Tag Archives: Cerdic

All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Five

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

A rough placing of the 'Anglo-Saxon' regions

You’ll be glad to know that this is a relatively short blog!


(At the time thought to be roughly the British civitates of western Atrebates and eastern Durotiges).

If Gildas wrote in the southwest, it may have been this lot who were his virtual neighbours … if they were the enemy and not used by the British as feodorati (federates) against ‘Saxon’ expansion from the east. I have read that they appeared in the area quite early in Hampshire, ca 460, but I’m having trouble getting this verified. It makes a big difference to the southern Badon question if they appeared after the battle and during the supposed ‘peace’.  If there’s someone who can clarify this for me I’d be most grateful.

Whilst they may not have been part of the infamous Adventus Saxonum revolt in the mid-5th century, if they were feodorati, they may still have revolted later. Who knows how often alliances changed. (This is not to forgot that some doubt the whole notion of Germanic feodorati).

They might not have had an option of whose side they were on at Badon if Ælle was their Bretwalda. But, just as there are two side to every story (usually more actually) there are two sides to a river, and if the River Hamble in Hampshire was the boundary it’s not inconceivable that some were on the Brits’ side and the others on the ‘Saxons’ or a Saxon-British alliance.

To address what they were doing here in the first place, and why they never seem to have formed a later kingdom, Stuart Laycock brings up some interesting points in his latest book, ‘Warlords’, (2010) about these Jutes.

“The strongest archaeological indication that something significant was happening in Sussex at this time comes from the strange settlement pattern of the Jutes. [...] Though a small independent Jutish kingdom was formed in the Isle of Wight there is no evidence that the Jutes of South Hampshire ever constituted a separate independent Jutish kingdom. Two main possibilities, therefore, present themselves. Either an Anglo-Saxon warlord in Sussex, perhaps Cissa, or perhaps (if the Chronicle has got the dates really wrong) Ælle himself, was moving Jutes from Sussex dominated Kent to the other end of his realm to guard the western borders, or alternatively, perhaps the British authorities in southern Hampshire, in the civitas of the Belgae, were looking for additional Germanic support against the new confident and expansionist Sussex.” (p123)

He goes on to give archæological evidence as to why he believes they might have been used by the British – all to do with spear heads -  but I’m not qualified to comment. It would be most interesting if he were right as it could mean the British of the area doing deals with the Frankish influenced eastern Kent.

Barbara Yorke, in her contribution to the symposium ‘Regna and Gentes. The Relationship between Late Antique and Early Medieval Peoples‘ , has, like others, wondered just how much the Jutes of Kent, Wight and Hampshire were under the control of the Franks on the continent. A king of the Franks did boast that he ruled some of the Britons, and he just might have!

If they were the enemy, then one of the various rivers, and the dykes to the north, could have been what hemmed them in and created the divide.

With regards to the Isle of Wight, Ruth Waller has this to say …

“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s date for the seizing of the island by Cerdic and Cynric is proven unreliable by the pagan Saxon cemeteries with clear Jutish origins dating to the Late 5th and Early 6th century cemetery on Bowcombe and Chessell Downs which indicate settlement well before the documentary dates (Arnold,1982). Further evidence from metal detected finds suggest another six possible cemeteries of similar dates could survive, but synthesis of this evidence is required before conclusions can be made.” (Archaeological Resource Assessment of the Isle of Wight: Early Medieval period, August 2006)

If these Jutes were the ‘bad guys’, then they could have retreated to the island.

The above quote is evidence that there was Jutes on the island in the Late 5th and Early 6th centuries.  If they were there in the Late 5th, then they could very well have been in Hampshire at the same time.  It’s not inconceivable that it’s these peoples who the ASC refers to and attached the events to Cerdic and Cynric, who actually came later.

What would happen to these ‘Jutes’ after the defeat at Badon if they were on the losing side? If Badon was in this region they’d suffer the consequences one would think. They may have been the closest to it. This could be the reason they never did become a separate kingdom.


