Tag Archives: Arturius

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


English: Scanned from frontispiece of Ab Ithel...

Annales Cambriae

Everyone’s conclusions to this are going to be different, depending on many different factors: how long you’ve been studying the Arthurian subject, how much you’ve read, your culture, your beliefs, your personality.  My conclusions, in a sense, don’t matter, it’s how these blogs have affected your views on the subject.

The original question I posed was:

Can it be deduced with any certainty or probability that the Arthur depicted in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, said to have fought at the first battle of Mount Badon, was based on a historical character of the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries or an earlier mythical or folkloric figure? or that he could have been both?”

Can there be any certainty that he was a historic figure that fought at Badon? As long as there’s disagreement on the validity of the H.B and the A.C., no. (Perhaps some individuals can be certain, but it’s hard to see there ever being a consensus, unless there’s some miraculous find to prove he existed). Could he have been purely mythical or folkloric? Yes, but I cannot see how there can be any certainty of it. Could he have been both? Yes, but there can be no certainty about that either. Yet many people are certain of one or the other.

Page from the Book of Aneurin , MS c. 1275. Fr...

Y Gododdin

Probability is another matter. If the probability question where to do with the weight of evidence and the odds of existence to none-existence, then the odds would (probably) be against his existence. But this depends on the interpretation of the evidence in the first place. For example, if you think the Welsh material probably came from a mythical figure you will have a different outcome to if you think the material probably came from Arthur of Badon, or his name replaced a mythical figure. The same goes for the information in Y Gododdin, the Historia Britonnum and the Annales Cambriae. If you think these sources valid you have a totally different outcome to if you don’t. If you think they’re valid, historical documents, then he existed. Even if it’s only the H.B. that can be taken as valid (if not accurate) then he existed. But if you don’t … So, we probably can’t use probability!

For me, there is no firm conclusion to be had, but I hope I’ve, at least, added something to this debate. It cannot be proven that there was a historical, 5th century Arthur, that’s impossible to do, but I hope these blogs have shown that, if there was one, there’s no reason his name couldn’t have come about by the same means argued for the 6th and 7th century Arthur/Artúrs by Higham et al; or that, if his name (and some stories) did derive from folkloric or mythical sources, or there was also a mythical (or historical) character(s) of similar or the same name, why later confusion, even by the 9th century or before, would arise. In essence, Higham’s and Green’s argument for the naming of the other Arthurs can be applied to an early Arthur. Why? Because it appears (to me) that this Arthur of Welsh folklore or myth bears little or no resemblance to the Arthur in the H.B.. One’s a Saxon fighter, the other isn’t. One fights giants and the Otherworld, the other one doesn’t appear to. One supposedly was a leader of battles for kings of Britain, the other one wasn’t. One fought at Badon, the one of the early tradition didn’t. However, this doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a Saxon fighting Briton who got turned into this fantastical character, just as Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Urien were used in stories that had nothing to do with their actual lives. These stories alone prove that this happened and this is too often ignored.

From how I interpret the evidence, we cannot rule out a historical figure who fought at Badon being the ‘original’ and the later legends and topographical and onomastic sites merely being a distortion in response to folk culture and internal and external political events. That’s probably the simplest answer, but the simplest answer isn’t always the right one. Nor can we rule out that there was no ‘Arthur of Badon’ … but it is also possible that there were two totally independent mythical and historical characters that were merged and confused, or even a mythical figure whose name was changed to Arthur, be that earlier than the 6th century or after. The problem arises as to why a purely British folkloric or mythical figure would be given a Latin name (rather than a Latinized name), be that Arturius or Arturus. It would have to be yet another unique case. But that also doen’t mean it couldn’t have happened. (‘Arthur’s Wain‘ – The Plough – could be an indication that Arcturus became Arturus).

What it means, to me at least, is that it cannot be stated categorically that Arthur of the 5th century was historical, but neither can it be stated categorically he was purely mythical or folkloric. But it’s possible that the name was all of these things. However, if Arthur cannot be categorically stated to have been real from the evidence we have, then other Early Medieval figures who are considered historical without question should be treated in the same way.

(I’ve italicized ‘possible’ twice above as that is, in the end, all we can use).

Hywel Dda

Whichever historical Arthur you go for, whether that be one who was at Badon, Artur ap Pedr or Artúr mac Áedán, you have to come up with theories that explain the anomalies between them and the sources. You either have to come up with reasons why Arthur of Badon doesn’t appear in genealogies or near contemporary sources or why one of these other Arthur’s were said to be at Badon; and how, if their respective royal houses knew they were THE Arthur, they didn’t make political mileage from it. Neither Demetia/Dyfed or Dalriada appear to have done so … although the MacArthur/Campbells tried to do so later (See THIS blog). Adomnán makes nothing of Artúr, only his father Áedán. Hywel Dda of Dyfed could, perhaps, have slipped it into to his Laws somewhere that they were the descendants of the great Arthur, but he didn’t. If any of them did try and do so, it’s been suppressed or lost.

So, has my 65% leaning towards a historical Arthur changed? Yes. It may have gone to up 67% now. Why? Because of re-looking at the H.B. battle list and the use of Arthur here. Unless there was something in the Welsh tradition about a Saxon fighting Arthur it doesn’t make sense, to me at least, that he would be used if he was the same as the Welsh folkloric figure we know of today. Of course, stories of a mythical Arthur who fought Saxons might have been around and they’ve been lost, but we can only look at the evidence as it is.

What I may consider now more than before I started these blogs is the possibility of an independent mythical figure alongside the historic one(s). A figure that was, at some point in history, given the name Arturius/Arthur/Arturus, but who may have started life under another guise.

Having said all the above, I want to finish by quoting Christopher Gidlow from his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’ (2010):

“It is worrying just how convoluted, how complex, the arguments against Arthur are. Faced with the mass of evidence, opponents are forced to imagine an unknown British god called Arthur (with a convenient taboo against naming him), or landscape features named after other Arthurs of earlier history or mythology whose importance to the inhabitants is nowhere attested. These chimerical Arthurs have left legends which have, for inscrutable reasons, been attached to a military figure of the fifth or sixth century who, if he existed, cannot possibly have borne the name Arthur. Whatever name he had must, despite his importance, have become irretrievably lost. The author of the Historia Brittonum has for his own purpose for the Britons, uniquely put this composite figure in a narrative which otherwise only features major figures already placed in this time period. All other references to Arthur as a historical figure derive from this single source. The counter-argument, that Arthur was a real person who fought the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, who later attracted legendary tall tales, has the advantage of simplicity and requires fewer unknown steps and sources.” (p.193)

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



Arthurian Probability Test

King Arthur, Merlin, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, and Guinevere decide to go to their favorite restaurant to share some mead and grilled meats. They sit down at a round table for five, and as soon as they do, Lancelot notes, “We sat down around the table in age order! What are the odds of that?”

Merlin smiles broadly. “This is easily solved without any magic.” He then shared the answer. What did he say the odds were?

I’ll give the answer soon!


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

Before I get to the final part and the conclusion to all of this, I’d like to first look at one piece of evidence, which, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been discussed before (but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been!).

Bran’s good for you!

Español: Obra del escultor Ivor Roberts-Jones,...

Bran statue at Harlech Castle.

It is interesting that Artúr mac Áedán had a brother called Bran – Welsh Brân - earlier also *Vran and *Uran – (‘Raven’ or ‘Crow’). There is an argument to be had by those who see Arthur as an historicized mythical figure that the fact his brother was named Bran (also the name of an ancient giant and king of British and Irish mythology – Brân fab Llŷr (son of Llŷr) or Bendigeidfran (‘Bran the Blessed’) – with the Irish equivalent Bran mac Febail), might indicate that both siblings were named after mythical figures. (Not to mention that one of Finn’s magical dogs was called Bran).

