Tag Archives: Camlan

King Arthur – Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Seven

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


Many great military leaders have gone on to political position, either by force or being elevated to them. If Britain’s provinces did survive and tried to keep some form of Roman structure (even if not law), it is not inconceivable that someone who was once a general of some kind went on to be, or was given, the position as a rectores (governor) or even king. As noted, the tribuni of the province of Egypt also held a military position. If the chronological gap between the subduing of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ (unless Nick Higham’s theory is right and they subdued the Britons) and Arthur’s supposed death at Camlan, twenty-one years after Badon, have any bases in truth (and it may not) then it could have been that he fulfilled this position for at least some of this time. Or, he could have been elevated to a king … and not necessarily an over-king. Or, perhaps Camlan could have been him trying to rise to a military position again, and failing? We’ll never know. (I’m I’m going to explore this question of the supposed gap between Badon and Camlan at a later date).


Gildas seems to indicate that the five kings he chastises were led by a ‘Pharaoh’, and some have wondered if he is referring to a provincial governor or military commander. Here’s what Gildas says:

“I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh […]” (DEB §37)

He is obviously being metaphorical but how literal? He has already compared the Proud Tyrant to the Pharaoh of Isaiah 19. The above is a bit of a strange sentence, as the ‘five aforesaid lascivious horses’  should, perhaps, be leading the Pharaoh as metaphorical horses, not the other way around. If it were this way around it might mean they were leading their governor (or over-king) down the wrong path, and he couldn’t do anything about it; but this appears to mean they were following his lead … if he was a ‘he’. Gildas, unfortunately, says nothing more on the matter. Was there someone above these kings even Gildas wouldn’t dare to chastise? Possibly. The alternative is Gildas simply meant that they where led by the example of the Proud Tyrant; that is, they were carrying on in his manner. Nick Higham takes this to mean that they behaved in exactly the same way as the council that ill advised (in his eyes) the Proud Tyrant to bring in ‘Saxon’ federates.

*The Proud Tyrant is generally thought to have been (the over-king or equivalent?) Vortigern, and Bede certainly names him as this figure, (as does a later version of the DEB) but there are some scholars who believe it could be referring to either of the usurping emperors from Britannia, Magnus Maximus or Constantine III. If it were one of these, I’d say the latter.


There is one more character worth looking at and that is the one Gildas says is the kings’ “father the devil” (pater diabolus). This Higham takes to be the over-king of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (Aelle?) but he translates it as ‘father-devil“. It’s an excellent observation given that Gildas refers to the ‘Saxons’ as devils. (It’s not one David Dumville agrees on). Gildas also calls Constantine of Dumnonia an “instrument of the devil” and he appears to mean the devil in the Biblical sense. So, as far as my none-academic, none Latin literate mind can tell, Gildas could simply mean … well, “their father the devil“. Unless this ‘father-devil’ could be an over-king/over-lord of Britannia Prima? I will have to bow to those of superior knowledge in all things Gildasian and Latin.


There are two questions to be answered here:

1. Could there have been provincial duces, comes and/or tribunus?

2. If Arthur existed, could he have been one of these?

If my reading of the evidence is right (and it may not be!) there where duces (military leaders) even in Gildas’s time (early to mid 6th century), but there’s no mention (unless that ‘Pharaoh‘ is he) of an overal dux (but see below). Gildas doesn’t appear to mention the north, however, so we can’t say for this region., (Although there are arguers for Maglocunus being of the north and not (just?) North Wales).

Gildas is more than a generation away from Badon, so things could have been different then. In the west and those regions that had kings, they too could be the duces, and Gildas seems to say as much. Only areas that still retain some semblance of a division of civil and military rule may have had duces who weren’t kings (per se). Those kings in the west and north who weren’t perhaps so war-like, or had visions of old Imperial grandeur, could also have used duces to lead their warbands. It might be more correct to say these war leaders were tribunus: generals, but given the name duces in later (Gildasian) times? Christopher Gidlow in his book The Reign of King Arthur (2004) also points out that the term duces could be used in all manner of ways in Late Antiquity (pp.41-44).

The Dux of Britannia Prima?

There’s a very good conclusion to Gildas’s use of these five kings of Britannia Prima (?) made by Professor Higham, and that is that Gildas is berating them not just because of their lapsed moral ways, but because he knows they are the province’s (or Britannia’s) only military hope and is trying to scare them into doing something about the ‘Saxon’ problem. Higham also points out that Gildas spends more time on Maglocunus than on all the other kings put together, and this was because, in Gildas’s eyes at least, he was the most powerful amongst them or, perhaps, held some kind of sway over them, or some of them. Gildas says this king is “higher than almost all duces of Britannia in both royalty and physique“. Not “all” but “almost all”, so there was another. In Higham’s eyes this is the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ over-king, in GIdlow’s it’s Outigern. Whether Higham is right is another matter, and his conclusions fits with his ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dominance of even eastern Britannia Prima, so it might be coloured by this. (But who am I to argue?).

Could this mean Maglocunus was the Dux Britannia Prima at the time of Gildas, and so he as an over-king held this ‘military’ position? If Higham is wrong, then who is the dux who is higher than him? Someone of the north, if Maglocunus wasn’t from there or held power over it? It doesn’t seems to be one of the other kings mentioned. Gidlow wonders if this figure was Outigern.

If there were other positions active before Gildas’s time he wasn’t aware of them, or didn’t mention them, but it would seem that the LIfe of St Germanus mentions a tribuni, but this was over a hundred years before Gildas. However, we have got a ‘protector‘ in western Britannia. I’ve mentioned this title before, but here’s a quote, again from Robert Vermaat’s Fectio website, to tell you what one was:

The protector (title) was originally a member of the select corps that Gallienus created as a group of loyal men around him. This group changed into a kind of school for officers, making men who were promoted from the ranks to become a protector before they were posted to their new ranks and duties. Some of these protectores were posted to the staff of field commanders (deputati) to gain experience, and performed a great number of duties. They could be sent to round up recruits and vagrants, or act as border guards controlling exported goods. Their more military duties could include the arrest of important persons, as related by Ammianus Marcellinus, who himself was a member of the ten protectores domestici in the staff of the general Ursicinus.This group was named domestici (men serving in the entourage of the Emperor, although also dispersed over the lower army staffs) to distinguish them from ordinary protectores, who succeeded to a command of a unit after serving for a number of years as protector. Other military tasks included special missions, such as preparing temporary forts on campaign, or the arrest of officers.

When a soldier reached this stage of cadet officer, it finally meant a break from his original unit, because only the Emperor could decide to transfer men from one unit to another. Promotion was therefore very slow and it is not surprising that higher officers used their influence to get instant commissions for their sons. Bribery was rife in the Roman army, but men appointed thus instead of rising through the ranks had to pay certain fees and charges. When during the fifth century the flexibility of the promotion system decreased, the domestici and protectores became a static body.

I doubt very much that this is what Vortiporix (the gentleman who held this title in Demetia) was, but old Imperial ranks and titles (such as rectores, magister and speculatores) were being used, even if their role wasn’t the same. Counter to Collingwood’s theory, a comes (companion or count) with a field army may be the one position that didn’t survive, but a dux of the time may have fulfilled that role also.


With all this in mind, it seems that it it is entirely possible that an historical Arthur (if he existed) fulfilled some kind of none-royal military position … someone did! This could have been any of the three ranks, but with more likely that of tribuni or dux. If there was a a military provincial dux I would favour there being one of the north, as Ken Dark suggests, because of its Roman military past and the forts that were reused, but other regions having one (or several) is not out of the question. In fact, if we are reading Gildas right, they did have several, we just don’t know their exact military function. It’s something we may never be able to answer as we may never know the political situation and structure of late 5th century Britannia, unless there is some miraculous literary find.

