Tag Archives: Badon

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 If you think these sources valid you have a totally different outcome to if you don’t. If you think they’re valid, historical documents, then he existed.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 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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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Nine


It’s argued by the mythical or folkloric camp that these Arthurian battles had to be seen as wide ranging because it had to show Arthur as a figure who commanded the kings of a united ex-Roman diocese of Britannia … this being the only way to defeat the ‘English’. It’s also argued that a Britannia of the time wasn’t united and had fragmented, so such a figure couldn’t have existed. The latter point may be closer to the truth, but this still doesn’t mean a figure couldn’t have been wide ranging, especially if he was something like a ‘mercenary’ general. (See THIS blog for further discussion). However, he could still have been historical, not wide ranging, but made so for the purpose of the H.B.. But if the H.B.’s audience thought all but two of these battles were northern, they wouldn’t be seeing him as pan-British anyway. They may have been seeing him as another hero of Hen Gogledd (the Old North) like those of Y Gododdin and Urien Rheged … whether he was in actuality or not.

Could Nennius have been clever enough to make up these battles for this reason, or choose the battles of others and attach them to Arthur? It’s conceivable, but he too, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, might have to claim he had an ‘ancient book’ or sources that no one else had seen to get away with it. He would know some of the English would read this and if they knew none of these Arthurian battles happened it wouldn’t have the affect it was supposed to have … on them at least.

Of course, if Arthur was historical and these battles (in general) were actual events that had been recorded in poetry, and they were mostly in northern regions (or were thought to be), then he would be the perfect choice for Nennius. He would have a British hero and one who defeated the North Walian’s contemporary foes. If he was also the victor at Badon, (or was thought to have been) that makes him the hero of the southern Britons H.B. readers against Wessex.

Please consider …

There seems to be no consideration by those who argue this list coming from a mythical or folkloric Arthur that Tribruit could have been a real battle that was mythologised. Bregion as a battle Urien Rheged fought – an insignificant battle in the Taliesin poem – could have been a battle fought in the same location; or, as Gidlow points out, an Arthurian battle attributed to Urien! To say the battle of Urbe Legionis was ‘borrowed’ from the Battle of Chester doesn’t make much sense, considering Nennius (or whoever) would have known it was a defeat for the British and would have known his North Walian audience, whose ancestors would have fought there, knew. (King Arthur of Demetia could have been present at that battle however). Not to mention the difference in names between this and Cair Lion/Cair Leon (unless Nennius deliberately changed it). Or was it used as an answer to the defeat at the Battle of Chester to show that the score wasn’t 1 – 0 but 1 -1? The Bassa explanation hardly makes sense either. It’s not what the battle’s called in the poems and no river of that name is mentioned. The only possible mythical battle we could identify would be Traith Tribruit. (But, you may see all this differently).

So, are we asked to except this battle list as either fictional or derivative merely because the name Arthur is attributed to them? Would it be a different case if some other figure’s name was there?

Once again it should be stressed: if some of the characters preceding Arthur in the H.B. had not been attested elsewhere we would think them mythological too because they have supernatural occurrences attached to them: Vortigern’s magical tower, Ambrosius’ virgin birth, St. Patrick’s angel in the burning bush, St. Germanus’ fire from heaven, etc. The only thing applied to Arthur is the killing of 960 (or 940) at his own hand … or, rather, God’s hand. So this was in keeping with the preceding stories. If ‘Nennius’ was trying to big him up in the same way he does to the others he didn’t do a very good job. Arthur simply fought twelve battles and won at Badon. The Vatican recension of the H.B. went to pains to make sure we knew Arthur was merely a soldier (miles). Did they do this to counter English claims (or even Welsh ones) that this Arthur never existed and didn’t beat them at Badon? We’ll never know. The difference is, Arthur’s name seems to have spread like wildfire.

In the next part we’ll look at the weight of evidence as well as the other Arthurs and how it might effect them if Arthur of Badon didn’t exist.

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



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


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

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


Christopher Gidlow counters:


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

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

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

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

The later Vatican recension of the H.B.:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

NB: There may be less citation than I would like in these current blogs because I’m in Austria, away from my books. I will try to add them when I return home in April.