Source: Village of Llangollen in North Wales/U...

Dinas Brân

Branodonum (Photo by Nigel Stickells)

However, Bran Hen (the Old) was the name of a king of Bryneich (now Northumbria), and the supposed name of the father of Caractacus (Caradoc or Caradawg), the British famous enemy of Rome. (Although the latter may have been made up in the 18th century!). Ireland had Bran Becc mac Murchado (died 738) and Bran Ardchenn mac Muiredaig (died 795), both kings of Leinster, as well as a Lough Bran in County Leitrim. Wales has Dinas Brân in Denbighshire, Aber-Brân in Powys, Llyn (Lake) Brân in Denbighshire and Cwmbrân in Gwent. Scotland has a River Bran in the Highlands and a Loch Bran. John Koch wonders if there is an association between this character and the Roman fort of Brancaster (Branodunum) in Norfolk, England. (Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Vol. 9, (1989), pp. 1-10 – article available at JSTOR). Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the King’s of Britain included an Arthurian Brennius (Book III, Ch.1). This may be Brân in another name, although this name could also be from the 3rd and 4th century BC Brennus. In the Mostyn MS 117 Genealogies, known as the Bonedd yr Arwyr (Decent of the Heroes), Brân map Llŷr (son of Llŷr) is made an ancestor of Arthur, in true royal genealogical style. It’s hard to know why Arthur was given descent from Brân but it could have been through association with the stories that circulated. Having said that, Triad 37 tells of Arthur digging up the head of Brân, which was supposedly protecting Britain, from where the Tower of London now stands, saying he was the only one who could do so. That’s not a way to treat your supposed ancestor! Could it be that this was a different tradition to the Bonedd yr Arwyr?

All these historical or topographical Brans/Brâns could have been named after the mythical figure; or, it was also simply a name the British (and Irish) liked to use. Sound familiar? For all we know, a 5th century Arthur, if he existed, could also have had a brother (or father?) named Brân, hence why Áedán named his sons thusly. The duel British/Irish nature of Bran can be used both for the mythical argument and for a historical name being given to princes from these cultural or ethnic unions (as with Áedán supposedly marrying a British woman), and this might have been the case with the name Arthur/Artúr. The difference between them is that Brân/Bran is a well attested ‘Celtic’ name, and Artúr /Arturius/Arthur isn’t.


If all these historical Arthurs, or the first one (whoever he was), was/were named after a figure of ancient legend or folklore and both stories of a historical and a mythical superhuman/giant/Messianic hero came down in parallel, then were later merged, were later badly separated, then just took on a life of their own … then it’s no wonder we’re all confused! Perhaps both camps (not all members of them I admit) are trying to make each very different figure fit something that only the name ‘Arthur’ itself matches? So people try to find the historical Arthur in the stories, poems and Triads of the Welsh, Cornish and Scots and the onomastic and topographic sites of Britain, when a historical Arthur could (initially) have had nothing to do with them, just as it is argued these 6th to 8th century Arthurs didn’t. Thomas Green finds this explanation “too complicated” (as does Christopher Gidlow), but sometimes history is. I’m not saying this was the case, but it can’t be ruled out just because we don’t like its complexity. Occam’s Razor can get blunted over the centuries.

Politically motivated

There’s also the political aspect of Arthur, which cannot be overstressed. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth (and I would say even before) claiming Arthur (as a king) was from your territory was claiming descent from who they thought were the first Britons, the Trojans, and therefore suzerainty over the whole of Britain, especially if he ruled from London. The more you could point to where he was from, or had been, the better your case. So onomastic and topographical sites could have been named for more than just folkloric reasons.

In the final part of this blog we’ll see if any conclusions can be drawn form all this and whether or not we can give any answers to the question posed in Part One.

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



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

To be or not to be?

No one argues that the 6th and 7th century Hiberno-Britannians with the name Arthur didn’t exist, and this is because they either have genealogies (Arthur ap Pedr) or are attested to in trusted historical documents (Artúr mac Áedán, Artúr mac Coaning, Arthur ap Bicoir). Yet Arthur of Badon is attested to in two historical documents (and some dubious genealogies), but we are told these cannot be given as evidence, because they are not contemporary (Dumville) or the Arthur they contain isn’t historical (Higham et al). Adomnán‘s Vita Columba (Life of Columbac.690), which mentions Artúr mac Áedán, isn’t contemporary either, having been written sixty or so years after Artúr mac Áedán’s death. The difference is in the time between their lives and when they were written about, with Arthur of Badon being 300 years after the (possible) events and the others being much nearer in time; not to mention all the mythical stories and sites that are argued to belong to this same ‘Arthur of Badon’.

Yet those who have concluded Arthur of Badon didn’t exist do not relate the fantastical stories and the onomastic and topographical sites to these other historical Arthurs as proof that they also didn’t exist. Why not? Because they are not in the H.B.? Because they don’t claim to have killed 960/940 men? Because they didn’t have legends written about them (although some argue Artúr mac Áedán (Barber) or even Arthur ap Pedr (Dark) are the bases for all the above)? Because they don’t have onomastic and topographical sites named after them … as far as we know? Or is it because they didn’t have Triads written about them (even though some of the triads mention Arthur but not Badon, and many are later additions)?

Well, in Artúr mac Áedán’s case it’s because of a ‘reliable’ source and Arthur ap Pedr two sources, (Arthur ap Bicoir is still open for debate – see THIS blog), and it’s mainly down to lack of reliable genealogy and all the other ‘stuff’ attached to him in Arthur of Badon’s case.

What if we didn’t have Arthur ap Pedr’s genealogies (British and Irish) or other historical sources telling us of these other Arthurs? What if they too had been lost? Would they too then be deemed mythical or folkloric, because Arthur of the fantastical stories was? Would they be seen as mere insertions into stories of the same mythical Arthur? Or would it have the opposite affect and Arthur of the H.B. and A.C. would be looked on in a more favourable light? It’s hard to answer of course.

If the theories that Arthur of Badon didn’t exist were correct, then how does this affect these other Arthurs, historical and mythical? Well, it doesn’t, because if he didn’t exist they are all still there … obviously. What changes with regards to these others if Arthur of Badon did exist? If he were then inserted into history? In theory nothing. If the other historical Arthurs can exist without affecting the fantastical stories one jot, which is what is suggested, and they were named after the mythical/folkloric figure, then saying Arthur of Badon existed would have no affect either, if you take out of the equation that it was he who spawned the early folkloric material or that these others were named after the Badon man.

Of course, if those other historical Arthurs were named after Arthur of Badon and he didn’t exist, then neither would they … or not with those names. Or if the early Welsh stories came from him, they would cease to exist also, (unless the hero was originally another name). But if the early Welsh stories aren’t about a historical Arthur of Badon, as Padel, Higham and Green argue, just as they’re not about Arthur ap Pedr or Artúr mac Áedán as far as we know, but only use or have the same name, then, if Arthur of Badon was named by the same process, why couldn’t he also exist?

Not a striking resemblance!

Merlin reads his prohecies to King Vortigern. ...

Even Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Welsh fantastical Arthur, and he seems to only use some associated names, such as Gwenhwyfar, Cai and Bedwyr and others from other eras that the Welsh tales attached to Arthur willy-nilly, as well as Badon and Camlann (Camblan). If he used anything else that he says came from a “very ancient book” from Britannia, and Britannia was Wales (as opposed to the argument that it was Brittany), then it’s been lost. (As a side note, Britannia could indeed be Wales as there are a few medieval document that call it such – see Blake and Lloyd, 2003). Did this ‘ancient book’ show a more historical figure? We’ll never know, but it should be noted that Geoffrey specifically refers to this ‘ancient book’ when he gets to the conflict between Mordred and Arthur in Winchester and the Battle of Camblan. (History of the Kings of Britain, Book XI, Ch.1, Ch.2). This could have been his only use of it? We also have no indication of just how ancient it might have been. However, if this was the use of it, it means his ‘ancient’ source showed Arthur fighting in civil war, not against the Anglo-Saxons.

