Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxons

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


English: "Jack the Giant-Killer" by ...

A giant step for mankind?

So, Arthur was seen as having a giant son and a giant dog by the 9th/10th centuries, but just how many of these sites existed before the this time we may never know. (If there had have been more in the northern half of Wales one would think they too would have been included in the Mirabilia). These two, and other later mentioned sites, certainly fit the superhuman or ‘giant’ of folk legend and not Arthur the soldier, apart from, perhaps the hillfort Moel Arthur (‘bare hill of Arthur’), but this Bronze Age hillfort’s Arthurian naming date is unknown. It was recorded before the 17th century as Moel Arthur so it wasn’t made up by the Victorians. (A record of the antiquities of Wales and its marches (vol 1)’, Cambrian Archaeological Assoc., 1850 pp.181-2). However, it also gets no mention in the H.B., so it’s likely to be after the 12th century.

What I have not seen expressed by Padel et al, is, as I explored in Part One, that the amount of sites named after this ‘giant’/superhuman Arthur are unique even for giants. Giants are very often a local character giving their names to local features. There were certainly plenty of giants in Wales. A look at The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings by Sion Dafydd Rhys (c. 1600) can show you just how many. (Read it at the Mary Jones’ website: ).

The one important point to make about the giants of Wales, as can be seen by the above mentioned work, is that they are nearly always named ‘gawr’, meaning, funnily enough, ‘giant’. Here are some (in no particular order): Gogyrfan Gawr (Gwenhwyfar’s da), Idris Gawr, Itta Gawr, Rica/Rhitta Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cribwr Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed and the place was renamed as Cribarth), Oyle Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cedwyn Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ceimiad Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ophrom Gawr, Ysbryn Gawr, Iwni Gawr, Gwedros Gawr, Howel Gawr, Llyphan Gawr, Pyscoc Gawr, Hedoc Gawr, Diddanel Gawr … and there are many more. (What we don’t know about these is if they had always been mythical or if some of them they were based on ancient figures of history). Yet there is not one instance of Arthur Gawr, only an Arthur seen as a giant slayer. So, did they think of him as a giant at all, or mainly a larger-than-life superhuman?

Him being seen in the landscape as a folkloric giant-killer could have been in response to the later Arthurian stories, or visa versa; yet, even after Arthur the soldier and king took root, post Geoffrey of Monmouth, still onomastic sites were been named in honour of this superhuman Arthur. Padel notes that sites were still being given his name in the 18th century following the ‘giant’ or superhuman Arthur lines (Padel, 2000, p.106). This is very interesting, considering that the later stories had gone away from this more mythical portrayal; he was now an all too human king … even if he did still fight giants. It seems it had simply become a tradition’ or was a separate tradition. Is this what happened very early on? Were there, even in the 7th and 8th centuries, two (or more) very different Arthurs in circulation?

If in doubt, blame the English!

Peoples of Britain circa 600

We also must not forget that the 7th to 10th centuries were a time when the kingdoms that were developing into Wales and Scotland were threatened (and in some areas dominated) by the ‘English’, notably the kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria.  Were the common folk (as opposed to the warriors) of the British areas of the period no different to a modern audience in times of crisis? Did they too like a good ‘fantasy’ (not that they saw it as a fantasy in the way we do) to take their minds off things, not a story about an all-too-mortal-human-sized soldier? (The oldest Arthurian Welsh stories that have survived make no mention of the ‘Saxons’, another reason given for Arthur not being historical). Was it a time when you’d want a supernatural or giant slaying hero on your side? A slayer of the ‘giant’ English? Make him Messianic and you even got a giant slaying hero who can come back and slay the Anglo-Saxons again … maybe.

These Arthurian sites (and local stories) could be argued to be as much in response to the threats from Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, and later Anglo-Normans, as well as later Welsh nationalism, than just because they were a good yarn about a possible ancient mythical or folkloric figure who was everywhere in Britain right from the get-go. The uncertain times could have spawned the amount of them in the areas once inhabited by the Britons, across the Isles. Once Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History was out and grew into the Arthurian Romances, so too the number of sites grew. Just because he was seen as being in all these places later in history, doesn’t necessarily mean he was in all these places in the 6th and 7th centuries, whether he was mythical or not.

What’s in a name?

If Arthur was mythical or folkloric we still have to account for a British figure being given what seems to be a none British name, as most etymologist agree that Artorius is the best candidate with no British or Irish etymology working (so far) to make ‘Arthur’. (See THIS blog). In fact, not only a none-British name but not even a Romanized version of a British name, which is what was given to the known British deities. (Unless Higham is right about it being a decknamen). If, for example, he was named *Arto(s) (Bear), he should become something like Mars Artos to the Romano-British or the Roman soldiers who adopted him. The other possibility is from the star and Greek mythical figure, who was called Arcturus in Latin. However, we’d still be looking at the British taking a Latin named mythical figure for one of their own. But this is a subject all of its own and we’ll look in more depth at these later.