Arthur in such a position could make sense of two things: why the name was only used by later Hiberno-Britannians (or regions) or Hiberno-Britons (see THIS blog) and why he, like Ambrosius Aurelianus, left no (reliable) lineage. The first reason could have been because he was, indeed, from one of the several British regions of a Gaelic speaking/British mix (and this could even include what is now part of Cornwall) and was chosen as a military leader because of his past military deeds, because it was felt he was someone they could trust … or because of his wealth.  He could have been from within a province or brought in from another one … or, even from outside of the diocese.

The second reason for an Arthur of Badon not appearing in any (reliable) regional genealogies would be because he wouldn’t be of a kingdom’s royal line, or an over-king, so no genealogy would survive. But that only may apply to the west and north. If he was from the east he may not leave any genealogy even if he was a great king because of the ‘Saxon’ conquest. (Yet Wales preserved even northern kings’ lineages). Whatever he was and wherever he was from, (if he existed!) he would, however, had to have still been a ‘wealthy’ and powerful man.

This blog has explored only one possibility for what Arthur might have been, and it certainly helps makes sense of him being in charge of kings and their warbands in battle as per the H.B., but not being a king (or major king) himself if he was in a military position. However, there are always other options, which I’ll explore at a later date.

Thanks for taking the time to read the lengthy ramblings of a layman, and, once again I look forward to your comments, thoughts and corrections,


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


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

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

The map above isn’t quite correct in it’s placement of some of the northern tribes and will be updated soon.

In the next three blogs I want to look at the various regions, starting with the north, and how a military commander of some kind could fit into the political situations. (Apologies for its length!)


The strongest arguer for a provincial dux in the north probably comes from Professor Ken Dark with his theory on the northerly province (or provinces) as possibly retaining (or reattaining) someone who had a similar command in the north to the old dux Britanniarum. (Not to mention those who favour this region as being where Arthur was from). This, he postulates in both Civitas To Kingdom and Britain & The End Of The Roman Empire, is because all but one of the forts under the command of the dux Britanniarum show signs of reuse into this period (this is the only region were Roman forts were reused and not hillforts) as well as the road from York to the Wall appearing to have been maintained.

As explored in my Valentia – The Fifth Romano-British Province’ blog, this northern area was most likely divided into two, with one of these provinces being Valentia and the other either Britannia Secunda or Flavia Caesariensis (depending on which scholar’s theories you go with) as discussed in the last blog. We don’t know what happened to this division after Roman rule ended, but it’s possible they became one again … if they, indeed, survived. There may be more chance for this (or these) surviving in the area in question as it appears to have been made up largely of the very large civitas of the Brigantes (capital at York), and so possibly less likely to fragment at the time, not to mention because the number of descendants of Roman soldiers there. However, with the amount of Roman soldiers (mainly Germanic or Gaulish) that may have been left here, it’s hard to see how they would give it over to a tribal group(s) or leader(s) … although, by the last decade of Roman period there may have to have been British militias to supplement them. (They would also most likely be married to local woman and have ‘British’ offspring). It’s more likely to be governed by whoever was the most powerful militarily. (More on this below).

In fact, Dark’s theory suggests it might have been a Brigantian based hegemony, centred at York, that would have to have done this. This could be why all these civitates tribal names disappeared. There wasn’t just the Brigantes! There were also the Carvetti (may have become Rheged), the Latenses (became Elmet), the Gabrantovices, the Sentantii, the Lopocares, the Corionototae, the Parisi (became Deira) and probably more, including Bryneich (became Bernnicia). It should be noted though, that some other scholars do not see this region as a united area at any time.

There is another factor that Professor Dark doesn’t consider, and that’s the division of the northern province in the mid 4th century. As explored in my Valentia blog, the Roman expert, J C Mann, argues that this division has to have been the splitting of this northern province (rather than between the Walls) because that was Roman policy when creating a new one in an existing diocese. Whether this was done north/south or east/west, he argues that for it to have been given consular status, which it was, its capital must have been York, the second city … unless this had been changed to somewhere like Chester and Anne Dornier’s theory about Valentia being in the west is right. What it means is that the Brigantian civitas must have been divided also. What then happened to the western portion of this, which appears to have been between the Carvetti (northern Cumbria) and Sentantii (southern Lancashire) civitates? Had it been an area that wasn’t actually Brigantian but was under its hegemony, so was happy to be split from it? We’ll never know, but it would have to be ‘reclaimed’ in Dark’s theory, and there’s always the possibility that it was Coel Hen that started this and was the first ‘overlord’ (in whatever form) of the north. There is even a (tenuous) link given for Coel Hen to Arthur, via Coel’s supposed son-in-law, Cunedag (Cunedda). But, let’s not get carried away! (As an aside, the only poem we have about Cunedda – The Death Song of Cunedda – only mentions him fighting in the east (around Durham somewhere) and west (Carlisle) of this area. No mention of Wales).

Perhaps a telling point is the sharp delineation of the ‘Anglian’ and British areas at the River Trent; the river thought to have been the provincial and civitas boundary to the southeast. There’s also what might have been the difference between the Parisi/Deira region and Brigantia with the former containing ‘Anglian’ settlement on a large scale. Of course, there could have been other reasons for the Trent delineation, nothing to do with military unity or strength, but it’s certainly a possibility that it was a strong northern British force (or forces) that kept them at bay. There’s also the possibilities that the province or civitates that bordered to the southeast were just as worried by their powerful northern British neighbours as they were of the Germanic expansion, and placed (more) Germanic and/or Scandinavian mercenaries in them as a safeguard.


Y Gododddin

It may be from north of the Wall (near the Antonine Wall actually) but this is where we get, what some argue to be, the first mention of Arthur in the collection of poems that went up to make the Y Gododdin.

(The next section about Y Gododdin is copied and pasted from an earlier blog. You can aways skip it if you’ve read it)

Attributed to the bard/prince Neirin/Aneirin, ‘Y Gododdin’ (The Gododdin) is a British poem (actually a collection of poems), the originals parts of which are thought to date to the early 7th century. (Koch, 1999).  It tells of a doomed battle at Catraeth (thought by most, but not all, to be Catterick in North Yorkshire) between the men of Gododdin and their allies against the ‘English’ of what would become Northumbria:  the Bernicians and the Deirans.  In it is contained what is thought to be the earliest reference to Arthur:

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 said black ravens on the ramparts of fortress

Though he was no Arthur.

Among the powerful ones in battle, in the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)

John Koch in his translation of the work conclude that this section is part of the original B Text and not a later addition, as discussed earlier, although there are other scholars who disagree with him (Isaacs et al). Even if Koch is right, we still can’t be certain, as explored and mentioned in earlier blogs, which Arthur it refers to: an ‘original’ or, possibly, Artúr mac Áedán or even Arthur son of Bicoir, both of whom could have been active in the area.  If we knew the exact date of the battle we might have a better chance of coming to some informed conclusion.  By this I mean If the battle or the poem took place before Dalriada became the enemy then it could indeed be referring to him.  If it happened after, then it is unlikely.  Unless they were in the habit of praising their enemy.