The Welsh tales only relate to Arthur being at Badon in one instance, created after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. Apart from this story (The Dream of Rhonabwy – Late-12th/Early-13th centuries) he has nothing to do with Saxons in the pre-Galfridian tradition. In fact, he bears no resemblance to any historical Arthur that we know of, including the soldier in the H.B.. It means, if he is mythological, or by the 9th century an historicized mythical figure, Nennius inserted him without making any reference or giving any similarities to the known Arthur figure of the stories and did it in a bardic, battle poetry way. A style he uses no where else. If this is the case, he was a) being extremely clever b) his sources had already made this figure into a ‘real’ person with accompanying poetry c) he had more realistic folkloric stories we no longer posses d) it’s about a real Arthur of Badon, e) it’s about some other Arthur replaced in time. f) it’s a mixture of some of the above.

Weight of evidence v popular evidence

There is the argument that the weight of the evidence is in favour of a mythical or folkloric Arthur. It is, and if the Y Gododdin, H.B. and A.C. are discounted as evidence, then the scales tip completely that way, and there isn’t really anything left for an Arthur of Badon.  But it depends on what weight ‘popular’ belief has against actual evidence (evidence that is interpreted differently by different people), if these three documents are not discounted. Is amount of evidence equal to its ‘weight’? This could be like saying that a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold, because there’s a lot more of it. Perhaps a better analogy might be a pound of gold foil wrapped feathers, and, as we know, all that glitters isn’t gold. Once you have concluded (or believe) that the H.B. Arthurian section to be either made-up or that Nennius (and his audience) believed the Arthur in question was historical when he wasn’t, and that the A.C. simply followed in the steps of the H.B.; or that Nennius took another Arthur and deliberately (or accidentally) placed him earlier than he was, then that is that for Arthur being at Badon … unless there was a third battle of Badon no one’s aware of. (Complicated, ain’t it!?)

On the point of the mention of Arthur in Y Gododdin, there isn’t agreement on its dating, which is why I’ve been reluctant to include it  here. John Koch’s (The Gododdin of Aneirin, 1997), gives a 6th/7th century date – which would make it the first mention of an Arthur – but not all scholars agree.  Some believe it could be a later interpolation (Charles-Edwards et al) possibly not being attached until the 8th or 9th centuries with Graham Isaac going for the 10th century. Thomas Green sees the killing of a vast amount of men as described in the H.B. battle list as proof of Arthur’s mythical status and why he was named in it. Taken out of context, it does seem like that. Within the H.B. it is one of the least fantastical things. Even if Koch is wrong and it is a later interpolation, this only works if you believe the H.B. to be about a mythical figure. It’s a circular argument. If the H.B. is about a real person, and the comparison in Y Gododdin refers to this, then it is, in the interpolator’s mind, still comparing Gwawrddur to a real figure. What it does mean is that what Koch sees as a near contemporary source mentioning him, isn’t. (For more on this see THIS blog).


I find that the 6th and 7th century Arthurs’ name giving to Gael descended people and not Britons is explained away too readily, by both camps. By elements of the ‘historical Arthur’ camp it is a name the British wouldn’t use out of awe or respect for Arthur of Badon, but the Gaels would use the name because they didn’t have the same reverence for it. This ‘historic’ argument doesn’t make much sense, to me at least, because Artúr mac Áedán supposedly came from the union of a Gael and Briton, which, most likely was for political reasons; would he name a son Arthur knowing it wouldn’t go down well with the wife or her family? Maybe, I suppose. But in Demetia (Dyfed), Arthur ap Pedr may have been more Briton than Gael, for all we know, living in a Gaelic dominated (or cultural) area (as could have Arthur ap Bicoir if he’s a historical figure) and still the name was given. (Besides, the Britons would name their sons after famous military leaders as demonstrated earlier). But no Briton or even later Welshman would use the name for their princes and the first to give his son it would be an English king with a Welsh family name, Henry (Tudor) VII in the 15th century. The Welsh said Henry was  the ‘Son of Prophesy’, so perhaps he thought naming his son Arthur would help that prophesy along? It didn’t, and Arthur died young.

For the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp these Arthurs were named after a mythical or folkloric figure, and the British wouldn’t do this for the same reasons of awe and respect (Batram).  This could make sense, to some degree, except the British would use mythical names if Bran is anything to go by, as well as Belin (Apollo Belinus), Mabon (Apollo Maponos), Conmail (Apollo Cunomaglus), Mael (Deus Maglus), and Nudd (Mars Nodens). (My thanks to Chris Gwinn who pointed these out). But, as I’ve already said, if they were named after some mythical or folkloric figure (maybe one that covered both cultures?), then why couldn’t an earlier Arthur (of Badon fame) be named for the same reason, with him also been of Gael descent and having nothing to do with his mythical/folkloric counterpart apart from his name? The argument doesn’t follow for the name giving.

There is another point here: if it is thought a mythical/folkloric Arthur by the Early-9th century had become historicized, then the Britons weren’t naming their sons Arthur because he was mythical or folkloric by this stage. Either way – be he historical or mythical/folkloric – he was, to them, a real man. They liked naming their sons after famous leaders, and, as shown above, they had no problem naming their sons after mythical figures. So what was the problem with Arthur or his name?

Etymologically speaking …

Most etymologists would argue that the Gaels would have to get the name Artúr via the Britons using the Insular Latin Arturius (from Classical Latin Artorius), as it wouldn’t be a name they would use directly because it was Latin. However, Arthur of Demetia’s father was called Pedr (Peter), from Latin PETRVS, so they would use Latin names, it’s just that Artorius/Arturius doesn’t appear to be a common name in Britain … but neither does Pedr. If it wasn’t via Latin, the problem, as it is with Brittonic, is creating this name from two Goidelic words that would produce Artúr. Whilst there are many ‘Art’ names in Irish, there are none, apart from Artúr, ending with ‘úr’.  Old Irishúr’, can mean ‘noble’:- (c) of persons (a) noble, generous, (b) fair, active. It can also mean `evil’. However, there are no attested names anywhere that use úr as the second element, so it would have to be unique. That’s not out of the question, but it makes it harder to argue.

You see many websites putting forward ‘Arth+gwr’ – Brittonic *arto+guiros (‘Bear Man’) as the meaning of the name, but that should produce Arthwr. You also see ‘Arth+rix’ – Brittonic *arto+rigos (‘Bear King’) but that should make *Arthir/*Erthir or *Arthric. At present, until Chris Gwinn shows us his new theory, the name is more likely to be derived from Arturius, with Arturus (from the star Arcturus) being another possibility. (More later).

In another blog I explored the possibility that the Britons didn’t use the name because it was seen as an Hiberno-British (not Irish) name, but even this isn’t satisfactory. Whatever the reasons for the Brittonic speaking Britons not using the name, it may have been for different reasons at different points in history. Could it initially have been because it was seen as a name used by Goidelic speakers, then it gained a superstition around it? I’ve recently wondered if it could be because it seemed like a hybrid name to the British that didn’t make total sense to them? To the Gaels it could have made some kind of sense even if they wouldn’t normally use úr as the second part of a name. To the Britons (and later Welsh) it might have sounded like ‘Bear-ur’. (That letter u is a long vowel in Brittonic and Old Welsh. In Middle and Modern Welsh the u becomes similar to a long vowel e, which is why Cymru (Wales) is pronounced something like Kumry). It would need further investigation by someone who knows a lot more than I (Chris Gwinn?) as to whether there were other compound names coming from either Insular Latin or older Brittonic that, as they mutated, didn’t make total sense, so were only used once. Names that mutated completely to make no sense may not have been a problem?

