A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem – Part One

08 Feb

Click HERE for Part Two

My first attempt at an Arthurian battle poem was an uncritical look at the Arthurian list in the Historia Brittonum (H.B.).  This time, I’m basing them on a more critical appraisal of ‘Nennius’ battle list.  First a reminder of the Harleian version of the list.  I’ve put possible rhyming couplets in bold:

“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain (Prydein) fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders [shield]; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.”

The battles that either don’t have a rhyme, or have more than one, are Celidon/Guinnion/Caer Lion and Badon.  (Celidon and Badon rhyme, but they aren’t placed together in the list).  This could be because the battles rhymed with something else – as I have attempted in my earlier poems – but the other reason could be these have been added to the list.  Caer Lion could be the Battle of Chester c. 614, as argued by many; although it would be strange to choose a battle that was a known disaster for the British.  Cat Coit Celidon could be influenced by the battle of Arderydd (Arthuret, Cumbria) c. 630, where Myrddin supposedly went to live after going mad.  Bassas could be the death of Cynddylan and there are others that could be added to the list.  But the major point about the battle at Celidon Wood, one I have questioned myself but was eloquently pointed out by Christopher Gidlow (Reign of Arthur. 2004), is that it is in Latin – silua Celidonis – and glossed in British: Cat Coit Celidon in the Harleian version.  Of course, the whole section was written in Latin, but this is the only one to be glossed.  This would seem odd if it was from a British poem.  If it is removed, it does then give a rhyming couplet of Guinnion and Cair Lion.

Gidlow doesn’t believe this section to have come from a battle poem, or certainly not in its entirety.  He thinks it could be from three sources: poem, folklore and written Latin text.  He also argues that the language change that happened would mean these places were pronounced differently, but that may only be the case if a poem was constructed during Arthur’s life, as opposed to, say, between 580 and 630 when the other battle poems flourished.  I was interested to see Keith Matthew-Fitzpatrick’s (Bad Archaeology blogger) 2010 paper, ‘The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum’ (available on Scribd) also pointing this out:

A poem in this genre cannot have been composed for an Arthur active c 500 … on the grounds that the Old Welsh implied by the rhyming scheme did not yet exist as a language (we might expect traces of inflected endings, for instance). It must therefore be a retrospective listing and not just an updating of a Neo-Brittonic poem into Old Welsh, as the rhyming scheme makes sense only in Old Welsh. Nevertheless, it is possible that it could date from before the end of the sixth century, within a century of the likely floruit of the Arthur described in the Historia Brittonum.” (p.19)

That is, unless those Neo-Brittonic inflected endings actually helped the rhyming, as there were lots of *os and *o endings.

It has to be mentioned that there are those who think this section of the H.B. either a complete fake or later construct (Dumville et al) or that an Arthur of unknown identity simply had battles that ranged over time added to his name. (I think there are other possibilities, which I will get to later). For example, the Old English poem Widsith, which is thought to have appeared at the same time as the H.B., talks of the 6th century Anglo-Saxon Widsith fighting at places that he could not have fought in. The difference being, he’s saying he fought Assyrians, Egyptians and Hebrews, to name but three (there are over fifty!). The H.B section doesn’t do this, even if later Arthurian legends did take him further afield. This Arthur appears firmly situated in Britain (unless some were in Amorica/Brittany). This might point to the fact that the English of the 9th century knew as much about Arthur as the Britons so ‘Nennius’ (or whomever) couldn’t get carried away.

There is another thing to keep in mind: Bassas and Badon do not appear to be British names. Bassas certainly doesn’t. Badon, according to the Welsh language expert Dr. G. I. Isaac, appears to be a British borrowing of the Old English word ‘bath’. (But, as August Hunt has pointed out, this doesn’t necessarily point to Bath in Somerset). If Bassas refers to the Churches of Bassa (possibly Baschurch, Shropshire) or any other Bassas based place in England, then we’d either have to have a) someone with an Anglo-Saxon name being a Christian, b) this being a later addition or c) There was a known battle but it was in an area now known as Bassas. (There is a Latin name Bassus (which means “thick, fat, stumpy, short”) and even a St. Bassus – a martyred bishop of Nice in France –  but I’m unsure if this could have mutated to Bassas?).

Confused? You will be!

There is also the added confusion when we look at the later Vatican recension of the H.B.:

“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders [shield?], and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.”