If Y Gododdin is referring to someone other than the Arthur of Badon fame he was obviously gaining public attention in the last quarter of the 6th century (if Koch’s dating is right!) and the fact that most of the Arthur names occur in the North has led some to the conclusion that he must have originally been from there or had been active there.  It would certainly make sense of Aneirin mentioning him if he was also their most famous ‘local’ hero.  But ‘local’ could mean anywhere from the Hadrian’s Wall northwards.

(To read the full blog of the above, click HERE)


There are going to be a lot of IFs in the next paragraph, but just bear with me:

If Arthur was a dux for this province or provinces, does this help make any sense of the (meagre) information we have for him, such as the Historia Britonnum  (H.B.) battle list, or any other information above? (See THIS blog for a discussion of the H.B. battle list). Well, firstly, I don’t think him being a dux of some kind would necessarily lead to him being called ‘dux erat bellorum’ (leader of battles). If the H.B list is based on a poem (or poems), then it obviously just called him this (in Brittonic) and not ‘dux Valentium’ or whatever. Secondly, if the battle list is anywhere near the ‘truth’ (and it may not be) there are some who place many of these battles in the north. Many of these would be outside these provinces (to their north and south). Only Camlan, if it was Camboglana (Birdoswald) on the Wall (its border), and Guinnion, if it is Binchester, would be within it … if it was one province. If it was two provinces then one would be in each if they had been divided north to south.

This could mean one of several things if we’re looking at a possible Arthur as dux: he helped those Britons north of the Wall against the Picti and/or Scotti; he fought against Britons north of the Wall (and attacking beyond the border was a usual tactic); the battles were the result of the province being expanded (Coel Hen is supposed to have fought around Strathclyde); he fought for or against Britons to their south (same tactic); he helped Britons to their south against Scotti raiders or in a British civil war … or the H.B. list and those who place them in the north are just wrong! Remembering how Gildas complained about civil wars, it could be any or all of these.

There is a good case for a northern Arthur, but, like everything else Arthurian, it is based on information that may not be accurate or, indeed, true. However, this is just as much about the case for the existence of a military leader in the region in the last quarter of the 5th century, and that is a possibility.

In the the Parts Five and Six we’ll look at the other two regions and conclusion on all this will appear in Part Seven..

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


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


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

UPDATED 3.6.12


Before getting on to my conclusion, I want to see what connections, besides the obvious ones, there are with these Hiberno-British Arthurs and the Arthur of Badon. I will list those already mentioned first. Some will have more ‘strength’ to them than others.

  1. They are either Hiberno-Britons or live in Hibernian (Gael) dominated areas or areas of Hibernian influence or descent.
  2. Three may have been given the name between ca 570 and 600, with one of them of the earlier date.
  3. The mention in Y Gododdin (if dated correctly by Koch) is around the same time.
  4. All but one are in the north.
  5. One of the battles from the Historia Britonnum – Celidon Wood – is identified as being in the northern area between the Walls by some (but not all!).
  6. The Battle of Camlan is identified by some as being on the Wall, at Camboglanna (but not all!).
  7. The battle at the confluence or estuary of the Glein is identified as being in the northern area between the Walls by some (but not all!).
  8. The Annales Cambriae were written in a once Cambro-Irish area.

Which Arthur?

There are, of course, two very distinct things I am looking at here: my conclusion on the evidence and what to make an Arthur of a screenplay.  They are not the same.

There are five questions that can be asked:

  1. Do I think one of these was the ‘original’?
  2. Do I think it is possible one of these was the ‘original’?
  3. Was there no ‘original’ and the later Arthur was an amalgamation of some of these and other historical figures?
  4. Was the ‘original’ mythical?
  5. Are these named after an ‘original’ of Badon fame or is one of these the ‘original’?

The answer to the No. 1 is, there can be no certainty about anything, but from how I read the evidence (and others will see it differently) I think not. However, this may rest on whether John Koch’s datings are right or not.

The second is, yes, it’s always possible one of these was the ‘original’ … and by ‘original’ I mean the one whose name was used to hang everything else off.

The third is, yes, it’s possible there was no actual ‘original’ and Arthur of the H.B. was an amalgamation of some of the other Arthurs, or even a mythical or folkloric figure called Arthur in answer to question five. But more on this later.

The answer to the fourth question depends on the dating of Artúr mac Áedán and whether he was, in fact, the later Artúr mac Conaing. If Arthur map Pedr is a generation (or even two) before this Artúr then that changes things.  He could then be the ‘original’. We then have to rely on the much later Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae to tell us he wasn’t.

In answer to question five; yes it’s possible all the Arthur’s (which could include an Arthur of Badon) where named after an earlier mythical figure. This is explored in greater detail in THIS Blog.

If these Arthurs were named at roughly the same time or just before the name appears in Y Gododdin (if it is dated correctly by Koch), it does strengthen the argument that another historical Arthur came before them.  From this research I certainly cannot see how there could be any certainty that the name in Y Gododdin refers to Artúr mac Áedán.  If this Arthur can be considered then so should Arthur son of Bicoir (if he’s not in fact Arthur of Badon) and Arthur map Petr, but the latter may have the best strength, in my opinion. Subsequent Arthurs to the above mentioned in the north could indeed be named in honour of either one of them or an ‘original’ of Badon fame.

There is a theory that places the battle of Mount Badon, not just to a possible decade but to something far more specific: February, 483! This solution, by D. O. Croinin, is based on the 84 year ‘paschal cycle’. (The ‘lost’ irish 84-year easter table rediscovered, Peritia (6-7), 1987-1988, p. 238). If it’s correct, could these (or one or two of them) Arthurs have been named because they were born on the 100th anniversary of Badon?  Could this also be the case of his mention in Y Gododdin, if Koch’s dating is anywhere near correct?

If they are named after Arthur of Badon the weight of evidence might balance in favour of him being from the north, who came south; but that cannot rule out a southern, including what is now Wales, or even a Dumnonian one who went north.  If he was purely a military commander, again, I’d favour the north … but only just.  If he was also a great king – something I want to leave for another article/blog – then we may need to look at another area entirely: the east for example.  However, this might rule out an Hiberno-British Arthur, but not totally if one Gael parent went east and married.

The  Arthur I haven’t covered yet is Lucius Artorius Castus.

Lucius Artorius Castus (2nd century AD)

Lucius Artorius Castus, is the 2nd. century historical Roman commander that Linda A. Malcor and the late C. Scott Littleton championed as the ‘original’ … and the one the film King Arthur put in completely the wrong century! (Malcor & Littleton, ‘From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail,’ 2000).  Is it possible that his deeds, or name, were passed down through the centuries to kick-start the legend? Yes, it’s possible. It’s even possible that if there was an Hiberno-British Arthur of Badon fame he was named after him … or a folkloric character he inspired. If there wasn’t an Arthur of Badon, then it’s possible that Arthur ap Pedr was named for the same reasons. But why didn’t those of purely British areas use the name if this was the case? Out of awe? Out of respect? If so, it seems odd that those of mixed race or a mixed cultural areas would.

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 tribunus or general) with for the VI Victrix at York by the time he was in Britain, and an aging one at that. (See ). 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? There has recently been a conference in Croatia about LAC, the results of which are yet to be published, and which might change some of the arguments here.

However, once again I would suggest we try not to think in the ‘all or noting’ or ‘either/or term. There could have been another famous Artōrius we’re simply unaware of.

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 ac Olwen? The similarities don’t seem to appear until much later.

L. Artorius Castus 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. (Chelotti, Morizio, Silvestrini, Le epigrafi romane di Canosa, Volume 1, 1990, pp. 261, 264).  Another derivation could be from the Latinisation of the Etruscan name Arnthur.(Volume 5, Issue 2 of Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, 2nd Edition, 1966, p. 72, pp. 333-339).