UPDATED 14.5.12


Nowhere in the early, pre-Galfridian (pre Geoffrey of Monmouth) Arthurian Welsh stories (excluding the genealogies for the moment) is there a mention of Arthur’s ‘biological’ origins. Unlike the mythological Fionn mac Cumhail or Gwyn ap Nudd (more below) he is given no patronym. He’s not ‘ap Uthyr’ – son of Uthyr. (Uthyr is not given as his father until Geoffrey of Monmouth). This could be a problem for both a historical and a mythical Arthur. If he’s mythical, this would mean he may have to be the first of his mythological line, so to speak. The Welsh, like their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, liked to show their descent from gods (even when they were Christians) and yet there are no mythical lineages back to an Arthur (unless you could the later MacArthur/Campbell genealogies), and, perhaps more importantly, no royal line trying to claim descent from him. This could be simply because he’d been historicised so well; it could also be because he existed but his origins weren’t preserved, just like Ambrosius’ weren’t. As for the lack of patronym, this may not have been something given in the 5th century. Gildas gives no patronyms for his historical British figures. If his exploits were only known from poems, these poems probably never mentioned his father. There is, however, a lineage given for Arthur back to the god Llyr. (More on that later).


Gods with similar traits were very often known by different names in different cultures. There is one from Wales, Gwydion, who had the same traits as the Gaulish god, Artaius (another bear god), who the Romans associated with Mercury (Mercurius Artaius). This god of the air had the same shapeshifting qualities as Gwydion … as well as those given to Arthur’s magician Menw ap Teirgwaedd in Culhwch, Merlin and, possibly later, Uthur. These qualities – the ability to shape shift into a bear for example – is what you might expect from a bear-derived sky god.

Tomas Green has tried to show an association with the Romano-British deity Mars Alator (possibly meaning “Huntsman” or “Cherisher”), known from an inscription at an altar at the Roman fort of ARBEIA (South Shields) and a silver-gilt votive plaque at Barkway, Hertfordshire. A huntsman would be more in keeping with Arthur. I mention the following elsewhere but will repeat it here.

Green has argued that the poem ‘The Chair of the Sovereign/Prince‘ or ‘The Chair of Teyrnon (‘Kadeir Teyrnon’), shows Arthur as a mythical figure because it relates him to the divine person of Teyrnon (from the Mabinogion) and of the god Alator: ‘echen aladwr’, (“of the family of Aladwr”). (“A Note of Aladur, Alator and Arthur”, STUDIA CELTICA, 41, 2007, 237-41 Available at He also treats it as pre-Galfridian. However, as August Hunt points out in one of his blogs:

 “Arthur was of the family of the Breton Aldroenus, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the Welsh genealogies, this Aldroenus becomes Aldwr. Uther’s father Constantine/Custennin was the brother of this Aldwr. ‘Aladwr’ is thus merely a slight misspelling or corruption of Aldwr.  Arthur is ‘of the family of Al(a)dwr’ and not of the god Alator [...] The poem is thus immediately shown to NOT be pre-Galfridian. We must, therefore, be extremely cautious in how we approach this material. Especially as components from earlier Welsh tradition and from Geoffrey can be mixed in the same composition.”

Available at

Had these shapeshifting sky-god qualities been something Arthur of the Welsh legends had, it would be an open-and-shut case. Instead, he has qualities more like the Irish character Fionn mac Cumhail.


First another quote:

“In the Scotorum Historia, “History of the Scots,” compiled by Hector Boece (1527) and translated later into Older Scots by John Bellenden as the Chronicles of Scotland, the Irish hero Finn MacCool is depicted as a giant, and the narratives attached to him are compared to tales of Arthur. Boece and his translators contrast the “gestes [deeds] of Arthur” favorably with the “vulgar” traditions about Finn MacCool. It is easy to over-interpret such references, but Finn and Arthur as leaders of warrior bands have much in common, and both are endowed with gigantic stature (Nagy 1985). A series of Welsh tales gathered in the early seventeenth century with the specific purpose of defending Geoffrey’s history against the attacks of men like Hector Boece also characterized Arthur as a giant or a trickster/giant-slayer.” (Juliette Wood, A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Helen Fulton, 2009, p.107)

There have been similarities (although there are differences) shown between Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool), the Irish mythical hunter-warrior-poet, and Arthur. (Fionn (Fair) was his nickname, his actual name was Deimne)A mythological Arthur (or one of the elements that made him up) could have been the British equivalent of Finn. Did his British counterpart have originally had a similar name, like other British/Irish gods, which then was changed to Arthur?