I’ll finish this part with a quote from Juliette Wood in the book A Companion to Arthurian Literature:

“The use of folklore in works such as chronicles reveals a great deal about cultural attitudes and about the interpretations writers wish to convey (Wood 1998). Insofar as it is possible to talk about an original Arthur, he seems to have been a hero of legend without a clear genealogy or location (Padel 1994; Green 2007). One of the many contentious aspects of sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work or the Arthurian romances is the degree to which popular beliefs and oral tradition about a legendary hero contributed to the creation of a symbol of medieval kingship and courtly virtue. Geoffrey seems to have favored elements that allowed him to present Arthur as historical and realistic. He did, however, incorporate traditions about giants, such as the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, whom Arthur has to defeat. Encounters between heroes and giants are frequently localized at unusual landscape features, and heroes themselves are often depicted as gigantic, larger than life figures (Padel 1991; Grooms 1993: 79–110). The location of the narratives and the confrontations between giant and hero follow a traditional legendary pattern, but the relation between traditional and learned lore is never simple.”

In Part Five I want to look at Arthur the soldier and explore the various arguments as to whether he was a historical or mythical soldier.

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 Five

To do the subject justice, I’m afraid this has become a seven part blog!

Provinces based on Anne Dornier's theory with my own thoughts (kindly created for me by Steffon Worthington)

The (wonderful!) map above isn’t quite correct in its placement of some of the northern tribes and will be updated soon, but I wanted to get this blog out this weekend.


What if Arthur were dux (or one of the other ranks) of Britannia Prima (II of the map)? This province (which, unlike in this version of provincial placements, could have got up to the Mersey and included North Wales) could have existed in its immediate post Roman form, or, it could have shrunk by fragmentation. Most scholars see this province of the Late Roman period with the more Romanised Britons to the east (in the Lowland or Civil Zone) and the less Romanised to the west (in the Highland and Military Zones), as based on the archaeology. However, they appear to have taken to Roman material goods and Latin inscribed stones after the Empire had departed, possibly through the influence of Roman Christianity, but possibly for other reasons too, which I’ll explore below.

Most argue that it is kings of this province who Gildas refers to in DEB. Ken Dark puts forward the possibility of three eastern civitates of this province surviving in a more ‘Roman’ form, under some kind of administration (DobunniCornovii and Silures as Gwent) whilst the rest were ruled by kings (petty kingdoms with an over-king) and Nick Higham and David Dumville, in general, agree. It could have been only these three civitates that made up the province, one of which Gildas was in. Or, conversely, if Higham’s theory is right, the more westerly kingdoms could have made up the province, as he certainly sees the Dobunni and Cornovii as tribute payers to the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. But, they all could still have been part of it even if the two or three of its civitates were having to do so. (The provinces could also have been only in name with no real political power).

(There are two very opposing views with regard Dobunni and Cornovii given by Christopher Gidlow (Revealing King Arthur, 2010), who sees the archaeology pointing to these two being a major force against the east, and Nick Higham, who sees the Cornovians as being weak and both civitates being tribute payers. Right there is a perfect example of the problems on agreement with this period in general. Not to mention that one sees the evidence pointing to Arthur existing and one not.)

The sum of all parts?

With a province made up of so many parts (if it still was), and that would be around 8 (major ones) that we know of, it’s hard to know how they would agree to a provincial army and its dux without the Empire there to enforce it. (Unless it did have an over-king, such as the later king Maglocunus/Mailcun/Maelgwn, to enforce this?). Each civitates and kingdom could have been obliged to supply men, as explored earlier, or, the dux could have had bucellarii (of Hibernians?) as his personal force making him slightly independent of them but able to be supplemented by them. Or, the most powerful and dominant civitas or kingdom chose the dux or general … or it was done on a rotational basis. All these points go for the northern provinces too.

With either Irish feoderati, laeti, settlers or Goidelic speaking Britons in many western parts of this province (northern Dumnonia, Demetia and northwest Venedota), it could be they who were used to supplement the Britons. If Arthur was a general of mixed race (or a Goidelic speaking Briton) it might go some way towards explaining why it was one of these regions (Demetae/Demetia) that may first have reused the name, followed by others in the north, as I explored in THIS blog … if, indeed, that is was reused and Arthur ap Petr (King Arthur of Demetia) wasn’t the ‘original’ himself.

There are suggestion by Dark (2003) and Stuart Laycock (2010) that it was this province that was courted by the Western and later Byzantine Empire in a reversal of fortunes – which is why ‘Roman’ material goods are found within it, especially at Tintagel – and it was Dumnonia and perhaps other Britannia Prima elements that supplied the king, Riothamus and his supposed 12,000 men to fight for the failing western Empire in Gaul in the 470s. If the figure of 12,000 men is anywhere near the truth (and it may not be) this is a huge force. Whether they were all Britons (or just Britons from Britannia) is another question, but, either way, he was commanding (or in charge of with a commander?) a large force, and an army of this size, or even part of it, couldn’t have come form one kingdom or civitas. (David Dumville (2003) thinks southern Britain may have been his base).