Artorius is, in fact, a family name (nomen) and LAC would most likely have been known by the praenomen Lucius, not Artorius, to his friends at least, or by his cognomen, Castus. The name is not attested anywhere  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.

Great name!

As I have shown, those names reused tended to be the names of great men – Caroticus and Constantine to name but two – and these names were obviously passed down through centuries in some cases. It is possible that this is how the name Arthur came to be used, via Vulgate Latin Arturius, and epigraphic evidence shows that it was a name used throughout the Roman empire, although perhaps not in Britain. If this was the reason the Hiberno-British were giving their sons the name, then one of these Artorii before them had greatness, and logic dictates that he was the first one.

So the conclusion to this part of the question is there can be no certainty about anything, but the evidence, to me at least, seems to point to the ‘original’ either being an Hiberno-Briton of greatness, whether that be Arthur map Pedr, or someone called Artúr mac Iobhair/Arthur ap Vthvr. This argument, of course, hinges on the British name Arthur coming via Vulgate Latin Arturius and Goidelic (Irish) Artúr. The doesn’t rule out all of these figures (including an Arthur of Badon) getting their names from some mythical or folkloric figure. (See the blog, called King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both?,  which covers this question in more detail).

There is one last point to be made. There could have been an Arthur of Badon fame who didn’t actually fight at Badon! By this I mean an Arthur who lived at that time, who was a great military leader. but never fought at that battle but was later associated with it.

In the end, the writer of a novel or a screenplay has to make a choice, and that choice is not going to be liked by a certain portion of Arthurian ‘positivists’ as Gidlow calls them.  (I’d call myself a ‘probablist’!).  The other factor is you’re telling a story, not making a documentary, and that story has to be able to sell.  The majority of your audience won’t care in the slightest if it’s based on certain ‘facts’, they just want a good yarn and so do producers.  It’s very conceivable, in the case of a screenplay, that a studio might buy it from you and that’s the end of your involvement as they hire a more experienced writer to complete it.  It is, at that point, their property, not yours, and they can do what they want with it.

There will also be the question of the last ‘King Arthur’ movie.  Even if one comes to the conclusion that he may have been from the Wall area, is it wise to make him this in light of this other project?  (This film may have been a critical flop, I hated it, but it has grossed £136M around the world to date).  There is now the ‘Camelot’ series (although there’s no second series planned) and a couple of new Arthurian (legend based) movies to contend with, which may make it impossible to sell as a feature film for quite a number of years. (A friend and I had just completed a 1066, Battle of Hastings script when we discovered that three other scripts had beaten us to it! Thanks Helen Hollick! LOL).

Personally, I’ve always wanted to do it as a three-part TV event mini series.  This gives you more chance to explore the story, not have quite the same pressure from a film studio, not have to attach a big name to it and the chance to create a spin-off documentary.  The downside is you don’t have a feature film budget!

Whatever kind of Arthur I go with, although I think he will probably be Hiberno-British one of some description (though that doesn’t mean he was, if he existed), I will make one thing plain in the opening credits:

We will never know the ‘true story’ of Arthur, but through the ages of darkness and from the mists of legends there may shine a glimmer of his life”.

All I have to do now is write it, then try to sell it!

Thanks for reading these blogs and I hope they’ve been at least interesting and at best thought-provoking.





Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

The Harley 3859

UPDATED 2.6.12

Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae

Anyone studying Arthuriana knows the split between those who think these documents can be used as evidence (Gidlow et al) and those who don’t (Dumville et al).  Personally, I think we should be extremely cautious with both.

Historia Brittonum (ca 835)

(This is an extract from the upcoming ebook. I can’t place the whole chapter here as it is simply too long, but when the book is complete, I will attach a link to a PDF version of the chapter).

The H.B.’s Arthurian section cannot be discussed without first knowing exactly what kind of ‘history’ it was, and the point of its composition. There’s much argument and debate about this, not helped by the fact the everyone has been waiting for Dr. David Dumville to complete his new work on it. We’ve been waiting for 15 years now! He has made comments on it, however, and especially the Arthurian section and we’ll explore this below. There are plenty of others who have commented on it and put their theories forward as to what it is, and we’ll look at those in a moment.

First a word about Nennius/Ninnius/Nemnius/’Nennius’, said to be the original compiler of the H.B.. Whilst Dumville tells us the preface is a later forgery, as Nennius doesn’t appear in the two earlier MMS, not all agree that this means a man called Ninnius wasn’t the first compiler. There are other editors and compliers mentioned also in the various recensions, namely Samuel, Beulan, Euben, Marcus and even Gildas! But why mention a Ninnius if they (or someone) didn’t think him to be the original, even if the preface was forged in his name.

There was a ‘Nennius’ of the Late-8th century as attested in a 9th century Welsh MS Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Auct. F.4.32, dated 817. This Nemnuuis was a Welsh ecclesiastic who, when challenged by an English scholar about the lack of a British alphabet, supposedly designed one on the spot. It is likely that this Nemnuuis was Ninnius. Because of all this, Nennius is usually written with inverted commas, ‘Nennius’, but I will just be calling him Nennius.

As Robert Vermaat has notes at his Vortigern Studies website

“How is the “Nennian” authorship affected by all that? Dumville believed that the name of Ninnius was no older than c. 1100, when a new edition was made under the direction of Beulan, by the scribe Euben, in praise of Samuel, and ascribed to Ninnius. However, it is the last part I cannot agree with. If there was no known author, what made the editors so sure that they would ascribe it to this famous Welsh scholar? Surely, there would have been other candidates, such as the more famous Elfoddw? I think it therefore much more acceptable to agree that the name of Ninnius or ‘Nennius’, was already known to them as author of the text. But to be completely correct, I am using the name of ‘Nennius’.” (

John Koch has written:

 “However, Dumville has argued that the Nennian Prologue is a later forgery and was never part of the recensions which now lack it; the work should therefore be treated as anonymous. Although Dumville’s case has been widely accepted, and one can hardly ignore the fact that only one recension mentions Nennius at all, Field has since argued that, because the prologue rebuked British scholars as ignorant, the other recensions understandably omitted the passage as offensive. Beneath the authorship question, there are some theoretical issues. Are we seeing the activities of an author or rather a compiler? Must Historia Brittonum have a formal authorial starting point, as opposed to beginning as an informal workbook, a miscellany of notes, or a commentary on Gildas which gradually grew before it was later— and not altogether successfully—dressed up as a ‘History of the Britons’?” (‘Celtic Culture – A Historic Encyclopedia’, John Koch, 2006, p.927)

In the preface that does mention Nennius, he says that all he has done is made “a heap of thing”; taking what information he knows and merely putting it together as a narrative. No one believes this for a moment and it is not only a synthetic and synchronistic ‘history’ it’s also has both political and ecclesiastical axe to grind.

Dr. Dumville is of the opinion that it has no historical value apart from showing us the mindset of those that compiled it. In his view, unless a work is contemporary to the events it describes, it can’t be trusted. In answer to this, Charles-Edward notes that, if this were the case, there’s much history we cannot trust, and that, conversely, we may be able to trust histories written at a distance to the events more than those written at the time, which may be clouded by political and other factors. (See Charle-Edward: ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’),

A manuscript of Bede's, Historia Ecclesiastica...

