Tag Archives: Demetia

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


English: Scanned from frontispiece of Ab Ithel...

Annales Cambriae

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

The original question I posed was:

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

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

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

Y Gododdin

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 If you think these sources valid you have a totally different outcome to if you don’t. If you think they’re valid, historical documents, then he existed.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

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

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

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

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

Hywel Dda

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

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

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

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

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

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



Arthurian Probability Test

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

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

I’ll give the answer soon!


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

To be or not to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a striking resemblance!

Merlin reads his prohecies to King Vortigern. ...

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

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

Weight of evidence v popular evidence

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

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


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

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

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

Etymologically speaking …

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

Why oh why?

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

St. Germanus

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

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

Dux bellorum

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

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

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

In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s

Heroes who cut with steel.

The Emperor, ruler of our labour.

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

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

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

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

… later …

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

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

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

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

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

( )

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

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

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

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



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


"King Arthur and the Giant", Book I,...

All the topographical and onomastic sites around Britain point to Arthur being seen as either a giant or someone larger than life with superhuman strength. These are either names given to megalithic monuments in order to explain them, natural features or, in the past, Roman buildings (‘Arthur’s Oven‘ for example). Giants were, at times, invented to explain these Roman building, and even the Dane Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-1220) for example, argued that giants had to exist to explain them.

It’s interesting that in mythology giants are usually (but not always) the bad guys, or stupid, so how did Arthur become to be seen as a giant (if that is, indeed, how he was seen), if he wasn’t mythological?

In answer to the first point, there is another famous ‘good’ giant, and that’s Brân fab Llŷr (son of Llŷr) or Bendigeidfran (‘Bran the Blessed or ‘Blessed Raven’) – with the Irish equivalent Bran mac Febail). It was said he couldn’t fit into a house so a tent had to be arrange for him to meet King Matholwch of Ireland. Arthur has a couple of associations with Brân, which I’ll explore in later parts.

The answer to the second question could be because some topographical and onomastic sites were named by it being passed down that Arthur was a ‘giant of a man’, just as it was with William Wallace. (If the bones that were found at the alleged ‘grave of Arthur’ at Glastonbury Abbey in the 12th century are anything to go by, then he was, indeed, a giant! This is seen as a complete hoax of course … but not by all). Could this have mutated to him being seen as a giant? Or, could it have been the mention in the battle list in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (H.B) of him single handedly – with the aide of God – killing 960/940 Saxons at the battle of Mount Badon? (The number varies in recensions). “No ordinary human could have done that!” they may have thought. If this is something that had been added to his legend at an early stage, then what better way for them to make sense of it? However, it seems more likely – if he wasn’t mythological or folkloric – that it is because many of these great men in the Britons’ (and other cultures’) distant past couldn’t just be men, but had to have some fantastical element to them that gave them their greatness, or be larger than life-size – as attested to in the H.B. - and the people of the time would have believed it too! (Just as they thought ordinary men couldn’t have built Stonehenge, it had to have been giants or superhumans). This is a time when the supernatural and natural were psychologically interwoven. After its initial relating of Arthur being a giant or superhuman it would take on a life of its own down the centuries. (More later).

The peasants?

Who was doing the naming of these sites that made Arthur out to be a giant, or, if not a giant, then superhuman? Bards? storytellers? or the local peasantry? I wonder if it was the latter. Did they have their own stories of Arthur, stories that were different to those of the storyteller’s superhero?  After all, the superhero Arthur either has to get two of his men – Cai and Bedwyr – to fight a giant, or go to Ireland to kill one himself (and many others in Wales!), but there’s no mention in the stories that Arthur was one, unlike his Irish ‘cousin’ Finn. 

Even the 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae, from whence the Romantic Arthurian tales sprang, tells us in its origin myth that Albion (Britain) was inhabited “by a few giants” when Brutus and his Trojans set foot on these shores. (The Britons weren’t the only ones to think they were descendants of Trojans, the Franks did too). It goes on to say that Corineus was given Cornwall, where there were more giants than in any other province. Among these giants was the famous Gogmagog. If Arthur was mythological or folkloric was he one of these originally?

It’s a miracle!

The Arthurian sites that have received the most scrutiny are those found in the Mirabilia (‘Miracles’ or ‘Marvels’) section of the Historia Brittonum  – dated to later than the main body of work, probably to the 10th century (Jackson) – which tell us of two miraculous, giant related sites; one, of Arthur’s giant dog, Cabal’s (‘Horse’s’) paw print, created whilst on a hunt for the giant boar Twrch Trwyth (a tale told within Culhwch ac Olwen). The other is of the giant, size-changing grave of his son Amr, whom Arthur is said to have killed.

