Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Medieval Periods - Early Dark Ages (5th century)

Early Dark Ages Wargaming
You say 'Sub-Roman' I say 'Arthurian'

A very interesting time for study and gaming in British military history is the period of the various kingdoms and migrations/invasions that took place between the 5th and 9th centuries, AD.  The armies are small, much of the surviving historical matter (which is, admittedly, very little) is steeped in legend as much as in fact, and Dark Ages Briton is a nice compact area for any sort of strategic study in warfare or wargaming.  That applies also to campaigns, linking together tactical studies and games.  Especially miniature wargaming.

For a wargamer this is a rich time to investigate this period of history.  There are, of course, many great miniatures and wargaming rules available for miniature gaming play (some covered in this article).  But there is also a load of great modern fiction and television that covers the period.  There is the excellent series (The Last Kingdom) of historical fiction from Bernard Cornwell.  There is even a BBC series based on the same novels.  A really fun young adult novel from the last century is The Dragon and the Raven, written by the fantastic author of such things, G.A. Henty (excellent review here at Vintage Books).  A terrific list of fiction from the period (modern, and less-than-modern), along with historical resources, is on this page about King Arthur available at Abe Books.  Much more is available, if you look for historical fiction in the Anglo-Saxon period, or even moving up into the early Viking Age.

There is, of course, the temptation to immediately jump to the historical archetypes for King Arthur - a sub-roman Briton, perhaps a descendant of a Roman soldier, or himself trained as a Roman soldier, or cavalry officer, with a small but well trained band of warriors, that has an unduly large effect on the local political/military situation.  But there are also other interesting historical events during these centuries - the arrival of the Saxons.  The generation of the first Christian kingdoms.  The (almost) loss of the Christian culture to the Germanic.  The rise of Alfred the Great as king of the West Saxons.  The burning of cakes in a swamp cottage.  Eventually the establishment of the Danelaw.

I'd like to take a look at the first part of this period, the Arthurian period, in the rest of this article (covering the later part of the period in the future).  Roughly that is the 5th and 6th centuries, AD.  I am assuming this period for Arthur, and not the earlier possibility for Lucius Artorius Castus (probably 2nd or 3rd century AD) as the historical figure.  That Arthur, of course, was an incredible soldier and deserves to be remembered to both history and legend, if even half of the inscriptions about him are correct, but as I am focusing on this period in Britain, any references to Arthur will be to this possible post-Roman Arthur.

A fantastic amount history on the period exists from lots and lots of different authors.  John Morris (The Age of Arthur) is a favorite, as is Leslie Alcock (Arthur's Britain).  Geofrey Ashe, although later on the field, also gives a good tilt with The Discovery of King Arthur, incorporating more modern evidence.  Ashe actually predates Morris (the 73 version) and Alcock (71) with The Quest for Arthur's Britain (1968).

Uniquely wonderful work by Angus McBride - from Osprey

There are many more, a short list starts on the Abe Books community page on the Age of Arthur (referenced earlier, for the fiction listed there).  A nice introduction to the period from an academic viewpoint is available here from Mark Gardner.  If you have access, the Great Courses title King Arthur: History and Legend from Prof. Dorsey Armstrong is quite excellent, and covers such modern topics as Hollywood treatments, and even Monty Python (along with a great survey of all the historical literature - Monmouth through Mallory, and many others beside).

Dorsey Armstrong lecture series - Excellent!
 Of the list of resources above, the introduction to the wider period by Gardner, and the Morris and Alcock books are properly Sub-Roman British history, the others are peculiarly Arthurian (albeit with one foot firmly in history, in all cases).  A most excellent survey of serious historical works on Sub-Roman Britain can be found in the article by Snyder at the Vortigern Studies website.

Online there is a fantastic historical resource available from History File that has an interactive map of the various kingdoms of this period, each providing a resources page with notable leaders and historic events of those kingdoms.

There is an extremely useful Fashion of the Centuries website with a history of Anglo Saxon costume (both civilian and military) from 460AD to 1066AD.

A lot has been written on Arthur, and whether or not he existed, was he just a prototype of an actual warrior, just a fiction?  I am going to concentrate here, on the version that a lot of Arthurian scholars might say is the best chance of being close to a historic personage.  This is the Arthur of the 5th/6th century - not the Arthur we find in the later Romance fictions (such as the excellent works all after Geoffrey of Monmouth - including Chretien De Troyes, Mallory, and later authors).  A reasonable web resource is a series of articles written by Barry Jacobsen and published on his military history website The Deadliest Blogger (a corrected, and reordered, version of the series is on Scout, linked below).  The articles are accompanied by loads of images and paintings from things like Osprey manuals, and other sources, but the information is sound, and of interest to a potential gamer interested in this period.

