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‘King’ Arthur – Folklore, Fact & Fiction

eBook_CoverA European and Scandinavian arena tour, movie and TV series since my last blog, and I’m finally able to get down to trying and finish the ebook. If only I could stop finding more books, articles and papers on all the related subjects it would be finished by now!

The information it will contain, whilst based on these blogs, has expanded and morphed somewhat in the intervening months. Some of my opinions and conclusions have changed whilst others have been confirmed even more. It has been an incredible and ever educating journey, not only into all aspects of the figure that became known as King Arthur, but the period in general. I have read far more extensively on the subjects of the Anglo-Saxons as well as being helped by two of Guy Halsall’s books: Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West 450-900 and his latest, Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages. There have been many other works, too numerous to mention, that have helped me shape my ideas and come to an even more informed opinion … well, as informed as you can get about the Early Middle Ages.

The whole reason for these blogs, and then the book, were as an extremely detailed research document to assist me with a screen- or teleplay idea. In some ways it hasn’t helped at all as it’s given me even more options! However, there is no rush on that front as I don’t think it’s the right climate for yet another Arthurian TV production. When it is, I hope to be poised.

I am still planning to put online the chapter that looks at the Historia Brittonum and the infamous Arthurian battle list as a pdf document for a limited time. I’ve taken a slightly different approach to this subject and rather than trying to locate where any of the Arthurian battles may have occurred (if he existed and they happened,) I’m concentrating on where those in the different regions of Britain of the Early-9th century, when this worked appeared, may have thought them to have been?

It’s not all ‘history’ though, and Part One looks at the mythical or folkloric Arthur and whether or not he was inspired by an Arthur who fought at Badon; was a historicized mythical figure who became attached to Badon; , or if these two characters were related only in name, just as those Arthurs of the 6th and 7th centuries were: Artúr (Arturius) mac Áedán, Artúr mac Coaning, Arthur ap PedrArtúr filio Bicoir and, possibly, Arthur Penuchel. (I actually look at all the known ‘Arthurs’ from the 2nd to the 15th century).

Well, I can’t stay here all day blogging, I have a book to finish!

Thanks for reading,

Mak Wilson

 

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ARTHUR: KING OR COMMANDER?

ARTHUR: KING OR COMMANDER?

The title really should be ‘Arthur: King, Commander, both, or neither’, but it’s not quite as catchy.

Those not au fait with the Arthurian subject and the search for an historical 5th or 6th century figure will just assume Arthur was a king. The first you might have been aware of an alternative view would be the last King Arthur film, if you saw it.

The flip side of the coin is those who do study the subject and believe he wasn’t a king because the 9th century document, the Historia Brittonum (in all its various versions), doesn’t make it sound as if he was a monarch but only a “leader of battles”.  Some will also say that the early Welsh stories of Arthur never call him a king, but as we will see, they do far more than that.

For the sake of this discussion we will assume there was a late 5th century figure called Arthur who fought at the Siege of Badon.

The main problem, as I discussed in the Arthurian poetry blog, is knowing where the battle list in Historia Brittonum originated from. If it was from a poem, whether oral or written, it may not have been made explicit within it that Arthur was a king, whether he was or not. There are examples in later mediaeval Welsh poetry where the bard extolled the virtues of his king in verse but does not say he was a king, because he knows his audience is already aware of this fact. If we didn’t have the relevant genealogies we wouldn’t know they were kings either, and could come to the conclusion that they may just have been military leaders of some kind. The same could have happened to Arthur.

As for the early Welsh stories of Arthur not saying he was a king, we only have to look to the story of Culhwch and Olwen (c. 10th century) to see that he was called a pen tyrned: a leader/chief/head of rulers/princes/kings. They seem to be making him out to be is some overlord or High King. It is certainly not making him out to be just a leader of battles. The Welsh poem, ‘The Elegy of Geraint’ (c. 9th to 11th centuries), even calls him an “ameraudur”. This could literally be translated as “emperor” but it is also possible it means “commander” or “general”.