If there was this coordination (or cooperation) in the 460s/470s, (again, possibly instigated by Ambrosius Aurelianus) enabling a single king to command this many Britons, there’s the possibility that it could have still been there in the 490s where most place the Siege of Badon … although the fact that Riothamus was defeated could have had a major impact on the following decades, depending on how many of those 12,000 were lost, or simply didn’t return to Britannia. We can only guess as to what this defeat (yet another one after Magnus Maximus and Constantine III) did to the morale of the British.

(There’s always the haunting question of how a British king could afford to take this many men abroad (if he did) during a time when we were supposed to be suffering attacks from the ‘Saxons’. Of course, there could have been a peace at the time, but it’s not out of the question that some of his men were Saxo-Britons or other Germanic elements).

As an aside: imagine if we’d never heard of Riothamus via the Continental sources and only from a legend that told us how a British king (who left no British genealogy) fought alongside Romans in the 470s with 12,000 men? We’d probably think he was only a myth. The same would go for Ambrosius Aurelianus had Gildas not mentioned him. (I’m not a supporter of Riothamus=Arthur or Ambrosius=Arthur, by-the-way, but I always keep an open mind).


Looking at where those Arthurian battles are placed by those who champion a Britannia Prima Arthur (North Wales, South Wales East Wales, Somerset, Cornwall, Devon), they range from being localised as civil war battles or against Hibernians (Blake and Lloyd) to having him fighting deep within ‘Anglo-Saxon’ territory. (Rodney Castledon, 2000/2003). There is, of course, a Camlan in northwetern Wales (Afon Gamlan); there’s a Camelford in Cornwall, a Killbury (Celliwig, Celliwic, Kelliwic, KelliwigKelli Wig?) in Cornwall, a Gelliweg (Celliwig, Celliwic, Kelliwic, KelliwigKelli Wig?) on the Llŷn Peninsular, as well as a Guinnion (Cerrig Gwynion), which is an old Iron Age hillfort between Llandudno and Bangor … not to mention the not far away hillfort of Bwrdd Arthur. Chester or Caerleon (City of Legions?) and Badon (if it is where some suggest) lie within or in the border region of this province. But we shouldn’t be surprised to find such names like Camlann or Gwynion here. Not because Cornwall and Wales have a huge Arthurian tradition (which, of course, they do) but because their languages derived from Brittonic and these names may not be that uncommon.


There’s the poem ‘The Elergy of Gereint son of Erbin’, said to be fought at Llongborth and, whichever location you go with, it would most likely be in this province. Here are a couple of verses:

In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s Heroes [men] who cut with steel.

The Emperor [ammherawdyr] ruler of our labour.

In Llongborth Geraint was slain,

A brave man from the region of Dyvnaint [Devon],

And before they were overpowered, they committed slaughter.

(There are arguments that, if this really happened, this may have involved Arthur’s men only, or a unit named after him, and not necessarily Arthur. (Gidlow, 2010).

No other surviving early poetry (if, indeed these poems are early) gives Arthur a (possible) geographical location … this is excluding the Triads, which do.


It is most likely either a Geoffrey of Monmouth invention, or a Cornish one, but he, of course, places Arthur’s conception at Tintagel (Din Tagel), and calls him ‘The Boar of Kernyw‘. However, there may have been a number of Kernyw/Cornows in this province in the 5th century, including Cornovii (Cornow) and one in central Wales, beside the one that gave its name to Cornwall (Kernow), and it may not have come from an ancient source at all.

In Part Six we’ll look at the eastern provinces and conclusion on all this will appear in Part Seven.

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



PS: HUGE thanks to the map maker Steffon Worthington for creating the Anne Dornier based map free of charge! There are lovely people at the Facebook King Arthur Group page!


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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part One


(Updated 2.1.12)

This blog is going through a rethink and rework as of 12.11.11. New material or changes will be in bold type.

This article (now an eight part blog) was mainly in response to a question I posted on Arthurnet about what could have caused the supposed two or three generational peace after the Battle of Badon (and other battles) between the Britons and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. I was asking if this subject had been debated by any group of academics, such as was done for the papers and discussions that went into the book ‘After Empire-Towards an Ethnology of Europe’s Barbarians’ (‘Studies in Archaeoethnology, Volume 1’, 1995). and discovered that no one was aware that it had. There have, of course, been numerous individual books and papers on the subject.

One Arthurnet member’s argument was that it was the great victory at Badon that caused the ensuing ‘peace’ and slow down of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ military and/or cultural expansion visible in the archaeology. This article was mainly in response to this, but it took on a life of its own and went on much further from there. However, keep in mind that this was its starting point.

My question was, again, motivated by the Arthurian screenplay I’m contemplating, which I wanted to make post-Badon.  However, it has ended up going much deeper than this and is relevant whether you think there was a historical Arthur of Badon fame or not.

I will concede that my knowledge is not great enough to do this subject much justice. Having said that, my (lengthy) layman/novice meagre stab at it will follow. Since the scholars on the subject can’t be here, I’ll have to bring some of their thoughts to bear instead. One of those is Nick Higham, who, regardless of his negative views on a historical Arthur, should be listened to. Some quotes that follow are from a paper by him entitled ‘Debating The Insular Dark Ages’, 2004. I will also pay heed to his theories from ‘The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century’ (1994). In this in-depth work, he concludes that the battle of Mons Badonicus was the Britons’ last victory against the ‘Saxons‘ but not the decisive one, and the ‘Saxons’ were the ones who won the ‘war‘.