There is another wonder in the region called Buelt. There is a heap of stones, and one stone laid on the heap having upon it the footmark of a dog. When he hunted boar Troynt (Trwyth and Latinised as Troit) across Wales. Cabal, which was a dog of the warrior Arthur, impressed the stone with the print of his foot, and Arthur afterwards collected a heap of stones beneath the stone in which was the print of his dog’s foot, and it is called Carn Cabal. And people come and take away the stone in their hands for the space of a day and a night, and on the next day it is found on its heap.” (H.B.)

For more information on Carn Cabal, go to the Clas Merdin webiste:

There’s discussion about the ‘borrowing’ of Irish legends and the changing of them to British (Welsh) themes and heroes, and, if this did happen, it must have especially been the case in the west of Britannia. (In fact, areas of the west were Hibernian (Irish) inhabited or descended). After the fall of the empire this may have been increased along with the contacts with Ireland. The tale of the Twrch Trwyth mention earlier may have been a borrowing from the Irish. (The tale starts in Ireland and then moves to an Hibernian part of Britain – Demetia/Dyfed). In Ireland they had the boar Orc Triath, owned by the goddess Brigit. Killing of this boar could have been seen as the killing of paganism.

As mentioned above, Ireland is where the Arthurian hunt begins. If it was indeed a tale originally from Hibernia/Scotia, then it was given a British hero in the form of Arthur. The question would be, when did it arrive and when was the character (or the name) Arthur attached to it and why? Was he a folkloric or mythical Arthur or Arthur of Badon … or another Arthur entirely?

As mentioned earlier, this nasty swine is also spoken of elsewhere in poetry and legend, and much earlier in one case. The dating of the poem Gwarchan Cynvelyn that was attached to the corpus of Y Gododdin is put to the 7th century by Jarman – or rather the gwarchan are in general. The dating of this particular gwearchan could be doubted because it claims Gwynedd fought at the Battle of Catraeth (the subject of Y Gododdin) and some doubt that they did. It would also mean the battle would have to be later than John Koch thinks for Cynvelyn to have been there. This poem Thomas Green (and others) use as strong evidence that the mythical Arthur was around even in the mid 7th century, arguing that a historical figure couldn’t have been attached to this in the hundred or so years since his supposed death. This may indeed be the case.

(What can be a little confusing about all the above is, on the one hand, the argument that the whole Gwynedd/Gododdin connection (via Cunedda) is just an origin myth and that they weren’t present at Catraeth, with all the references to them being at the battle later additions to the poems, yet this gwearchan is argued to be 7th century, which lays claim to a Gwynedd warrior at Catraeth!)

The first thing that went through my mind when seeing this evidence for an early mythical Arthurian mention (and remember I saw this when I was also concluding that Arthur was mythical at the time) was that it no where actually mentions Arthur in reference to the Twrch Trwyth. In fact, you might wonder why it didn’t mention Arthur if he was present. This particular part of the gwarchan says …

Were I to praise,
Were I to sing,
The Gwarchan would cause high shoots to spring,
Stalks like the collar of Twrch Trwyth,
Monstrously savage, bursting and thrusting through,
When he was attacked in the river
Before his precious things.  (Skene translation)

It’s comparing Cynvelyn (Cynfelyn) with a ravaging boar (as opposed to a raging bore!), just as many warriors were compared with wild beasts. It could have compared Cynvelyn to Arthur too if he was there, but, if he was, the bard chose not to. A mythical Arthur could indeed have been present in the 7th century, but this cannot be seen from this poem, it is only inferred that Arthur was present in the earlier version because he is in a later work. A court of law could not take this as damning evidence, and nor should we. We should see it as a possibility. Arthur himself could have later been made the hero of the boar hunt.

There is something else to consider here, and that is the question if there’s any relationship between this famous tale and Arthur ap Pedr of Demetia? The hunt is supposed to have continued from Ireland to his region, and one also has to wonder if the route the swine took reflects the spread of the tale from Demetia, what is now southwest Wales, firstly east through Wales and then to Cornwall (another Irish inhabited area)? Then we have to ask if this prince was named because of the location of the tale and its mythical pursuer, or after an Arthur of Badon. If it wasn’t for the one (and possibly two) other Arthurs being named around the same time it might be a straight forward answer that it was to do with the boar hunt, but these other Arthur’s throw a Dark Age spanner in the works. Of course, the alternative is that the tale had Arthur ap Pedr made as the hero.

