* UPDATED 1.6.12
Arthur son of Bicoir (born c. 580-600?)
Arthur son of Bicoir the Briton (ab Artuir filio Bicoir Pretene) is an interesting character as he isn’t given mac or maic for ‘son’, but the Latin filio of the word and is said to be a Briton or from Britain (Pretene). Even the spelling of Pretene is odd as the Irish didn’t use the letter p, and it would normally be spelled Cruthene or the like. It is generally accepted that this is derived from *Qritani or *Qriteni from Pretani, and it can be confusing at times as to whether ‘Britons’ with ‘Picts’ (also called Cruthni) are meant.
It appears that this Arthur was from Kintyre, which was part of Hibernian Dál Riata (Dalriada). This would seem to confirm it was a mixed ethnic area, unless he was brought in from ‘outside’. However, we also don’t know the ethnicity of his mother and, therefore, him … not to mention he could be completely fictional or even another Arthur entirely (see below).
Why was it needed to be said he was a Briton? Possibly because anyone reading the name Arthur would think they were of Hibernian stock … or was it because of what he (supposedly) ended up doing, so they had a Briton to blame?
This Arthur was supposedly involved in some assassination (or execution or invasion) work on either Islay or in what is now Ulster; possibly as an aire echta (‘noble of death-deed’/’nobleman of slaughter’). This is if he wasn’t purely a poetic devise as explored by J F Nagy in A Companion to Arthurian Literature (2009).
This Arthur appears in the 11th century Irish compilation The Annals of Tigernach. The annals gives a fragment of a poem by Bec Boirche, a 7th/8th century Ulster king and, presumably, bard.
“625 Mongan, son of Fiachna of Lurga was struck with a stone by Arthur son of Bicoir the Briton, and was crushed. About this, Bec Boirche said:
‘Cold is the wind across Islay,
There are warriors in Kintyre,
They shall commit a cruel deed in retribution,
They shall kill Mongan, son of Fiachna.
Where the Church of Cluan Airthir is today,
Renowned were the four there executed;
Cormac Caem, with screaming
And Illann, son of Fiachra;
And the other two, — To whom many territories paid tribute,– Mongan, son of Fiachna of Lurgan and Ronan, son of Tuathal.”
If he was acting as an aire echta, he seems to have gone beyond what this ‘job’ entailed. Here’s what the Irish Brehon Laws say an aire echta did:
IV 324.-109. The aire echta, why is he so called? Because he is a leader of five who is left to do feats of arms in [a neighbouring territory under] treaty-law for the space of a month, to avenge an offence against the honour of the tuath, one of whose men has been lately slain. If they do not (avenge this) within a month, they come upon treaty-law, so that their beds do not follow him from without. If they kill men within treaty-law, the same five, the aire echta must pay on their behalf, provided that land or bronze of a cauldron be not paid for it, but vessels to the value of a cow. He brings them out then to be …… till the expiration of treaty-law, (taking them) on the number of his protection and (that) of his friends, His retinue and his sick-maintenance are due as (those) of anaire desso. (MacNeill, 1923, pp.297/298)
Perhaps Arthur got carried away with his work!
There are some, including Arthurian author August Hunt, who wonder if Bicoir is a corruption of Petuir, as B and P can be interchanged, and c an t could be mistaken in these early manuscripts. This would make it possible that Arthur ap Pedr (Petuir) and Arthur son of Bicoir, might be one and the same … although their dating is somewhat different. He argues that Kintyre in Argyle could instead be Pembroke (Penbrog/Pen broc) in Dyfed. Both names do mean the same: ‘Headland’. But a look at the Domnall Brecc poem from Y Gododdin tells us they called Kintyre, ‘Bentir ‘(Pentir) in British, not ‘Benbroc’.
(The name Bicoir – Latin Beccurus – is said by Patrick Sims-Williams to come from British *Bikkorix or “Little King”. (The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: Phonology and Chronology, c. 400-1200).