Cognate with Finn would be Gwyn (‘Fair’) or Gwen (‘White’). There is, of course,Gwyn ap Nudd (son of Nudd), and Finn’s grandfather’s name was Nuada, so was he Finn’s British counterpart? There is one reference to this Gwyn as a “magic warrior huntsman” – which he is in the hunt for the Twrch Trwyth – , but, in general, they are two very different characters and he seems different from the Arthur persona. There is a character called Gwen Pendragon (the only other early pendragon we know of) who supposedly held Arthur prisoner for three days.

There are six other gwen/gwyn (‘white’/‘fair’) association with Arthur: his wife Gwenhwyfar (‘White Phantom’); his ship Predwyn (‘Fair Form’); his magical cloak Gwenn (‘White’); the name of his feasting hall is Ehangwen (‘Broad-fair [white?]’); his dagger Carnwennan (‘White-hilted One’), and one could include his shield Wyneb Gwrthucher (‘Face Of Evening’).  Coincidences with the names Gwen/Gwyn most likely, but they still give pause for thought.

If Arthur was a version of Gwyn ap Nudd, his story, even pre-Galfridian, had changed somewhat since their divergence, but this would be expected. But I doubt very much if Arthur and Gwyn ap Nudd are one and the same, and they appear together in Culhwch ac Olwen.

It would be interesting if Arthur did replace Finn in Cambro-Irish southwest Wales, as he doesn’t seem to have done so in western Scotland, which could be an indication and just how much more British those of Demetia (modern day Dyfed and Ceredigion) where in comparison to those of the north.

No, honest, it’s true!

I have often read how like Finn the character of Arthur is in the early stories, but I thought I ought to look at this myself, and see just how similar they are. I’ll do this through a list:

  1. Outcast or outside of society: Finn is said to be, but I don’t see this in the stories. In history a fianna (warband) could be an outcast bunch of youths, but that’s not what Finn’s warband were. Arthur isn’t an outcast the early stories. This doesn’t seem to happen until the saints’ Lives.
  2. Not a king: Finn isn’t a ‘king’ but Arthur is ‘Sovereign Lord of Britain’ (pen tyrned).
  3. Hunter: Finn seems to mainly hunt dear, and is involved in the hunt for Green Boar of Beinn Gulbain. Arthur hunts the Twrch Trwyth.
  4. Poet: Finn yes and Arthur composes one englyn that satirises Cai.
  5. Has a magical dog: Finn has two dogs and both are also part human. Arthur’s dog is a dog but folk legend made it into a giant one.
  6. Encounter the Otherworld, sidhe/sidde (Faerie): Finn yes, Arthur yes.
  7. Fights known historical foes or other peoples of his own island: Finn yes. (The Norse and other Irish). Arthur no, except in one later Cornish tale.
  8. Death of one of his wives: Finn yes (Saba), Arthur no.
  9. Names his weapons: Arthur yes, Finn no. But Finn is given a magical spear.
  10. Requires his men to know poetry, be warriors and kind to woman; any member of his warband has to pass the three tests and learn the Twelve Books of Poetry: Finn yes. Arthur, no.
  11. Consorts with other mythical and historical characters from other times: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  12. Courts in three parts of the realm: Arthur yes, Finn, no.
  13. Kills giants: Finn yes, Arthur yes.
  14. Kills witches: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  15. Uses his men to do some of the dirty work: Arthur yes, Finn, no.
  16. Has warriors from abroad in his warband: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  17. Gets great wisdom from eating the Salmon of Knowledge and Nuts of Knowledge’: Finn yes, Arthur no, but Cai and Gwyrhr encounter a salmon of wisdom in the River Severn (Afon Hafren).
  18. Dispenses his wise words on the code of the warband: Finn yes. Arthur no.
  19. Captain of the High King’s warband: Finn yes. Arthur no. Arthur is the overall leader of his warband and a ‘Sovereign Lord’ himself. In fact, no pen teulu (the Welsh equivalent of the Irish ri fianna) is mentioned.
  20. Is given a mythical lineage: Finn yes. Arthur is only linked to Brân and his father Llŷr In the Mostyn MS 117 Genealogies, known as the Bonedd yr Arwyr (‘Descent of the Heroes’), but not in the stories.
  21. Relates to druids: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  22. Learn of his childhood: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  23. Hear of him as an old man: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  24. Christian references: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  25. Fights abroad: Arthur yes, Finn no.

So, out of twenty-five comparisons, there are four or five similarities. That’s hardly similar at all. There would, of course, be divergence from a common source but this looks more like some basic folkloric commonalities.