Of course, it can be argued that this was only down to the later storytellers wanting to make him into a character closer to the rulers of their own day. This is a very valid point. However, whoever gave Arthur the above title chose an unusual one. For example, they didn’t call him a Gwledig; which seems to have been the highest accolade for someone in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries: Emrys Wledig, Macsen Wledig, Urien Rheged (Wledig) and many more. There was only one poem – attributed to Taliesin but most likely a later bard – that calls Arthur by this appellation. (See THIS blog.)

The other reason why Arthur is assumed not to have been a king is because there are no (reliable) royal genealogies that name him. Those that do are either derived from the stories or could very well just be made up. (See THIS blog)

There were, of course, great swathes of eastern and central Britain that were lost to the Anglo-Saxons where any ‘King Arthur’ could have resided. The downside to this argument is the fact that all subsequent princes given the name are in the west, nearly all in Hiberno-British held areas or those of Hiberno-British descent. (See THIS blog)

At the time Arthur is supposed to have flourished there may have been a very blurred distinction between a powerful commander and a king. There’s also no certainty that the British would use a commander to lead their battles, even though this is what was happening in Europe This may depend on the state of the ex-Roman diocese of Britannia at this time. It is possible from both archaeological evidence and that given by the 6th century saint, Gildas, that some of the old provinces of Britannia still existed. If they, one one, did, having an overall military commander might have been the answer to stop any of the rulers that made up the province from taking the lead and using this power to their own advantage.

Nor can we determine what kind of commander he might have been; if he was one. By that I mean the general jumping to the conclusion that he had to have been a cavalry leader. He does not have to have been this. At the head of mounted warriors, yes, but they need infantry too, and many mounted warriors would fight on foot. It is thought that cavalry, of the Early Medieval style, were of use only in certain circumstances and were probably mainly used as weapons platforms – that is, high speed javelin throwers – or to cut down a retreating foe. We should keep in mind that, unlike in the glory days of the empire, horses were a little harder to come by and you were going to do whatever you could to safeguard your mount. There is also no British Early Medieval evidence of heavy cavalry.

Of course, a military leader could also be a dangerous figure and there’s no reason why such a person could have tried to make himself the overall ruler. Many powerful military leaders throughout history have gone on to assume political power. If Arthur was or went on to be some kind over over-king, it’s very doubtful that he would be given such a position. He would have won it through military power. That is unless there was a similar system to Ireland, which we have no existing evidence of.

Gildas tells us that Britain had rectores; this was the Roman term for a provincial governor, but it doesn’t mean that that’s what they were by the early 6th century. It could have been a bishop by Gildas’s time. He also tells us, through Biblical comparisons, that the five kings he verbally attacks in his polemic were steering their ‘pharaoh’ to destruction.

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

This ‘pharaoh’ could have been the rectore, he could have been a military commander or even over-king. Of course, he could be the devil.

Conclusions?

Can any conclusions as to what Arthur was be drawn form this? I don’t think so. The period, the evidence from Gildas and what was happening on the continent could mean that Arthur fulfilled any of these position, or even all at various points in his life.

This blog is not as in-depth as I normally make them but my work load has made this impossible. I’m hoping that through time, and comments from others, we’ll add to this debate.

Thanks for reading,

Mak

SINCE WRITING THIS I HAVE DONE ANOTHER RELATED BLOG, WHICH COVERS THE SUBJECT IN EVEN MORE DETAIL. CLICK HERE TO READ IT.

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2011 in King Arthur

 

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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Three

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

BATTLE OF THE CHILTERN BULGE?

What exactly was going on in those supposed British enclaves in the east … if that’s what they were? Were they also at peace? How would the ‘Saxons’ react in those areas that surround these enclaves after a defeat or defeats? It may depend on the treaty agreed. But what would stop them later on, after 20 years or so? These enclaves either had some serious military power or some kind of ‘friendship’ with the ‘Saxons’ There are theories that the Britons did indeed take back ‘Saxon’ territory.  John Morris puts it forward but so does Professor Howard Wiseman (who may be a physicist but his Early Medieval studies have been quoted by Snyder, Higham and Halsall).

For Howard it may be to do with the later ‘Saxon’ expansion and victories at Bedcanford (identified as Bedford) and other sites in 571, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ACS). These are generally thought to have been British enclaves taken by a newly formed West Saxons kingdom. However, this theory puts forward that after Badon (or even before) the British regained territory and this territory went beyond Bedford. Howard has given me permission to use two maps he created.