In the next part we’ll look more at giants and why, if Arthur was seen as one, he wasn’t called one before moving on to Part Four and our first look at Arthur the Soldier and the arguments for his historical existence.

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


See the interesting comments by David Hillman below


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The Attacotti – Britons, Gaels or Picts? – Part One

Magister Peditum page 4 from the Roman Notitia...

One of the Attacotti (Atecotti) Roman unit shield patterns: second row, third from left.

UPDATED 25.12.11

In this Two Part blog I will take a look at a people of Britannia (or Hibernia/Ireland) called the Attacotti who were involved in the so called Barbarian Conspiracy of 364-367 and who, after their defeat or perhaps later, were made Roman military units. Many have discussed this issue, but I hope to add at least a little more to the debate.

It’s said that the Barbarian Conspiracy of 364-367 involved the Picti, Scotti and Attacotti. The latter tribe is hard to identify (not having been mentioned by the 2nd century geographer Ptolemy, although it could have been a later collective name given to some he identified) and they have been placed as far afield as Ireland, the west coast of Scotland and southwest Wales. Wherever they were from, after the Conspiracy, (either after their defeat and capture, or later under treaty), their warriors ended up being made into several Roman military auxilia palatina units … something apparently unique amongst the British tribes (Rance, 2001, p.1).

The Attacotti are, indeed, an enigmatic group. Some place them in the Western Isles or Western Scotland, but there is an argument put forward by Philip Rance (‘Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: The Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain’, 2001) that they were actually the Déisi of Demetia (now Dyfed) then known as aichechthúatha (‘client people’) – a general term used for ‘rent-paying’ groups of Irish – so would have been in what is now southwestern Wales. (There are counter arguments to this on linguistic grounds, which I will go into later, although Rance’s argument isn’t just an etymological one). The writer Carla Nayland has wondered about them being a culturally distinct group amongst the Pictish nation: that is the region the Pictish Chronicles called Got and the Irish translation of Historia Brittonum called Cat or Caith (as in Caithness) in northeast Scotland. ( ). Carly admits it might be clutching at straws to suggest Got or Caith were *cott, but it’s worth a look.

I’ll look at where they might have been from later.


It’s in Book 27 of his history, the 4th century imperial historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells us:

“It will, however, be in place to say, that at that time the Picts, divided into two tribes, called Dicalydones and Verturiones, as well as [in the same way] the Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots [Irish or, possibly, Goidelic speaking Britannians], were ranging widely and causing great devastation; while the Gallic regions, wherever anyone could break in by land or by sea, were harassed by the Franks and their neighbours, the Saxons, with cruel robbery, fire, and the murder of all who were taken prisoners.” [brackets are mine]

However, in Book 26 he has said they all were attacking the ‘Britons’. This certainly make it sound that they were not Britons themselves, or certainly not from within the diocese. I’ll look at this in more depth later.

Since the Picti were from the north, and there may have been Scotti there too in the Western Isles, it’s generally argued that the Attacotti must be from the north also. But this doesn’t necessarily follow. In fact, the line “were ranging widely and causing great devastation” may suggest otherwise. Yes, there was definitely trouble in the north but they could have been from the far west, as Rance (and others before him) have suggested (but see below), or, if they were from Ireland, and raided (and settled?) that could be anywhere on the western seaboard, from Lancashire to the Isle of Anglesey in northwest Wales and even down to northern Cornwall. If they were from, and encountered as a federate group, somewhere in Wales, it might be the reason why so many could be captured as it wasn’t so easy for them to escape. But, the question has to be asked, why was there no Scotti Roman unit, or Dicalydones or Verturiones? Didn’t they get caught? There must have been a considerable number of Attacotti to have made a unit or two out of them.


Notitia Dignitatum  (List of Offices) – is an official list of late Roman administrative and military posts from anywhere around 400 AD.)

It’s not something I do lightly, but I will quote the Wikipedia section on the Attacotti, as I think it’s very well written:

The Notitia Dignitatum is a list of offices of the early fifth century Roman Empire, and includes the locations of the offices and the staff (including military units) assigned to them.

The names of several units resembled that of the Attacotti who were mentioned by Ammianus, and in an 1876 publication Otto Seeck assigned the name Atecotti to various spellings (“acecotti”, “atecocti”, “attecotti”, “attcoetti”, “[illegible]ti”, and “arecotti”) in the Notitia Dignitatum, and documented his assignments within the publication. This produced four conjectural occurrences of Atecotti-related units: Atecotti [Illyricum] Atecotti juniores Gallicani Atecotti Honoriani seniores Atecotti Honoriani juniores.