If Arthur did have another name, we may never know what it was, unless Gwen Pendragon was it, but I don’t think it was Finn.


With regards to these other historical Arthurs and their naming, I will reiterate something I have said in another blog: There’s a quote I’d like to make from Thomas Green’s book, ‘Concepts of Arthur first:

“To have all four [of these historical 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 to refute the late, great Rachel Bromwich, but there are some other names that seemed to have been used on a number of occasions. Royal houses generally liked to use the names of great leaders, not mythical figures. Here are some of those (British used) name:

  1. Constantine/Constantin/Costentyn/Custennin/Custennyn (and many other variations)
  2. Caraticus/Coroticus/Ceretic/Caratawc/Caradog/Cerdic (?)
  3. Geraint, Gereint
  4. Cadwallon/Catguolaun
  5. Rodri/Rhodri
  6. Ewein/Owein
  7. Dumnagual/Dumngual/Dumnguallaun

The first two names on that list became legendary, but were not mythical. These are names used by the British, but the Irish reused names also, and a look at the king list of Connacht alone will demonstrate this ( ), with Aed, Ailill and Cathal being popular. Interestingly, they did not use the mythical name Fionn/Finn. (The fact that the Irish didn’t name their sons Fionn is used as evidence for the British not using the name Arthur – more on that in other parts). As for the Picts, they turned this reusing of names into an art form!

If two, or even possibly three of these other historical Arthurs were named around the same time, and one of these was the original, we still have to explain why the others were given the name at the same time, if there was no ‘original’ Arthur of Badon before them. Fashion? Named after a popular mythical or folkloric figure? That’s what Higham and Green suggest.

In the next part we’ll look in greater detail at Arthur’s twelve battles and the arguments for and against their historicity.

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



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


There appears to be three (or even four) different Arthurs going on here: the giant who has a giant dog and giant son (although who is never himself called a giant!), who throws boulders around for a hobby; the superhuman, superhero giant slayer of the tales like Culhwch ac Olwen from the 10th century, and the soldier of the Historia Brittonum … if he was. We could add the Messianic Arthur if he wasn’t the same as one of the other mythical Arthurs. Culhwch ac Olwen also shows us another thing: whilst undoubtedly it came from an earlier period than the 10th century when it is believed to have been written, it contains no elements of the Arthur of the H.B.. In fact, in none of the Arthurian tales contained within what has become known as The Mabinogion has this soldier figure been added, when he could have been in its later development. This soldier doesn’t appear in the stories until the early 12th century with Geoffrey of Monmouth, unless the dating of the Breton Legend of St. Geoznovius to the early 11th century is correct, which depicts a similar (King) Arthur and says it is based on an earlier work called the Ystoria Britanica, is correct.

So, the question is: are these stories, poems and sites from a legendary historical figure, or the historicized mythical or folkloric figure?


As with many things Arthurian, the answers to these questions tend to get polarized into the ‘all or nothing’ or ‘either/or’ arguments that are applied to the subject. Here are two example:

  1. Ambrosius Aurelianus was the victor at Badon so Arthur couldn’t have been there because Gildas doesn’t mention him’, or “Arthur was the victor at Badon not Ambrosius’. Why couldn’t Arthur have been at Badon too? Why couldn’t they both have had victory claimed in their name by different factions (or bards) … that is, if the argument that Ambrosius was definitely the victor of Badon actually stands, which some scholars think it doesn’t, or isn’t conclusive? (Higham, 1994 for example). It can be (and is) argued that the 6th century writer Gildas in De Excidio Britannia (DEB) champions Ambrosius because it had to be seen that, yet again, a Roman (which is what Gildas calls him) saved the day, and not, as usual, an unmartial Briton. Even if Gildas knew Arthur had been present, and even if he saw him as a good guy, it may not have suited his argument if Arthur was seen as decidedly British or, God forbid, an Hiberno-Briton (Gael/British mixed blood) or Hiberno-Britannian (Gael speaker of Britannia).
  2. The 12 battles of Arthur in the H.B. were all made up’ or ‘All those battle actually happened!” Why do all the battles have to have been made up or happened? Why not just a few to pad it out? Why couldn’t some have been accidentally added to this Arthur from another Arthur?

