Tag Archives: Geoffrey of Monmouth

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A LAC of evidence?

Drawing of the Lucius Artorius Castus inscript...

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


English: "Jack the Giant-Killer" by ...

A giant step for mankind?

So, Arthur was seen as having a giant son and a giant dog by the 9th/10th centuries, but just how many of these sites existed before the this time we may never know. (If there had have been more in the northern half of Wales one would think they too would have been included in the Mirabilia). These two, and other later mentioned sites, certainly fit the superhuman or ‘giant’ of folk legend and not Arthur the soldier, apart from, perhaps the hillfort Moel Arthur (‘bare hill of Arthur’), but this Bronze Age hillfort’s Arthurian naming date is unknown. It was recorded before the 17th century as Moel Arthur so it wasn’t made up by the Victorians. (A record of the antiquities of Wales and its marches (vol 1)’, Cambrian Archaeological Assoc., 1850 pp.181-2). However, it also gets no mention in the H.B., so it’s likely to be after the 12th century.

What I have not seen expressed by Padel et al, is, as I explored in Part One, that the amount of sites named after this ‘giant’/superhuman Arthur are unique even for giants. Giants are very often a local character giving their names to local features. There were certainly plenty of giants in Wales. A look at The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings by Sion Dafydd Rhys (c. 1600) can show you just how many. (Read it at the Mary Jones’ website: ).

The one important point to make about the giants of Wales, as can be seen by the above mentioned work, is that they are nearly always named ‘gawr’, meaning, funnily enough, ‘giant’. Here are some (in no particular order): Gogyrfan Gawr (Gwenhwyfar’s da), Idris Gawr, Itta Gawr, Rica/Rhitta Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cribwr Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed and the place was renamed as Cribarth), Oyle Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cedwyn Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ceimiad Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ophrom Gawr, Ysbryn Gawr, Iwni Gawr, Gwedros Gawr, Howel Gawr, Llyphan Gawr, Pyscoc Gawr, Hedoc Gawr, Diddanel Gawr … and there are many more. (What we don’t know about these is if they had always been mythical or if some of them they were based on ancient figures of history). Yet there is not one instance of Arthur Gawr, only an Arthur seen as a giant slayer. So, did they think of him as a giant at all, or mainly a larger-than-life superhuman?

Him being seen in the landscape as a folkloric giant-killer could have been in response to the later Arthurian stories, or visa versa; yet, even after Arthur the soldier and king took root, post Geoffrey of Monmouth, still onomastic sites were been named in honour of this superhuman Arthur. Padel notes that sites were still being given his name in the 18th century following the ‘giant’ or superhuman Arthur lines (Padel, 2000, p.106). This is very interesting, considering that the later stories had gone away from this more mythical portrayal; he was now an all too human king … even if he did still fight giants. It seems it had simply become a tradition’ or was a separate tradition. Is this what happened very early on? Were there, even in the 7th and 8th centuries, two (or more) very different Arthurs in circulation?

If in doubt, blame the English!

Peoples of Britain circa 600

We also must not forget that the 7th to 10th centuries were a time when the kingdoms that were developing into Wales and Scotland were threatened (and in some areas dominated) by the ‘English’, notably the kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria.  Were the common folk (as opposed to the warriors) of the British areas of the period no different to a modern audience in times of crisis? Did they too like a good ‘fantasy’ (not that they saw it as a fantasy in the way we do) to take their minds off things, not a story about an all-too-mortal-human-sized soldier? (The oldest Arthurian Welsh stories that have survived make no mention of the ‘Saxons’, another reason given for Arthur not being historical). Was it a time when you’d want a supernatural or giant slaying hero on your side? A slayer of the ‘giant’ English? Make him Messianic and you even got a giant slaying hero who can come back and slay the Anglo-Saxons again … maybe.

These Arthurian sites (and local stories) could be argued to be as much in response to the threats from Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, and later Anglo-Normans, as well as later Welsh nationalism, than just because they were a good yarn about a possible ancient mythical or folkloric figure who was everywhere in Britain right from the get-go. The uncertain times could have spawned the amount of them in the areas once inhabited by the Britons, across the Isles. Once Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History was out and grew into the Arthurian Romances, so too the number of sites grew. Just because he was seen as being in all these places later in history, doesn’t necessarily mean he was in all these places in the 6th and 7th centuries, whether he was mythical or not.

What’s in a name?

If Arthur was mythical or folkloric we still have to account for a British figure being given what seems to be a none British name, as most etymologist agree that Artorius is the best candidate with no British or Irish etymology working (so far) to make ‘Arthur’. (See THIS blog). In fact, not only a none-British name but not even a Romanized version of a British name, which is what was given to the known British deities. (Unless Higham is right about it being a decknamen). If, for example, he was named *Arto(s) (Bear), he should become something like Mars Artos to the Romano-British or the Roman soldiers who adopted him. The other possibility is from the star and Greek mythical figure, who was called Arcturus in Latin. However, we’d still be looking at the British taking a Latin named mythical figure for one of their own. But this is a subject all of its own and we’ll look in more depth at these later.

I’ll finish this part with a quote from Juliette Wood in the book A Companion to Arthurian Literature:

“The use of folklore in works such as chronicles reveals a great deal about cultural attitudes and about the interpretations writers wish to convey (Wood 1998). Insofar as it is possible to talk about an original Arthur, he seems to have been a hero of legend without a clear genealogy or location (Padel 1994; Green 2007). One of the many contentious aspects of sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work or the Arthurian romances is the degree to which popular beliefs and oral tradition about a legendary hero contributed to the creation of a symbol of medieval kingship and courtly virtue. Geoffrey seems to have favored elements that allowed him to present Arthur as historical and realistic. He did, however, incorporate traditions about giants, such as the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, whom Arthur has to defeat. Encounters between heroes and giants are frequently localized at unusual landscape features, and heroes themselves are often depicted as gigantic, larger than life figures (Padel 1991; Grooms 1993: 79–110). The location of the narratives and the confrontations between giant and hero follow a traditional legendary pattern, but the relation between traditional and learned lore is never simple.”