The discovery of a contemporary funerary dedication to a soldier of the “unit of Ate[g,c]utti” in the Roman Diocese of Illyricum supports this reconstruction, as the Notitia Dignitatum places one Atecotti unit in that diocese.

It’s highly probable that all these units weren’t formed at the same time, and the title ‘Honoriani‘ may suggest two of them were created during the reign of the Emperor Honorius (395-423 AD) and named in his honour, whilst the Atecotti of Illyricum and, perhaps, the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani were, the original units. (Scharf, 1995, 163-5)

A.H.M. Jones (History of the Later Roman Empire, Blackwell, Oxford, 1964 p 682) estimates that there may have been 600 or 700  to a unit but it could have been up to 800, and this is a lot. Not that there has to have been that many Attacotti of course. They could have been the majority and others could indeed have been Scotti and Picti. Two of these units were cavalry. This could mean they were good horsemen, which might give an argument that they weren’t seaborne raiders, but mounted? However, it is also possible they were good on both land and sea.


It could be telling that two of the units were auxilia palatina (the Atecotti Honoriani Seniores and the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani). These were élite barbarian regiments of the imperial escort armies. This could be the fate of those barbarians who were captured or who made a treaty, and many a Germanic people became them. They were a type of unit the 4th century military writer Vegetius didn’t agree with in his ‘Epitome of military science’. He thought citizen raised armies better trained and more trustworthy.

The fact that the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani were one of these units may point to these being the first. However, because the Atecotti Honoriani Seniores were also auxilia palatina it could mean they were also one of the first, with the title Honoriani attached later.

One Germanic bunch of warriors, besieged on an island in the Rhine had to decide their own fate:

“In the winter of that year,[298/299] a host of Alamanni infantry was crossing the frozen Rhine. When the ice suddenly broke, they became trapped on an island, whereupon Constantius sent the river fleet to besiege them. To come to terms, they had to hand over a number of warriors as recruits for the Roman army. These were not “captives” (as the panegyric claims), but rather treaty-bound allies, for the troops chose among themselves who had to go. Worsted tribes often picked among themselves the warriors they were required to contribute to the Roman army; it was in Rome’s interest to enroll men who liked to serve, who were least needed at home, and who were therefore least likely to desert. Bound to each other by tribal ties of trust, an Alamannic king and his followers were likely to have stayed together when giving themselves up for service in the Roman army.”  (Raising New Units for the Late Roman Army: “Auxilia Palatina”, Michael P. Speidel, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 50 (1996), pp. 165-166)

Could it have been a similar fate of the Attacotti? If so, it could mean that they had to have been from outside the diocese of Britannia and not from somewhere like Demetia, which was within Britannia Prima. Unless they were newly arrived in the region but not yet citizens.

What would be interesting to know is how long the Attacotti as a ‘tribe’ had to supply young men as part of a possible treaty. Did this stop when Roman rule ended? The problem is we can’t be certain when that was, even though 410 is the date usually given. Some young Attacotti might have thought there was a better life for them in the service of the empire. However, most tribal based units would soon become ethnically diverse.


We get St. Jerome (c. 347-420), a priest from the borders of Dalmatia and Pannonia who travelled in Gaul between 365-370 AD, mentioning the Attacotti in rather unflattering terms in his Treatise Against Jovinianus

“Why should I speak of other nations when I, a youth, in Gaul beheld the Attacotti, a British tribe, eat human flesh, and when they find herds of swine, cattle, and sheep in the woods, they are accustomed to cut off the buttocks of the shepherds, and the paps of the shepherdesses, and to consider them as the only delicacies of food.”

There have been various theory on whether he meant human flesh or if there was a miss-translation from “humanis” (human flesh) for “inhumanis” (animal flesh). (See the Wikipedia article for more information). However, the Greek historian Strabo (64/63 BC – ca. AD 24) was the first to call the Irish gluttonous, incestuous cannibals. (Celtic Culture: a historic encyclopaedia, Koch, 2005, p.846)

In Jerome’s Letter to Oceanus he complains about the promiscuous Attacotti, Scotti, and the people of Plato’s Republic. Why does he mention the Scotti here? Was it because they were both Goidelic speakers? Or was it because there were, indeed, Scotti in the Attacotti units. Or was it because the Attacotti’s behaviour reminded him of the Scotti? Rance wonders if it was simply for literary effect. Of course, the Attacotti being Goidelic (Gaelic) speakers does not mean they couldn’t be Britannians, as Ken Dark has argued. (Britain and the End of the Roman Empire). However, as Rance also points out, the Romans perceived the Irish (Scotti) as cannibals (true or not) so this could, indeed, be why they’re mentioned together. But if they were, say, a Pictish people, why would they be mentioned here?

