Romans would also make interesting foot for an early Sub-Roman list.

25/28mm Arthurian ranges are available from Gripping Beast, Old Glory, Outpost, and Wargames Foundry, and can be recruited from Late Roman and Dark Ages ranges by other makers as described above.

Little Big Man Studios offers shield rub-on transfers and banners specifically for the Sub-Roman/Arthurian period.

A Capsule History

The following timeline is based on information extracted from the Early British Kingdoms website and other sources such as Nennius, which are very limited, often contradictory, and not entirely reliable.  It represents good faith conjecture and should not be read as settled history.

Having temporarily quieted the Picts, Scots and Saxons in 397 AD, the Roman magister militum Stilicho withdrew the Legio VI Victrix in 402 AD to help stem the barbarian invasions of Italy by Theodoric and by Radagaisus.  A barbarian invasion of Gaul in early 406 then cut off Britain from the rest of the western Roman empire and led to a mutiny by the Legio II Augusta, the last remaining legion in Britain, which proclaimed the short-lived Marcus as emperor.  After Marcus was assassinated, Constantine III was named emperor by his troops in turn, and departed the island with the Legio II Augusta to pursue his imperial ambitions in Gaul and northern Italy.

The departure of the legions prompted a resumption of raiding by the Picts, Scots, Angles and Saxons in 408 AD, which brought Britain to such dire straights that the Celtic nobles expelled the remaining Roman provincial officials in 409-410 AD and took matters of defense into their own hands.  A last request for help to the hard-pressed western Emperor Honorius resulted in his advice that the Britons defend themselves as best they could.  These events effectively mark the beginning of the Sub-Roman British DBA list, distinguishing it from the prior Late Roman armies that had appeared in Britain under Severus, Theodosius and Stilicho to drive back the barbarians and throw down Imperial usurpers, as well as from the Patrician Roman list, which reflects the Imperial armies still operating in Europe and in the east.

The first important British leader of this period was Coel Hen (cira 350-420 AD), (aka the "Old King Cole" of nursury rhymes) who ruled most of Northern Britain and is speculated to have been the last Roman Duces Brittaniarum (Duke of the Britains) commanding the remnants of the Roman army of the north from his capital at Eburacum (York).  On his death, northern Britain was divided between his heirs, forming the basis of several British kingdoms.

Vortigern next emerges as a high king of the Britains circa 425 AD, characterized as a "usurper" and leading a council of British kings.  It is presumed he (or the council) convinced Cunedda Wledig, king of Manau Gododdin, to lead an army into Wales to expel the invading Irish...with Cunedda settling down to form rule what became the Kingdom of Gwynedd.  Vortigern's chief rival was Aurelianus Ambrosius, who is often referred to as the last of the Romans and who may have been an heir of the would-be emperor Constantine III. 

The period 425-450 was one of great instability, marked by devasting raids by the Picts, Irish (Scots), and Saxons.  In 450 AD begins the "Adventus Saxonum", as Vortigern enlists and settles Saxons as mercenaries, after an appeal to the Roman Patrician Aetius for military aid went unanswered.  For a short time, St. Germanus arrives from Europe and leads a resurgence of the Britains, expelling the Irish from Powys, while Vortigern's sons lead by Prince Vortimer rebel against their father's Saxon policy and defeat the Saxon King Hengest.  But then, in a series of battles, Prince Vortimer is defeated by Hengest at Crayford and at Aylesford.  After reputedly killing 300 British noblemen at a peace conference, the Saxons rise in rebellion, conquering Kent.  The Britains abandon southern and eastern England in droves, heading west or across the Channel into Armorica.  Vortigern flees to Ganarew, where he is beseiged and killed by Ambrosius Aurelianus, who has emerged as leader of the Britains.

Over the next ten years (c. 460-470 AD), Aurelianus leads the Britains in continuous campaigns to contain the Saxon expansion.   The Saxons were defeated in 465 at Wippedsfleet (Roman Richborough) and take refuge on the Isle of Thanet for a time. Using the respite, the Britains refortify many of the ancient iron-age hillforts and construct defensive works throughout the country.

In 469 AD, a British force under Riothamus is reputed to answer the call of the Roman emperor Anthemius for aid against the Visigoths in Gaul.  An army of 12,000 crossed over into Armorica, but was defeated by Visigoths and Riothamus disappears from history.

In 473, the Saxons under King Hengest resume their aggressive raiding, and in 477, he is joined by the Saxon chieftain Aelle who lands in force on the Sussex coast.  The Saxons holdings expand inland.

According to Nennius, a series of twelve battles fought by the warlord "Arthur" between 485 to 496 AD quieted the northern borders and helped contain the Saxon threat in Britain.  Some historians suggest that this "Arthur" may have been a son of Aurelianus Ambroius.   A climax was reached at Mons Badonicus (Mt. Badon) , where Arthur and his hard-charging horsemen  defeated a Saxon force lead by King Esla of Bernicia and Cerdic of Wessex.  Thereafter ensued a period of roughly 50 years of relative peace and prosperity for Celtic Britain, although Arthur reputedly perished in 537 AD in a battle with his usurping kinsmen Medraut at Camlann.