I realise this all has to be tempered by the archaeological evidence, which, whilst seemingly supporting a ‘peace’ or slow down of expansion, cannot, as archaeologist Keith Matthews (aka Bad Archaeology blogger) has mentioned through Arthurnet, be dated accurately enough or interpreted clearly enough. He also pointed out recently that we may be relying too much on burial practices and that evidence of other kinds, being greatly helped by metalwork reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, show the creation of new ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sites during the period 475-550. However, if Gildas says there had been an extended ‘external’ (relative) peace for possibly 40-odd years, who are we to disagree … unless we’ve misinterpreted him, which some, including Keith and Nick Higham, think we have, as well as Ken Dark, although in a completely different way, not to mention archaeologist Francis Pryor.

I will use the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘Saxon’ and ‘Anglian’ to mean not only those of Germanic stock but any Britons who might have supported them (either willingly or unwillingly!) or taken up the culture, which is how many scholars now see the situation at the time. What, in my opinion, they should probably be called are ‘Anglo-Briton (or British) ’ or ‘Saxo-Britons (or British)’ etc.  After all, most of the generation we’re talking about were not only born in Britain but probably had British blood within them. Indeed, some of them may have had 100% British blood coursing through their veins. We call those of Hibernian (Irish) descent ‘Cambro-Irish’ (whilst I tend to call them Hiberno-Britannians), so why doesn’t this apply to those of Germanic stock? Probably because it helps keep them as the bad guys?!


So, the Battle of Mount Badon (dated anywhere between 483 and 518 – or 430 to 440 by Higham) is a massive defeat for the ‘Saxons’; other victories in other regions happen for some time afterwards and seal the deal.  If Ælle was their Bretwalda, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC) tells uswho they faced (meaning Badon would have to be of the earlier dates – if the ASC dates are right, which they’re probably not!) and he died at the battle – or one of the other battles – that would make things worse for the enemy. For Ælle to be in such an ‘overlord’ position – if that’s what a Bretwalda was, as there’s no agreement – it must have meant he could personally bring the greatest military force to bear, as well as having many groups either as tribute payers to him or allied through fear. So if he was defeated at Badon then, perhaps, the greatest threat was removed, along with many enemy warriors and a break-up of any coalition. (More on this later).


“Barbarian kingdoms or ‘over-kingships’ often came into existence very suddenly, following military victory, and might disintegrate just as dramatically, as a consequence of defeat or changing political circumstances. The familiar examples of the rise and fall of individual dynasts in the late-sixth and seventh centuries, which Bede provides, should be sufficient to warn us off the simple, developmental approach.”

However, the question I posed on Arthurnet still stood: ‘what was stopping the second generation ‘Saxons’ from wanting revenge over the deaths of their fathers’ if so many of them had been slaughtered?’ As the late and great Sir Frank Stenton tells us:

“Much that is characteristic in the oldest Germanic literature turns on the relationship between the companions and the lord. The sanctity of the bond between lord and man, the duty of defending and avenging the lord, the disgracing of surviving him, give rise to situations in which English listeners were always interested until new literary fashions of Romance origin had displaced the ancient stories. There was no doubt that this literature represented real life. It was the personal reputation of the king which attracted retainers to his court, and it was the king’s military household around which all of the fighting centred. The inclusion of foreign warriors among the king’s companions and the presence of hostages from other countries in his court went far to cement the great dramatic confederations of early times. The migration to Britain produce no change in the relation of the king to his retinue. There is no essential difference between the king’s companions of the heathen age and the nobles who attest the earliest English royal charters.” (‘Anglo-Saxon England’, Stenton, 1989, p302)

Here’s a society that should (supposedly) fight to the death should their lord fall and avenge his death. This is not to mention the general tradition of the blood feud. So what was stopping them? I’ll explore the possibilities below.

If we also keep in mind that the 6th century cleric/monk Gildas (St. Gildas) tells us in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) that the Britons were often at civil war, then something must have been very wrong in the east, or something extremely right in the western ‘borderlands’, to not be able to take advantage of that too. Could be a bit of both, could be a completely different reason such as Higham’s theory on the ‘Saxons’ being in charge of eastern Britain and holding the eastern part of Britannia Prima to tribute payment.


“Gildas’s remarks elsewhere reflect his continuing concern as to the vulnerability of his countrymen to their neighbours, which seems inconsistent with a triumphant conclusion of the war, so renewed divine protection: for example, ‘it was always true of this people (as it is now) that it was weak in beating off the weapons of the enemy but strong in putting up with civil war and the burden of sin.’”

What a strange thing for GIldas to say if the Britons had power over the enemy and they were at peace with them! So, what was true of the past with the ‘Saxons’ seems true even in Gildas’s day; unless he’s referring to other enemies, such as the Hibernians/Scotti, but he hasn’t mentioned them in regards to recent history.