(Updated) There is one slightly strange thing; if Jerome experienced this encounter with the Attacotti when he was a ‘youth’ and he was born in c. 347, then he came across them before the Barbarian Conspiracy! Unless he counted being 22 or so as a ‘youth’, or, his birth date is later than thought, in the early or mid 350s?  They could have been formed before the troubles in Britain began (again), or, as Philip Freeman (‘Ireland and the Classical World‘, 2000, p.96) points out, Jerome could have been referring to a raiding group of Attacotti before they’d been made into a military unit. If this is the case then they may indeed have been from Ireland as we know the Scotti raided as far as northern Gaul.


The three above classical writers aren’t the only ones to have a go at the Scotti. As Philip Freeman in his excellent book, ‘Ireland and the classical world’ (2001) notes, there were plenty of other writers mentioning them. Pomponius Mela and Solinus commented on the Scotti’s lack of morality and Freeman tells us how Jerome may have been influenced by Caesar’s description of the polygamous Britons (p.100). Prudentius (c.348-405) calls them “the half-wild Scottus, worse than war-hounds”. (Like Britain, Ireland supplied the empire with war or fighting dogs. (Symmachus, c.393). Of course, the irish weren’t the only ones classical writers had it in for. Many a barbarian was written about in unfavourable terms.


So, were the Attacotti Britons, Gaels(Gwydyl) or ‘Picts’ (Fichti) … or, as Carla Nayland suggests, something unique within the Pictish confederacy, perhaps with Scandinavian influence, hence why they are named separately? St. Jerome calls them Britons, but he may just have known that they originated from Britannia, and that may have meant the island and not the Roman diocese of “The Britains’. We don’t know if he heard them speak, or, even if he had, if he would have understood them.

As I mentioned above, there have been many attempts to identify them by their name with it coming from Goidelic aichechthúatha, or something like the Atta/Ate (S)cotti, or deriving from Alt Clut. (I will look at these in more detail in Part Two). St. Jerome’s text could be used to relate them with the Scotti, but this is not entirely conclusive. However, I would favour the explanation given in ‘The Dialects of Ancient Gaul’ by Xavier Delamarre (p.57), with their name meaning “Very Ancient (ones)”. Intensive prefix *ate + cotto – “old”  from either Early Irish or Brittonic, which were much closer languages at the time. (Thanks to Christopher Gwinn for reminding me of this). The alternative, as mentioned, could be the same intensive prefix *ate, but plus (S)cotti. Meaning a particularly nasty group of Scotti.

Not that this help us locate them! What I think we should be looking at is why there was a concerted (if it was) raiding and if knowing ‘why?’ will help with ‘where?’ … and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing in Part Two.

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



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

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

UPDATED 20.1.12 Updates in bold type


Gildas tells us that Britain had rectores. This has been taken by many to mean it had governors – which it can mean along with ‘rulers’ and ‘administrators’ – (Higham, 1994, p178) although, in strict terms, the governors would be the praeses, but no one (apart from Nick Higham?) can be certain of what rectores were by Gildas’s time. (More below).

Gildas says:

Britain has rulers [rectores], and she has watchmen/bishops [speculatores]: why dost thou incline thyself thus uselessly to prate [to talk idly and at length] ?” She has such, I say, not too many, perhaps, but surely not too few: but because they are bent down and pressed beneath so heavy a burden, they have not time allowed them to take breath. (DEB, §26)

Whilst Gildas has used rectores in the DEB when talking about Roman governors, it seems a little odd in this instance to says “She has such, I say, not too many, perhaps, but surely not too few”, if talking about governors and these were provincial governors and there were only two or three provinces left. This is something Professor Higham doesn’t tackle and he sees these rectores as being from London, Cirencester and Lincoln. But Britannia could hardly have “but surely not too few”? So is he referring to another function of these rectores or did some civitates (and kingdoms?) have their own at this time? Higham believes these governors based mainly in ‘Saxon’ controlled or tribute paying areas and under great burden, as Gildas tells us they were. Gildas certainly had some respect for the rectores, at least more than he had for the five kings, in his own time.

