Tag Archives: Alex Woolf

King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Eight


As I mentioned in earlier parts of this blog, the same ‘all or nothing’ argument goes for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as Dumville, Higham and Green are concerned (although Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else). For Higham the H.B. uses Arthur purely as a ‘Joshua figure’ to St Patrick’s ‘Moses’ type, and the 12 battles are simply a Biblical providential number. (The number is certainly not based on Joshua, who fought 31 of them!). I think the H.B. may very well be using Arthur in this way, (although Gidlow points out how unlike his supposed Biblical counterpart Arthur is made) but that doesn’t mean he or the battles were made up (entirely?) for the purpose. Arthur, like Patrick (who is mythologized in the H.B.), could have been chosen because he fitted the bill … or was adjusted to fit the bill. Had someone else fitted this bill, it might be them we would be writing about. But what was it about him that made him the choice?

Higham argues that the format of the battles was merely taken from a known battle poem of Gwynedd: Canu Cadwallon ap Cadfan. Cadwallon has 16 battles to Arthur’s 12 (2007, pp.145-147). Nick Higham says:


Christopher Gidlow counters:


The Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith is sometimes brought in as an example here. In this 9th century poem about him, the fictitious 7th century poet (scop) is given travels all over the known world (over 50 places!) or knows of them. Arthur isn’t; he’s given nine locations, twelve battles, and all in Britain … as far as we know. (You can read the Widsith poem here: ). So he’s hardly a comparison at all.

If we look at the point of this section in the H.B. and why Arthur was used, it raises questions that, to me, Dumville et al do not address: whoever was placed at this point in the H.B. would have to be known as a ‘Saxon’ fighter, and possibly the victor at Badon. Unless we’ve lost the stories that included this information, the Arthur of the Welsh pre-Galfridian tradition did neither (unless we can count Llongborth). Nor is he anywhere in this tradition depicted as the leader of battle for kings of the Britons or the victor at Badon. If he was never seen as doing any of these things in Welsh tradition, what would be the point in using him or listing some mythical battles that his Welsh audience would have known were not against ‘Saxons’?

Let’s look at the battles in more detail and what was/is known about them. First the Harleian version of the H.B.:

“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the leader in battle [dux bellorum]. 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 [or 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 [Agned]. 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 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.”

Let’s take them one at a time, and rather than thinking about where these battles might have been, I want to consider where the H.B.’s North Walian readers might have thought these battles to be:

  1. At the mouth of (or a confluence of) the River Glein/Gleni. (Nothing known. Could be in Northumbria, Lincolnshire or Sussex … or other locations. Enemy unknown, but if the Welsh audience took this to mean Northumbria, then the enemy would be Northumbrian (Bernician) Angles - Angles would still be called ‘Saxons’).
  2. Four battles above the River Dubglas/Duglas in the region of Linnuis (Linnuis is generally taken to be Lindsey=Lincolnshire, but not all agree. However, this is where the H.B’s readers would most likely think them to have been. Enemy may have been taken to be Northumbrian (Deiran) Angles or East Angles).
  3. Above the River Bassas. (Several locations given. Said to be taken from Eglwysseu Bassa (Churches of Bassa) in the Canu Heledd poems. Apart from the difference between Bassa and Bassas, there is no River Bassas mentioned in these poems, only the Tren, Trydonwy, Twrch, Marchnwy, Geirw, Alwen and Hafren (Severn). In both poetic cases Bassa and Bassas are odd, none British names. The battles in Canu Heledd were against Northumbrian Angles. The H.B.’s audience may have taken this to have been against Northumbrian or Mercian Angles)
  4. At Coit Celidon (Wood of Celidon). (Thought to mean a woodland in the Scottish borders, but not by all. Green identifies this with the mythical battle of Coit Godue, although why it wouldn’t be called Coit Godue is anyone’s guess if this was the case. Enemy unknown, but if the H.B’s audience equated Celidon with the north they would have taken the enemy to be Northumbrian (Bernician) Angles).
  5. At Castello Guinnion/Gurnion. (Many identify this with the Roman fort of Vinuium (Binchester), although it is argued that this doesn’t work etymologically speaking by Jackson,(Once Again Arthur’s Battles, Modern Philology, 1945), but Rivet thinks it shouldn’t be reject out of hand (The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 1992). There is a Cerrig Gwynion in Wales, which is an old Iron Age hillfort between Llandudno and Bangor … not to mention the not far away hillfort of Bwrdd Arthur. Would the North Walian reader take it to be this location or Binchester? Enemy unknown, but may have been taken to be Northumbrian (Deiran) Angles if in the north or against Irish raider if in Wales).
  6. Urbe Ligionis (City of Legions). (Generally thought to be either Chester or Caerleon. Said to be a borrowing of the Battle of Chester of c. 613; a battle the Britons lost to the Northumbrians. This battle is mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work as Legecester (the Anglo-Saxon version of Fort of the Legion) and in the Welsh version, the Brut y Brenhinedd, the battle is called Perllan Fangor (Bangor Orchard). Bede calls Chester civitas legionum and Gildas calls somewhere urbs legionum (possibly Caerleon?). If Chester was known as Urbe Ligionis, this naming wasn’t used in any of these other works so Nennius didn’t get it directly from Gildas or Bede. In the Vatican recension of the H.B. it is glossed as meaning Cair Lion in Welsh. This is interesting because perhaps that should come from Castra Ligionis? There is some argument as to the difference between urbe (or urbs as used by Gildas) and cair/caer, and whether this could actually mean somewhere else, such as York, which was a civil colonia as well as a fortress and an administrative ‘city’. But most favour Chester or Caerleon even though the two mentions in the H.B. should mean Cair ligion/lion=Fortress of the Legion and Urbe Ligionis=City of the Legion (see P.J.C Filed’s article at ). If the readers thought this was Chester it would have been taken to be Mercian or Northumbrian Angles; if they thought it Caerleon they may have thought Mercians).
  7. On the banks of the Tribruit/Treuroit. (Various locations given. Argued to be a mythical battle because of its mention in the poem Pa Gur yv y Porthaur? and the story of Culhwch ac Olwen. Not ‘Saxon’?).
  8. At the mountain of Breguoin/Agned. (Argued to be a battle Urien Rheged  fought, called “cellawr Brewyn” or ‘cells of Brewyn’. Some identify the location with the Roman fort of Bremetennacum (Ribchester, Lancashire), but, once again, the etymology doesn’t work. (Rivet & Smith 1979, p.277). A better candidate might be Bremenium (High Rochester, Northumbria). Urien’s enemy in this battle is unknown although the “Angles” (‘Saxons’) are mentioned later in the poem, but other British and Gael enemies are also inferred. The battle merely appears in a list of seven in a Taliesin poem, but isn’t singled out. (See: ). It would most likely to have been taken to be Northumbrian Angles).
  9. At Mount Badon: (Generally located in the south around Bath/Badbury, but also Lincolnshire (Green) and other locations. Known battle against ‘Saxons’, as mentioned by Gildas in the 6th century. Dated between 483 and 516. The H.B.’s readers would most likely take the enemy to have been Wessex (West Saxons), unless they knew (or thought) otherwise).

NB: These English kingdoms (Mercian, Northumbria, etc.) wouldn’t have existed in the late 5th century, but the H.B.’s audience in general wouldn’t have known this and would think of the known kingdoms of the time. It is interesting to note that, to the H.B.’s readers at least, many of these battles may have been seen to be against Mercian or Northumbrian Angles. These were who the North Walians had had run-ins with, especially the latter in earlier times, whilst the south had problems with Saxon Wessex. Was this the reason why Arthur and/or these battles were chosen? If so, then Badon (if it was in the south) may not have been as important to them as his other battles. (Of course, I’m referring to who the H.B.’s readers might take the battles to have been against, not who they actually might have been against). It would mean the H.B. did three things: 1) showed Arthur defeated the Northumbrian’s (and Mercian’s) ancestors, 2) showed Cadwallon (died 634) of Gwynedd later defeated the Northumbrians, 3) refuted the Northumbrian monk Beds’s view of the Britons. Was this the point of Arthur? A call to unity as of old against the same old foe, whilst the Mercian were busy with the Danes?

(Alex Woolf, wonders if the genealogists have inserted Bede’s Cadwallon into the pedigree of the Kings of Gwynedd? He forwards that Bede’s Cadwallon might be Catguallaun liu, son of Guitcun, grandson of Sawyl Penuchel who were rulers in the north. Woolf, 2004).

The second part of this section will continue looking at the battles.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.



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King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Two

Map of Roman Britain, showing the road from Cl...


If these military positions, or one of them, did exist, in some form, in mid to late 5th century Britannia, the question arises as to who exactly these individuals would command: the province’s various warbands or his own provincial army … or both? Generals of the late empire would very often be in command of feoderati (federates) and/or bucellarii (literally meaning ‘biscuit eaters’), but, of course, they could afford them! The former would come in federate ethnic groups, the latter as individual mercenaries, and, perhaps, some ethnic groups.  Bucellarii where his personal household troop and could add up to a considerable number when needed. The magister militum Aegidius had 12,000 at one time.