This is the region in which, according to the ASC (which is, of course, untrustworthy for this period), Ælle appears; although no one can be certain of exactly where he appeared from! He’s not even called a king … of anywhere! If he came from somewhere else, then he may not have been a ‘South Saxon’ to begin with, but created such a region. There are arguments that he came from the Continent, just as the Saxons were being defeated in Gaul, but there’s no way of knowing and for this discussion it doesn’t matter.

“The Ecclesiastical History [of Bede] lists the first seven great overlords beginning with Ælle of the South Saxons, whose activities in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are placed between 477 and 491. It seems doubtful whether Ælle really ruled at quite such an early date, especially as the second in the list was Ceawlin of Wessex whose floruit seems to have been the 580s and early 590s.” (Yorke, p16)

… and to quote a Keith Matthews (aka Bad Archaeology blogger) posted on Arthurnet

“What intrigues me is the fact that the death of [Ælle’s] putative son Cissa is placed by the Anglo-Norman historians c 590. We don’t know the authority for this, but Wendy Davies has argued that some of the non-Chronicle material found in these late writers does go back to (possibly Mercian) lost pre-Conquest sources. This would put Ælle in the third quarter of the sixth century, immediately prior to the second Bretwalda, Ceawlin (David Dumville has shown conclusively that the dates for Ceawlin in the Chronicle are pure guesswork and don’t match the data in the earlier king list).”

If Yorke, Davies and Dumville are right, then this rules Ælle out as a Bretwalda at the time of Badon, which makes it that much harder to argue for a large, unified ‘Anglo-Saxon’ military presence there, although it could always have been some other character leading them. Without knowing either Ælle’s or Badon’s actual dates we can’t conclude. However, it could be argued that any large gap between the first and second Bretwaldas was because of the defeat at Badon, and subsequent British dominance, as well as other factors, meaning a Bretwalda couldn’t rise to power during this period. I have to admit, it does seem more logical to me that the Bretwaldas appeared after 550, when the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ expansion and kingdoms appear.

If Ælle was at Badon, then, judging by the relatively small numbers of ‘Saxon’ graves of this region, he was going to have to rely on allies. (That’s if these are representative of the ‘Saxons’ there). Yet to be a Bretwalda he’d need loyal supporters in large numbers on his side. Many of these could have been Britons, but he possibly had ‘Jutes’ and ‘West Saxons’ to draw from.

The burning question would be why, if Bede is right and Ælle was Bretwalda of everything south of the Humber, the eastern ‘Anglian’ peoples would be under his ‘rule’ or follow him? There may be several answers to that, but one (very tenuous) answer that comes to my mind as to why they might have joined him, would be that he said to them something to the affect of, “Look, the Brit’s power base is in Cirencester and most of there warriors were at the southern end of Britannia Prima at the moment. You send some men in from the north and east and push them back, whilst attacking other areas to deflect attention and we’ll come from the south and east and we’ll slaughter them in the middle. We take them and the city and we solve all our problems.”  However, this sounds a bit of a stretch to me, and I wrote it, but stranger things have happened! Another possibility is the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ still functioned under the guise of the old Roman provinces of the east, and if you held power over one of these (or were placed in power) you held power over all those within them?

How many men these ‘Anglian’ areas to the north would be willing send to Badon (if any) is another matter.  (As I’ll explore later, the Brits may not have posed a threat to many of them). The alternatives are alliances to the southern ‘Saxons’ through marriage, which there’s no evidence of, or Ælle threatened or conquered them, which there’s no evidence of … but there’s not much evidence of anything for this period! Another reason could be Ælle was himself from the east.  After all, the next ‘Ælle’ to appear (in the 9th century) was a Northumbrian. Was he named after another famous northeasterner?

