The Pendragon Chronicles – Vol. 11 – The Historical Material

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We looked in the previous entry of these Pendragon Chronicles to some elements of the Arthurian Legend that can be found in Pendragon – The Fall of Roman Britain. The game is also drawing from what little historical material came down to us through the centuries, i.e. mostly De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the destruction and conquest of the Britains”, a pamphlet by a British monk, Gildas, circa 510), the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical history of the English People” by the English monk Bede, c. 730), the Historia Brittonum (“History of the Britons”, compiled by the chronicler Nennius c. 830), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (late 9th century), the Annales Cambriae (“Annals of Wales”, 12th century?), and, for flavor at least, the epic Welsh poem Y Gododdin by Aneirin (c. 600).

This will give us the opportunity to discover some new types of events. Let us first look at some cards based on Gildas’s seminal work:

Event Card #35 – De Excidio Britanniae

Background. De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (Latin for “On the Ruin and Conquest of (the) Britain(s)”) is a pamphlet by the late 5th or early 6th century British cleric Saint Gildas, where, as part of a lengthy condemnation of his contemporaries, he briefly outlines the history of Britain from the Roman conquest to his time. Despite its obvious biases and stylistic particularities, it constitutes one of the most important sources for this period since written by a near contemporary. Gildas’s sermon is full of apocalyptic references of Britons being slaughtered or driven into exile by barbarian attacks; it is generally believed that he exaggerated quite significantly the extent of the devastation wrought by Irish, Pictish and Anglo-Saxon barbarians, drawing from biblical references and intent on condemning the then-current state of affairs in Britain. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that substantial disruption took place during the period, including major population relocation from the eastern lowlands into the British-held western highlands.

Event Card #30 – Groans of the Britons

Background. “The Groans of the Britons” (Gemitus Britannorum) is the name of what is believed to have been the last appeal of the Britons to the Western Empire for assistance against barbarian raiders. The earliest reference is in Gildas: “To Aetius, thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. […] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.” The Patricius Flavius Aetius, often known as “the last of the Romans”, was the military strongman of the Western Empire in the 440s, spending much of his time fighting various barbarian groups, often with the support of Hunnic or other barbarian groups, and managed to build a large Roman and foederati coalition to stop Attila’s Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in northern Gaul in 451. The reference to him being “thrice consul” dates the appeal between 446 and 454. The record is unclear as to what his response to the appeal was, though it is generally accepted that, lacking the resources for an expedition across the Channel, he denied the request. Gildas and later sources tie the extensive, and ultimately fatal, reliance on Saxon foederati by Vortigern to this refusal, though there is strong archaeological evidence that there were Germanic military communities in Britain before the 440s and that the Britons were never as helpless as described by Gildas in his pamphlet.

Event Card #60 – Mariners by Sea

Background. As Gildas describes in his De Excidio Britanniae: “the Romans (…) send forward, like eagles in their flight, their unexpected bands of cavalry by land and mariners by sea, and planting their terrible swords upon the shoulders of their enemies, they mow them down like leaves which fall at the destined period” (DEB II.17). This illustrates how the naval forces were an essential part of the defensive system of Roman Britain, especially considering how the main threats, whether Irish Scotti, Picts, Angles or Saxons, depended on the sea to reach the shores of Britain, and to return home with their plunder. As the Western Empire decayed and lost the resources and bases to maintain an effective presence at sea, tough choices had to be made, leaving Britain increasingly exposed to the depredations of the sea raiders.

Next, we are going to see a number of mostly military-grade Momentum and Capability events, which are based on what is the earliest known literary mention of Arthur, the famous “Battle List” of the “twelve battles” fought by Arthur in Britain. All of these cards either enhance or limit the effectiveness of some specific characteristics of each faction’s units, such as the Barbarians’ ability to evade battle or ambush enemies in their Home rough terrain, or the key importance of strongholds in Briton tactics. You may want to refer to the 4th entry in the Pendragon Chronicles for details on the Battles and Assaults sequence in the game.

Event Card #46 – Dubglas River

Background. The Arthur Battle List in Nennius’s Historia Brittonum mentions no fewer than three battles (the second, third and fourth) on a river called Dubglas (modern Douglas, meaning “Black Water”) “which is in the region of Linnuis” (generally presumed to be Lindsey, around the large Roman colony of Lindum, modern Lincoln). This strongly suggests a protracted campaign against an enemy – in all likelihood, Saxons – operating from a river base, providing them both with safety and easy access inland, just like the Vikings did a few centuries later. Warfare in the typically marshy environment of the low-lying eastern coast of Britain presented unique challenges for the cavalry-based late Roman field army and could only be successful by drawing on local knowledge, strategically emplaced choke points and quick strikes at the raiders’ fortified camps.

