"508 Her Cerdic 7 Cynric ofslogon aenne brettisccyning, pam was nama Nataleod, 7 .v. pusendu wera mid him. AEfter was paet lond nemned Natanleaga op Cerdicesford."
"508. This year Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king, whose name was Natanleod, and five thousand men with him. After this was the land named Natanleaga from him, as far as Cerdices ford."
So runs an intriguing entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles written at the end of the ninth century. There may be some inaccuracies in terms of dates (remember these Chronicles were written some 300 years after the event) and following adjustments to the calendar during the intervening period but it does indicate one of the early battles in the invasion of England by the Saxons.
The period from the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410AD to the height of the Anglo Saxon power is known as the 'Dark Ages' as so little is known of this time. This has not prevented the creation of popular stories about what might have occurred, principle among which are those of King Arthur and 'The Lord Of The Rings' trilogy.
The battle of Natanleaga was probably key in the creation of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and so in English history generally. But where was it and what really happened?
I have for some time been working on a history of a nearby hill fort known as Tatchbury Mount and have discovered Natanleaga is generally accepted to be the village of Netley Marsh in Hampshire, in the shadow of the fort.
Before The Battle
Several sources state Cerdic and his son Cynric landed at a place called Cerdics-ore (Cerdics-mouth) and moved inland. This location is less easy to pin down but is almost certain to be around Calshot or Lepe at the mouth of Southampton Water. The 2001 Hampshire Gazetteer believed Cerdics-ore changed to Calshore and then Calshot. The beach at Lepe is also possible as this was the port used by the Romans to travel across to the Isle of Wight. Lepe is also the start of a Roman road. O.G.S.Crawford writing in 1931 felt a more likely landing place would be Totton or Eling at the deep inland on Southampton water. However, this would still bring the Saxons onto the Roman road albeit further along.
The existence of a road is significant. An army wanting to move fast would take advantage of an easy route, especially in this terrain. Indeed Dr G.B.Grundy (1861-1948) established that Saxon armies habitually followed important highways, which they called 'herepaths' ('here' meaning 'army'). The names of Netley Marsh and its neighbours Calmore (or Calmoor, 'Moor' meaning marshland), Marchwood (Marshwood) and Applemore give an indication of the land around at the time. The area between them and the nearby inlet of Southampton Water was heavy marshland and bog. Roman road RR423 was really the only choice.
In attempting to identify the northern end of this road, I placed it to the west of Tatchbury Mount but found a sunken lane to the east, which could be a Roman road. Recently Arthur 'Nobby' Clarke, a former historian of the Ordnance Survey, made a survey of this road and found it ran up the edge of Southampton Water, up Calmore Road in Totton, right past the entrance to the hill fort, crossed road RR422 and joined another road beyond. This ran it straight through the sunken lane. It all fitted.
It became clear the Saxon army must have followed road RR423 to near Tatchbury. Perhaps king Natanleod was waiting in the hill fort? Evidence shows the Romans and Dark Age people often occupied such Iron Age forts. It seems possible the Saxons would spread across the higher ground to do battle rather than risk the mire (now largely covered by modern housing) below. Maybe now we are getting an idea of the battle site.
The Battle Of Netley Marsh
The battle was clearly bloody and decisive with 5000 men killed, among them was King Natanleod. Sharon Turner in his book 'History Of The Anglo-Saxons' (written 1799-1805) believed he knew how the battle was fought.
"This was something like a national conflict between the two contesting races. Cerdic increased his own strength by auxiliary forces from the Saxons in Kent and Sussex, and Natanleod assembled the greatest army of Britons that had yet met the Saxons together. He directed his main attack on their right wing, where Cerdic commanded, and drove it from the field, but, too eager in pursuit, he allowed this chieftain's son to move on him in the rear and the victory was wrenched from his grasp. He fell with 5000 Britons, and such was the extent of his disaster, that all the region near the scene of conflict became afterwards called by his name."
Following the battle it seems the Saxon horde consolidated their position in southwest Hampshire. Tatchbury was well positioned in terms of roads as a major Roman road (RR422) crossed RR423 just beyond the hill fort and beyond that an ancient track, the Cloven Way, lead north to Old Sarum (Salisbury) via an intriguing earthwork named Stagbury Mount. The course of this track, which predated the Romans, can still be seen from the air.
Such good communications enabled Cerdic to press on and take more ground (Crawford points out there is little arable farmland in the area between the rivers Test and Avon), probably including the city of Venta Belgarum (Winchester), which may well have been King Natanleod's capital and became the capital for succeeding kings. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles relates that Cerdic and Cynric "undertook the government of the West Saxons" in 519AD and the same year fought a battle at Cerdices ford (Charford), a settlement on the river Avon and on the Cloven Way just below Old Sarum.
The battle of Netley Marsh can thus be seen as the foundation of the kingdom of Wessex.
Connections With King Arthur
Students of the Arthurian legends have several theories about this battle, which would require an entire article in their own right. The identities of both Cerdic and Natanleod are open to debate. Indeed some historians even doubt the existence of Natanleod (which, if true, would make the battle very tame).
Cerdic may well be half Briton, perhaps a warlord elsewhere in the country, but there has been a suggestion he may have been King Arthur himself. Others feel Natanleod might have been either Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father, or Ambrosius Aurelianus, Uther's brother.
My particular interest lies in the fact that the Saxons did not seem to go any further west than the river Avon. Was there a British warlord preventing them?
It is tempting to believe that we, in the modern age, know all there is to know about history but if the Battle of Netley Marsh teaches us one thing that is there is so much more to be discovered. This is particularly true when one realises that 90% of the 1366 hill forts in Britain have not been examined.
Ironically history changes with everything we find and we still have so much more to learn.