I recently noticed, whilst rereading Christopher Gidlow’s excellent book The Reign of Arthur (2004), that he questioned the same thing as mentioned about. He notes that the 5th century writer Ammianus calls emperors, provincial governors, military officials and even barbarian client kings “rectores”, whilst a certain Tutvwlch in the poem Y Gododdin is even called one. (p.120) He also points out something about the Historia Brittonum and its use of dux (or the plural duces) and that is that in every instance before its connection with Arthur when using this term it either means a general or a governor subordinate to the Emperor. (p.44). This could mean when the H.B. says Arthur was a dux, it meant something very specific.

Speculatores used to be one of two things: in Roman military terms they were scouts or spies, but in earlier times they were public attendants. Nick Higham forwards two possibilities: that the rectores/speculatores partnership was civil governor and military captain, or a civil and ecclesiastical one. (Higham,1994, p158). David Dumville simply says the latter were bishops. (After Empire-Towards an Ethnology of Europe’s Barbarians’ (‘Studies in Archaeoethnology, Volume 1’, 1995)).


So, what were these provinces that made up the old Roman diocese of ‘The Britains’? There’s no complete agreement about which ones were where or where their boundaries were, but I’ll use the three maps (below) as a guide. The provinces were:

Maxima Caesariensis

Flavia Caesariensis

Britannia Prima

Britannia Secunda


The following three maps show different possibilities to their locations … and there are more.  (For further discussion on Valentia see THIS blog).

Provinces based on various theories.

Provinces based on J C Mann's theory

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 its placement of some of the northern tribes and will be updated soon.

These provinces (wherever they were) made up the imperial diocese of Britanniae (The Britains). It is all but the two southeastern ones that are argued to still have existed in some form in Gildas’s time, although a few scholars think even these could have still functioned, either under British (Dark) or ‘Saxon’ (Higham) rule. If it’s the latter, then these two eastern provinces were either under a certain degree of, or complete, Germanic control and/or the Germanic culture had taken hold there. For Nick Higham, the region between the two eastern provinces and the eastern portion of Britannia Prima were also under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suzerainty. (For further discussion on the extent of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ control, see THIS blog). He appears the only scholar to have forwarded this possibility.

The provinces were generally divided along tribal boundaries, but not always … although it’s almost impossible to know where some of the tribal boundaries were. There are various discussion and theories as to whether these tribal civitates and kingdoms made it into the period we are talking about, or whether they had changed. Some regions still retained their civitas (tribal) name, such as Demetia (Dyfed) or Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall), but this doesn’t mean it reflects the pre-Roman political situation and it could be that they simply used the name. Others didn’t; the Ordovices became Venedota (Gwynedd) and possibly part of Powys, with the Cornovii becoming part of Powys and Pengwern, although later Mercians would call them Wreocensæte, Pencersaete etc. No one knows when exactly these changes started to happen or as to what the political tensions were between the various British civitates after Roman rule had ceased. The various competing theories (by scholars and laymen alike) are what make it hard to judge whether the provinces remained intact, disappeared by the Late 5th century or simply changed size and shape. History being a complex affair means it could be a mixture of the above or something completely different.

Several scholars who have studied Gildas’s DEB in depth (but most notably David Dumville and Nick Higham) point to both him, and Continental sources, indicating that provinces did still exist in his day. If they all did, then two of them may have been under complete ‘Anglo-Saxon’ control … and the Gallic Chronicles for 441AD seems to tell us they were. But some scholars argue otherwise. If they are right, then the question is, how much control did they have, and were they united in by someone? Most would say no, but Higham says yes and that it is an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ over-king that Gildas refers to in the name of the ‘father-devil‘. Who’s right makes a difference to the subject of this blog, but since there is no consensus, we’ll continue with the hypothesis that the western and northern provinces could fight back and Badon was a decisive victory for the Britons … although the Britons not being the overall victors still makes these military positions possible at the time.

(Please keep in mind that when I say “Anglo-Saxon’ we’re still talking about Britons being in these regions. Some may have fought against these ‘masters’, other will have sided with with. Some Britons would be slaves, others would be in alliance or inter-marrying).


Gildas tells us that (in his opinion at least) things were a little different at the time of Badon …

[...] and in regard thereof, kings, public magistrates, and private persons, with priests and clergymen, did all and every one of them live orderly according to their several vocations. (DEB, §26)

So we cannot assume that the political and military situation in Gildas’s time was the same as at the time of Badon … unless you’re one of those of the opinion that Gildas meant that Badon only happened one month previous to him writing and not 43 years and 1 month. This argument is based on Gildas’s Latin, and this is beyond me I’m afraid. Most take the view that it was the latter, but there is also 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). Another theory sees Gildas meaning it happened 43 years and 1 month after Ambrosius’ first victory and another that is was this duration after the Saxon Advent.