Could Gildas just be trying to make a point, whether it was a ‘true’ one or not? Or, was it just in his view that they couldn’t beat the enemy off, maybe because they couldn’t win every battle? It could also be that it was only recently things had become uncertain again, and not for the whole of those 43 years since Badon (if it was this period – see below). However, it could also be that they still fought … or, indeed, because the ‘Saxons’ held more power than we think. (More on this below).

Higham again:

“In the present, Britain was divided by ‘an unhappy divorce of [?caused by] the barbarians’, the term divortio apparently referring back to the metaphor of ‘a chosen bride’ for the island of Britain, which was, therefore, no longer the single patria and promised land of Gildas’s ‘latter-day Israel’. Control had been ceded to the Saxons even of access to such shrines as St Albans. The church was now ‘tributary’, her sons had ‘embraced dung’ and the nobility had lost its all.” [Higham’s brackets, not mine]

So, for Higham at least …

“The war between Britons and Saxons, therefore, seems to have ended in some sort of compromise, which conceded a very considerable sphere of influence within Britain to the incomers. This was highly unsatisfactory from Gildas’s perspective and he was both extremely hostile towards, and fearful of, the Saxons.”

Higham’s not the only one to come to the conclusion that the ‘peace’ wasn’t necessarily satisfactory for both/all sides. The much maligned John Morris (1975) came to the same conclusion as did Stenton (1943-1989). However, Higham seems alone in how far he takes this.

What Higham mentions is what I was trying to get at in one of my posts: they’ve won a decisive victory, and yet they still can’t go where they want!  Seems odd if the British ‘defeated’ the Saxons. Are there any alternative answers to Higham’s? Here are three I can think of:

1) the Britons had defeated ‘Saxons’ to the west/north/south of these ‘no go’ areas, but not these areas themselves.

2) The ‘Saxons’ had made some small gains in the intervening time, cutting off these areas.

3) The Britons had won back far more territory than we think, but not these areas.

(I’m sure there are more).

Of course, Ken Dark see things differently and Higham explains it as follows:

“His thesis, in brief, is to postulate not just survival but continuing cultural, political and military power for the sub-Roman elite, both in the far west (where this view is comparatively uncontroversial) but also in the east, where it has to be imagined alongside incoming settlements. He postulates the sub-Roman community to have been the dominant force in insular affairs right up to c.570. Then, over a sixty year period, but for no very obvious reason, Anglo-Saxon kingship begins to emerge, the English conversion began and, in this scenario, Anglo-Saxon leaders overthrew British power and set about establishing their own kingdoms [...] Dark’s principal argument for continuing British military and political power in the east rests on the very uneven distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and the proposition that large gaps in that distribution necessarily represent strong British polities which excluded Anglo-Saxon settlers by force.”

This theory does answer certain questions, although Higham himself disagrees with Dark’s conclusions, mainly because of what Gildas says. It’s a theory John Morris seemed to have been working with as he believed the majority of those in the east to still be under some kind of British rule. There may be another alternative reason, which I’ll look at in later blogs. Whatever the reason, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ expansion and kingdom foundation doesn’t appear to have started until after 550. If Badon was the earlier of the dates, at 483, then there was a peace for almost 70 years … unless Keith is right.

Just a note on the earlier dating of Badon. There is a theory that places the battle of Mount Badon, not just to a possible decade but to something far more specific: February, 483! This solution, by D. O. Croinin, is based on the 84 year ‘paschal cycle’. (The ‘lost’ irish 84-year easter table rediscovered, Peritia (6-7), 1987-1988, p. 238). Why is this date (if it’s correct) so different from the one given in the Annales Cambriae at 518? I’ll explore this in more detail in the coming blogs.

In the next blog I want to explore just what kind of Britannia Gildas saw, and how clouded that view might have been.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,



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“dux erat bellorum”


This was originally from a post – with some additions – I made on Arthurnet about why Nennius (or whoever) used the term “dux”. The update, below, is taken from the up-coming ebook.

Dux erat bellorum/Dux belli

The discussion about what ‘Nennius’ (or whoever the compiler(s) and/or translators where) meant by “dux erat bellorum” (or ”dux belli” in the Vatican recension) in the Arthurian section of the H.B. has gone on for decades. Some have used it as an argument to say he was given the old Roman command of dux Britanniarum (‘Duke of  the Britains’) in command of the northern troops, but others point out that if he’d been given the title then why didn’t the H.B. call him such?

In actuality, there may have only been two position he could have been in to be a battle leader or commander-in-chief and they are some kind of general or an Over King. This I’ll look at later as it’s not what I want to explore here.

I think there are actually two question: 1) WHY was dux used, and  2)  WHAT words in Primitive or Old Welsh were they translated from … if they were?  An Arthur of Badon couldn’t have been the first or last to be called a ‘leader/lord of battle’. Perhaps it’s just a case of finding it. To try and answer this, I wanted to look at a nearer contemporary source (at least in John Koch’s view) and see if it could help: the British collection of poems, ‘Y Gododdin’.

The why?