MAP ONE

Britain c. 530AD

MAP TWO

Britain c. 530AD (Based on map by Howard Wiseman)

(Maps used with kind permission of Professor Howard Wiseman.The page containing it can be found at http://www.ict.griffith.edu.au/wiseman/DECB/DECBbestest.html )

Howard explains MAP ONE thusly (with reference numbers removed):

“[...] this map descends into speculation in showing precise political boundaries in Britain at the time of Gildas. However, in many of these I have been guided by the work of the respected archaeologist and historian Ken Dark. I have also been guided by the distribution of archaeological sites [...] The names given to the Brittonic states are those of the corresponding Roman civitates when these are attested by post-Roman inscription, or by Gildas. When Roman names are not so attested, a Brittonic name is used. Some of these (Reged, Gwent, Glevissig) are well-attested in the early Middle Ages, while others (Calchvynydd, Barroc, Ebrauc) are only attested in later documents [...]”

On MAP TWO (with reference numbers removed):

“The above map was scanned from the 2000 book by Dark, which shows 5th and 6th century Germanic cemeteries in Britain. Of these I have erased those cemeteries which came into use only in the later 6th century, according to the maps of Morris. Then I have added Roman towns, villas, and forts for which there is archaeological or literary material indicating probable occupation after 490. The data for these sites are taken from the detailed descriptions in the 1998 book by Snyder, occasionally supplemented by Dark. An example of such archaeological evidence is the presence of coins of Emperor Anastasius (491-518), or datable Mediterranean pottery. An example of reliable literary evidence for occupation is that for Luguvalium (Carlisle), which still had a functioning Roman aqueduct and fountain in the late 7th century. These Germanic and Brittonic sites thus should give a picture of Gildas’ partitioned Britain (c. 530). As the map shows, Brittonic and Germanic sites do fall into reasonably distinct zones. There are a handful of small Germanic cemeteries in what I have judged to be Brittonic zones, and one Roman town, Lincoln (Lindum colonia), with evidence for continued occupation in what appears to be an Anglian zone.”

To read more, visit his web page, linked above. The one thing to note about these maps is, unlike Morris and Dark, they don’t take into account the gaps in settlements and cemeteries, so may give a false picture of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ rule or the true spread of their cultures. But, as Howard says in a personal correspondence, “I was aiming for the smoothest boundaries that would leave (more or less) all the Germanic evidence on one side and all the Romano-British evidence on the other”. They also don’t show areas that wouldn’t be up for settlement by either side, such as dense forrest, heath land or heavy clay areas. Possibly even areas that wouldn’t be settled on because of some superstition or another.  (I’ll deal with this later).  Another thing to note is where Howard has ‘Hill Forts Common‘ he means hillforts occupied at this time and not all Iron Age hillforts pe se. Most hillforts in what is now the borderlands (the Marches) of England and Wales were re-occupied in the Late  4th to Early 5th centuries, but it’s hard to find evidence for this occupation going beyond this.

Back to these late 6th century battles. Howard, quoting from the ASC, says:

“ASC for 571 (perhaps invented later to justify West Saxon territorial claims) Cuthwulf fought with the Britons at Bedcanford (Bedford), and took four towns, Lenbury, Aylesbury, Benson and Ensham. And this same year he died.” – (Howard’s brackets, not mine).

We know where Bedford (Biedcanforda) is … or we assume we know. Lenbury (Liggeanburh) is thought to be Limbury in the suburbs of Luton, although there is a Lenborough southwest of Bedford and northwest of Aylesbury. Aylesbury (Æglesburh) is southwest of Bedford (I used to work there). Benson (Bensingtun) is actually called Bensington and is just south of Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire and Ensham (Egonesham) is generally thought to be Eynsham, just northwest of Oxford. The first question is, if Cuthwulf, who supposedly led these battles, was West Saxon, what was he doing starting his battles in the east and moving west? The answer could be the ASC got the order wrong and Bedford was the last battle. However, it could be that he was from the east and pushed west, taking over West Saxon territory. We’ll never know, but it does make sense of the progression.