In the penultimate part of this blog I will look at one other piece of evidence I have not seen explored (but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been!) that could be used by both the historical and mythical/folkloric camps.

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



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In Search Of The ‘Original’ King Arthur – Post Script

I am Arthur, king of the Britons … or is that Artheer … or Arthoor?

First of all, let me say I am neither a Welsh or Irish speaker or an expert of the development of either language, so I would be very grateful for any corrections on what I say below.

This blog is a Post Script to a earlier post, which, if you’d like to read first, click HERE. In this post I went on a journey to see if I could discover the ‘original’ – or close to – pronunciation of Arthur. We are so used to the name now it’s hard to image it sounding like anything else other than ‘Arthur’ (In some parts of England, more like ‘ARthuh’, ‘AHtha’, ‘ARRthurr’ or ‘AHffa’). But to the Welsh speaking Welsh or Gaelic Irish or Scots (who don’t pronounce it the English way) it is pronounced very differently. This said, we should probably keep in mind the regional variation in Britain in the Late 5th/Early 6th centuries, and, indeed, later. Whilst the dialects/accents may not have been as diverse as they are now, they must still have been present.

Many people will also be unaware of the great difference (as well as similarities) between Brittonic and Modern Welsh, or even Old or Middle Welsh. Here are some examples taken form the paper ‘Old and Middle Welsh’ by David Willis (although Dr Graham Isaac has a slightly different take on this development – see below).

“Brythonic *esjās tegos > ModW. /i θɨ/ ei thŷ ‘her house’ (‘house’) via the change /-s t/ > /θ/;

Brythonic *sweks tabarnās > MW. /xwe θavarn/ chwe thafarn ‘six taverns’ (tafarn ‘tavern’) via the change /-s t/ > /θ/;

Brythonic *ak tortā > ModW. /a θorθ/ a thorth ‘and a loaf’ (torth ‘loaf’) via the change /-k t/ > /θ/.”

θ= a voiceless dental fricative … or a th to you and me!

For what’s about to be written you need to know the following:

  • Long a (ā) sound as in apesnailacheexplain, and reindeer
  • Long e (ē) sound as in eatagonyneedlepianist, and electricity
  • Long i (ī) sound as in eyecrytightropetile, and violin
  • Long o (ō) sound as in ohdominoghostpillow, and stethoscope
  • Long u (ū) sound as in yousalutetoothbrushgooseboot, and costume

Modern Welsh should pronounce Arthur as ‘Arthērrr’ (the ‘u’ being an ‘ē’ sound as in Cymru=Kumrē) with rolling rrrs. This made me wonder how this could be if the ancient Gaels got the name from the British, as some argue they did? Artúr in Irish is pronounced ‘Artūr ‘ (genitive Artúir= ‘Artūir’ , with the ‘i’ either hardly pronounce or not at all). If this came from British, it should come from Arthgwr/Arthwr (or the Brittonic equivalent such as *Artos(Artu)-wiros=>Arthouros … I think … or Arthouros if I’ve got Dr Graham Isaac’s theory right). The ‘w’ in Welsh giving a long vowel ū.

However, I discovered that the Welsh vowel ‘u’ is the only one to have significantly changed from Middle to Modern Welsh (Middle Welsh=approx 12th to 14th centuries – dates vary). This vowel, which now has an ‘ē’ sound (or something close to it) then was an ‘ū’ sound. So, whilst Arthur might be pronounced Arthēr today, it could, indeed, have been ‘Arthūr’ in the past. But, this only applies with a written name, not an orally transmitted one. If Arthur was ‘Arthūr’, one would think when the vowel changed, they’d spell it Arthwr. Not necessarily, apparently. The spelling can be ‘frozen’.

There is the spelling of Arthur in the ‘Brut Tysilio’ (c. 15th century), which is rendered as Arthyr. I thought this could be an older version of the name making ‘Arthēr’ again. However, the vowel ‘y’ had replaced ‘i’ by the 15th century, which has an short vowel ‘u’ (‘uh’) sound if used in a single syllabic word or final syllable of a multi syllabic word; so Arthur being written Arthyr would, in Modern Welsh/Early Modern Welsh (scholars differ on dates), almost render the English version of the name ‘Arthur’ (but with a rolling rrrs of course). So this may not be an ‘Arthēr’ but a sound close to what the name had become to the English (Anglo-Normans) through these later legends.

Arthur (‘Arthēr’) should be Erthir/Arthir in Old Welsh. But this would render Goidelic (Irish) Artír and not Artúr or Artur.

Should the Irish version of the name tell us how this name was transmitted? It might, if it came via the Britons as some argue. If it was from a British ‘Arthūr’ it then shows an early transmission when the ‘u’ was still an ‘ū’. It also allows for a transmission in the opposite direction. However, I discovered that the spelling in Irish also changes from document to document. Some are Artur (Artuir) not Artúr (Artúir). This would mean it sounded like ‘Artuhr’ (and Artuhir). I thought I’d better check the documents again.

Adamnan simply gives Áedáin’s (possible) son the name Arturius, with no Gael equivalent, though it would most likely be Artur. However, the ‘Annals of Tigernach’ (AT) tells us.

“Iugulacio filiorum Aedan .i. Bran & Domungort & Eochaid Fínd & Artur, i cath Chirchind in quo uictus est Aedhan, & cath Coraind.”

… and for Conaing:

“Hii sunt filii Conaing meic Áedáin .i. Rígallán Ferchar. Artán. Artúr. Dondc[h]ad. Domungart. Nec[h]tan. Ném. Crumíne”

Here we have one as Artur and one as Artúr. Was this just bad copying, could each sound as a long vowel ‘ū’, or were they, in fact, two different names?

Arthur ap Pedr in the ‘Expulsion of the Desi’ is ‘Artuir maic Retheoir’ .

Again in the AT Arthur son of Bicoir is …

Artuir filio Bicoir Britone

Annals of the Four Masters‘ has …

h-Artur, mac Bicair, do Bretnaibh

Subsequent Gaelic Arthurs are given a mixture of both spellings.

So, actually, only one document uses the spelling Artúr (‘Artūr’), the rest use Artur (‘Artuhr’) it seemed to me. To come from British, the latter would have to come from Old Welsh Arthir/Erthir (Arthur/Erthur). The latter name is attested to in the poem about the sons of Llywarch Hen.

However, I then found a phonetic pronunciation of a line from an Old Irish poem:

ina churchán tar muir nglan

ih-na KHOOR-khawn tahr MOOR NGLAHN

This gave the short vowel ‘u’ a long vowel sound ú. I was confused! I needed an expert and so went to the Listserv discussion group site, OLD-IRISH-L. I had a reply from Dennis King telling me that the scribes weren’t always careful about adding the long marks that would denote a long vowel, but it would most likely be pronounced with the long vowel. I had a similar reply from Dr. Mícheál O Mainnín, Director of Research, Irish & Celtic Studies at Belfast University adding that sometimes the long vowel marks were hard to discern on some manuscripts but the meter of the text also gives it away as a long vowel. So, even Artur, would be ‘Artūr’. (I hope you’re following this!).

Nennius in the 9th century uses the spelling Arthur, which, in his time, would have produced ‘Arthūr’ and not ‘Arthēr’. But what would someone purely reading this in Latin make of it?  In Vulgar Latin ‘u’ was an ‘o’, so it should read as ‘Arthor’. BUT, it could also have been read as a a short vowel ‘u’ or long vowel ‘ū’, as far as I can see because at the time they didn’t attach accentuation marks to them. (Help!) Either way, it wouldn’t be ‘Arthēr’. (They would try and denote long vowels on grave inscriptions, using ‘VV‘. So Arthur should be rendered as ‘ARTVVRIVS‘. Hence why the Welsh use the long vowel ū for a ‘w’).