A manuscript of Bede’s, Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As to why it was compiled, there is a general consensus that it was written in answer to the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede’s Early-8th century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’). How it answered Bede’s work is not always agreed on. The Arthurian section in particular is said to be used to two very different way: one argument is that it showed that there was a great British warrior who defeated the ancestors of their current foes and demonstrated it would take British unity to defeat them again; the other is that it showed that no matter how many times the British were victors over the English, even through Vortimer and Arthur, they could only be ‘defeated’ by converting them to Christ, as was done by St. Patrick and (supposedly) Rhun ap Urien of Rheged. This is what Bede criticized the Britons of not doing and the Anglo-Saxons, and their subsequent rise to power, were God’s retribution on the Britons. Bede, of course, was following on from Gildas’s damnation of his own people in the 6th century.

It is as much an ecclesiastical work as a history of the people of Britain and its title, the Historia Britonnum, isn’t present in all the MMS. Probably. like Bede’s work, it should be called ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the Peoples of Britain’. It spends more time on St. Germanus and St. Patrick than anyone else (Arthur gets a mere short chapter) and its main point is: God is boss!

Nor can it be separated form the political and ecclesiastic times in which it was compiled. There is a the question as to the date of its composition. Whilst it is generally thought to date to the fourth year of the reign of Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd (c.829/830) it has been suggested that it could have started life much earlier. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews has argued for the Late-8th century (The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010) but John Koch notes that the Breton MS, which was destroyed during the Second World War at Chartres, attributed the text to a ‘son of Urien’ (filius Urbagen), and one suspects this to be a son of Urien Rheged. However, Rhun supposedly died in the Mid-7th century, so, like the H.B. attributed to Gildas, it is a chronological impossibility. But, the Chartres recension is thought to have been the oldest MS, dating to the 10th century. (The dating of the MSS is the date of the earliest surviving copy, and not when they were composed).

John Koch says:

“One further reason for considering the possibility that there had been an earlier version of the text, as much as 140 years older than the synchronisms of 829, is that the last historical events mentioned are the battle of Nechtanesmere (OW gueith Linn Garan) in 685 and St Cuthbert’s death in 687. The possibility of a prototype for the Historia Brittonum as early as this could be ruled out if its use of Beda’s Historia Ecclesiastica of 731 could be proved: although the two histories deal with many of the same events from starkly opposed national perspectives, Beda does not name his Brythonic sources, the Welsh text does not name its English ones, and the case remains open.” (2006, p.926)

If some of its sections do date from an earlier period, this changes things somewhat, especially if the Mirabilia section was a later addition. (More on that later). This means the Arthurian battles section could itself date from earlier, before Nennius’ compilation, although the Chartres recension cut off before the battle list.

Turbulent times


The H.B. was compiled during extremely turbulent times in Britain, although things may have been a little easier for Gwynedd, hence why it could produce the H.B.. Whilst their old enemy of Northumbria had been beaten back and their more recent one of Mercia was involved in in-fighting (and later in the 9th century the Danes) they still had their Welsh neighbours of Powys and Dyfed to contend with.

In Gwynedd’s recent history Mercia had ravaged both it and Powys. Now that Wessex was on the ascendency again and Mercia were involved in civil war, Gwynedd had the chance to get its history out. A history it had, perhaps, started much earlier, not long after Bede’s work.

If Nennius’s patron was, as most scholars think, Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd, his boss made sure that Arthur got far more ink than any of the Gwynedd kings. That may seem odd, but there was a good reason for it: Mervyn was an outsider from the Isle of Man; a usurper to the Gwynedd throne and the first of a new dynasty. (And, being a Manx man, probably of Gael-British blood). He couldn’t show the First Dynasty of Gwynedd as being too great, nor could he show any Powysian heroes and it’s probably for this politcal reason that the H.B. made Vortigern into a bad guy and the cause of all the Britons’ problems … and that couldn’t have gone down well in Powys! Nor does any south Walian king get a mention. Apart from calling Maelgwn (Maglocunus) a great king he plays down the rest and, as Michelle Ziegler has observed, more is made of the Northumbrian king Oswald than the great 7th century Gwynedd king, Cadwallon. (Ziegler, ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006): To quote her online article:

“§41.  Considering Cadwallon’s importance in Gwynedd, several oddities about his treatment in the HB stand out.

  1. There is less information in the HB on Cadwallon than in Bede’s History, a known source for the HB.
  2. The destruction of Edwin’s lineage is credited to the army of Gwynedd, deflecting credit away from Cadwallon.
  3. His death is mentioned as a credit to his slayer.
  4. There is no effort to counter Bede’s demonization of Cadwallon in the HB.”

(At The Heroic Age website: ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Cadwallon is the king that the Welsh Prophesies refer to as a hero, yet the H.B. plays him down. This was either Nennius’s religious bent coming to play – after all, Cadwallon won with a pagan ally – it was Mervyn’s idea, or Nennius wasn’t writing for Gwynedd at all. With Nennius unable ( or uninterested) to go to town on any of Gwynedd’s own kings, or those of his neighbours, its no wonder he had to look to the past and chose Arthur.

Arthur the Great

There are valid arguments put forward for Geoffrey of Monmouth making Arthur into European wide campaigner in answer to the famous 8th century Carologinian king and emperor Charlemagne (‘Charles the Great’). Britain didn’t have its equivalent so Geoffrey supplied him.

Again the H.B. could have done something similar had it wanted to really big Arthur up. Charlemagne must have been the most famous man in Europe at the time. Did it do this by saying he lead kings in battle? Perhaps. Charles-Edward argues it’s because he wanted to make him like the ‘Saxon’ Hengist or the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda. (More on Arthur’s dux bellorum description in Part Two).

But then the later Vatican recension says he was less noble than the kings. Its editor probably had his own political or religious reasons for doing this, unless it was part of the general tradition? This would seem unlikely considering Culhwch ac Olwen called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain.

If he was seen as the great man we think him today, then why didn’t Nennius spend anymore than a single chapter on him? There are no stories like the other characters depicted before him, just a short description and a list of battles. It could indeed be because he was only a warrior, and one that only won with God’s aid. Had he been made a saint, it would probably have been a different matter.

Arthur’s battles all appear to be in Britain (unlike in Culhwch ac Olwen and Geoffrey’s History), so it doesn’t seem he was needed to be that great; the usurping emperors Magnus Maximus and Constantine III probably filled those purple shoes.

If there was a historical Arthur, could he have been a hero especially to Mervyn, the man from Man? An island of Gaels and Britons? I’m probably taking the link too far, but once again there is that cultural mix. If he was trying to say that the Britons could only defeat the English by being united under God and a leader of Gael and British blood, then it’s another very good reason for choosing Arthur if he was too. Is this the reason why St. Patrick was also chosen for the H.B. and not one of the Welsh saints or even St. Gildas? Patrick was, of course, British, but had both British and Irish connections.

H.B. sources

Another area where there’s no complete agreement on is what the sources were that went into make up the H.B.. There seems quite a mixture ranging from Irish to Kentish material, northern English, northern British and Welsh. Gidlow argues for the battle list possibly being from various sources and regions and not a single poem. It is argued that some if not all of the Arthurian section could have come from a northern tradition and not a Welsh of Kentish one, and some of the battles might bear that out. There have been arguments for many years over whether Arthur is directly related to the Kentish material that immediately precedes the battle list, or if it is the beginning of a new chapter and doesn’t relate directly to it. It could sound as if it follows on from the Kentish kings, but it could also just be Nennius who made the connection. After, it’s almost impossible to identified any battles in that region, even though Collingwood tried to do so in the 1930s.