First why was dux used? Was it simply because in Latin it meant ‘leader’ or ‘lord’? Very possibly. But, as mentioned before, Higham argues that a mythical Arthur was used as a Biblical ‘Joshua-figure’ in answer to St. Patrick’s ‘Moses-figure’ in the H.B., and that he was given this title because Joshua was called a dux belli.[1] It is a valid point and I would have agreed with Higham’s conclusions once upon a time, but even if Arthur was used in this way in the H.B., and given this title after Joshua, it does not mean that he was invented to be this, but was, rather, perfect for the Biblical comparison, just as St. Patrick was for his. Had someone else been used we might all be writing about them.

We should also keep in mind that, if the H.B. was in reply to Bede’s earlier work, the English called the Gaul, St. Germanus a ‘dux belli’ and the title could have been used because of this.

But there is the point that the Harleian H.B. says “dux erat bellorum”. If it had wanted to make him Joshua, why not just call him, as the Vatican recension does, “dux belli”. Did the Vatican editor make him Joshua, or did he just clarify the comparison? However, it cannot be ruled out that a possible historic Arthur wasn’t called a “dux bellorum” in any poetry and Nennius used this term because of the Biblical, or St Germanus, comparison he was trying to make.

There’s also another point to bring up here and it is another one made by Higham, but this time in his book ‘English Conquest – Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century‘ (1994). Higham is adamant that Gildas’s use of duces (plural of dux) is meant as “military leaders”, but this could apply to a king or a civil position. How long between the 5th and 9th centuries this was used by Britons, we’ll never known, (see below) but it is at least a possibility “dux erat bellorum” meant ‘military leader of battles’  for clarification as dux had other meanings.  (See THIS blog for further discussion on this).

Whilst dux does mean ‘leader’ or ‘lord’ in Latin, this may not have been the only way those of 9th century Britain would have read it, besides the possibilities mentioned above. Let’s look at it another way: what was a dux or duke in the 9th century?

As far as I’m aware, the Welsh never used the term dux as a specific title but across the border in England and over the Channel in Brittany, they certainly did. In England it meant a ‘supreme landlord’, only second to the king, and there were quite a lot of them. They could very often be princeps and dux of a county or shire and, like the dukes across the English Channel, by the 10th century they gained even more power.[2] So choosing dux the H.B.’s Latin literate 9th century audience are possibly going to imply something very different to us. The English would interpret it their way, Bretons, Welsh etc., theirs. (Like Higham, I think the H.B. was aimed as much at the English, and specifically the Mercians, as the Britons).

Christopher Gidlow in his book The Reign of Arthur points out something else about the Historia Brittonum and its use of dux, and that is in every instance before its connection with Arthur when using this term it either means a ‘general’ or a ‘governor subordinate to the Emperor’.[3] This is very similar to an English duke, who was subordinate only to the king. So, did the translator or compiler use dux knowing the English would read it as more than just ‘leader’? Of course, the answer comes back as to why he didn’t just say he was simply a dux if they’d know what a dux was? But, if it had more than one meaning, adding “of battles” would be for clarification. Did he/they use the term specifically for the ‘English’? It could be argued that he did, as the H.B. (as argued by Higham) was aimed just as much at them.

This leads on to what might have been translated, if it didn’t come from Nennius and it had come from an ancient poem or poems …

The what?

Y Gododdin

In the Arthurian battle list of the H.B. there seems evidence from the rhyming of some of the names that this originally came from a battle poem or poems. If the poem(s) or Triads that came down to 9th century were in Primitive or Old Welsh, what might this be and what other evidence is there for such a title or description as ‘leader of battle’ (if dux erat bellorum hadn’t been added later)? One would think it should come down as pen llu (leader of the hosts/legion/army), pen kat (leader of battle), pen budinor (leader of armies) or penteulu (leader of household troop); or, to really big him up, guledig; but he’s never called these, or no evidence has survived, and only the latter title once in the poem Kadeir Teyrnon. He is called penn kadoed Kernyw (‘Leader of the battalions of Cernyw’) in the poem ‘Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr’ – ‘Arthur and the Eagle’ (dated to around 1150 AD), but that could just be the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, none of these titles, except guledig, are mentioned in Y Gododdin. (You find pen llu, and even penn draig/penn dragon/pendragon (‘head/leader warrior’) in the poetry of the Medieval Welsh poets and these could have, perhaps, been used by those further south in earlier times. Pen llu would be the closest).

I did find other possibilities in Y Gododdin: *cintrenn/cyntran, *(ri/si) chatvarchawc, and *aer dwyw/ry(ri)dywys.

Starting with *cintrenn/cyntran (‘centurion’ according to Koch), here’s a position that the H.B. translator might have known, judging by the fact that three of the four mentions of it in Y Gododdin are from the later A text, dated to the 8th/9th centuries.  This is, indeed, a ‘battle leader’ of sorts, whether you take Koch’s interpretation as a ‘centurion’ or not.  Jarman does not translate this as a leader of a hundred men, just as ‘warrior’ or ‘leader’.  Koch’s reasonings are thus:


 “[BI.13] 253 *ar-tege can(t)=uur ‘he used to lead a hundred men’ is evidence for the persistence of Roman office of centurion, a heroic ideal and poetic convention if nothing else.”