So, it looks like the pronunciation of Arthur would be Arthūr (Arthoor) (with rolling rrrrs), regional variations not withstanding. What it was in Brittonic/Brythonic (before 550 – although dates differ) or Primitive Welsh is still debatable. It may have had over 200 years of oral transmission with the language changing before it was written down and a lot could have happened in that time. If there was an Arthur around in 500 AD he almost certainly got his name via Vulgar Latin Artūrius or Latin Artūrus; but one thing’s for certain, it wouldn’t have sounded anything like the English ‘Arthur’.

I look forward to corrections and comments.

Thanks for reading,



I have to thank the power of Twitter for getting me in touch with  Dr. Mícheál O Mainnín, Director of Research, Irish & Celtic Studies at Belfast University via Ciaran Bradley and SLDP member Dominic Bradley MLA.


Old-Irish Spelling and Pronunciation by Dennis King

Reading Old Irish, The Values of the Letters

Index of Names in Irish Annals: Artúr by Kathleen M. O’Brien

The Chronology of the Development of Brittonic Stops and the Spirant Mutation by G. R. Isaac.

‘Old and Middle Welsh’ by David Willis

Middle Welsh Vowels and Diphthongs by Elizabeth J. Pyatt

The Wales-Catalonia Website


Posted by on July 28, 2011 in King Arthur


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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Six

UPDATED 21.5.12 

What’s in a name?

Before getting into the possible meaning of the name Arthur and where it might have originated from, there’s a quote I’d like to make from Thomas Green’s book, ‘Concepts of Arthur‘:

“To have all four [of these Arthurs] ‘named after ‘the historical Arthur’ … would be a type of commemoration for which Celtic tradition tradition offers no parallel,’ as no less an authority than Rachel Bromwich has made clear (1975-6: 178-9). So what can the solution be?” (p.49)

Now, I haven’t read this particular work Green cites, and far be it from me, a layman, to criticise the late, great Rachel Bromwich, but there are some other names that seemed to have been used on a number of occasions, which might be worth looking at.  These are:

Constantine/Constantin/Costentyn/Custennin/Custennyn (and many other variations)

Caraticus/Coroticus/Ceretic/Caratawc/Caradog/Cerdic (?)

Geraint, Gereint









There are probably more, but these are the ones I have spotted. Yet a search of the Welsh Brut y Tywysogion‘The Chronicle of the Princes’ (Jesus MS 111 Red Book of Hergest), which covers six hundred years of north Walian history, will bring up only one Arthur, and that is the Arthur, mentioned in a Latin verse commemorating Rhys of Gwerthrynion on his death in 1197.

Cesar et Arthurus leo fortis uterque sub armis

Nil par vel similis Resus utrique fuit.”

“Julius Caesar and Arthur, each a strong lion under arms

Nothing like or similar to either one was Res (Rhys).”

(Kindly translated by Christopher Gwinn)

The south Walian didn’t use the name either, from what we can glean from the genealogies. (The only possible 12th century Welshman was a priest called Arthur of Bardsey). The same period in Ireland brings up at least five Arthurs: ARTUIR on a tombstone in Co. Tipperary,  Fergus mac Artuir (Leinster), Artur mac Muiredaigh (Western Liffey), Artúr ua Tuathail, Artúr Clérech, Artúr mac Bruide (Source: ‘Early Irish examples of the name ‘Arthur’, Bart Jaski)

Surprisingly, we do not get the reuse of Ambrosius or even the British version of it, Emrys, as far as I’m aware.  Why not, I wonder?  It could be because the others gained national and international fame and Ambrosius, for all Gildas’ praising, only gained relatively ‘local’ fame.  Or, perhaps, they just didn’t like the it!

It would help if there was some certainty over where the name ‘Arthur’ comes from or its meaning.  There is no universal agreement on this. One of the main contenders (and the one most etymologist favour) is the Classical Latin name ‘Artōrius’, which, through Vulgar (Insular) Latin renders ArtūriusTo quote Dr Kip Wheeler:

 “The strongest evidence that Arthur may be a historical hero comes from etymology. The name Arthur, unlike Rhiannon or many other Celtic names in Welsh literature, does not appear to originate in the remnants of a divinity. Nitze was among the first to argue convincingly for a link between the etymology of the name “Arthur” with the Latin name Artorius (585-96), as opposed to the Welsh/Irish cognate Arth  (“bear”) as suggested in Bromwich’s introduction to The Arthur of the Welsh. Artorius was a common Roman name from the gens Artoria, one of the founding families of Rome.” (Arthuriana: Summary of the Welsh Tradition, 1999, p.3)

Back to ‘Arthur’

.Contenders for the derivation of Arthur are:

  1. ‘bear king’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-rigos OW Artorix
  2. ‘bear’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto (with Latin decknamen of Artōrius)
  3. ‘bear man’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-guiros - OW Arthguir/Arthwr
  4. ‘guardian of the bear’ – from Greek star *Arktourus – Latin Arcturus – Neo-Brittonic *Arturus
  5. Classical Latin Artōrius - Insular Latin  Artūrius - Neo Brittonic *Artur - OW Arthur.
 (I am indebted to Chris Gwinn of Arthurnet during correspondents at his Celtica-Camelot website for this and following information.  (To see full the discussions go to

(Philips and Keatman in their book King Arthur – The True Story. put forward Owain Ddantgwn (Owain Whitetooth) of Rhôs - a small kingdom next to Gwynedd – as Arthur, saying the name was an epithet. They suggest that Arth (bear) was joined with Latin ursus (bear) to make Arthursus. Apart from the fact this would have to be unique and British epithets attached to names had nothing to do with animals, etymologists simply don’t agree).

*Arto-guiros should make Old Welsh Arthwr and *Arto-rigos, Old Welsh *Erthir or, possibly, *Arthric. *Arto-guiros or *Arto-uiros is one of the British etymologies that has been considered more than most. The reasons are extremely complicated and it will be easiest form me to quote a paragraph on the subject directly fro Thomas Green’s book:

“Whilst *Arto-uiros would have, through regular changes, become Archaic Welsh Art(u)ur, it ought to have developed into Old Welsh *Arthgur and Middle Welsh *Arthwr (see Schrijver, 1995: 151-2 for *-uiros > *(u)ur -wr. Simms-Williams, 1991b: 27,72 discusses the dating of medial -u > -gu-, which he sees as a ninth-century and later development; it is not, however, a universal change, so the name might have been regularly Arthur through the Old Welsh period – Jackson, 1953: 387, 392-3; Higham, 2002:74). There are two possible solutions to this. The first is that the Archaic Welsh (and perhaps Old Welsh) version could have been petrified as Art(h)ur through popular usage, so that it did not participate in the expected later changes. Alternatively, Griffen has argued that *Arto-uiros may have taken the form *Artgur by c.AD 500, at which point he argues it would have regularly become Art(h)ur, as -g- would be lost in this period (Griffen, 1994a: 85-6; Griffen, 1994b). This latter route is very doubtful, however, and we would still have to rely on a petrification in an early form.” (2007, p.190)

That’s how complicated this whole debate is! It is why Artūrius is preferred, because it takes less etymological gymnastics to get it to Arthur.

However, here is another possibility I will forward, following on from these British and Brittany names:




If his name was originally Artorix (*Arto-rigos) this would render Latin Artōrius, which then could have become Insular Latin Artūrius – Neo Brittonic Artur/Arthur – Goidelic Artúr. But, for this to work he would have to have been known by his Latin and not British name, which could be hard to argue as British characters are known by their British names.