Read all about it!

As you may have already surmised, the history of the various H.B. manuscripts is an extremely complexed one, not only beyond the scope of this ebook, by my ken! To quote Keith’s 2010 paper:

“The textual history of the Historia Brittonum is well known to be complex to the point that it is all but impossible to determine what the original text contained. Some forty manuscripts are known to exist, not all of equal weight in reconstructing the text and not all of independent value, as some are clearly copies of extant manuscripts. The work was also quoted by several Anglo-Norman historians and even the French encyclopaedist Lambert of St-Omer (Dumville 1976b), who may have had access to manuscripts no longer extant.” (pp.2-3)

His deduction are the later Vatican recension is more related to the first Chartres recension than any of the others, so it is these that should be heeded. Keith believes there to have been an earlier archetype version of the H.B. that all the others were based on, especially the Chartres and Vatican, possibly dating to the Late-8th century – some sixty years before the Harleian recension. If he’s right, it was started when their Mercian enemy were still strong.

“Importantly, though, the Chartres recension not only lacks the computus §16 but also contains a rambling passage towards the end of §31, which seems to indicate that it should be dated to some point after the mid-eighth century (sicut libine abas iae in ripum ciuitate inuenit uel reperit, ‘as Sl.bine, Abbot of Iona (752-767) came across or discovered in the city of Ripon’). In other words, the passage dating the Historia Brittonum to 828×9 is secondary and must date the archetype of the remaining branches containing the Vatican, Harleian, pseudo-Gildas, pseudo-Nennius and Sawley recensions.” (p.3)

As you will see when we get to the battles, there is a difference between one of them in the Harleian and Vatican recensions. One names agned and the other breguoin/bregonium. Here are Keith’s thoughts on that:

“The results of this cladistic analysis do not produce a text of the Arthurian section of §56 that is radically different from Mommsen’s, but at least one well-known problem is cleared up: the difficult in monte qui dicitur <agned> of the Harleian recension. It has long been suspected to have been truncated, as its close relatives render the clause in longer form as in monte qui dicitur cat bregomion, but a consideration of the Vatican recension’s in monte qui nominatur breguoin, ubi illos in fugam uertit quem nos cat bregion appellamus enables us to reject <agned> completely as an inferior reading. Although we cannot now be certain of the original reading, we can reconstruct something along the lines of in monte qui dicitur breguoin, [*id est ] cat bregion (*id est is added as in the other instance where an Old Welsh battle name is given, it is introduced with the phrase id est). It is therefore apparent that the nonsensical must be a corrupt contraction of A W Wade-Evans (1910,134) wrongly believed that in monte badonis was a late intrusion into the text and that it and breguoin were the eleventh and twelfth battles respectively. There is no textual justification for this view.” (p.4)

A good point well made

Before getting to the battle list, I’d like to make one last quote from Keith’s paper, which probably sums up what I’m beginning to think:

“[...] but the major challenge to the academic historian must be to confront the perception that this chapter of the Historia Brittonum is a straightforward record listing late fifth- or early sixth-century battles incorporated verbatim or at only one remove into a ninth-century compilation, a perception that continues to dominate the popular literature on Arthur (e.g. Ashe 2003;; Castleden 2000;; Gidlow 2004;; Moffat 1999;; Pace 2008). Such a confrontation need not, of course, be hostile or destructive. Indeed, if it can be shown that the list consists of information that makes sense only in terms of a late fifth- or early sixth-century historical context, then it provides considerable support for the existence of an ‘historical Arthur’  at that period. If, on the other hand, it contains information that makes sense only in terms of a seventh-century or later context, then it is perhaps the final nail in his coffin.” (‘The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010, p.1).

Chapter and verse

With all this in mind, let’s look at the battles of §56 in detail. First the Harleian version of the Arthurian section 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 [Battle of the Wood of 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.” (H.B. §56)

Note that the first sentence can be read as Arthur being a king or not. Also note, as Charles-Edward has, that the last section can be interpreted as Arthur being partly the cause of more ‘Anglo-Saxons’ arriving.(See Charles-Edward, ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’)

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.” (H.B. §56)

This is the one that goes to pains to make Arthur out to be less noble than those he leads.

As a side note: in what’s known as the Sawley Glosses, from the monks at Sawley in Yorkshire (c. 1166), two things were added: the prologue by ‘Nennius’ telling us he’d “[...] made a heap of all that I found [...]” (hence Dumville’s dating) and a gloss to Mount Badon. To quote Gidlow:

“The first Arthurian gloss appears in the margin of the battle-list, by the description of Arthur at Mount Badon. ‘Mabutur’ [later glosses ‘in British’] that is ‘horrible son’ [glossed ‘in Latin’] since from his boyhood he was cruel. Arthur, translated into Latin means ‘horrible bear’ or ‘Iron hammer’, with which the jaws of lions were broken.’ This gloss reveals the author’s interest in Welsh etymology. Mab uthr could mean ‘horrible son’ and arth uthr is Welsh for ‘horrible bear’. Most writers agreed that Arthur does indeed derive from Arth. Welsh for hammer ordd is less plausible and has not found favour.” (Gidlow, 2044, p.179)

Battle lines drawn

An ‘all or nothing’ argument seems to go for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as most writers on the subject are concerned, although Thomas Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else. They either all happened, or they all didn’t.

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 mythologised 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? Could it be because the Welsh called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain?

I may disagree with Higham’s assessment of the battle list, but not with his general take on the H.B.. He makes some very interesting points about how it was used specifically against Mercia but also Northumbria, and I will look at these in the context of the battle list in a moment. However, we must also keep in mind the opinions that it was also to show that war was not the answer, but conversion to Christ.

Nicholas Higham argues that the format of the battles was merely taken from a known battle poem of Gwynedd: Englynion Cadwallon (Higham, 2007, pp.145-147). Cadwallon has fourteen battles (and 60 skirmishes) to Arthur’s twelve. Here are nine of them:

Before his death, Cadwallon’s victories made us glad,
fourteen great battles in fair Britain,
and sixty skirmishes.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Caint;
he fought the English across the water like birds of prey;
he opened his hand and honor was set free.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the YYdon;
he was sorrow to his enemy,
a Lion, with armies victorious over the Saxons.

The encampment of famous Cadwallon
was on the summit of Digoll Mountain
for seven months with seven battles daily.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Severn,
and on the other side of the Dygen
the plunderers burnt Meigen.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Wye.
after a voyage over water,
he followed to battle the round-shields.

The encampment of Cadwallon was by Ffynnon Bedwyr;
in front of the soldiers he was righteous,
Cynon there was skillful.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Taf,
where are to be seen the powerful
armies of the lord, strong in battle.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Tawy,
he smote in the breach;
praiseworthy and seeking conflict.

The encampment of Cadwallon was beyond Caer,
one-hundred armies with one-hundred ardent warriors
in one-hundred battles destroyed one-hundred fortresses.

The first point is that, like the other battles poems, it is written posthumously. The first thing you may notice is the use of exaggeration, exactly in keeping with Arthur killing 960/940; then you may notice that none of these battle sites rhyme. Each battle is kept within its own three line englyn, so if Nennius was trying to make it look like it came from a similar type of poem, the rhyming scheme of some of the battles doesn’t work … or wouldn’t need to work. Why not just have all the battles able to rhyme?

Yet this is the Gwynedd monarch Nennius or his king, Mervyn Frych played down, not giving him much credit for anything, and crediting his killer (Saint) Oswald more than he.