If he was the leader at Badon and it was fought in the south, then this would have had massive implication for the ‘South Saxon’ region and the Brits would have been close enough, and, maybe, dominant enough to stop them expanding, creating the long peace. Another possibility is, if the South Saxons were the result of an élite takeover of the British, those British simply swapped sides again for the next X amount of years.

An aside

As an aside, looking at maps like those above (which, I realise, can be misleading) I’m always amazed at how far this Germanic settlement/culture had travelled even by ca 500. Gildas may have said the enemy went home to the east of the island after the initial revolt, but they obviously didn’t stay there very long. (Unless Thompson is right and they returned to their bases in the northeast of what is now England and not Kent or Essex). Gildas also says it wasn’t until they did go back that the fighting against them started and you can understand his conclusions about the Briton’s lack of martial prowess if they couldn’t stop them getting that far. If the Britons did posses remnants of Roman military units as well as militias, they obviously either weren’t in these areas, the ‘enemy’ were of superior quality or some of these British ‘units’ joined them.

Another alternative, which has been forwarded by many others, is that Britannia Prima and many of the civitates of the west also used Germanic mercenaries, such as those possible ones at Dorchester-on-Thames or along the River Avon, as frontier troops, against aggressive neighbours of whatever ethnic origin or location, including British. It could, indeed, be why they were there, and not because they took it by force. If it was more a cultural spread reason then that gives a very different explanation, of course. Alliances through marriage could bring the culture with them, besides those Brits who just liked the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ fashions. However, Gildas certainly doesn’t make it sound like it was a cultural spread.

It also makes me wonder, as many scholars have, if the territories the ‘Saxons’ had were indeed the two old Romano-British eastern provinces of Maxima Caesariensis and Flavia Caesariensis, and Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda (and Valentia) didn’t care much who was ‘ruling’ them. It was only when they became a direct threat that they really did something about it. But for them to rule ‘provinces’ of this size would take central administration and, as argues by Barbara Yorke and others, they didn’t seem to have this organisation at this stage.  Of course, Ken Dark argues that the British were still in control and Nick Higham that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were actually in control after Badon.

This gets us in to the whole Vortigern/Ambrosius thing, and what it was they ruled and fought for, which I want to stay clear of for this discussion, so I’ll leave it there.

In the next blog I’ll look at the ‘Middle Saxons’, the ‘South Middle-Saxons’ (Surrey), ‘East (‘Jutish’) and West (‘Saxon’) Kent’, ‘East Saxons’, ‘East Angles’, ‘Middle & South Angles’ and the ‘North Angles’.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,



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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Four

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


Warning! Warning!

I want to look at who the enemies of these western Britons might have been, but first a very important point from Barbara Yorke I kept in mind:

“The existence of these numerous small provinces suggests that southern and eastern Britain may have have lost any political cohesion in the fifth and sixth centuries and fragmented into many small autonomous units, though late Roman administrative organization of the countryside may have helped dictate their boundaries.” (Yorke, ‘Kings & Kingdom’s of Early Anglo-Saxon England’, 1990, p13)

I also kept in mind, whether you agree with him or not, Stuart Laycock’s theories that there could be old British tribal scores to settle and animosity after the Romans left. Their ‘tribal’ identity (for want of better name) would mean more to them than ‘British-ness’. If using Germanic mercenaries or Anglo-Britons (and their culture) to forward their cause (and their territory) would help, then I’m sure they’d use them. (The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ settlement/culture does seem to match what are thought to be the boundaries of the eastern Britannian provinces of Maxima Caesariensis and Flavia Caesariensis). This use of them, of course, may have backfired on the Brits as they found themselves becoming second class citizens if they kept their cultural identity. This is not to exclude sheer invasion and expulsion in some areas.