Personally I’m not so sure about August’s argument. Apart from the dating discrepancy, it’s easy to imagine someone on a dynastic feuding mission from Kintyre to Islay or Ulster, but a little harder from Pembroke … though it’s not impossible, especially if we consider Nagy’s theory, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The odd thing about the poem is it mentions both the Dalriadian territories of Áedán’s (Cenél nGabráin) of Kintyre and Oengus’ (Cenél nOengusa) of Islay. It could mean that he was in Kintyre and would have to pass through Islay on his way to Ulster (Airthir=Armagh). It could also mean they were acting together or that he was from Kintyre and the ‘cold wind’ was blowing from Ulster via Islay, as the version of the poem in the Chronicon Scotorum has depicts:
Cold is the wind across Ile
Which blows against the youth of Cenn-tire;
They will commit a cruel deed in consequence;
They will kill Mongan, son of Fiachna.
Cormac caem and Illand son of Fiachu die.
Ronan, son of Tuathal died:—
Wherever it was this avenging took place it had to be in an area that was under treaty to his. The alternative is he wasn’t an aire echta at all, but the leader of a larger fianna (warband) as a ri fianna (leader of the warband). However, there is also this entry from the Annals of Clacmacnoise for 624 (Quoted by O’Donovan, FM, vol. i. p.243, note z):
“Mangan mac Fiaghna, a well spoken man, and much given to the wooing of woman, was killed by one ??? [Arthur ap] Bicoir, a Welshman, with a stone.” (The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal: To the Land of the Living, Kuno Meyer, 1895/2008, p.76).
This one doesn’t even mention Arthur, only Bicoir, whom it calls a Welshman, which may indicates a later dating. An interesting point here is how there is more than one version of the poem. This just shows that there wasn’t always a respect for accurate oral transmission, and how any poetry about an Arthur of Badon (if he and it existed) could have suffered the same consequences.
This Arthur doesn’t appear to have been a prince, although we’ll never know. (An aire echta could be anyone of this class, from nobleman to prince). He very well could have been considered a Briton rather than a Dalriadan Hibernian, unless even a Dalriadan who was from the British Isles would be termed as being from Britain. He would be contemporary with Artúr mac Conaing, if I’ve got my dating right, and could even have fought along side him. The problem is we don’t know how old he was in 625. Nor do we know the politcal situation between Britons and Gaels around this date. We also don’t know how accurate that poem about him is … and here’s the possible fly in the ointment!
Joseph Falaky Nagy thinks this Arthur could have been used because he was actually the ‘the famous one’. This is because, as mentioned earlier, this Mongán is semi-mythical. Here’s what Nagy says:
“In light of the fact that Mongán’s conception tale (preserved in a text as early as the seventh or eighth century) stands as the closest Celtic analogue to the account of Arthur’s deception-laden origins given by Geoffrey of Monmouth centuries later (Mac Cana 1972: 128–9), it is tempting to speculate that an Irish author familiar with both narrative traditions thought it would be fitting to have Mongán’s life come to an end at the hands of a figure that he construed as his British counterpart – or that the tradition the author was following was linking together figures who in other respects as well appear to be cognate reflections of a Celtic mythological type.” (2009, pp.117-118)
… and he goes on to remind us …
“In the same early cycle of stories about the mysterious Mongán cited above, in one of the most extraordinary references to reincarnation to be found anywhere in Celtic literatures (Nagy 1997: 303–7), we learn that he was a rebirth of the Irish hero Finn mac Cumaill, around whom is centered the so-called Fenian or Ossianic tradition of story and song, and whose long-lived fame was still attested in the repertoires of Irish and Scottish storytellers of the last century. The connection between Mongán and Arthur would be even stronger, then, if we accept the Dutch Celticist A. G. van Hamel’s unjustly overlooked thesis (anticipated in Nutt & Meyer 1895: 2.22–5) that Arthur the dux bellorum and Finn the leader of Ireland’s premier fian, “hunting and warring band,” are matching cognate manifestations of what he dubbed the Celtic “exemplary hero” (1934: 219–33).” (p.118)
On the point of Mongán being the rebirth of Finn in one of the stories and Mongán’s semi-mythical status, R. J. MacCulloch noted:
“This twofold account of Mongan’s birth is curious. Perhaps the idea that he was a rebirth of Fionn may have been suggested by the fact that his father was called Fiachna Finn, while it is probable that some old myth of a son of Manannan’s called Mongan was attached to the personality of the historic Mongan.” (The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p.351)
However, I have two thoughts on the above: firstly, Nagy isn’t correct in saying Arthur the “dux bellorum” (of the H.B.) and Finn are “ … matching cognate manifestations of what [Meyer] dubbed the Celtic “exemplary hero”. Finn and the Arthur of Welsh mythology may be similar, but Arthur of the H.B isn’t. Secondly, we don’t know how old the story of the conception of Arthur is. It could be a Geoffrey of Monmouth invention in the Early-12th century. There’s no mention of it in the early tradition that has survived.