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.168)

“[A.5] 48 … A further possibility is that the original had the t- pret. of the verb (*cintrann (…) rac-uant rac bodinor ‘a centurion (who) counterthrusted against armies’).

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes. p.180)

“[A.18] 196 *cintren’n‘ [MS kynrien] ‘battle leaders, centurions’.  We expect a third personal name here, but this word is frequent in the diction of the Cynfierdd as a common noun.   Furthermore the preceding two names *Conrig and *Conuon have Celt. *kuno – ‘hound’ as the first element, whereas *cintren’n’ has *kintu – ‘foremost’, so the alliteration would weaken.  The general sense of kynran is ‘first in its part’, thus more specifically in Hengerdd ‘commander, captain, (under-)chieftain.  The transparent preform would therefore be Brit. *cintu-rannos.  This form probably rose as a popular etymology applied to the Lat. centurio, centurionis during the Roman Period.  In favour of this interpretation one may further adduce CA A.24.287 diua oeda gynrein gan-wyr ‘his centurion’s centuries (hundred-man units) perished’.) It is probable therefore that the name of the third hero has dropped out or been transformed in transmission into the common noun.”

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.194)

“[A.24] 287 *diba oid i-cintrenn cant-guir ‘his centurion’s hundred-man units perished’.

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.199)


The information in of itself is fascinating – if Koch is right – and shows that even those north of the Wall were fighting in a legionary way. (Even though a Roman centurion was actually in charge of eighty men).

There is another instance when ths was used, this time in a ‘Llywarch Hen’ poem about Marwnad Cynddylan (‘Elergy for Cynddylan’), an 9th century poem about a 7th century occurrence:


Mawredd gyminedd! Mor fu da[f]fawd

a gafas Cynddylan, cynran cyffrawd;

saith gant rhiallu’n ei <yspeidawd>,

pan fynnwys mab pyd, mor fu barawd!

Grandeur in battle! So good was the destiny

that Cynddylan, the battle leader, got

seven hundred chosen soldiers in his retinue,

When the son of Pyd requested, he was so ready![4]


However, it may be wondered why the H.B. translator wouldn’t call Arthur a centurionis in Latin if this is what he was; unless they wanted to make him something more than this?

But there may be other clues in Y Gododdin, as mentioned above. For example: the leader of an Irish or Hiberno-British fianna (warband) would be a ri fianna > ‘leader (lord) of the warband’. I found in Koch’s translation a reference to the *tri ri chatmarchoc, ‘the three directors of the cavalry brigades’. If you look in Jarman’s book the ri isn’t there at all and it’s translated as ‘Three battle-horsemen’. In yet another version it has *Tri si chatvarchawc, which gets translated as ‘Three hundred knights of battle’. We don’t know which one’s right, but if it’s Koch’s then here’s an example of Britons using ri (modern Welsh rhi = ‘king’ or ‘lord’) as a leader, this time of cavalry units. (If he was called a ri (Brittonic *rigos) at anytime and not meaning ‘king’ but ‘leader’, this itself could have caused confusion over his status). But Arthur seems to be even more than these. He’s made out to be more of an overall leader; a commander or general if you will. The only reference in Y Gododdin I could see is:


*Aer dywys, rydywys ryfel > ‘Battle leader, he led to war …’

(LXXIII, A 72, 690. ‘Aneirin – Y Gododdin’. Jarman)

*Air=tiuis > ri- tiuis > ribel_> ‘A battle leader can lead in war’

(A.72, 904 ‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes,113).


Here seems to be a point on which the two eminent scholars agree. Once again there is that ri usage by the Britons, which here is translated as ‘led/lead’. (Later Welsh might interpret ri-dywys as ‘king/lord of war’).  In fact, if you change the hero of this and the previous verse in Y Gododdin that these appears in, from “Ywain” (the only  possible Guledig mentioned in the piece) to “Arthur”, it would fit perfectly:


Battle leader, he led to war,

The land’s multitude loved the mighty reaper. [Arthur was called the Red Revenger]

On the green earth there was fresh blood around the green grave,

He wore armour over his crimson garment.

A trampler of armour, an armour’s trampler, [Arthur was called the trampler of nine]

Like under death weariness falls.

Spears were shattered at the commencement of battle,

A path to a clearing was the aim of the spearthrust. (Jarman)


A battle leader can lead in war.

A sovereign’s host loved the powerful reaper.

The mighty Forth is blood around a new grave.

It was armour that he had over his red [garments].

An armoured trampler used to trample on armour.

The appearance of death fell on the exhausted.

Spear-shafts in shields at the outset of battle —–

a path towards the light was the purpose of the spear thrust. (Koch)


These ‘titles’ would seem to me the strongest contenders for what could have been translate to “dux erat bellorum”.  Here the translator gets the chance to call him a dux, as in ‘leader’, as well as letting any Breton or English reader translate it as a ‘duke’ with military command but second to a king.