A rough placing of the 'Anglo-Saxon' regions


(At the time thought to be roughly that of the British civitates of the Antrebates and the eastern Antrebatic half of the Belgae)

We should explore if every ‘Saxon’ or ‘Angle’ (remembering that these could be Anglo-British/Saxo-British ethnically mixed – clarifying my position after comments below) in the ‘east’ was the enemy. Let’s start with the infamous ‘West Saxons’. The words “can” and “worms” come to mind here. (I’ll use these later terms, such as ‘West Saxon’ and ‘East Angles‘, merely for convenience. The kingdoms didn’t exist, as far as we know, and I believe they would be made up of smaller groups of *-ingas or *-ge and the like rather than kingdoms at this point in time. We should also keep in mind that all these southern ‘Saxon’ areas have much smaller cemeteries compared with the ‘Anglian’ regions, which is what has led some to think these areas were indeed élite take-overs). The ‘West Saxons’; Cerdic and Cynric (two very British names) are said to ‘arrive’ in the area in 495 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC).  With regards to this date I would like to quote the following:

“David Dumville’s detailed study of the regnal dates given in the Chronicle and in the closely related West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List reached the conclusion that the fifth—and sixth century dates were extremely unreliable and had been artificially extended to make it appear that the kingdom was founded at an earlier date than was actually the case. His calculation on the basis of the reign-lengths given in the Genealogical Regnal List was that Cerdic’s reign was originally seen as beginning in 538, with the arrival of Cerdic and Cynric in 532.” (Yorke, 1990, p131)

However, regardless of who was ‘expanding’ in this region, some peoples of ‘Saxon’ culture were there prior to Badon. As many argue, Cerdic and Cynric may not have ‘arrived’ from anywhere but have been either Britons or Saxo-Britons of the area. (Besides their possible British names, Wessex does claim later men with the other British names. There are also mixed cremation/inhumation as well as inhumation cemeteries here which, according to Ken Dark, could point to mixed British/’Saxon’ sites). However, whichever of the dates for their arrival is correct, and whichever date for Badon is correct, could have a bearing on whether they were personally involved at the Battle of Badon and what would happen afterwards.

There are two arguments as to where the ‘West Saxons’ (as the Geuissae) originate from: the western Thames Valley, and southern Hampshire. Some think the Geuissae or Gewissae could themselves have been a Saxonized British group or even Jutish. These may have been confused or merged with the group around Dorchester-on-Thames. To quote Keith Matthews’ (aka Bad Archaeology blogger) article, ‘What’s in a name? Britons, Angles, ethnicity and material culture from the fourth to seventh centuries’ (Heroic Age, Issue 4, 2001)

“The exception is the upper Thames valley, where there are large numbers of villas and small towns but an early group of German material culture remains. What makes this group stand out is the early date of the material culture and its homogeneity: this group appears to have few contacts with the local Romano-British population, unlike the thousands of Germans whose material culture sits alongside that of indigenous groups elsewhere in the Late Roman diocese. The upper Thames Valley group has long been identified as in some way anomalous (e.g. Leeds: 53), as the invasion/settlement hypotheses are clearly inadequate to explain so massive a penetration so deep into central Britain at this date. Furthermore, it is not identifiable as the core of a later Anglo-Saxon kingdom, despite valiant attempts to link it with Wessex (e.g. Stenton: 26). Here is perhaps the best evidence for the Germanic mercenaries mentioned by Gildas (Higham 1994: 104).”

Whoever they were, or whatever they were called, they could indeed have posed a threat. (However, we should keep in mind that by the late 5th century they may have married locally). It could depend on where Britannia Prima’s border lay and which side of it the Dorchester-on-Thames group where on. It’s very difficult to know if this ‘border’ was an east-west division of the Atrebates, Belgae and Regni civitates, or if it cut through them. If it originally did, we also don’t know what would have happened after the empire ‘fell’ and if a border would be ‘redrawn’ or how much they had fragmented into smaller polities. Since it looks as if many ‘Saxon’ take-overs used these civitas boundaries, it’s worth keeping them in mind. I’d also like to quote another passage from Yorke:

“A further problem with the Chronicle’s account of the origins of Wessex is that it seems to locate the origins of the kingdom in southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, though unfortunately not all the place-names it cites can be identified. Bede, on the basis of information supplied to him by Bishop Daniel, indicates that southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were independent provinces which did not become part of Wessex until after their conquest by King Cædwalla in 686–8. A number of sources, including Bede and placename evidence, affirm that the people of southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were classed as Jutes and not as Saxons.  It seems impossible to place the origins of the kingdom of Wessex in these Jutish provinces.” (Yorke, 1990, p131)

So wherever the ‘West Saxons’ were coming from it may not have been from the south. Let’s say the Dorchester-on-Thames group were on the east side of the border, in what was the old Roman province of Maxima Caesariensis, and weren’t on the Brits side, and Ælle (or whomever) managed to recruit both them and ‘West Saxons’. If Badon was in the south and they were the enemy then they are most likely to get the brunt of the aftermath of a victory … if they didn’t run east and south for protection. (Higham’s theory not withstanding). If Badon was in, say, the Lincolnshire proposed site (by Thomas Green), they could either have had nothing to do with a battle in that part of the country or they were involved with one of the subsequent (or previous) battles to Badon that Gildas mentions in their own region.

What isn’t obvious, and I’ll explore it more below, is who were those ‘Anglo-Saxons’ before the Mercians north of Oxford: those of the south Midlands. They were the ones bordering on what Christopher Gidlow thinks to be the real power base of the Britons: the Cornovii and the Dobunni. (But who Higham thinks were vassals of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’!) If the Britons did win back some of these Midland territories also, the ‘Germanic’ inhabitants don’t seem to have gone anywhere. If Dumville’s 538 dating is right, however, this date could have been the start (or false start) of the push back by the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, in the south at least, although it could have been even much later elsewhere. It may not even have been a ‘push back’ at all but the first push by them if they didn’t become a force to be reckoned with until 532 or after.

If it was around these dates that the Gewissae start to appear, then it may not have been very long after Gildas had completed his polemic before he could say, “I told you so!” This region would be relatively close to Gildas, if he wrote where most think he did in the Durotriges tribal region (roughly western Somerset and Dorset), giving him a very good reason to be nervous. (Always keep in mind that any push or expansion is most likely nothing to do with an ethnic group fighting another ethnic group, but merely the leaders of a group proving what great a leader they are by either raiding, taking a territory or making other territories tributary either through conquest or fear.)

Wherever Badon was, this lot seem to have stopped expanding too, so something may have halted their ambitions and with this possibly being relatively close to Gildas he should have been aware of anything going on here. It could be these peoples that made him worried, but it’s more likely to be those even closer: the ‘Jutes’ of Hampshire (see next blog). If the map above is remotely close to the politcal situation, there was a British divide between Gildas (if he was in the southwest) and them. Of course, as I put forward above, these ‘Saxons’ could even have given allegiance to the Brits and not been a threat at all … at this time. Although it should be noted that Gildas never mentions such alliances.


(At the time thought to be roughly that of the British civitates of the Dobunni and southern Cornovii)

But who were those further west, but north of the ‘West Saxons’? I found it very difficult to find anyone writing about those who made up the settlers of what is now the southwest and west Midlands of England at this time. The archæological evidence shows they were there, bordering on (or even within) the civitates of the Dobunni and possibly Cornovii. They may not have been Middle or West Saxons at all, but, what I will call, ‘West Angles’. If they were ‘West Saxons’ they certainly weren’t to become Wessex but the Hwicce and part of Mercia. (I realise it’s a lot more complicated than that and I apologise for the over-simplification.) To quote, ‘Research issues in the Post-Roman to Conquest period in Warwickshire’ by Sally Crawford with regards to Warwickshire, for example …