Was this Mongán semi-mythical or just purely-mythical? This is important for knowing how to treat Arthur ap Bicoir. Was Mongán, indeed, merged with the supposed historical leader of the Dál n-Araidhe (south of Ulster Dál Riata) said to be from Ráth Mór (Rathmore) near Lough Neagh in Co. Antrim, Ulster? Or was he only this figure who was himself a complete fabrication? (A similar question to Arthur’s existence). It may be telling that he is missing from the Rawlinson genealogy for the Dál n-Araidhe, which only gives a Echach Iarlathi as the son and heir of Fiachnae mac Báetáin. Of course, if Mongán was only ever a prince and never made it to a king because of being bopped on the head by Arthur, then he wouldn’t be there.
If Bec Boirche’s poem is purely a story, or a semi-legendary one, then this changes things somewhat. The question that could be raised is: were both Mongán and this Arthur semi-mythical figures? There are a couple of interesting things to come out of this: if this Arthur is the one of fame he could not only be the one of Badon but also his father’s name is given as Bicoir (or the name it was thought to be at the time) and this would answers the age-old question about whether Uthur actually was his da or not.
But why would the poet need to say that they were Britons? Nagy interoperates it as “Artú(i)r son of Bicóir” from Britain” and that could be the case, whether they were Gael or not. Kuno Meyer of the 19th century, in Nutt’s Voyage of Bran, points to the same entry in the Bodleian MS., Rawlinson, B. 488, fo. 9b, 2, where it reads …
“Mongan mac Fíachna Lurgan ab Artuir filio Bicoir Pretene lapite percussus interit, – Mongan mc Fiachna Lurgan dies struck with a stone by Arthur, son of Bicoir of Preten.”
… and he translates Preten(e) as Pictland. However, no one else does, although a Pict doing the job wouldn’t be out of the question.
There were on and off relations with Alt Clut at the time and, I suppose, it could be possible that the hired a Briton from here to do their dirty work. The downside to this hypothesis is that it would bring the might of the Dál n-Araidhe down on Alt Clut!
Unfortunately, Nagy doesn’t comment on why this Arthur, if he was ‘the famous one’, was said to have killed Cormac, Illand and Ronan. Were these also semi-mythical? Either way, he is still an intriguing character and Nagy’s theory should be given more consideration.
If this poem is an accurate or semi-accurate depiction of events and this Arthur is of the early 7th century, and not ‘the famous one’, then the news of his deeds may have travelled far and wide. He’s the kind of warrior others may have wanted on their side. Is he the one mentioned in Y Gododdin? Once again it comes down to if he was the enemy or not when Y Gododdin was composed, or if this Arthur was a mercenary. Even if the one mentioned in Y Gododdin wasn’t this Arthur, could his exploits have been attached to the legend at a later date? If so, that would most likely have to come via Stathclyde if they did.
In the next blog we’ll be staying in the region to look at two unusual figures. One who was the grandfather of an Arthur – Feradach hoa Artúr (ca 697) – and one who may or may not have had an Arthur name and who was either a Pict or Hiberno-Pict: Artharus rig Cruthni (date uncertain).
Thanks for reading,