As you can see, there are some differences.  This (later) version makes more of the ‘Arthur as a soldier’.  The Glein is called the Gleni.  This says, “… by the Britons called Duglas”, probably because the river was already known by another name by the English (which might mean it couldn’t be a river still known by that name either in the 10th century, or even today).  This one also glosses urbe Legionis.  It gives more detail to the battle at Guinnion (which the scribe has written as Gurnion) and actually mentions the Saxons.  It makes Agned, Bregion leaving no rhyme for Trat Treuroit (Tribruit) - although it’s not a great rhyme – and at the Siege of Mount Badon 940 are killed and not 960 (that’s forty-seven score as opposed to forty-eight score).

The history of the various H.B. manuscripts is an extremely complexed one, not only beyond the scope of this blog, by my ken!  To quote Keith Matthew-Fitzpatrick’s 2010 paper:

“The textual history of the Historia Brittonum is well known to be complex to the point that it is all but impossible to determine what the original text contained. Some forty manuscripts are known to exist, not all of equal weight in reconstructing the text and not all of independent value, as some are clearly copies of extant manuscripts. The work was also quoted by several Anglo-Norman historians and even the French encyclopaedist Lambert of St-Omer (Dumville 1976b), who may have had access to manuscripts no longer extant. Most recent editions, though, have used British Library Harleian MS 3859, of c  1100, as their base, with commentators often stating that it is the best text (e.g. Tolstoy 1961, 118;; Dumville 1994, 406), although they are generally reticent about their reasons for regarding it as such. The principal reason appears to be that it is the fullest text without the clearly interpolated passages of the pseudo-Nennian recension: it is a member of the only recension to contain the genealogies of Anglo-Saxon kings and the so-called Northern History. Since the preface attributing it to Nennius which is found only in another recension of manuscripts specifically lists Saxon genealogies as among the materials he has heaped together, this has been seen as supporting the primacy of the Harleian text.” (p.3)

Keith believes there to have been an earlier archetype version of the H.B. that all the others were based on, possibly dating to the mid-8th century – some sixty years before the Harleian recension.

“Importantly, though, the Chartres recension not only lacks the computus §16 but also contains a rambling passage towards the end of §31, which seems to indicate that it should be dated to some point after the mid-eighth century (sicut libine abas iae in ripum ciuitate inuenit uel reperit, ‘as Sl.bine, Abbot of Iona (752-767) came across or discovered in the city of Ripon’). In other words, the passage dating the Historia Brittonum to 828×9 is secondary and must date the archetype of the remaining branches containing the Vatican, Harleian, pseudo-Gildas, pseudo-Nennius and Sawley recensions.” (p.3)

He even gives his battle list version of this … but, unfortunately, for me, he did it in Latin only.  As for the Agned problem:

“The results of this cladistic analysis do not produce a text of the Arthurian section of §56 that is radically different from Mommsen’s, but at least one well-known problem is cleared up: the difficult in monte qui dicitur <agned> of the Harleian recension. It has long been suspected to have been truncated, as its close relatives render the clause in longer form as in monte qui dicitur cat bregomion, but a consideration of the Vatican recension’s in monte qui nominatur breguoin, ubi illos in fugam uertit quem nos cat bregion appellamus enables us to reject <agned> completely as an inferior reading. Although we cannot now be certain of the original reading, we can reconstruct something along the lines of in monte qui dicitur breguoin, [*id est ] cat bregion (*id est is added as in the other instance where an Old Welsh battle name is given, it is introduced with the phrase id est). It is therefore apparent that the nonsensical must be a corrupt contraction of A W Wade-Evans (1910,134) wrongly believed that in monte badonis was a late intrusion into the text and that and breguoin were the eleventh and twelfth battles respectively. There is no textual justification for this view.

Other alterations include the rejection of the Harleian recensions’s regnum cantorum for regnumcantuariorum, bringing the spelling in this section into line with other parts of the Historia, the insertion of *traith (spelled traht in the Vatican recension) before tribruit, clarifying the meaning, and the alteration of the number of victims of a single attack by Arthur to 940. What is most remarkable is the stability of the placenames in the different versions: the variants are few in number, easily explicable in terms of palaeography and, with the sole exception of in monte qui dicitur <agned>, of little importance.” (p.4)

Hope you followed that!

Poetic justice

What it means for most of the H.B. battles being based solely on a poem is obvious.  As I mentioned above, removing Celidon isn’t a problem, as long as Caer Lion wasn’t originally glossed, but replacing Agned with Breguoin/Bregion (Brewyn in Welsh) is, as it leave no (dubious) rhyme with Tribruit/Treuroit.  Of course, it is possible that all the battles didn’t rhyme but were still part of a poem.  The other examples of known battle poems attest to this.  In fact, it could be even stronger evidence, rather than weaker; everything rhyming would be more suspect.  The question is more to why Agned was inserted instead of Bregion? The answer could be in those version of the H.B. which say “agned cat(h) bregomion”, putting both together.  This is what I did in my Arthurian stanza.  If Keith is right, however, and it should only be Bregion, then this requires something that rhymes with Tribruit. Of course, this is a different challenge for me writing in English than for a British bard … in so many ways!