All the above considered, Gildas’s duces could have been the major military leaders at that time of Badon and before and in the east and Midlands they may have be purely military rather than kings. However, it could be argued that Gildas simply means ‘leaders‘, which is another translation of duces, but Higham points out that Gildas always uses this and similar terms when referring to ‘military leaders‘. (Higham, 1994, p182 & p189). But in Gildas’s time king and duces, in some regions, had merged … in Gildas’s view.

So Britain may have still had provinces and some of those (and perhaps some civitates) appear to have had governors (if this is what rectores were). There also appears to be military leaders (duces?). Sometimes (in the west?) these were also the kings, but further east it may have been a different story, with rectores and duces (and possibly iudices) fulfilling the separate military and civil roles that the kings made into one. We have no idea of the situation in the north as Gildas doesn’t seem to mention it. (Unless those who theorise that Maglocunus was in the north are right). Once again, there can be no certainty, but these seem to be strong possibilities.

In the next blog we’ll look at what it may have meant if the existing provinces did have commanders.

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


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


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

Map of Roman Britain, showing the road from Cl...

In this seven part blog I want to explore if an historical 5th century Arthur could have been (not was) some equivalent of a Late Roman commander or a general, and what this might have meant.  Of course, it was the late, great R G Collingwood who put forward the possibility of Arthur being a comes (‘count’) with his own field army back in the 1930s, but I want this to be more of an exploration of the possibility of this and other Late Roman military positions; there can be no certainties. Of course, the question of someone in these positions applies whether Arthur existed or not. (For those new to my blogs, it might be worth you reading ‘In Search Of The ‘Original’ King Arthur’, ‘Valentia – The Fifth Romano-British Province’,  and ‘Arthur – King or Commander’ blogs first).

There is no way of knowing what a Late (or Mid) 5th century Arthur was, if he ever existed, but there is always the possibility that, if he did, he could have been a provincial comes, dux or tribunus. This might sound odd and not seem possible to some who think of British Britannia as a fragmented, old Roman diocese ruled by ‘Celtic’ kings and petty kings (which it must have been in parts), but there are some eminent scholars, such as Ken Dark, Roger White, David Dumville and Nick Higham, who think that there could have been at least two of the five the British provinces still in existence, in some form, in the late 5th century and beyond. (Higham and Dark actually wonder if the whole diocese survived intact up until the mid-5th century at least, but with the former scholar thinking the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were in charge in at least two of them with a third paying tribute to them). If it was the case that they existed, then these provinces may have had some kind of provincial army, and this would probably have needed some kind of commander or general as their military leader, and not one of the kings … if it had them.

However, we should also keep in mind the thoughts of Neil Faulkner (The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain, 2004) and Chris Wickham (Framing the Early Middle Ages, 2006), whose interpretation of the evidence is that Britain almost completely fell apart c.375-425 and had to build itself backup again from scratch.  Also Stuart Laycock in Britannia The Failed State: Tribal Conflict and the End of Roman Britain (2008) and UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia (2010), written with Russell Miles, comes to a similar conclusion. This doesn’t mean Britannia couldn’t have built back up again, although not in a Roman material way, or re-united when needed. Also keep in mind Nick Higham’s theory, which may make the scenario I will explore here impossible.


First, a look at what these Late Roman military positions were. I’m very grateful to Robert Vermaat for letting me quote directly from his Fectio Late Roman reenactment website: ( )


When Constantine segregated the civil and military functions, the military commanders ceased to be civil governors (although in some cases there were exceptions). Provinces were henceforth commanded by praeses [governors] without military functions, while the troops were commanded by duces. There seems to have been no sharp distinction between comites and duces.

The comes (title) was originally a title (lit. meaning ‘companion’) for members of the entourage of the Emperor, not a rank. Later the title became known for several functions, both military as well as civilian. These functions were formalised by Constantine, by creating titles such as the comes sacrarum largitionum (finance minister), the comes domesticorum (commander of the protectores domestici).The military version of the title was the comes rei militaris, a vague title without a description of rank or importance, which could describe commands varying from minor frontiers to overall army command of a magister militum.
The comitatenses or field armies of a certain region [was] always commanded by a comes (such as the comes Britanniarum) and was therefore possibly higher in status than a dux. A comes, however could, like a dux, also command a regional army group, indeed like the comes Litoris saxonicum per Britannias (count of the Saxon shore) or even frontier sections (law codes prove the existence of a comes limitis). Comites could also command vexillationes of the mobile field army in the field.