Here’s another example: if the princes who were given the name Arthur/Artúr in the 6th and 7th centuries were, as argued by the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp, named after a famous mythical or folkloric figure and not a slightly earlier historical character, then, by the same argument, why couldn’t a 5th century Arthur have been named after this same hypothetical figure of legend or myth? (An Arthur who may have fought at the famous battle of Mount Badon a century before the births of at least two of these other Arthurs). After all, they are indeed arguing that there was a mythical Arthur alongside these other historical Arthurs.

As to the name: ‘it was either mythical/folkloric or historical, but not both.’ In fact, it had to be two of those things by this argument. To argue it came from a mythical source is to admit it also became historical as well, when it was given to the various 6th and 7th century princes (if there was no earlier Arthur of Badon). They certainly aren’t historicized mythical figures. If it was folkloric, then it may have first been historic (say from Lucius Artorius Castus - as put forward by Higham), then folkloric, then historic (when given to the first Arthur) … before becoming folkloric again. (Hope you’re following this?!). This is what Higham and Green are suggesting, but in slightly different ways with Green leaning towards a mythical figure, not folkloric or legendary. However, whilst they don’t deny the 6th century King Arthur of Demetia, for example, possibly being named after a mythical or legendary figure, there is no consideration that Arthur of Badon could have been too, because they equate the mythical stories and onomastic and topographic sites with him.


On the issue of the name, Nick Higham in his book ‘King Arthur Myth-Making & History’ (2002), suggests that …

 “The great strength of this position lies in the field of philological development. Given the known sound changes occurring over a period, the development of ‘Arthur from Artorius is ‘phonologically perfect’ (Professor Richard Coates, personal communication). p.74

“Arthur therefore seems to have originated as a Roman name Artorius but then was developed orally as an agent of legendary power [...]” p.95

If the name is from Latin Artorius (Insular Latin Arturius), via Lucius Artorius Castus as Higham suggests, then how did a British folkloric figure come to have a Roman name? Higham wonders at a possible bear cult or character, even though the name Artorius may have nothing to do with bears (*artos/arth), it not deriving from a Celtic language, or there being no bear cult attested to in Britain (although a jade bear has been found). He points out that this naming could have been of an existing British folkloric figure renamed during Roman occupation, after someone, such as Lucius Artorius Castus, (only named after him, but not him) because his name was close enough to an existing British character – for example Artos  – or, that it was a Latin decknamen that substituted the Artos name. This could possible, but this may have to be a folkloric character (as argued by Higham) rather than a mythical deity (as argued by Green). For the latter we’d have to find a bear cult. But none of the other Romanized British deities have had their names dramatically changed, as far as I know. Here are others: Apollo Belinus, Apollo Maponos), Apollo Cunomaglus, Deus Maglus, and Mars Nodens. We might expect Mars or Mercury Artos, but why Artorius if he wasn’t associated with bears in the first place? Mars Arcturus (Arturus) if it came via Arcturus might be a better option, but we still have to find him. (See below).

On the point of it coming from a bear cult, whilst this is not impossible, no one suggests that all the various ‘dog/hound’ derived names of the period – and there were a lot – means there was a dog cult! As Gidlow points out, if one of the kings that Gildas berated, Maglocunus, had not been mentioned by him in the DEB but had come down through tradition, we might also be thinking he was simply the historicization (and corruption) of the known Romano-British god Apollo Cunomaglos. 

A LAC of evidence?

Drawing of the Lucius Artorius Castus inscript...

With regards to the much discussed Lucius Artorius Castus; the 3rd century historical figure who is championed by Malcor and Littleton as being the bases for the King Arthur legend. (And was shoehorned into the 5th century for the film King Arthur!), Christopher Gwinn, at the King Arthur Group on Facebook has pointed out, and goes into in depth at his web page, that Castus was a Praefectus Legionis (ranking below a tribuni or general) with for the VI Victrix at York by the time he was in Britain, and an aging one at that. This rank went to men aged 50-60 and their duties were in the camp itself, not on campaigns. However, he is later said to have commanded the Britanicimiae, which might be a corruption for *Britanniciniae, (a British originated unit or units) in Vindobona and Pannonia. Could these exploits, or earlier ones when he was a centurio with various legions or as Praepositus of a fleet in Italy have got back to Britain? I think this might be stretching things a little. But, who knows?

The Sarmatians are also tied-in with this Artorius along with some of their legends being the bases for the Arthurian ones. It is possible, but a universal similarity in some legends could also explain it. The main argument I would level against this is why we don’t see these Ossetian (the region from which the Sarmatian are said to have come) stories appearing in the earliest Welsh Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen? The similarities don’t seem to appear until much later.