Here is an interesting quote from a paper with the very long title of ARMIES, WAR, AND SOCIETY IN THE WEST, ca.300-ca.600:LATE ROMAN AND BARBARIAN MILITARY ORGANIZATIONS AND THE ‘FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE’ by Richard Abels:

Generals used federates and bucellarii

Dick Whittaker observes that the “twin process of soldiers becoming landlords and landlords becoming soldiers” in the late empire facilitated 1) the collapse of the frontiers, 2) the integration/fusion of German ‘barbarian’ and Roman culture, 3) the breakdown of law and the growth of a new culture of private power in which ‘the poor became increasingly dependent on the arbitrary will of the landed rich” (Rich 281). As soldiers became landlords and landlords became the masters of soldiers, private individuals became the heads of military retinues of bucellarii. Though by law bucellarii were required to take an oath not only to their employers (a private contract), but one as well to the emperor (public). Surviving Roman administrative records show that bucellarii performed public duties (under the direction of their civilian masters) and were liable for military service if called upon by government authorities. The wealthy Apion family of early sixth-century Egypt received tax breaks for hiring bucellarii, whom they used to collect taxes and maintain order during games in the hippodrome. (Lee 165, citing Liebeschuetz, Barbarians and Bishops 45-6. But, as Whittaker points out, “the public oath was of limited relevance if the patron rebelled or if imperial rule was not recognized: the loyalty of the soldiers than became private obsequium [a personal following]” (295).

Archaeologically, one of the key developments of the fifth century was the increasing ‘nucleation of rural sites. … Small farms disappeared, many vici (villages) were abandoned or removed to old Iron Age hilltop sites, while larger villas … survived, expanded and were often fortified. … [There is evidence] of concentration of property holdings, the increased isolation and inaccessibility of estates and the compulsion on peasants to seek the refuge of the rich’ (292).

Increasingly in the fifth century, the “remnants of the Roman army operated in towns,” and bands of bucellarii in the service of local great men, their patrons, controlled the countryside. The Roman sources term these bands as ‘robbers,’ but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority.

This process was not restricted to ‘Roman’ landlords. It was true also of German chiefs, many of whom were ‘Roman’ generals or federate chieftains. The distinction between ‘Roman’ and ‘German’ itself was disappearing as the cultures merged.

Germanic bodyguards were used by Emperors and it could be as much that they were there, not just for their violent tendency, but because they were (usually) neutral and exotic. (They looked different and talked differently).* This could have been as much the reason some British elites used them as any other … although the fact Constantine III may have taken all the best units (not all) with him to the Continent in his bid for the western Empire may have something to do with it. However, just as happened in the Empire, your bodyguard could turn against you. (Interesting that the emperor Augustus didn’t dismiss his bodyguard, but put them on an island out of harms way* just as the Britons are supposed to have done with the ‘Saxons’ on the Isle of Thanet. (But see THIS blog).


The question comes as to how a provincial force would (or could) operate in Sub Roman Britain, especially if the likes of Higham and Dark are right and we had both ‘tribal’ (‘Celtic’) king based kingdoms (in the west and north) and more civil and military civitates in the Midlands and east, at the same time? How do you get powerful kings and their warbands to work under an ‘outside’ commander? The other question is, how would they be ‘paid’? (Higham’s theory not withstanding that this civil zone was under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suzerainty or Chris Wickham‘s theory on a greatly fragmented Britain).

The answer to the first question could be that they would probably need to function, in some way at least, modeled on the Late Roman army system. (This, of course, being complicated by the Late Roman Empire’s use of barbarian federates who fought in the own ways). Whether they followed what militarily changes had been going on on the Continent is another matter, and their system may have been an old fashioned one, or a mixture of British and Roman. It may also depend on the part of the old diocese that was in question. If we take northern Britannia first, this could have seen an overall commander in charge of the various forces/warbands that occupied/re-occupied the still existing forts there when they were needed to come together as a combined force. This dux could have either been some over-king (or the equivalent) or a general in the employ of an over-king (as envisaged by Ken Dark). If this over-king had illusions of old imperial Roman grandeur he just might have done the latter. However, if this was the case he may have had to come from a ‘wealthier’ region of the north where surplus grain could be grown, such as the Yorkshire Plain. The old legions of the north had to rely on the southern grain regions to feed the amount of men that were there, though that number would be greatly reduced by this time.