So, as opposed to a British enclave based on the Chilterns (later to become Saxon Cilternsætna) and one in the Bedford area, they postulate a ‘bulge’ or ‘corridor’ that was either never under ‘Saxon’ occupation in the first place or was was won back and extended from the Thames Valley, up the Chiltern Hills to and beyond Bedford before or after Badon. This would, of course, cut off some main lines of communication, including part of Watling Street, Icknield Way, the Fosse Way and some river basins from the ‘enemy’. This ‘bulge’ would almost reach St. Albans. Actually, these maps encompass St. Albans, which can’t be right if the shrines referred to (or one of them) was there … and one would think St. Albans’ shrine was. Once again I’m indebted to Howard for pointing me to the following …

“It has been commonly stated that Gildas here, when he talks of martyrs and the unhappy partition, implies that Verulamium and Carleon held shrines which were deprived to the Britons because of English occupation. A more careful reading of this passage shows that he implies no such thing. When he says “I refer to St Alban …, Aaron and Julius … and the others …”, he is clearly referring to martyrs (the history of which he was discussing before being briefly side-tracked into the state of Britain at his time). If he had been referring to their “graves or places where they suffered”, he would have said “I refer to Verulamium …, Carleon, … and other places”. Thus the passage simply implies that there was a partition with the English, and that they evidently held large parts of the country, but it contains no specific geographical information on which parts.”

See http://www.ict.griffith.edu.au/wiseman/DECB/DECBps.html#Martyrs

Howard added: “Regarding Verulamium and St Albans shrine, I haven’t had any luck convincing Chris Gidlow of this [...]”

Could they be right? The archæology (as far as I’m aware) doesn’t show ‘Saxon’ occupation (or culture) to the west of St Albans. If anyone has information to the contrary I’d be very interested to hear about it.

A look at the OS map of Roman Britain shows there are two Roman roads going east/west they could have pushed back on after Badon, if they did: that which goes from Bath (or Cirencester) via Silchester to London and the other northerly route that goes from Cirencester via Bicester to St. Albans. (Another goes north-south from Bicester via Dorchester-on-Thames to Silchester). Between these east/west routes lies the Thames Valley and the Chiltern Hills including the ancient trackway of the Icknield Way.

To have taken the region around Bedford as well may have meant heading north on the Bicester-Towcester road. This push could have joined isolated British enclaves. It makes absolute sense that the Britons would capitalize on a victory if they could, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough to comment on the details and the archæology that Morris, Dark or Howard put forward as possible evidence. It does make sense to these later battles defeating the Britons and the taking of the Chilterns, which was obviously in British hands, where no enclaves but a whole British swathe of territory. But, it also make equal sense that they were enclaves that the ‘Saxons’ strangled. If they were never ‘Saxon’ at this point then it puts a different complexion on the whole debate with the Britons always having the upper hand, as argued by Dark.

Another Theory

However, I will give another possible theory of the fight back that could explain this ‘corridor’ and the ‘peace’. Once Ambrosius started the resistance, a British rebellion began to happen, just like those in the Middle East at the moment. Anti ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (politcal, religious and cultural elements) could have been inspired to break out from their enclaves, or even within ‘Saxon’ regions. This could have happened in regions we’re not even aware of. If Ambrosius could have achieved some sought of unity, or, at the least, coordination, then these, along with pushes from the west and north, would have stretched and shaken the enemies.

Pushes from the west wouldn’t, of course, have been on a ‘front’ but through lines of communication: roads, tracks, river basins. This may not have pushed all elements ‘back’ but turned them into isolated enclaves whilst rejoining British (cultural) areas, making it harder for the enemy to created confederacies and limiting their travel. This, in turn, may have created refuges heading east. The Britons could also have placed their own rulers over some of the enemy territory taken, which may add to the idea of an extended peace. So the politcal map may not have looked like Howard’s above, but like the one on below. I’ve kept St Albans and London as an enclave but, as discussed above, it may not have been:

MAK’S MAP

Britain Post Badon (Mak) - Based on map by Howard Williams

This is just a very rough guess. There may have been more British enclaves in the east and southeast.  (In fact, Professor Ken Dark gives even more British areas than I do in the Midlands, based on the amount of inhumation and mixed inhumation/cremation areas: that’s the squares and star symbols). I’ve added known woodland (although there may have been more) in green and marsh/fen land in blue. I also overlaid a map of the clay soil areas of Britain (not shown here) and, with heavy clays in the Midlands, you could see why there may not have been much settlement there by either side. (Source: http://www.soilyourself.org/2011/02/soils-of-england-soils-of-great-britain.html )

I’d like to do a lengthy quote from the paper, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval (Rural) by Keith Wade ( http://www.eaareports.org.uk/Assessment%20post-Roman%20rural.pdf ). Date unknown.

“The large apparently unpopulated areas [of the east], especially in west Essex and Hertfordshire, have traditionally been explained as forest, but this may be too simplistic. There is an ongoing debate on the extent of post Roman woodland regeneration, but environmental evidence suggests that, at least in some areas, there was no large-scale woodland regeneration. The ongoing ‘extent of woodland’ debate is linked to the ‘surviving Romano-British population’ debate. The lack of Early Anglo-Saxon sites in west Essex, the Hunts part of Cambridgeshire, and Hertfordshire, has been explained as indicating a surviving Romano-British political entity with a small (initially) Germanic settlement ‘living in controlled circumstances on “Roman” settlements’ (Drury and Rodwell 1980), with surviving Romano-British populations that are invisible archaeologically. Others have explained the gaps as more to do with the difficulties of finding Early Anglo-Saxon sites [...] [Williams’] conclusions, however, were still that ‘there are signs that some land also went out of cultivation even on the lighter soils’ and ‘there was clearly a considerable contraction of land under cultivation in the post Roman period, with woodland growing up over abandoned farmland on the interfluve soils’ but that even ‘on the interfluves’ there is ‘some evidence of Saxon occupation, although whether such settlements were involved in the arable exploitation of these difficult soils is perhaps more doubtful’ (Williamson 1986, 127).”

I’d love to hear from anyone knowledgeable on the interpretation of both this evidence and the archæology for all these areas.  

(Since writing this I have read more on the work of Chris Wickham, Guy Halsall, Ken Dark and re-read Francis Pryor, I realise even more the complexity and varying interpretations of the data. However, what is clear, is how politically fragmented and lacking in elites most of the east appears and how even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sites, such as Mucking in Essex, are being reassessed).

I’m also not sure if this ‘bulge’ theory would harmonise with what Gildas tell us. One would also have to wonder what would convince the Cornovii (or Dobunni) to attack beyond their borders … if they did. The answer might be simpler for the Dobunni as they may have been trying to take some of their lost land back. The Cornovii, however may have wanted revenge for attacks on Chester and Bassa (if these Arthurian battles are, indeed, where some think them to be and if they ever happened). More land would also be a good reason. I think that these reasons would be above an altruistic one of ‘saving Britannia’, although saving themselves and their portion of their province might have had something to do with it. (Interestingly, Dark wonders if these two civitates are ones that were under Roman type administration rather than monarchy at this time).

There would bound to be different factions wanting different things, including some who might think, “The ‘Saxons’ are their problem. Let them sought it out!” Those ‘Saxon’ regions in the Midlands that found themselves isolated  (in this hypothesis) may have swapped sides to survive. (Plenty of evidence of that in history). The Britons could have shown, through their power and their action and, maybe, even through bluff by announcing how united they were though they may not have been in reality, that they were a force to be reckoned with.

None of this takes into account Nick Higham’s theory that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were the ones who had the upper hand after Badon and his assessment that this battle happened (and Gildas wrote) much earlier.

(See comments below)

HELLO SAILOR!

We also have no idea what sea power either side(s) had. If the Brits could, somehow, have taken control of at least some stretches of the southern and eastern coast, they may have been able to disrupt not only supplies, but immigration and export, for a while at least. There’s probably not such a strong argument for this, but it’s worth considering.

In the next blog we’ll look at just who the ‘enemies’ might have been, starting with the ‘West Saxons’/’Geuissae’ and the ‘West Angles’.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,

Mak

 

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