Thomas Green makes much of people approaching the battle list in an a priori manner that he existed. This is true, but so are there a priori assumptions applied that it is based on a mythical or folkloric Arthur, so one is bound to see the list in a different light if one doesn’t think it of a historic Arthur. I believe one should approach it knowing it could be based on either, or, indeed, both. But it should also be recognised that no other figure around his time in the H.B. is mythical, but there are plenty of instances of mythologising historical figures.

What’s the point?

If we look at the point of this section in the H.B. and why Arthur specifically was used, it raises questions that, to me, all these mythical commentators do not fully address: whoever was placed at this point in the H.B. should have to be known as a ‘Saxon’ fighter (meaning a fighter of any of the ‘Germanic’ groups) and possibly the victor at Badon. Unless we’ve lost the stories that included this information (which is possible) the Arthur of the Welsh pre-Galfridian tradition did neither. Nor is he anywhere in this tradition depicted as the leader of battle for kings of the Britons; instead he leads a mixture of mythical and historic figures from a variety of times and places on a boar hunt or to retrieve a magical cauldron. If he was never seen as fighting ‘Saxons’ in the early Welsh story tradition, what would be the point in using him or listing battles that his Welsh audience would never before have associated him with?

Nor is he, in the Welsh tradition, an exemplar of Christian virtue. He doesn’t fight his foes in the name of God (even though ‘heaven’ is mentioned in Culhwch ac Olwen) but does it because his cousin Culhwch asks him a favour! Yet the H.B. makes him this too.

Why not just use Ambrosius Aurelianus as the victor of Badon? This is what the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede (Bǣda or Bēda) inferred in the Early-8th century in his less well known Chronica Maiora (‘Greater Chronicle’) and the H.B. is argued to be in response to his works. Bede, taking his lead from Gildas wrote:

“The Britons, under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus (a gentleman who, alone of the Romans, had survived the disaster of the Saxons in which his parents, who had worn the purple, had been killed) challenged the victors to battle and defeated them.”

Notice, he doesn’t actually mention Badon. This he’s taken from Gildas:

“After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions …. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.” (DEB, §25.2)

This is followed by:

“After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.” (DEB, §26)

There is argument over whether these two chapters should be separated and there was a passage of time between Ambrosius and Badon. For now, let’s just concentrate on Ambrosius.

Higham suggests the use of Arthur instead of Ambrosius in the H.B. was because Gildas called Ambrosius a Roman and not a Briton and Nennius needed a Briton to be the hero at this juncture; it is a valid point, and even though the H.B. gives Ambrosius his ‘British’ name Embreis/Emrys, he’s still called a Roman. But, considering the H.B. relies on St. Germanus (a Gaul) to save the day at one point, this argument could be weakened. He could only not have used Ambrosius as the victor of Badon (one would have thought) if the compiler(s)/editors of the H.B., or the tradition that he/they worked from, thought him not to be the victor, so he either had to come up with one, or use the tradition that said Arthur was he.

I would also add that it would be in Gwynedd’s interest to make Ambrosius the victor at Badon. After all, this is where the hillfort of Dina Emrys lies and in Welsh poetry the men of Gwynedd have been called the ‘men of Emrys’. The H.B. could have used his British given name and made him the hero of the day. That is unless Christopher Gidlow’s argument that Mervyn Vrych wasn’t the patron but Fernmail of Buellt was.

Book of Taliesin

There is one possible pre-Galfridian reference to Arthur at Badon and that’s in a poem contain with the story Ystoria Taliesin (‘The History of Taliesin’) or Hanes Taliesin (‘Tale of Taliesin’), c.Mid-16th century. The poem in question is about Maelgwn of Gwynedd, but mentions the following:

“Let the fools be silent,

As erst in Badon’s fight, -

With Arthur of the liberal ones [...]”

This Taliesin is, of course, the mythical Taliesin and not the bard of the Late-6th century. The poem, in Middle Welsh, is hard to date (as most of them are). This particular copy was written down in the 16th century but elements may date to the Early-13th. (See: Patrick Ford, Ystoria Taliesin. 1972). None of the poems contained in this story are in the older Llyfr Taliesin (‘Book of Taliesin’), only twelve of which are thought to be genuine. (See: Williams, The Poems of Taliesin, 1975).  If this is the case it is post-Galfridian. Even if it was pre-Galfridian it was most likely influenced by the H.B..

To my mind the Arthur of the H.B. had to be one of two things: historical or historicised much earlier so the compilers wouldn’t know the difference. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t have added to him in either case!

Christopher Gidlow suggests that the H.B. is showing that it wasn’t so much the kings of the 5th/6th century that were fighting the Saxons, but their ‘generals’. Vortigern used Vortimer, Ambrosius, possibly, Arthur and, he suggests, Maglocunus (Maelgwn) had Outigern, who fought against the Northumbrians (Gidlow, 2010, p.145). It’s an interesting theory though impossible to prove and there no actual connection between the latter two.

What if we look at this with Hiberno-British tinted glasses? Do we see anything else?  Could it be that it was known he was neither a king or a pure blooded Briton?  Two reason why there were those more nobler than him?  I’d be the first to admit that this is probably pushing it!

Annales Cambriae (ca 955-990)

The Annales Cambriae (A.C.) is believed to have originated in the once Hiberno-British region of southwestern Wales; that which was Demetia and became Dyfed, but at this time was part of Debeubarth.  It was a powerful kingdom, although probably under the thumb of the English kings at the time, but its rulers originated from Gwynedd in the north.

It is thought to be an amalgamation of an Irish Annale and a northern English one. There are two entries in the A.C. relating to Arthur and some scholars think the were later interpolation:

516 -  The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.

537 – The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

Most think the date for Badon incorrect, and place it at least 20 years earlier, some over 30 years.  For this discussion it doesn’t matter. This early section of the A.C. is believed to have been based on a lost Irish annal, possibly from the Clonmacnoise-group, and most of the earlier entries are to do with Ireland, Irish saints or Welsh saints who had connections with Ireland.  It does appear as if the Arthurian entries were shoehorned into it.

Nick Higham (whose conclusions are there was no historical Arthur of Badon) did do an excellent job of deconstructing the first Arthurian entry in the A.C. in his book ‘King Arthur – Myth Making & History’. His basic argument is that most of the wording of the the first entry comes from the earlier H.B. (The second one doesn’t appear in the H.B.).  It certainly could look that way, but there have recently been many comments on Arthurnet that this simply isn’t the case. However I want to put those Hiberno-British tinted glasses on again and take another look at it.

There is another possible option to that proposed by Higham, and that is the original Irish annal had the Arthurian entry, but in a far briefer form and the Welsh scribe added the detail from the H.B.  I can see the problems with this hypothesis in that there are no other Irish annals that include these Arthurian sections and, indeed, why would they. It would take some Irish connection or interest.  But, just to go with this for a little longer, what could such an entry be?

516 -  Battle of Badon, in which Artúr and the Britons were victors.

537 – Battle of Camlann, in which Artúr and Medraut fell; and there was a great plague in Ireland and Britain.

If this was the case, and it is a huge IF, why would the dates be out … that’s assuming they are? It may had to have been a guess on the scribe’s part.

But, if Arthur was Hiberno-British and the annalist knew this (more likely the later southwestern Welsh scribe), Arthur being inserted in amongst Irish entries is not so out of place.  It means he has a possible connection.