Event Card #56 – Celyddon Coed

Background. The seventh battle of the Arthur Battle List is said to have taken place in the Caledonian Forest, i.e., Celyddon Coed (or Calidon Coit in Old Welsh). This is generally considered to indicate the vast wooded tracts north of Hadrian’s Wall, that is, the Scottish Borders region, a region that has seen near constant warfare from the Roman conquest down to the Border Reivers of the Middle Ages. The Arthurian legend associates this battle with the Madness of Merlin (Myrddin), who is said to have fled to the Forest of Calidon after a great battle. In historical terms, the region had been a buffer region under Roman influence during the Empire and later became a key part of “North Wales”, the northern strongholds of the Britons during the Anglo-Saxon Wars. The rough terrain and dense cover would have been a natural asset for the irregular Celtic Warbands, posing a major obstacle to regular Roman troops and inexperienced Anglo-Saxons, though the Romano-British could draw from centuries of border warfare and local clients such as the Votadini to pull their weight in this environment.

Event Card #7 – Cair Legion

Background. Cair Legion (“City of the Legion” in Brittonic) is the name of the ninth battle in Nennius’s “Arthur Battle List”, and refers to either Chester (Deva) or Caerleon (Isca Silurum). This reference is used to portray the common late Roman as well as Romano-British tactics of leveraging fortresses to protect their limited forces and sallying forth at key moments with devastating effect.

Event Card #28 – Mons Badonicus

Background. Mons Badonicus (Badon Hill) is the twelfth (and last) battle of the Arthur Battle List, and is the most famous, being also mentioned by Gildas, Bede and the Annales Cambriae, though neither mentions who was the enemy of the Britons. Gildas says it was a siege, and the battle is often associated with the modern city of Bath (Aquae Sulis) in Somerset, though that location is not universally accepted. In any case, it provides a good illustration of a recurrent pattern in the list and other sources of the importance of fortified places in Briton strategy, in all likelihood in a way reminiscent of late Roman imperial strategy of using fortifications to shelter the civilian population, deny control of the area to the barbarians and take advantage of the barbarian limited siege craft abilities to blunt their assaults and buy time for the mobile army to intervene.

Event Card #33 – With the Cross on his Shoulders

Background. The Annales Cambriae (“Annals of Wales”) entry for the Battle of Badon states that “Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights upon his shoulders [or shield], and the Britons were the victors.” Late Roman Britain appears to have been substantially christianized, at least among the elites and urban population. While it is likely that for a long time rural inhabitants were still adhering to the old gods (“pagan” stems from pagi, Latin for “country dwellers”), and many soldiers adhered to various cults such as Mithra, Christianity came to be indissociably linked to Britishness, possibly in the face of aggressively pagan Anglo-Saxons.  As a result, Christian symbols, rhetoric and metaphors were commonly used as rallying points to exhort the always fractious Britons to unite against their heathen foes. While Anglo-Saxons either spurned or were ignored by evangelization efforts, the Irish and Pictish Celts who had stayed largely out of Roman control and influence adopted a number of cultural traits of their Romano-British cousins during the post-Roman period, including, progressively, the Christian faith, spurring appeals by such prominent clerics as Saint Patrick to hold off attacks against fellow Christians.

The following Event draws its title’s inspiration from the vivid imagery conjured up by the “Prince of Bards”, Aneirin “of flowing verse”, in his famed battle epic poem, Y Gododdin. While the event itself is not directly related to the poem, I found such Event names more inspiring than “Art of War” or such bland names…

Event Card #41 – Feeding the Ravens

Background. War in this period, where the numbers engaged were typically small, depended heavily on cunning, surprise and bravery. Launching an attack outside of the campaigning season was difficult to pull off, but could reap huge rewards as the enemy would typically be caught unprepared. Assault of fortified positions was always a very bloody affair, often decided by the exploits of a small group of warriors demonstrating uncommon courage and disregard for their own safety to secure a foothold on the walls.

Finally, let me introduce another special type of Events contained in the game: the Pivotal Events. Similarly to some of its COIN precursors, Pendragon provides, in most scenarios, every faction with one unique Pivotal Event that they hold in hand until they decide, provided that the necessary conditions are met, to play it, trumping the current Event. Note however than, unlike earlier games, the trumped Event is not cancelled but simply postponed, going back on top of the Upcoming Event stack.

(Pivotal) Event Card #74 – Adventus Saxonum

Background. The earliest historical mention of the Adventus Saxonum (“The arrival – or the assertion – of the Saxons”) appears in Gildas’s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae: according to Gildas, Vortigern’s Saxon foederati, demanding ever more payments, eventually broke their treaty and spread fire and destruction to “the other side of the island”, before the Britons led by Ambrosius Aurelianus managed to check their onslaught, initiating a protracted war which eventually ended with the great Briton victory at Badon Hill. Gildas’s narrative is used and expanded by the English historian Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, who specifies that the “Saxons” included Angles and Jutes along with actual Saxons. As always, the chronology is difficult, but the rising is usually assigned to the years 440-450 AD. This strong historical tradition supports the notion that the Anglo-Saxon takeover of Britain was kick-started not by invasion but through the rebellion of a large body of mercenary troops. To reinforce this, archaeological remains of Anglo-Saxon burials holding late Roman military equipment have been found in such various locations as the middle Thames valley, southeastern Yorkshire and Hampshire near Romano-Briton settlements, and dated from the first half of the 4th century, i.e., consistently with a pattern of settlement of foederati prior to the Adventus.

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