The Age of Arthur (in 21 parts) - Part One starts here
The end of Roman Rule in Britain
Vortigern's struggle for power
The Defense of Roman Britannia
The Armies of Vortigern and Hengist
The Saxon Terror
Ambrosius Aurelianus
Shadow in the East
Britain Stands Alone
Origins of Arthur
Possible Origins of Arthur
Cerdic the Saxon
The Lindsey Campaign
Arthur's Northern Campaign
War to the Knives
The City of the Legion
Dux Bellorum
Revolt in the North
The Hill of Agned
A Gathering of Wolves
Arthur Returns South
The Battle of Badon Hill

This is a fun to read series, and has a lot of valuable references in it.  One of the things that the author, Jacobsen, does here is cover (in reasonable detail, given how much evidence we have available) the 12 battles of Arthur, as recorded by Nennius, the Welsh Monk responsible for writing History of the Britons, at around the year 828 AD.  He covers Arthur with surprising detail, given that earlier Arthur references were mostly in folklore and settled into the mythology of a variety of peoples.  Nennius relates Arthur's battles to specific places, and describes (somewhat detailed) the effect it had on the Saxon leadership.  Whether or not these battles were actually fought (and won) by a war leader (Dux Bellorum, or simply Dux) named Arthur is not as important, for the wargamer, as the fact that they are descriptions of plausible Dark Ages battles.  The book was written in the height of, or even the late, Dark Ages, but the battles described certainly go back to the first century or so after the departure of Roman authority in the isles.  The twelve battles, as described by Nennius, are:
1. Battle at the River Glein
2., 3., 4., and 5. The Campaign in Lindsey
6. The River Bassas
7. The Celyddon (Caledonian) Forest
8. Guinnion Fort
9. The City of the Legion
10. The River Tribuit
11. Agned Hill
12. Badon Hill

For a wargamer of the period interested in the geography of Britain, there is a nice article describing the sites mentioned in the Nennius account, online, as the 28 Cities of Britain by David Nash Ford.  Using that information, along with the descriptions of Arthur's 12 battles would make for a nice set of wargaming scenarios.

A lot of gaming resources are available for this period, but one that I have always enjoyed (and made use of a few times) is the Diplomacy Variant known as Bretwalda (or, specifically, Bretwalda-2).  This is a variant map and some additional rules for the British Isles (including Ireland) starting in the year 620.  The kingdoms involved are:

  • Dalriada
  • East Anglia
  • Gwynedd
  • Kernow
  • Leinster
  • Mercia
  • Northumbria
  • Pictland
  • Wessex 

Years ago we ran a fantasy campaign of "Hordes of the Things" set on that map, with special rules for Merlin and a Dragon (non player units that roamed the map, randomly, and affected armies).  There was also a possibility of a great sea serpent swallowing up any fleet that remained at sea over a turn.

Earlier on Gaming with Chuck, the most excellent supplement for Warhammer Historical Battles that covers this period was covered, the Age of Arthur.  It is a great book, with historical armies for the period, tons of evocative art and pictures of perfectly painted miniatures, and a great selection of scenarios.

Sometimes it seems as if Daniel Mersey is keeping the dream alive for early medieval wargaming these days - first he had Glutter of Ravens (Arthurian rules and information from Outpost Wargame Services), then it was Dux Bellorum (Arthurian rules and lists,etc, from Osprey), and these days it is Lion Rampant (general medieval from Osprey) and Dragon Rampant (fantasy heir to the previous).  Great games, all of them, and Daniel (as an archaeologist, I believe) is well suited in his medieval knowledge, and certainly in his Arthurian knowledge.  Not pictured below, he is author author of Song of Arthur and Merlin from Ganesha Games.  Answers and discussions about Dan Mersey games can be found at the Dux Rampant forums.

In recent years, the ruleset Saga has really taken off, and it covers the expanded Viking age, including some of the period in discussion here.  With the supplements, they tend towards the later part of the period - solidly in the Viking Age, and beyond (1066 is not the end for these rules . . .).  Extremely popular.  Lots of great websites and resources for Saga, but the fan run Tapestry is a great spot for info.  One of the things that has made Saga more interesting (to me) for this period is the recent supplement, Aetius and Arthur, covering the Sub-Roman (Arthurian) period of Britain.  Excellent...

Finally, there are (in the miniatures category) the wide, wide variety of general miniatures rules that cover this period.  This goes back to the earliest days (Grant, Featherstone, Bath) and on up through WRG, many others, and today's offerings such as Warrior, DBM, DBA, Art De La Guerre, Field of Glory and many others.  Some have been reviewed on this blog, and I have long been a fan of Might of Arms.  The Hail Caesar rules (Rick Priestley) are extremely popular, and Warlord is doing a great job of supporting the rules with fantastic figures - both metal and plastic.  Their army book covering Late Antiquity to Early Medieval is a perfect companion for battles from this time period. The Warlord website has loads of information and articles about the rules, armies, painting, etc.

These days, I am also very much a fan of the (the late) Terry Gore rules - especially the reprint that Foundry did a few years back, "Medieval Warfare".  These start in the year 450AD (the same year that the other set from Terry Gore - "Ancient Warfare" - ends).  Army lists are included, and the Foundry version (not surprisingly) has great art internally.  The cover is a bit garish, but hey - it catches your attention!

Because of their interest in the period, and because of the fantastic figures they have come out with support for Tomahawk Studios and SAGA, the miniatures manufacturer Gripping Beast has a ton of great figures for this time period (Dark Ages).  They have recently come out with their own set of big battle rules, that look pretty good, but I have not read them or played them yet.  They are called Swordpoint, by Martin Gibbins. Wargames Illustrated has posted a great video introduction to the rules.  Well worth watching, if you think they might serve for this period.

Lots more can be done, and this article should be followed up with a second on the Later Dark Ages.  A separate article on the boardgames covering this time period is also warranted, but this is an introductory piece, and I wanted to share some images and links that I have had lurking around in my bookmarks list.  I hope they are useful.