The possibility must also be faced that the Battle of Camlan actually involved Arthur map Petr of Demetia and not an Arthur of Badon.  After all, a battle between Demetia (modern day Dyfed and possibly Ceredigion) and Venedota (Gwynedd) around Afon Gamlan (River Camlan) in today’s Welsh county of Merioneth, is certainly conceivable.  The date would, of course, be well out for Arthur map Petr but there could be many reason why it was inserted, especially keeping in mind the region in which the A.C. was composed.

So, can any Hiberno-Arthur been seen in either of these documents.  Probably not.  If anyone was still aware in the 9th and 10th centuries of an Hiberno-British Arthur, they made nothing of it.

In the next and, you’ll be glad to hear, final blog in this series and be looking at my conclusions to all this.

Thanks for reading,



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Arthur named in ‘Y Gododdin

(Some of what appears below is also in the blog about Arthurian Poetry, so apologies for the duplication if you’ve read those).

Attributed to the bard/prince Neirin/Aneirin, ‘Y Gododdin’ (The Gododdin) is a British poem (actually a collection of poems), the original parts of which are thought to date to the early 7th century. (Koch, 1999).  It tells of a doomed battle at Catraeth (thought by most, but not all, to be Catterick in North Yorkshire) between the men of Gododdin and their allies against the ‘English’ of what would become Northumbria:  the Bernicians and the Deirans.  In it is contained what is thought to be the earliest reference to Arthur:

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 said black ravens on the ramparts of fortress

Though he was no Arthur.

Among the powerful ones in battle,

in the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)

John Koch in his translation of the work conclude that this section is part of the original B Text and not a later addition, as mentioned earlier, although there are other scholars who disagree with him (Isaacs et al). Even if Koch is right, we still can’t be certain, as explored and mentioned in earlier blogs, which Arthur it refers to: an ‘original’ or, possibly, Artúr mac Áedán or even Arthur son of Bicoir, both of whom could have been active in the area.  If we knew the exact date of the battle we might have a better chance of coming to some informed conclusion.  By this I mean, if the battle or the poem took place before Dalriada became the enemy then it could indeed be referring to him.  If it happened after, then it is unlikely.  Unless they were in the habit of praising their enemy.

Unless Y Gododdin is referring to someone other than the Arthur of Badon fame he was obviously gaining public attention in the last quarter of the 6th century and the fact that most of the Arthur names occur in the North has led some to the conclusion that he must have originally been from there or had been active there.  It would certainly make sense of Aneirin mentioning him if he was also their most famous ‘local’ hero.  But ‘local’ could mean anywhere from the Wall northwards.

Richard Barber (The Figure of Arthur) concludes that because the poem deals only with people in the present (or recent past) this Arthur was of the same era.  It’s a valid point, but what if there was another reason?  What if it was because poems about Arthur, whether based on earlier ones or recently written, were current?  This might not only explain why he’s mention in Y Gododdin but why at the same time the name was being given to ‘princes’.  If it was ‘known’ that the hero of these poems was also an HIberno-Briton or Cambro-Irish it would give even more reason.

Praise the lord!

Like many great men before him and since, Arthur may have fallen out of favour towards the end of his life or after.  It happened to Cromwell and it even happened to Churchill.   This could explain the gap between his supposed death and the Arthur names (and poetry) appearing.  However, two or three generations later great swathes of Britain were falling under ‘Angle’ and ‘Saxon’ rule.  The British probably needed a hero more than ever.  Some clever king or his courtly (or warband) bard may have come up with the idea of using Arthur, and a poem, or poems, in the style of newfangled (if they were) battle eulogy, accurate or not, and so it/they was/were composed.

These poems could already have been based on folk memory, unless there was poetry composed during his life and it outlived him, so could themselves have been a corruption – deliberate or otherwise – of events.  Even poetry composed during his life would be eulogies.  Bards weren’t historian, they were there to prays their lords and make them famous, if they could, and there’s plenty of evidence for the early poetry, if not being changed, then added to by later generations. (See ‘A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem’ blog for further thoughts).

What would be odd is if Badon was added at this point in time (Late 6th century), had he not fought there.  Not impossible, but any stories must have been passed down through folklore only two or three generations old, regardless of the poetry.  What I do find conceivable, is that it was added much later; after all Badon doesn’t appear to have a rhyming couplet in the Historia Brittonum battle list, although I gave it one in my feeble attempt of a battle poem: Saeson (Saxon). (But it also should be noted that battles could be part of internal rhyming and not just line endings). He could also have gone from being portrayed as fighting at Badon in a poem to being the victor and leader.  These poems may have only called him “leader of battle”, but only this ancient audience may have known his true status.  There are many poems that don’t call their hero a king, even though we know they were.  (See blog ‘Arthur: King or Commander?)

Such poems, in the latter half of the 6th century, must have been used to inspire the British warriors who found themselves fighting against the powerful and ever expanding English.  These hypothetical Arthurian poems (or poem) may have been followed by the rekindling of old stories, some more fanciful than others, and his fame, and the stories, would begin to grow – beyond what he was worth some may have thought – and the poems travelled throughout Britain and beyond, from whichever locale they originated from, recited before battles in certain regions to inspire the combatants.  Not every region may have used this hero.  Some may have been uncertain about his lineage or his mixed blood origins (if they were), others may have sided with whoever it was that defeated him at Camlann. This is, of course, only if he was historical and not an historicized mythical figure. (See THIS blog for that particular discussion)

The naming game

At the time this hypothetical poem is in circulation (if Koch’s dating is right) a prince was born in Dalriada to a king called Áedán and, if we follow this hypothesis, decided to name his son Arturius after this hero of old, in honour of the fact that he too had an Hiberno-British boy.  Not long after (or possibly even before) three hundred miles away in Demetia, a king called Petr has heard the poem and, having a similar mixed blooded (or culturally mixed) son, whom he may have wished greatness upon, names him Arthur also.  As, possibly, does a certain Briton of Kintyre called Bicoir.  Meanwhile Britons simply didn’t use that name, as far as we know. To begin with, perhaps, because it was thought to be an Hiberno-British name; later it may be because of his mythical greatness.

Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) c. 550 – c...

Image via Wikipedia

This hypothetical poem, having reached the North, or having originated from it, is perhaps even recited by a warband bard called Neirin (Aneirin) to inspire the retinues of the Gododdin and their allies against their Bernician, Deiran, Picti, Scotti and probably British foes.  Perhaps their forefathers had even fought with him at the Battle of Celidon Wood … if this too wasn’t a later addition or in another region.  It would makes sense, in a poem that was about ‘local’ figures of fame.  After all, Arthur too supposedly fell in battle and, if those who identify the Battle of Camlan with Camboglanna (Castlesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall are right, it too was in their region. (Lots of “ifs”).

In the great British tradition of the trinity and triad, his fame splits into three different forms: to the peasantry he becomes a stone throwing giant, to the storytellers a fighter of the Otherworld and the supernatural, but to the warband bards and warriors, he remains the ‘leader of battle’, if what came down to Nennius is anything to go by.

But, this is all hypothetical; although it could have as much weight as the Arthur of Y Gododdin being one of these other northern figures.  However, if Arthur map Petr came a generation before all these, it could, as Professor Ken Dark suggests, be him. Someone had to have been given the name first and if we didn’t have Arthur being named as the victor at Badon or the infamous battle list, this is who it might point to.  As stated in a previous blog, even if the Arthur mentioned in Y Gododdin isn’t an Arthur of Badon, it still doesn’t prove there wasn’t one.

In the the next blog I’ll explore another region that could have given us an Hiberno-British Arthur: the Wall.

Thanks for reading,



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 105 other followers