A name coming from the Greek star Arktourus (Latin Arcturus) would be unusual but not out of the question. After all, this star and its constellation of Boötes, looks after Ursa Minor (‘The Little Bear’) and Ursa Major (‘The Great Bear’), otherwise known as The Plough, and Arthur’s name later became attached to this constellation when it would be known as ‘Arthur’s Wain’ or ‘Arthur’s Hufe’, and this could have derived from Ar(c)turus’ Wain. To the Romans the constellation Ursa Major was known as ‘The Bear-like Wagon’ or ‘The Chariot. (Germanicus Caesar, 1976, p.55)

There are plenty of ‘Art’ based names, both in Britain and Ireland.  In Britain its meaning is ‘bear’ (from Brittonic *artos modern Welsh ‘arth’, plural ‘eirth’) and, possibly, ‘warrior’. In Goidelic it could mean ‘bear’, ‘stone’, ‘noble’ or ‘warrior’. There have been those who put the name Arthur forward as being of Goidelic origin, but the problem is, whilst there are many ‘Art’ names in Irish, there are none, apart from Artúr, ending with ‘úr’ and it’s hard to find a meaning for this … as it is with Brittonic.  The nearest is Old Irishúr’, meaning ‘noble’:- (c) of persons (a) noble, generous, (b) fair, active. It can also mean ‘earth’ or `evil’.  As Dane Prestano pointed out in a comment below:

‘Art’ can mean Bear, God, hero, noble and stone. So various meanings could be constructed in Goidelic, the ‘noble bear/god/hero’, the ‘evil bear/god/hero’. I would have thought the former would be more likely but we do have that Sawley gloss where he is called “horrible from his youth” to contend with. I suppose we do need to find some Goidelic names with this ending to see if either of these were actually used in names., there are no other names with this ending.  It could be unique, but it looks unlikely.

The one problem is with the reversal of the words to get ‘Noble Bear’ (*úr-art). I know it can happen, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough to be sure. My first rendition of Art-úr was ‘bear (of the) earth’ or ‘stone (of the) earth’, which has similarities to Peter (Petr). However, I believe the main problem, as Chris Gwinn points out, is not so much the etymology, but the distinct lack of names ending in úr.

We don’t have that many comparisons of the use of Latin name in Britain for the period but there are a few that have survived. From inscribes stone in Wales: Peturus, Potentinus. Quenvendanus, Marti Pumpeius, ‘great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus’, ‘Etternus son of Victor’, Vitalianus … and from Devon and Cornwall we get:  Ingenuus, Iustus, Latinus. Most other names we know of are Latinised British one. (Source: BableStone

L. Artorius Castus (LAC) is thought to be from Dalmatia (the Balkans) but a number of Italian scholars think the name to be Messapic (southeast Italy on the ‘heal’) but of unknown meaning. Another derivation could be from the Latinisation of the Etruscan name Arnthur. (Chelotti, Morizio, Silvestrini, Le epigrafi romane di Canosa, Volume 1, 1990, pp. 261, 264)

Artorius is, in fact, a family name (cognomen) and LAC would most likely have been known by the praenomen Lucius, not Artorius, to his friends at least. It’s not known in Britain, besides LAC, but must have been at some point to be given to a mythical or historical figure. It’s relatively common elsewhere in the Roman world.

If Arthur is a name used by Hiberno-Britannians/Hiberno-Britons, though not necessarily an Hibernian (Gaelic) name as mentioned above, it might go someway to explaining why the British don’t appear to have used it. Could there also have been the added possibility that in Goidelic Artúr had some semblance of a meaning but in Brittonic and Welsh it didn’t – apart from ‘bear – ur‘, so wasn’t used? We still have to understand why the Britons and Welsh wouldn’t name their sons Arthur but were quite happy to have their great folkloric and/or legendary figure have the name … and why a certain 12th century monk/priest called Arthur of Bardsey would take the name.

(For my blog on the pronunciation of the name Arthur in both Brittonic and Goidelic, click HERE).

In the next blog I want to look at the genealogies that include Arthur.

Thanks for reading,



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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part One

(Updated: 31.5.12)


In these blogs I’d like to share my thoughts on my approach to looking for an ‘original’ historical Arthur.  This I have mainly been doing for an idea for a screenplay I’m working on.  I have written three already but haven’t been totally happy with any of them, so I’m going back to basics and doing more research.  This has certainly come out as a much longer piece than I intended, which is why it’s another multi-part blog.

King Arthur was Irish!?

No, I don’t think he was Irish, but I wanted to start, not with his mention in the 9th century Historia Britonnum, but with the known Arthurs (yes, plural) of the 6th and 7th centuries (all Hiberno-British (British/Gael mix) or in Hiberno-Brittanian or Cambro-Irish areas) and try to work forward and back from them.

What, I questioned myself, might have given rise to the kings of these areas giving their sons the name,whilst the Britons and even later Welsh wouldn’t. as well as the mention of Arthur in the northern British 7th century (plus later additions) collection of poems, Y Gododdin? I realise there can only be possibilities and probabilities in the argument, but I‘m attempting, though I may not succeed, to find an hypothesis that is a probable one, or certainly a believable one.  Of course, just because something is more probable and believable, doesn’t make it the truth.

Assuming, just for the moment, that one of these Arthurs/Artúrs wasn’t the ‘original’, which some argue one was, I’m starting with Occam’s Razor, whilst keeping in mind that such a device might well be blunted by the stubble of time.  This ‘razor’ would probably first say that he has to be one of these known figures, but it could also say (if it was a double bladed affair) that they were given the name because, if there was an ‘original’ Arthur before them, they were of the same ethnic origins as he, or there was some identification with him by them.  This is not to say he was Irish (Hibernian/Scotti) per se, but possibly of mixed race in an Hiberno-British region, or a region of such descent.  Such a person, of course, could have been born at one of several locations on the western seaboard from Cornwall to Clydesdale or Kintyre.  We know through inscribed stones that there were Hibernians or Hiberno-Britons on the islands of Britain, especially in what is now southwest Wales, and there are two 5th and 6th century ‘Irishmen’ known as far east as Roman Wroxeter (Viriconium Cornoviorum) in modern day Shropshire, and Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) in Wiltshire:

  • Wroxeter: CVNORIX | MACVSM/A | QVICO[L]I[N]E, ‘Cunorix son of Maqui Coline’ (c.460-475, Wright/Jackson/1968)
  • Silchester – EBICATO[S]/[MAQ]I MUCO[I--], ‘of Ebicatus, son of the tribe of … ‘ (c. 500-700, Fulford/Clarke/1999 or 350-425, Fulford et al 2000).

We’ve no idea who these gentlemen were or what they were doing there, but they were there.  They could be warriors, they could be monks.

There is very little to go on when searching for Arthur before the Historia Brittonum – ‘History of the Britons’ (H.B.) ca 828. and the Annales Cambriae – ‘Annals of Wales (A.C.) ca 970, but there are some clues.  Let’s start with a reminder of (or an introduction to) who these ‘other’ HIberno-British Arthur’s were and, firstly, where the Hiberno-Britannian/Cambro-Irish regions lay.

Arthur (Artur/Artúr/Artuir) names of the Hiberno-British regions

The main regions where early Hiberno-Britannians, Hiberno-Britons or Cambro-Irish were resident were:

The Western Isles and western Scotland.

Northwest Wales

Southwest Wales

South central Wales

Southwest Devon

Northwest Cornwall

Only one of these regions would see their language remain: those of western Scotland. Those in Wales left the most traces through inscribed stones (especially in the southwest) and some place names. Cornwall has a number of Irish saints. Cumbria and Lancashire seem to be Hibernian free and this could simply be because the Isle of Man lay between, which they did colonise, or because of the strength of the kingdoms there. The same could be true for what is now Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland.