“The social organisation of the earlier Anglo-Saxon period is also one which would bear further research. The cemetery evidence supports the idea that there was a significant ethnic division within the county, with two separate groups based around the upper and lower Avon, which is echoed in the later documentary sources as a division between the tribes of the Hwicce and the Mercians (Hooke, 1996:100). “

Apparently Warwickshire does not fair well in its Early Medieval archæology so it’s almost impossible to judge the power or status of those “Saxons’ or ‘Angles’ there and their relationship with the Britons. However, the mixed nature of the cemeteries might show a mixed ethnic group. I found a little more information from John Morris (The Age of Arthur), although I don’t know how accurate or up-to-date it is.  His information shouldn’t always be trusted:

“But the south western borderlands of the corner of Cornovii have plain evidence; four large mixed cemeteries guarded the main crossing of the Avon on their side of the river, near Coventry and at Warwick, Stratford and Bidford. Their burials began very early in the sixth century and the main ornament derived from the Middle Angles. Further south a larger number of smaller burial grounds circle the territory of Cirencester and Gloucester on the north, the west, and the south, approximately on the borders of the Roman Dobunni. The earliest of them, Fairford, maybe as early as the Avon site cemeteries, but the ornament of most seem somewhat later, and was drawn from the Abingdon English; it passed onto Bidford, the nearest of the Avon garrisons, but only a little of it reached further north, though the Cotswolds sites about Cirencester took little or nothing of the Anglian ornament of Avon. Cornovian territory admitted brides and peddlars within its borders, but Cirencester allowed no traffic in the opposite direction.” (p.284)

I’m not exactly sure what he means by “Cornovian territory admitted brides and peddlars within its borders …” or where that information comes from!?

There isn’t universal agreement of which pre-‘Saxon’ eastern British tribal regions bordered here: some say the Corieltavi could have stretched that far south, others the Catuvellauni. It could be both, of course. Perhaps the Dobunni stretched further north than we think, although, I believe, coin distribution places them were the later Hwicce would be. But someone bordered with the Dobunni and Cornovii and it’s these eastern borders where the cemeteries of ‘Anglo-Saxons’ are found (cremations in the north and mixed and inhumations further south). Some could even have been within their territories. If these ‘Saxons’ were at Badon, or were involved in the struggle against the British of the west at the time, it’s hard to discern what happened to them in the aftermath or during this ‘peace’. Of course, if the Dobunni and Cornovii (or whatever they were called by this time) did ‘defeat’ them, and ‘threw them out’, would the archæology show this? If either of these British civitates were as powerful as Gidlow thinks, (and not as weak as Higham thinks!), then perhaps the ‘Saxons’ may have not tried to expand any further west or south because they were too scared of the consequences.

As Stuart Laycock puts forward (and others I believe) in his book ‘Britannia – The Failed State’ (2009), these ‘Anglo-Saxon’ groups may have been placed there by rival British civitates in the first place. Whether these too would have revolted at some stage or stayed on the Brits side we will never know, but it might explain Gildas telling us the revolt went from sea to sea. Meaning, there were revolts in their regions, rather than those of Kent marauding from the FRETVM GALLICVM (English Channel) to the Severn Sea (Bristol Channel). (However, always keep in mind the E. A. Thompson believes the revolts Gildas is talking about took place in the north (which is the region Gildas is discussing) and went from the North Sea to the Irish Sea). Those upper and lower Avon groups could reflect two sides of the divide, although the Avon appears to run through the centre of the Dobunni region. We must considered the distinct possibility that some of them, at least, weren’t the enemy.

In the next blog I’ll look at the ‘Jutes’ of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and the ‘South Saxons’.

Thanks for readin and I look forward to any comments,



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

UPDATED 21.5.12 

What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

Geraint, Gereint









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

Cesar et Arthurus leo fortis uterque sub armis

Nil par vel similis Resus utrique fuit.”

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

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

(Kindly translated by Christopher Gwinn)

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

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

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

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

Back to ‘Arthur’

.Contenders for the derivation of Arthur are:

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,



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