Why any of the above would also account for Arthur being called a pen teyrned (teyrnedd) > (‘chief/leader of kings/lords/rulers’) in Culhwch ac Olwen and the Triads, I’m unsure. Unless this was just some Welsh bard’s interpretation of the leader of kings (in battle). Pen tyrned could be interpreted as meaning the ‘Head of Kings’: a ‘High King’, but there is no indication of this in the H.B. and if he was commonly thought to be a king, of whatever class, one would think the H.B. would have made political use of it … had they known.

As mentioned before, Stephen Knight argues that in the 9th/10th century Arthur of their stories may have simply been fashioned into a Welsh over-king of the times, in the mold of Rhodri Mawr and Hwyel Dda.[5]  Many later Medieval Welsh kings were styled this by the Gogynfeirdd (‘The Less Early Poets’).

It should be ask here why Nennius, if making the whole thing up, didn’t just call Arthur a High King, or even a king? Why call him a battle leader for kings? Was it because this is what he was (or was thought to have been) or was it because the English had no knowledge of a ‘King Arthur’ so ‘Nennius’ had to give him another title? Or was that it was such commonly known fact that he was a High King that it didn’t need to be stated? But then why did the Vatican recension tell us there were those more nobler than him?

Dux Britannium

There is always the possibility that because the translator was working form an Old Welsh copy of a poem, it may have used the equivalent of the Old Welsh translation of “Dux Britannium”.  We mustn’t forget that this was at the end of a transmission of the story, which may even have gone form Latin to Primitive Welsh to Old Welsh to Latin.  Even if it didn’t start as Latin, it still came down as language and military knowledge had changed.  Did it come down as something like “aer dywys, pen tyrned prydein” > “Leader of battle, chief of the rulers (kings) of Britain”?

A digression

Just to digress for a moment, I think Keith (Fitzpatrick-Matthews) in his recent paper on the H.B. (The Arthurian Battles of the Historia Britonnum July 2010 – available on Scribd) makes an interesting point about battle poems.  It appears (from the limited evidence we have) that they lie between 580 and 635 AD. (Urien Rheged   (Ardwyre   reget,   Williams  1960,  7),  Cynan  Garwyn  (Trawsganu  kynan  garwin,  Williams  1960,  1)  and  Cadwallon   ap   Cadfan   (*Marwnad   cadwallon   ap   cadfan*,   Gruffydd   1978,   34 ) [6]. They could have, of course, been in use before this and it is just a case that none have survived.  But if they do belong to a narrow window of time, and did not begin until after Arthur’s death then even the first poems about him may not have surfaced until after the event(s) and so they themselves would be based a folk memory, unless there were bards present at Arthur’s battles at the time to transmit the information, or as wondered by the likes of Christopher Gidlow (2004), some of the transmission was originally in Latin.  Even these may not necessarily have been in an accurate, historical way; that’s not what the bards were there to do.  As Keith points out, the chances are, all these poems may have been written after the fact, and this too is the opinion of Dumville. [7]

There is the question of whose bards might have been praising Arthur, if he was neither king or prince? (Not that he couldn’t have been a prince).  The bards were there to praise their patron.  As in 9th century Wales, there may have been two bards: the itinerant ‘chief of song’ (pencerdd) and the ‘poet of the warband/household’ (bard teulu); the former praising whomever he might be visiting as well as others and the latter his king and his warband and whoever might have been fighting with them.  Aneirin seems to fall into the former category.  He sings of the exploits of the various warriors, some from other kingdoms, fighting together.  If Arthur did command kings in battle, as Ywain in Y Gododdin may have done, then Arthur could have been praised by several bards over several campaigns … unless he employed is own.  If there was indeed a battle poem then it could have been the condensing of several other’s lyrical works.

What we may never know is what was written in Latin, if anything.  The royal courts seem to have had a priest in their employ. Whether any of these put quill to parchment and wrote down any of Arthur’s deeds, we’ll never know. But, just perhaps ‘silua  celidonis’ was a case in point? – (see THIS blog for further discussion).

Back to the point

In the Vatican recension of the H.B. Arthur’s position is clarified as being a miles, interpreted today as “soldier”.  On this point there’s an interesting thought from Dane Prestano in a post from Arthurnet in November 2007:


This `miles’ issue has bothered me for a while.  In `The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood’ By Christopher Harper-Bill, Ruth E. Harvey, Stephen Church, which can be found on Google books it is stated that by the 9th/10th C `miles’ had become synonymous with a Knight, not a soldier and by the 12th C this was evident in medieval manuscripts. It could be argued that the later additions of ‘miles’ where because someone interpreted the same was as later generation are doing.  He’s a leader of battle. So this throw away term in the H.B. might be a clear indication that Arthur was a mounted knight, lending a much more Romance slant to the H.B. Arthur material than thought before.


I may not agree with Dane that this shows Arthur was a cavalryman, but it may prove that is how he was perceived at the time, making him into a contemporary horse-backed duke.

Thanks for reading and be sure to take a look at the comments below,




[1] Green, Concepts Of Arthur, 2007; p.151

[2] Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, 2001, p.152

[3] Gidlow, Reign of Arthur, 2004, p.44

[4] From Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews’ website:

[5] Knight, 1983, p.32-34

[6]  -List from Fitzpatrick-Matthews, 2010, p.19)

[7] Dumville, 1977, p.188


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