The other argument, which is suggested by Green, (after his suggestion that the name could come from Art – gur – ‘Bear Man’ – although this should produce Arthwr) is that the name could have come from Latin Arcturus, which originated in Greek mythology: Arktouros: ‘Guardian of the Bear’, which was both a star and constellation in the northern skies, said to guard both Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. ‘The Plough’, (Ursa Major), known in Germanicus Caesar’s day as the ‘Bear-like wagon’ (Germanicus Caesar, 1976, p.55), was once known as Arthur’s Wain (Wagon) in Britain, which may, indeed, have come via Ar(c)turus’ Wagon. The name deriving from Arcturus is a possibility, as it could mutate to Neo-Brittonic or even Goidelic as Arturus. After all, Arthur of Badon, it is argued, is never written Arthurius (the Welsh form of Artorius) but he is called Arthurus.

Let’s look at the arguments for the name coming from Ar(c)turus in a little more depth. There are several observations arising from this argument:

  1. If the personal name is via Arturus, and there was no Arthur of Badon, then why isn’t Artúr mac Áedán’s (argued by some to be the first recipient of the name although it could be Arthur ap Pedr) Latin name written as such? It is written Arturius. If they knew where the name derived from, wouldn’t they have written Arturus? That is unless it had been shortened much earlier and was re-Latinized to Arturius.
  2. If there was a British or Irish myth around this ‘bear’ constellation, then why did it not leave a story within the Arthurian legend that included bears or, at least something to do with characters that might resemble a sky god from Greek mythology in some way, or even include wagons or chariots? Or is Arthur the protector of Britain the personification of Arcturus the protector of the bears as Green suggests? If so, then Arthur was later merged with a hunter-warrior archetype.
  3. As mentioned above, even if these later Arthurs (or the first one) were named after Arturus, why couldn’t an earlier Arthur have been named after ‘him’/it also. One of these figures was named ‘Arthur’ first, whether that be an Arthur of Badon or even, perhaps, Arthur ap Petr of Demetia (mid to late 6th century), and they were either named because it was just a Latin name they liked, because of folkloric or mythical figure (possibly) renamed after L. Artorius Castus or because of Arturus, or some other figure we’re unaware of.  However, we still have to explain why two or even possibly three were named Arthur/Artúr almost at the same time, if their datings are anywhere near close.

An alternative, of course, could be that the mythical Arthur (of the Welsh and Cornish stories) derives from Arturus (or some other mythical figure) and the historical Arthur (from the H.B. and A.C.) is from the name Artorius/Arturius, and these were later to be merged. The name’s origin does not dictate that the original carrier of the name was the Arthur! My real name is Malcolm, but I’m not one of the original followers of St Columba!

So, it would seem that it’s alright to suggest mythical or folkloric derived Arthurs that Higham and Green forward as the source of the name and the legends, even though there’s no actual evidence to back them up, but to suggest some guy may have simply been called Arturius or have even been named after the same folkloric or mythical figure, isn’t founded, because it has no evidence. That doesn’t seem like a level playing field.

In the next part we’ll look at how poetry may have been the source of the first information on Arthur and how a historic figure might have given rise to the fantastical stories.

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



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


In the quote I used at the end of the last part was “[...] he seems to have been a hero of legend without a clear genealogy or location [...]”. This is what those of the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp use as another piece of evidence. It very well could be an indication, but the reason could also be because a historic Arthur was either from a part of Britain whose genealogies didn’t survive because of early ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dominance (and that’s a large area) or he was of a military position and not a royal one (see THIS blog) so wasn’t part of a surviving royal court. It could also be that his bloodline ran dry. There’s no known surviving genealogy for Ambrosius Aurelianus (Welsh Emrys Guledig), or certainty about his area of ‘residence’, and we know he and his offspring existed. However, if Gildas had not mentioned him, and had more sites than Dinas Emrys been named after him, we would think otherwise.