The map right shows only roughly where these Gaels might have been in the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries. They may not have extended so far we in the north at the time. The difference in pink to red it the extend of settlement or, in the case of southwest Wales, the extent of Latin/ogham inscribed stones.The map also shows where the old British provinces might have been.

There are, of course, different theories to the existence of Goidelic (Early Gaelic)  [1]speakers in Britain and these range from settlers/raiders from Ireland to there having ‘always’ been Goidelic speakers in these regions. The jury’s still out, but most favour an influx.

Why the Hiberno-Britannians (descendants thereof or inhabitants of these areas) of the 6th and 7th centuries might give their princes the (generally accepted) Insular Latin derived British name Arthur (Gaelic Artur/Artúr/Artuir) two or three generations after Arthur of Badon’s supposed death, whilst the British/Welsh did not until the 15th century (Henry (Tudor) VII’s son) has been debated many times. I am of the opinion, based on the evidence as I see it, which I’ll show in the coming chapters, that if they were named after an ‘original’ Arthur, who wasn’t one of these, it was for a very good reason and a reason that was more than just taking a fashionable name or that of a mythical god [2] or folkloric figure [3], or because the Brittonic/Brythonic speaking Britons wouldn’t take the name out of respect or awe for Arthur of Badon. It didn’t stop them using the names Constantine or Caradoc (or variants thereof) on numerous occasions as well as mythical names such as Brân.

However, why those who were once his (or elements of the Britons’)  supposed enemy would take the name is the main question, whether Arthur was also an Hiberno-Briton or Hiberno-Britannian himself or not. But we don’t think with a 6th century warrior’s mind and perhaps his unsurpassed martial prowess was enough; or, they were not his enemy at the time, or not all the time, but allies against other Scotti or the Picts. After all, we actually have no evidence that those of the west of Scotland were the enemy in the late 5th century, or, at least, not to the Britannians below the Wall. (Bede says they didn’t arrive in western Scotland until 500 AD, but the archæological evidence disagrees).

It may be odd for all the Hiberno-Britannias to have been the enemy at the time with regards to Arthur, considering they may have named their princes after him, yet those of the Cambro-Irish regions of southwest and northwest Wales seem to have been the enemy, or some of them, if the stories of (St.) Tewdric (c.Early-6th century) expelling Irish from southwest Wales and Cornwall are true[4] and if Cunedda (c.Early-5th century) from Manau Gododdin (southwest Fife, Scotland) did indeed fight against those of northwest and southwest Wales[5]. Even if he didn’t, a later ‘Welsh’ king called Catguolaun Lauhir (Cadwallon Long Hand) of Venedos/Venedota/Venedotia (Gwynedd) supposedly did[6] … not that Venedotia existed in the 5th century.[7]

But there were Hibernians and there were Hibernians: raiders and settlers … and, possibly, Goidelic speaking Britannians. What we are not told is if these figures fought against Scotti raiders with the aid of settled Cambro-Irish, who were either laeti (warriors with family, settled in the area) or feoderati (federates fighting under their own leaders, not necessarily here to stay).

The Hibernian Dalriadians (of Dál Riataof the Western Isles of Scotland did become the enemy of their British ‘cousins’ yet they still continued to take the name … and still the ‘royal’ Britons weren’t using it as far as we can tell.

A simple answer, and one Richard Barber (The Figure of Arthur, 1972) came to, is that the legendary Arthur is based on one of these. (Barber obviously had a very sharp Occam’s Razor!)This certainly makes more sense than Arthur being Ambrosius Aurelianus (Reno, 1994), Riothamus (Alcock, 1975), Vortigern, or even Catellus = Cattigern = Vortigern = Riothamus=Arthur (Pace, 2009). However, he can only be one of these other Arthurs, who we are exploring, if he was not of the 5th century but of the 6th or 7th and did not fight at Badon.

(I doubt the above alternatives for many reasons but mainly because there is neither evidence that the name ‘Arthur’ was an epithet[8], or that Riothamus[9] or Vortigern[10]weren’t personal names).

Why the name Arthur?

First a cautionary note from Juliette Wood:

 “Too often a priori [11] considerations of the importance of Arthur distort such considerations [of why other princes were given the name] (Bromwich 1963, 1975/6: 178–9; Padel 1994: 24; Green 2007) but the quest for a historical Arthur surfaces still in popular writing.” (A companion to Arthurian literature, 2009, p.123)

There may indeed be a priori elements when it comes to this, but I’ll try not to do so.

The use of the name Arthur by the Hiberno-Britannians/Cambro-Irish is explained as follows in Bart Jaski’s paper, ‘‘Early Irish examples of the name ‘Arthur’ (Journal of Celtic Philology, 2008):

 “That a British name is found among members of an originally Irish dynasty can be explained by ties of marriage. The sources suggest that Áedán had a British grandmother, mother and wife, and such connections may have been common among other members of the ruling families of Dál Riata. In this way, British names could be adopted by dynasties with Irish roots.” (p.94)

This may, of course, explain the giving of the name, but not why the Britons don’t appear to have used it. (It may also not be a British name per se, but a British version of a Latin name). However, there could be other reasons behind the name being used, which I’ll explore in the coming blogs, starting with Artúr (Arturius) mac Áedán of Dál Riata (Argyle, Scotland). Born ca 570.

(There is a Post Script to all these blogs about the pronunciation of the name Arthur, but it’s worth reading it first. Click HERE).

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



[1] There was much less of a difference between Goidelic and Brittonic in the Late-5th century to what there is now between Gaelic and Welsh.

[2] Green, 2007. Thomas Green doesn’t just argue for a mythical god figure in his book ‘Concepts of Arthur’.

[3] Higham, 2002

[4] They may not be since they seem to come form the famous 18th century forger Iolo Morganwg.

[5] If this isn’t an origin myth

[6] Cadwallon supposedly defeated the Irish on the Isle of Anglesey in 517AD.

[7] No one’s certain when Venedota came into being but an inscribed stone at Penbryn still refers to it being the land off the Ordovices in the 6th century. Later it is called Venedos in a stone from Penmachno. The change may have happened when its focus changed from the mainland to Anglesey. (Dark, 2000, p.178)

[8] As you’ll see later, there’s no known etymology in Brittonic or Goidelic to make the name Arthur or any evidence the used animals as epithets.

[9] We know there was the very similar personal name Riocatus.

[10] The Goidelic version of the name Vortigern is well attested in Ireland.

[11] A priori: Latin for “from the former” or “from before”, and in this instance refers to knowledge that is justified by arguments of a certain kind.


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A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem – Part Three

(Click HERE for Part one – Click HERE for Part Two)

Is it time to rhyme?

The question comes as to whether any poetry about Arthur was composed during his supposed lifetime or many years later.  As Keith mentions and Gidlow points out, the limited surviving early battle poetry we know of only exists between ca 580 and 640; this means that there is a lot that has been lost to us.  But if the type of battle poetry that the H.B. was based on – if it was – only had a relatively short life and had finished by the mid-seventh century then we might deduce that it was compose during this time and not before or after.  If it was in this period it gives a completely different slant to why or how it was composed.  The ‘why’ is possibly easier to answer.  This was the second phase of the Anglo-Saxon migration, expansion and conquest.  What better time to bring a national hero (or great warrior) back from the dead and sing his deeds to the warbands before they faced their Germanic enemies?  “He beat them! So can you!”  This would be the way in which his name could travel the length and breadth of the British Isles, beside him possibly already being a legend in certain regions.  This is the exact period when those Hibernian-British or Cambro-Irish Arthur names appear, adding greater strength to the poem(s) being composed at this time.  (I explore further in THIS blog about Arthur being an Hiberno-Britannian).

