The era of King Arthur, commonly referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’, was not the dark and dreary time often portrayed. ‘Dark’ refers to the lack of historical material about the period from 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.
For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other. The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the Welsh people. That with the Romans gone, the Britons now faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east was simply more of the same. After the Romans left, the Welsh had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is now Wales and England—for about five minutes.
It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some European tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions. This plan ultimately backfired and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups. Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.
The legend of King Arthur sits at a resting point between the Saxon advance and the Welsh retreat. The siege of Mt. Badon took place some time around the year 500 AD, and was such a great victory that it created a generation of breathing space for the Welsh. They did not gain more land, but it freed them from endless war. This is the gift that Arthur gave his people, and the enduring fact behind his legend.
With Arthur’s death, the battles began again, and continued through the Norman conquest, to the lonely death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282 AD, thus ending, for the next 700 years, the dream of an independent Welsh people.