The other possibility is the ‘original’ Arthur as was one of the other historical Arthurs of the 6th and 7th centuries: Arthur ap Pedr of Demetia (Dyfed), Artúr mac Áedán of Dál Riata/Dalraida (Western Isles), Artúr mac Coaning of Dalraida (same area, but could be the same person as Artúr mac Áedán) or Arthur ap Bicoir of Kintyre(?). If it was one of these, such as Arthur ap Pedr; we have to discount the H.B. and A.C. that tell us Arthur fought at Badon … unless the Badon referred to is not the one mentioned by Gildas. However, there is no known battle of Badon during his lifetime, only one before and one after, and the Annales Cambriae (A.C.) puts the first one at least 70 years earlier (more later). You also have to move the date of Battle of Camlann where Arthur died … or didn’t, as the case may be. The Demetian Arthur fighting and dying at the known Afon Gamlan in North Wales isn’t inconceivable … although, generally agreed, not at that date. One of Arthur’s ‘tribal thrones was said to be at Menevia (St. Davids) … right in his territory (Triad 1). Were some of his exploits, knowingly or not, attached to the Arthur of Badon?

None of these other Arthurs can be totally discounted as the bases for the legends, and if it were one of them it would mean, whilst you didn’t have an Arthur of Badon, you still had a historical Arthur, who may have done great things, for all we know. Artúr mac Áedán may have done something famous enough for his grandson to call himself Feradach hoa Artúr (‘Feradach grandson of Artúr’). (See THIS blog). However, as I have discussed in other blogs, it would be odd for the Britons to knowingly use this Gael (who was the enemy after all) as the bases of their national hero.

These other Arthur’s are very important to the arguments in these current blogs, and are often skirted over or ignored completely. For example, Oliver Padel in his excellent work Arthur of Welsh Literature, makes no mention of Arthur ap Pedr at all. Anyone new to the subject reading this (hard to get a copy of) book would very easily conclude that Arthur was either mythical or folkloric. They would think there was only the one Arthur, not  four or five. Yet if there was no Arthur of Badon, then these become a very important part of the equation. (More on this later).

Why oh why?

But, how would a possible 5th/6th century famous military leader, or even if he was, in fact, one of the Arthurs mentioned above, end up with all these strange legends attached to him as explored in the previous blogs? Legends that bear no resemblance to a 5th/6th century – or any other century – commander or king, except in a few poems. Legends that have parallels in Ireland. Those of the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp say it’s because he never existed; that the soldier figure was purely a creation out of the folkloric or mythical one and these others Arthur’s may have been named after him. (Higham et al).

St. Germanus

What are the alternatives? Well, apart from these Arthurs being named after an original of Badon (see THIS blog), there is a theory that it could be the folkloric of mythical stories existed with the main character having another name (see below) and the name Arthur was applied to him (or them) later, just as could have happened with the onomastic and topographical sites to begin with; or that there was both a mythical/folkloric Arthur and a historic one of Badon, just as there were historic ones in the 6th and 7th centuries; or, because there was so little information on Arthur it meant any storyteller could go to town on him, making up what they wanted. The latter certainly happened with the other historical characters mentioned before Arthur in the H.B.. Even when there was more known about a historical figure, it didn’t stop them being drastically changed by storytellers; Ambrosius Aurelianus, St. Germanus, Urien Rheged and his son Owain being cases in point.

In the MS Peniarth 147 a story tells us that Urien of Rheged went to Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in North Wales, where he met the goddess Modron, daughter of the god Afallach, and Owain and his sister Morfudd were conceived, as it was supposedly prophesied.  We also find this in Triad 70. Thomas Green argues that this is because Urien too may have been mythical and not, as most assume, historical (Green, 2007). This historicity is based on a number of poems ascribed to a 6th century bard called Taliesin. There are many poems said to be by Taliesin, but Ifor Williams identifies only twelve as being of the period (The Poems of Taliesin, 1975). Green doesn’t relate this information and just suggests Urien could also have been mythical.  Well, it’s certainly an easy way out of having to admit Urien was historical (although Green does say he could have been) and, once again it can be pointed out (and it is by Gidlow) that if none of Taliesin’s work survived about Urien and only the mythical story above, he too would be deemed ‘unreal’. (By the way, I’ve communicated with him on a couple of occasions and he seems a very nice man … that’s Thomas Green, not Urien)

Dux bellorum

Joshua and the Israelite people, Karolingischer Buchmaler, c.840

The H.B. battle list is most definitely about a soldier, calling him the dux bellorum (‘leader (or military leader) of battles’) – see THIS blog for more on that – and victor of 12 battles. But was he a mythical or folkloric soldier? and where did this list come from; and why didn’t Nennius (said to be the compiler of the H.B., but some doubt it) use any of the other Welsh Arthurian stories or poems? Padel, Higham and Green say it is because the battle list was either made up for the H.B. or the battles were mythical or fictional ones, or those of others ascribed to Arthur. Many would disagree, (and Christopher Gidlow gives the best argument against them) and I would certainly say these are only possible explanations. Firstly we have to note that nowhere in existing Welsh Arthurian stories is he called a ‘battle leader’. Higham says this comes from Nennius associating him with the Biblical Joshua who was called a dux belli. (More later on that).

