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Britain underwent momentous changes in the 5th century AD. At the beginning of the century the last elements of it's Roman field army left for the Continent to fight in another of the Empire's interminable civil wars and never returned. The Picts, Germans and Scots-Irish subsequently intensified their raids into full scale invasions, which fragmented the former Roman province into independent Kingdoms ruled by local warlords.
This was the setting in which the tale of King Arthur - champion of Brython, warlord, enemy of the Eastern church and hammer of the barbarians - evolved and grew to mythic proportions. While we have absolutely no concrete evidence for his existence, his legend significantly influenced the psyche of succeeding generations, so I shall include some appropriate notes for those who may wish to game this ‘fantasy’ character. Scroll down for more historical information by Adrian Garbett.
Late Romans and Saxons can also be used with Arthurian infantry and cavalry for greater variety and vise versa. Our Franks and Saxons are also very useful for Arthurian armies.
Go to the main Late Roman page for an article on the Late Imperial Roman Army by Adrian Garbett.
British armies of the period between the 5th and 10th centuries can be classified into three broad types. The first covers the 100 years after the departure of the Roman field army, when the bulk of the forces available would have been Roman garrison troops (for a fuller description of which see the Late Imperial Roman notes above). The next 100 years saw a decline in the centralised state, to such an extent that regular trained troops were rare and would be supplemented by local irregular levies. The final stage witnessed the rise of mounted warbands, under chieftains who ruled by might. These bands of warriors swore loyalty to their lord, who in return fed and equipped them. The inexorable advance of the Germanic tribes led to the destruction of the independent British kingdoms by the end of the 6th century, but those on the ‘Celtic’ fringes, especially Strathclyde, survived until the mid-10th century. The warlords’ retinues are recorded as having an average strength of 300 (although this may be a magical or ‘poetic’ number), which echoes Late Roman organisation. The largest recorded warband is 900, which must have been a powerful force at the time.
During all three periods the armies’ constituent parts remained fairly similar, with relatively small numbers of cavalry supported by large numbers of spearmen with a few mounted scouts and foot archers on the periphery. The proportions could vary, with Auxilia-type spearmen predominating in the early armies and larger numbers of warband cavalry in later armies. Proportions of infantry to cavalry can also vary, from 2:1 up to 15:1 or more. It is possible to recreate forces ranging from the retinue of a warlord to an alliance between several warlords, whose combined warbands and levies might number several thousands.
Other troops in British armies might include a few Scots-Irish mercenaries, allied Late or Patrician Romans and, most significantly, Saxons. Three Saxon longships arrived in 429 AD at the invitation of the warlord Vortigern, and over the next 11 years Saxon warriors poured into Britain to fight for various factions. Then in 441 AD they revolted and became permanent enemies of the Britons. Between 430 and 441 AD a large part of an army (maybe as much as half) could consist of an allied Saxon contingent (see the Saxon section for details). This would provide the basis for a Saxon army in its own right. Later allies for the surviving late 8th to 10th century kingdoms were the Vikings — a combination which can make for an interesting army. Finally, no army before the Synod of Whitby (664 AD) should be without the spiritual inspiration of massed monks, to offer up prayers to the Lord for Divine aid against the heathen foe.
Figures for the early armies are readily available from the Late Roman range. For cavalry I would suggest a mixture of LR023 and 24, while garrison infantry of the border Auxilia can come from LR009, 14 and 19. Appropriate command figures are available in a mixture of Late Roman and Arthurian [LR027] packs. The middle period saw a decline in trained troops, so the proportion of Auxilia would fall in favour of British close order spearmen, who are well represented by LR028, 29 and 30. Front and rear ranks can be depicted to produce a realistic shield wall, with a few archers shooting in support. The warlords would lead their warbands of mounted retainers from the front, so should be depicted well armoured. There is a great choice of figures here, and I would use LR020, 23, 24, 31, 32 and 33, with the majority taken from LR023 and 33. This will give you 24 individual figures. Place the armoured figures in the front ranks as favoured veteran retainers, with the less well equipped to the rear. The mounted scouts can be any unarmoured and bareheaded figure; you may wish to mount them on lighter ponies from the Pictish range to distinguish them from the retinue members.
As mentioned above, Arthur most probably never existed, but if you wish to game his exploits I suggest using the same armoured cavalry packs but with 10–12 ft (3.0–3.6 m) lances — not knightly! — and mount the characters on barded horses [LR034 to 39]. For those who like to indulge in a little fictional history, the dates for Arthur’s activities have been conjectured to fall between 475 and 539 AD.
A non British Roman successor state was Armorica, situated in Gaul. This underwent a very similar evolution to that of sub-Roman Britain and may also have had lance armed cavalry at some point. It has even been suggested that the Arthur myth was actually generated by an Armorican warlord fighting against encroaching Franks and Visigoths, who was held up as a positive example for the Britons. Armoricans would not have had Saxon allies, of course, but could have Alans fighting alongside them instead.
Sub Roman British weaponry was based on Roman patterns. Spears were initially quite light, and skirmishing by foot or horse was quite usual. The infantry spear probably became longer as shield walls took over from the more mobile styles of combat, but all existing references are to cavalry throwing their javelins until the end of the period. Good swords were expensive and rare and almost all would be in the hands of warband retinues .Armour was very rare for infantry and only the richest retinue members would have a full panoply of mail and helmet, many having to make do with leather and possibly scale. Shields were universal, ranging from ovals to medium-sized round examples. Early period troops may have retained a vestige of their unit shield patterns but these would have disappeared with time. Shields are recorded as being white and/or lime washed, so several shades of off-white would seem probable. The use of the Christian cross in red is sometimes depicted, as is the chi-ro symbol, but these would have been rare.
Colour schemes would initially follow those outlined for border troops in the Late Imperial Roman section. Later spearmen would lose all uniformity and would sport simple checks, stripes, and tartans, in addition to their more usual naturally dyed clothing. The richer warbands would have clothing of similar natural colours but of a brighter hue and with decorative edging. White was the colour of wealth and would be worn by warlords and favoured retainers. Purple and blue would be rarer still. It is interesting to note that it is thought that South Western Britain maintained trading links with the Eastern Empire, which would have brought Roman styles into the country for a couple of centuries. Unfortunately another import appears to have been the plague that ravaged the East and opened up Western Britain to Saxon conquest!
This whole period seems designed for wargamers to exploit. Try having multi player games in which each player controls his own personal retinue and levy of spearmen, and alliances are forged and broken on the battlefield. Step this idea up a gear and turn it into a mini campaign, with victorious warlords attracting larger and better equipped retinues. Or go the whole hog and have a huge multi player campaign with British warlords, Saxon chieftains, and Scots-Irish and Pictish raiders, plus the intervention of resurgent Imperial forces from the Continent. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.