We must also keep in mind, as discussed by Alex Woolf in ‘Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval’ (2003, p360), that kings of Gildas’s time – generally thought to be writing in the first half of the 6th century by all but Higham – in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) and before may not have functioned in the same way as later, Late 6th century and onward kings did and Gildas’s berated five kings of western Britannia may not be representative of those further east or in the north. Nor should the poetry of the 6th century bards Aneirin and Taliesin of the ‘Heroic Age’ be seen as showing how earlier or more Romanised ‘armies’ functioned. Woolf wonders if the other leaders Gildas isn’t happy with (but doesn’t mention by name) in these Romanised regions are the iudex mentioned by him:

Reges habet Britannia, sed tyrannos; judices habet, sed impios —“kings Britain has, but tyrants; judges she has, but wicked ones” (DEB, §27)

… if they are not one and the same as Gildas later says the kings also act as judges. Higham thinks these leaders were the rectores, speculatores and duces (more on this later).

The question often arises as to why use feoderati and bucellarii when you could use your own indigenous people? There are two answers: 1) Using, what has been termed the Gurkha Syndrome by military sociologist C.H. Enloe, you chose the most feared warriors to deal with the feared enemy, just as the British used the Gurkhas, and ‘Saxons’ were certainly feared. 2) Contrary to public perception, mercenaries are actually more likely to fight because that is their chosen profession, unlike some ‘levyman’ plucked from the fields. It also means you can keep them active for longer as they don’t have to farm. This is not to mention that mercenaries were very often put at the front, to save a kingdom’s own warriors.*

The more attractive alternative (and one perhaps borne out by the archaeology) might be that the various civitates and/or kingdoms that made up a province had to supply the men when needed for a combined force. Or, they were there to support a provincial army by only having to supplement a smaller group of feoderati and/or bucellarii that were the dux’s personal troop. This latter scenario might have been more acceptable, as any general with a large army could have become a threat himself. This would see him with his own smaller unit, or field army, for deal with raiding and the like, and supplemented by a combined large force for set battles. If this is how a historical Arthur did function it would be somewhat of an irony, especially if we add the possibility that he was of mix Hibernian (Gaelic) and British blood (More on this below or see THIS blog). Imagine: an Hiberno-British Arthur fighting with Germanic/Scandinavian/British/Hibernian mercenaries! Sacrilege! Yet perfectly normal for the time.

To need a provincial army, of course, would require there being a large enough enemy or enemies to warrant it, with a large enough border to protect, perhaps covering more than one civitas/kingdom. Or, maybe, it could be used to bring more force to bear at a particular point along that border than could be supplied by a single civitas/kingdom army? Is this restructuring what Ambrosius Aurelianus started and what enable the Britons to fight back?

How would they be paid? Well, they would be paid in kind, in some way; certainly not with money, except old coinage to melt down. They could also have been given food, metals or a share of any booty. They may have been promised land, either during service or after it.


Most Roman emperors didn’t lead from the front (although, of course, some did) unlike the Hellenistic kings, like Alexander, who did fight at the front.* How did the British kings in the 5th century see themselves? like their ancient British forefathers or like mini Roman emperors who used generals or what the later Welsh would call the pen teulu (captain of the kings retinue)? Could have been a mixture of course.


The Late Roman army had to change its tactics in the 5th century and learned that large pitched battles were not always the answer and smaller guerrilla type operations were the way to go against the northern barbarians. A type of warfare that had been used against them for centuries. It’s this kind of warfare that Collingwood envisaged Arthur undertaking as a comes with a field army against his enemies, who very often may not have been united themselves. It’s always possible that a commander of a provincial force would fight this way at times, as set battles with one large army against another is not always the answer. There would have to be offensive tactics used with surprise attacks on strategic points. Arthur’s supposed battles, many at rivers, may have been just this. Cutting off supply routes or attacking places such as salt production sites or mineral mines could also have been a method used.

(* My thanks to the Ancient Warfare podcast: War as a livelihood – Mercenaries in the Ancient world - of 04/03/09 for this information.)

In Part Three we’ll look at what Gildas called rectores. These could be provincial governors and I’ll explore if this is what Gildas meant by the term, as well as looking at the five provinces that made up the old Roman diocese of Britannia and the various theories as to some of them still existing in Gildas’s time.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to comments, thoughts … and corrections,



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A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem – Part Two – Update

This is simply a notification that I have updated this blog with a quote from Alex Woolf. To read this blog, click HERE.

There will be a new blog coming very soon entitled: Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus?




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