The ‘how’ would need either known poetry, or stories.  Any stories or legends would be, perhaps, two or three generations old so we can imagine the level of corruption that may have already occurred.  The possibility of any poetry having being written down in British at this time is slim.  However, if it did exist, it may have had to adjust and develop to the changing language.  This itself could lead to corruption.

Recently I have wondered about Aneirin’s involvement in all this.  This is the man (if it is indeed his own words) who gives us the first mention of the name Arthur in Y Gododdin (not forgetting that there are some scholars who argue this verse is a later interpolation):

Ef gwant tra thrichant echasaf,

Ef lladdai a pherfedd ac eithaf,

Oedd gwiw ym mlaen llu llariaf,

Goddolai o haid meirch y gaeaf.

Gocharai brain du ar fur caer

Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.

Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,

Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwawrddur.

He charged before three hundred of the finest,

He cut down both centre and wing,

He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,

he gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.

He fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress

Though he was no Arthur.

Among the powerful ones in battle,

In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)

It’s a bit of a negative compliment, but not totally unusual.  Everyone else mentioned in this poem are either living or recently dead and Arthur is the only one from the distant past … if, indeed, he is and this isn’t Artúr (Arturius) mac Áedán of Dalriada (see THIS blog).  If it is an ‘original’ Arthur of Badon fame, why mention him in particular?  Why now? The ‘why now’ I answered above.  It could also be he just happened to have a name that rhymed with Gwawrddur.  Another explanation is that he was from that region and, added to this, if there was current poetry being circulated about him it would already be in the audience’s mind. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Aneirin himself had composed work about Arthur.  Could he have been the first?  This might make the mention even more logical.

(Those observant amongst you might have notice something odd about the rhyming in this section:

Gocharai brain du ar fur caer

Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.

Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,

Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwawrddur.

Caer’ does not appear to rhyme with ‘Arthur’ or the previous line.  This bothered me for a little while until making a search through Y Gododdin and finding the following:

‘A’n gelwid i nef bid athleddawr ym mid!

Ef crynid ei gadwaywawr.

Cadfannan ryorug clud, clod fawr,

Ni chynhennid na bai llu iddo llawr.

… and …

A ddalwy mwng blaidd heb bren yn ei law

Gnawd gwychnawd yn ei len:

O gyfrang gwyth ac asgen

Trengis, ni ddiengis, Bradwen.

So it is a specific bardic device).

As already mentioned, if he fought at Celidon, then this was most likely in the Gododdin’s back yard.  There are some, including Keith, who place other battles from the list in this region:

Glein: the River Glen in Northumbria (Gododdin),

Breguoin: High Rochester in Northumbria (Roman Bremenium in Selgovae (Gododdin)

… and one battle not in the H.B. …

Camlan: Roman Camboglanna – Castlesteads, Cumbria (Carvettii region).

If these are right, and we will never know, they not only add more weight to Aneirin’s mention of Arthur, but to all but one of the 6th/7th century Arthur names appearing in the same region.  Of course, these battle placings pose problems to some who look for a southern Saxon fighter. If these battle were in the north and the rest in the northwest Midlands and east, it would only leave Badon in the south; unless you follow Green’s siting of this in Lincolnshire, leaving none!  This is a mine field that I am not going to venture any further into, but the more taken away from the south leaves you wondering ‘who was the British leader in the region of Britain that seemed to be undergoing the biggest expansion’?

Silua Celidonis

One last point about this battle, wherever it was: there has to have been more information contained in a Latin text (if that’s what it was) than the name itself.  It has to have been more than “Arturius bellum silua Celidonis”.  (Apologies for my none existent Latin!).  As I postulated earlier, it could have been a complete list of the battles in Latin, which differed only from the British poem by this one battle, hence why it was included and had to be glossed.  However, it could have also contained urbe Legionis and monte Badonis.  After all, all the other battles in the Latin version of the H.B. have purely British names with no Latin endings to them.  Of course, this is most likely because they couldn’t be given them.  It is interesting that these three all have the same ‘nis’ endings.  It’s not completely out of the question that there was also once a Latin poem containing these three battles. If there was a Latin poem, it could indicate that this was the earliest of them all.


It would be naïve to think that the bards were not politically or ambitiously influenced in their poetry.   Whilst such poetry was meant to be learnt verbatim, it would also be naïve to think that later bards might not add to or adjust what they had learned, especially if they added material from a storyteller to spice it up.  This might mean that any poetry coming down to ‘Nennius’ would not be an accurate historical record, even if it was composed at the time of Arthur’s life.  On the meagre evidence we have I think the probability is more towards a 6th century composition of any poem … with the possibility of an earlier Insular Latin poem containing less battles.  It could actually be in its favour not being politically useful to any one dynasty.  There may be no ‘need’ to change it.  Then again, if it was as much for bolstering the British warriors against the English, the greater they made Arthur, the better.

The one positive note is that the ‘original’ poems of Taliesin and Aneirin did make it to us (as far as we can tell) and an ‘original’ Arthurian work may have found its way to ‘Nennius’.  This does give us the very pertinent question of what happened to such a poem or poems, and Latin texts, if they existed?  If the poem was in written form one would think it would be guarded with someone’s life.  Especially if there was only one in existence.  It could, of course, have been lost or destroyed along with any text; perhaps even by the later Anglo-Norman enemy.  It could be argued that if it was still in oral form, which might explain the variation in the different recensions of the H.B., it eventually was lost or transformed into something unrecognisable.  However, it seem a little odd that the poems of Taliesin and Aneirin survived and those of Arthur didn’t.

Taking the Historia battle list on face value is an act of blind faith.  It does not mean there isn’t truth held within it, but with three hundred years of transmission during turbulent times when the language itself was under great changes, and the 9th and 10th century political situations possibly effecting ‘Nennius’ translation, we should tread carefully.

Poet’s corner

Before I embark on my feeble attempts at battle poetry, a pertinent quote by Nora Chadwick:

“It is almost impossible for anyone who is not a native Welsh speaker, familiar with the strict Welsh metrical prosody, to appreciate justly, still less to convey, the intellectual mastery of this tight-knit poetry, its concentrated brevity of phrase, its use of repetition and inversion and crescendo to achieve the climax of the final impact on the emotions which comes to us almost as a shock. This is, in fact, the effect at which the poet aims, for example, in the Lament for Urien of Rheged above, where the closing stanza achieves the finality of bereavement. To obtain his effect, the bard sacrifices reflection to emotion at a white-heat. Unfortunately no early Scottish poetry has survived.” (Chadwick, 1963, §6)

Below are new version of the poems I did before. The first does not follow the correct meter(s), but the second uses the 8 and 7 syllable, 24 line style.  I have removed Celidon and Agned from these exercises:


Leader of battle for the kings of fair Prydein,

There fell many at the confluence of Glein.

In Linnuis four time the victor at the Dubglas,

Gore filled the waters at the river of Bassas.

Slayer of dogs for a day at Caer Guinnion,

He fed the black crows on the walls of Caer Lion.

Blood stained the fetlocks on the shore’s of the Tribruit,

At Caer Bregion the tramplers did acquit.

Three days the siege on the green hill of Badon,

He charged and fell forty-seven score Saeson.


Leader of battle he has been,

War lord for kings of Prydein.

The red cloaked reaper he was seen,

At the confluence of Glein.

In Linnuis four times victors mass,

Gore filled waters of Dubglas,

On legion’s ford below the pass

Blood stained fetlocks at Bassas.

No one spared where the boar had gone,

For a day at Caer Guinnion.

Glutted black crows thereupon,

The ramparts of Caer Lion.

On cold bleak shores they did acquit

As blue blades flashed at Tribruit.

At Bregion’s fort the pyres were lit,

For hostile crews no earthly pit

Long the siege upon Mount Badon,

The giant charged, his sword prayed on

Forty-seven score skulls of Saeson,

For the Lord of Creation.


Thanks for reading,



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