The nearest thing to the title ‘dux bellorum‘ (although it isn’t actually a title but a description) pre-Galfridian (before Geoffrey of Monmouth) is ‘pen tyrned’ (leader/chief/head of lords/princes/kings/sovereigns). This is from Culhwch ac Olwen, and it’s the one reference I point to when it is said the Welsh, pre-Galfridian, didn’t call him a king. This may not be king per se, but it sound even more than a king and could mean ‘high king’. The poem Elegy for Geraint ab Erbin (from a c. 14th C document but probably earlier) calls Arthur an ‘amherawdyr’, which literally translates as ‘emperor’ or ‘imperator’, and appears to be talking about Arthur’s ‘men’ and not Arthur himself. (The term ‘emperor’ is also a later one; ‘Caesar’ or ‘Augustus’ being the titles used). Here’s the verse:

In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s

Heroes who cut with steel.

The Emperor, ruler of our labour.

The use of the term ‘amherawdyr’ shouldn’t be taken literally and doesn’t mean Arthur was seen as one, but just given this superlative by the bard. Once again, it seems to be in the tradition of his men doing the work for him and not Arthur himself, just like in Culhwch ac Olwen. Another interpretation I would forward is ‘Arthur’s Heroes’ was just name given for those who fought against the ‘Saxon’s like Arthur did.

The nearest we get to him being seen as a soldier/military leader is in the, generally overlooked, poem, ‘The Chair of the Sovereign/Prince‘  or ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ (‘Kadeir Teyrnon’). Ascribed to Taliesin, but almost certainly a later work, it maybe calling Arthur a Gwledig/Wledig/Guledig/Gwledic …  if it’s him the lines refer to:

the venerable Teyrnon,
the fattener, Heilyn,
[and] the third profound song of the sage,
[was sung] in order to bless Arthur.

Arthur the blessed,
in harmonious song -,
as defender in battle
the trampler of nine [at a time]

… later …

There shall arise a ruler [Gwledic],
for the fierce wealthy ones.

(Marged Haycock translation, very kindly supplied by Christopher Gwinn).

No one knows for certain what this title means, but it showed greatness and was also bestowed on Ambrosius (Emrys Guledig) and the usurping emperor Magnus Maximus (Macsun Guledig) and could have some military meaning. (see THIS blog for more on this).

Thomas Green has argued that this poem, once again, shows Arthur as a mythical figure because it relates him to the divine person of Teyrnon (from the Mabinogion) and of the god Alator: ‘echen aladwr’, (“of the family of Aladwr”). (“A Note of Aladur, Alator and Arthur”, STUDIA CELTICA, 41, 2007, 237-41. ). He also treats it as pre-Galfridian. However, as August Hunt points out in one of his blogs:

“Arthur was of the family of the Breton Aldroenus, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  In the Welsh genealogies, this Aldroenus becomes Aldwr.  Uther’s father Constantine/Custennin was the brother of this Aldwr.  ‘Aladwr’ is thus merely a slight misspelling or corruption of Aldwr.  Arthur is ‘of the family of Al(a)dwr’ and not of the god Alator [...] The poem is thus immediately shown to NOT be pre-Galfridian.  We must, therefore, be extremely cautious in how we approach this material. Especially as components from earlier Welsh tradition and from Geoffrey can be mixed in the same composition.

( )

He also points out that the word ‘teyrnon’ had later become to mean ‘prince’. However, I would add that it is possible that Geoffrey got this from an older tradition and even the poem itself, but August’s point should be taken.

The thing to note here, and I think it’s an important note, is these kinds of poems are exactly where we might expect the warrior leader to be found. No supernatural occurrences in these poems, it’s about war. But if ‘Kadeir Teyrnon’ is post-Galfridian it is then relating to the Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or has had him attached to it. If it’s pre-Galridian it could be relating to Arthur of the H.B., although there’s no direct reference to it. The most interesting thing about this poem, for me, is that it is the only one to call him a Guledig.

In the next part we’ll look at how poetry may have been the source of the first information on Arthur and how a historic figure might have given rise to the fantastical stories.

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



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