After 550 AD, the Saxon threat reemerged as King Cynric of Wessex defeated the British at Sarum (552 AD) and at Barbury Castle (556 AD).  In the British north, King Riderch Hael of Strathclyde becomes embroiled in conflict with King Rhun Hir of Gwynedd and his half-brother King Brudei of the Picts over rights of succession,  Thereafter, the northern British kingdoms of Rheged, Strathclyde, Bryneich and Elmet formed an alliance against the Anglo-Saxons in Diera and Bernicia.

In the 570s, a series of battles are recorded between the British and west Saxons of Wessex at Bedford (571 AD), Ebruach and Strathclyde against Caer Gwendoleu at Arthuret (573 AD), Reged versus Bernicia at Leeming Lane (575 AD),  between the Britains and Wessex at Dyrham (577 AD), and Ebruach versus Bernicia at York (580 AD).  Although now predominant powers, Diera and Bernicia are divided by succession claims and civil wars.  In 598 AD, the Kings of Din-Eidyn and Gododdin are defeated by the Anglo-Saxons of Bernicia at Catterick, recounted in the poem Y Gododdin. 

In 613 AD, King Aethelfrith of Bernicia invades Gwynedd and clashes with an alliance of British kings at Chester, followed by a decisive Bernician victory at Bangor-is-Coed, where the King of Dumnonia fell, along with 1000 praying monks.   Thereafter, King Cynegils of Wessix invaded Dumnonia and defeated the local army at Bindon in 614 AD.  In 617 AD, King Edwin of Diera conquered the British kingdom of Elmet.

In 642 AD, King Owen of Strathclyde defeats and kills King Domnal Brec of Dalraida at Strathcarron. securing his own northern frontier.

King Oswiu resusiates his Northumbria kingdom, promptin King Penda of Mercia and King Cadafael of Gwynedd to join forces against him.  The alliance does not hold, the Penda clashes inconclusively with Oswiu at Winwaed in 655 AD. 

In 658 AD, King Cenwalh of the West Saxons defeat the Dumnonians at Penselwood, pushing the Wessex border to the River Parrett.  Three years later, he invades Dumnonia proper, winning a victory at Posbury that leads to the founding of a Saxon settlement in Somerset.   The West Saxons continued their pressure, driving the British of Dumnonia back to Bideford in 682 AD.

In 685, the Picts, presumably with help from Dalriada and Strathclyde, destroy King Ecgfrith's Northumbrian army at Necthansmere.

In 722, Dumnonia decisively defeated the army of King Ine of Wessex.    Wessex then joins forces with Mercia to attack Gwent and Powys in 743 AD, after which Wat's Dyke is presumeably built to mark the new border.

In 750 AD, the Strathclyde Britons defeated the Picts at Mugdock, leading to their decline.  But King Teudebur of Strathclyde dies just two years later, and his son Dumnagual promptly loses Kyle to Northumbria.  The Pictish King Angus I and King Eadberht of Northumbria then join forces to attack Dumnagual, but are decisively beaten in 756 AD at Newburgh-on-Tyne.

In 805 AD, King Egbert formally annexes Devon to his Wessex kingdom, reducing the British kingdom of Dumnonia to the region known as Cerniw on the Cornish peninsula.  The Brits strike back in Galford in 825 AD, and again with Viking allies in 838 AD, but are defeated at Hingston Down.

In 871 AD, King Olaf of Dublin defeats King Artgal and destroys Dumbarton, the capitol of Strathclyde.   After the death of Artgal the next year, Strathcylde becomes part of a unified kingdom of Alba (expanded Dalriada), Strathclyde & Pictland through a marriage alliance.

In 889 AD, Vikings depose Kings Eochaid and Giric of Alba, Strathclyde and Pictland, after which that Kingdom is unified under King Donald II, ending the pretence of independent Strathclyde rule.  Donald expels the British aristocracy of Strathclyde, who fee to kingdoms in Wales.

In 937 AD, King Athelstan of England defeats a combined army under Kings Olaf of Dublin, Constantine II of Scots and Owain of Strathclyde at the Battle of Brunanbury.  This battle effectively signals the final subordination of the British kingdoms to the English throne.

Resources

Osprey's Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon Wars (Men-at-Arms 154) is a standard gamers reference.  Concord's Barbarians by Tim Newark, with color illustrations by Angus MacBride, covers the 4-10th centuries and offers considerable painting inspiration for the Dark Ages period generally.

For period histories, the following titles focus on post-Roman Britain:

Several websites provide very useful information on the period/region, including:

Sub-Roman British armies are a popular Fanatici subject, and are featured in these galleries by Dan Becker, Jeff Caruso (POTN), John Coleman (Old Glory), and Richard Moriarity (Old Glory/Donnington).

The literature on King Arthur and the historical origin of the Arthurian legend is extensive and beyond the scope of this essay.  One source recommended by several Fanatici is Leslie Alcock's Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology AD 367-634 (Penguin, new ed. 2002).  My own favorite pet theory is that the King Arthur legend derives from Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer serving in northern Britain in the late second century, whose hard-charging Sarmatian cavalry helped restore the frontier when it was overrun by Picts and Scots circa 183-185 AD.  This theory is outlined by author Linda Malcor in two pieces published in The Heroic Age ( An Officer and Equestrian) (The Battles in Britain) and also offered by P. F. K. Turner in his The Real King Arthur: A History of Post Roman Britain: 410-593 AD.

For fictional inspiration, try Bernard Cornwall's Warlord Chronicles series: The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excaliber, or the classic literary treatment The Once and Future King by T. H. White.


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Last Updated:   1 January 2007