The dux (rank) was originally a title (lit. meaning ‘leader’) of an officer acting in a temporary capacity above his rank, commanding a collection of troops in transit or in temporary command of a single unit. From the third century, a dux became a regular officer. After Constantine, the dux commanded the provincial troops (the comitatenses and palatini falling under the command of the magistri or comites). Such a command could encompass a (part of a) province (styled after the name of that province, such as the dux Aegypti) or even several provinces (such as the dux Britanniarum (duke of the Britains), who commanded the regions straddled by Hadrian’s Wall). Another name could be dux limitis, but these names were not standardised.
The dux ranked directly below the magister militum (but could appeal to the Emperor) and was responsible for the military protection of his own sector, including the military infrastructure, the collection and distribution of provisions and the military legal system. Valentinian I raised the duces from equestrian to senatorial status, which also reflects the ‘inflation’ of some military commands, which saw the replacement of several duces with comites during the fifth century. A dux probably received fifty annonae plus fifty capitus.


The tribunus (rank) was the commanding officer of a new-style unit, which could be a regiment of auxilia palatina or a numerus or anything in between. Tribuni of the scholae were commanded by the magister officiorum, but tribuni also commanded cavalry vexillationes, new-style auxilia regiments as well as the new-style legions of the field army, but also the old-style cohorts of the limitanei. By the mid-fifth century a tribunus might also be styled a comes, under the debasement of Roman military titles. By the sixth century a papyrus describes an old-style cohort commanded by a tribunus, eight senior officers including the adiutor (regimental clerk), the primicerius, six ordinarii and six others, probably the centuriones.
A so-called tribunus vacans was an officer temporarily without unit serving as a staff officer. These tribuni vacantes could also serve on special duties – when Ammianus was on a mission from Ursicinus to relieve the magister peditum Silvanus of his command (read “arrest him”), he and his nine fellow domestici were accompanied by several tribuni vacantes. And in Egypt, a tribunus civitatis might combine military and civilian duties, acting like a governor. Tribuni could also be in charge of barbarian groups, as the example of the Tribunus gentis Marcomannorum shows. We know of one Agilo who was a tribunus stabuli in 357. These men (later comes stabuli) were responsible for gathering levies of horses for the army. A tribunus probably received eight annonae (plus four capitus if cavalry).


(This latter position could, apparently, become a governor (as well as a comes), which we’ll discuss in Part Three. The bold type is by me, to indicate that even a civitas could have a tribunus/governor).

Now, I am not suggesting that any position in Late (or Mid) 5th century Britain would be exactly the same as that found in the late empire, but that it may have been something similar, using the Roman military names; just as 6th century inscribed stones in Wales have given us ‘protictor’ (protector), another Roman military rank, magister (magistrate or ruler), presbyter (priest) and medici (doctor), but the first two may have had a very differing meaning in Britain at the time. The genealogy of Demetia (Dyfed) also gives us a Triphun (Harleian MS 3859), which could be the Brittonic form of tribunus, although there is some doubt to this as it could be from the Welsh word tryffun, meaning “panting”. (My thanks to Christopher Gwinn via the Facebook King Arthur Group for that information). It is interesting that protictor (Dyfed), magister (Gwynedd), medici (Gwynedd) and Triphun (Dyfed) all occur in regions that were the least Romanised, especially Gwynedd, but would become more Romanise – or Latinised – after the Romans had left.

(For more information on inscribed stones of Wales: )

The Life of St Germanus also tells us that on his visit to Britain in 429, to tackle the Pelagian heresy, there was a man of tribunus rank and, as Nick Higham points out (The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century, 1994), Gildas in the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (DEB) mentions duces (the plural of dux) and he seems to imply that they could be both kings (tyranni or rex) and none-royal. Of course, Higham places Badon much earlier than others, 430×440 and, therefore, Gildas writing the DEB to 479×484. He also believes the ‘Saxons’ to have been the overall victors, and not the Britons and his conclusions leads him to deny the possibility of a figure of Arthur ever existing. Personally, I think, even under Higham’s theory, it doesn’t mean Arthur couldn’t have existed, he was just made into more than maybe he was. Most scholars, however, do not agree with Higham’s assessment of the evidence.

In Part Two we’ll look at what structure a British provincial army could have taken.

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



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