If Cat Coit Celidon (‘Battle of the Wood of Celidon’) wasn’t originally part of the (a) poem then one wonders why ‘Nennius’ placed it where he did.  Did he have other information or is it simply because he too could see it would rhyme with Caer Lion and Guinnion?  If it is from a Latin text, this means that something had been written about Arthur that didn’t fall under the British speaking oral bardic tradition, although it may have originally come from this.  We can only be left to wonder what this might have been.  If Arthur did fight at Celidon, but it was not part of a British poem, then why did the composer miss it off, or why wasn’t it part of the Arthurian lore that he knew? It seems even more odd considering his mention in Y Gododdin, which is exactly the region of Celidon … or, rather, where most think it to be.  Not being part of the poem would suggest the poem not being about his entire life, or it was, indeed, added.  The alternative is it was placed in the poem in Latin, but this would be unusual.  (I’ll explore this more in Part Two).

As for the other information in the poem, one very suspect element is the reference to the Virgin Mary.  This has nothing to do with the argument of whether ‘shoulder’ or shield’ was meant, but there not being a known Madonna cult (not the singer or the footballer!) in Britain in the 5th/6th centuries … unless you believe Graham Philips (co-author of King Arthur: the True Story) who, in his new book The Marian Conspiracy, say she was buried on Anglesey! Hm … However,  St. Mary’s abbey on Bardsey Island western Wales was supposedly set up by St. Cadfan in the Early-6th century

Richard Barber in his book The Figure of Arthur (1972) points this out:

“… we still have to account for the remarkable choice of the Virgin Mary as ‘patron saint’. Mariolatry developed almost entirely in the Eastern Church, and spread only slowly through the west from the fifth century onwards. The majority of French and German churches dedicated to her are not earlier than the seventh century and the major festivals associated with her cult were only introduced after the Gallican liturgy had been replaced by that of Rome towards the middle of the eighth century.” (pp.101/102)

How many?!

Much has been made of the mention of Arthur killing 940/960 single-handedly, but this is purely a bardic device, just as Aneirin tells us that the man who is compared with Arthur, Gwawrddur, “charged before three hundred of the finest”.  If this wasn’t originally part of the poem, it’s certainly something that folklore could have added.  The alternative is a reading of the poem in such a way that interprets it this way. (See poem in Part Three).

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to you thoughts, comments and corrections (see comments below)..

Until Part Two,


Click HERE for Part Two

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18 responses to “A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem – Part One

  1. Dane Pestano

    February 8, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Fantastic work Mak, Very useful and has given me some useful quotes, especially like the Virgin Mary quote from Barber which looks correct as there is a Latin half uncial stone inscription, dating it to around the 6th to 8thC, in Ireland, where the name is `Devotee of Mary’ – MAELMAIRE.

  2. badonicus

    February 9, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Thanks Dane … and very interesting about the Irish inscription.

    Part Two coming soon,


  3. Pedro Henrique Hasselmann

    August 9, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Hi Mak,

    Great text on HB.
    About Virgin Mary problem, Gidlow raised the hypothesis that the “shoulders+mary” could be related to the cape some Roman Generals used, as in the Diptych of Stilicho in Monza cathedral.

    Now, I raise my question: Were the roman generals enshrined by some Holy Mary cult? Or only Stilicho seems to be devoted to her?

    This could help in the Arthur the Romano-british hypothesis, I think.

    • badonicus

      August 22, 2011 at 11:43 am

      Pedro, I haven’t been able to find anything that suggests a Roman general’s cult of the Virgin Mary.

  4. badonicus

    August 9, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Yes, I know about Gidlow’s theory on this and it could have found its way into the Arthurian legend. I don’t know of other Roman generals being devoted to the Virgin Mary, and we only know about Stilicho because of his image. I need to look into that.


  5. Foundations

    January 17, 2012 at 11:30 am

    4 out of 9 sites &/or 7 out of 12 battles were fought near rivers!

  6. Foundations

    January 17, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    some possible candidates from that list:

    glyme(evenlode/thames) glynde(ouse) glem(stour) glen(welland) glenderaterra/glenderamackin(greta) lymeRegis glen(till)
    bassenthwaite(derwent) biss(avon)



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