In Part Five I want to look at Arthur the soldier and explore the various arguments as to whether he was a historical or mythical soldier.

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



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


Arthur's Seat

If Arthur was, indeed, a 5th/6th century figure, subsequence stories, folktales, poems and especially topographic and onomastic sites named after him haven’t helped his historical case much. (Neither have Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Saints Lives, the Welsh Triads or the other Romantic Arthurian medieval writers). It is the earliest stories and poems (of the Welsh) and geographical sites (over 50 spread across Britain with the name association alone – ‘A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain’, Ashe, 1980,) that are used as part of the evidence against a historic Arthur … that and the lack of any contemporary or even near contemporary writer naming him.  But we should keep in mind that many of these sites are little understood … or even datable. It can very often be assumed that all these are extremely ancient when, in fact, we know many not to be. Scott Lloyd, in posts via Arthurnet, has explained how many of these sites may certainly post-date Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Historia Regum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of Britain) of the early 12th century and may be inspired by his work; he related how Arthur appears to have gone out of fashion in Wales during later Medieval times – apart fro being fleetingly referred to in a few poems – as well as the 17th/18th century (especially during the Civil War) and many an onomastic or topographical Arthurian site may date to even after this when Welsh nationalism and antiquarianism began to flourish. But it also cannot be denied that even by the 9th century, and possibly before, a mythical or folkloric Arthur existed. (For an excellent PDF gazetteer on these sites, by Thomas Green, go to, . This also gives a brief outline of Green’s arguments).

To quote Padel:

“What interests us, and is so impressive, is not the antiquity of any individual name, but the vitality and consistency of the tradition in the various Brittonic areas … The folklore may in some cases have been boosted by the literary developments … [but] it remained largely unaffected by the literary Arthurian cycle, and retained its character throughout the period.” (‘Nature of Arthur’, pp. 27 and 29-30. – from Green’s ‘A Gazetteer of Arthurian Onomastic and Topographic Folklore’.)

But it is also Arthur’s uniqueness in the amount of sites named after him and their dispersal that gives rise to questions, but he is not entirely alone. The only other ancient British figure to come close in the British Isles is the 6th century saint, Illtud (Illtyd), and even he pales into insignificance (Gidlow, 2010). But this may not be surprising given both Arthur’s later fame, especially in Wales and Cornwall and to a lesser degree Scotland, with everyone wanting to claim him, and the use of the name in the 6th to 8th centuries in what is now western Scotland and southwest Wales. It has become almost impossible to tell just which (or what kind of) Arthur these sites were named after.

From Man to Myth

There is a later historical figure who we might be able to compare him with (if Arthur was historical) and that is Oliver Cromwell. His named sites include: two Cromwell Hills (Bedfordshire and Essex), Cromwell’s Cutting (Devonshire), Oliver’s Battery (Hampshire), Cromwell’s Stone (Lancashire), Cromwell Tower (London), Cromwell Bridge (Lancashire), Oliver’s Mount (Yorkshire), Oliver’s Point (Shropshire). This from a man whom a great deal of the country hated and who fell out of favour after his death; yet still these sites remained. There’s even a Cromwell Street in Northampton that still believes in ‘Cromwell’s Curse’, almost 400 years after the event ( ). There are some who think the Cerne Abbas Giant is a parody of Cromwell, and not an ancient site. (Medieval writings making no reference to it –

So, imagine if there were only these sites and only a poem about Cromwell’s battles (7 major ones in all … a Biblical number). Then imagine what would be the case if he was seen in a more favourable light by all, or if his misdemeanours had been forgotten? Or if he had been a Dark Age figure? Would he too have been seen as a mythical giant who won battles in Britain and Ireland?

We also shouldn’t forget just how easy it used to be (and in some ways still is) to mythologize someone … and how quickly. Look what happened to William Wallace, Scottish hero and star of the film Braveheart. He was made into someone else by his very first writer, Blind Harry the Minstrel (although he wasn’t blind!) 172 years after Wallace’s death. He turned him, knowingly or not, from the son of a lord into the son of a farmer – from the son or Lord Alan Wallace to the son of a Malcolm Wallace, a much more Scottish name – missing out Bill’s spell as a thief. (Had an ancient document not recently have been found, we’d never have known this). Then, a couple of centuries later and he’s given a wife (no record of him having one) who is killed by the English, so he needs his revenge. Then they miss out his fellow commander at Falkirk (who died form his wounds) and turn Bill into the only hero, and a huge sword turns up to show he was a giant of a man … even though the sword was a 15th century one, made from three or four swords. Scotland needed a hero, and they chose Wallace to hang the legends off. Had he not been captured (by other Scot lords who saw him as a bit of an lowly upstart and not needed after he lost a battle) and killed the way he was by the English, he may never have become what he did. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great brave commander and charismatic man, but he wasn’t what he was made in to. (See, The Myth of William Wallace. A Study of the National Hero’s Impact on Scottish History, Literature and Modern Politics, Wallner, 2003).

The Welsh of the 9th century needed a hero too and chose the Briton, Arthur; who, like William Wallace, may not have been as great as he was turned in to … if he existed. It is interesting that he was chosen here, yet not for the 10th century poem Armes Prydein (more on that later). It could have been because they needed a far ranging hero (real or not) who was known not just as a Welsh warrior hero but a British one, that would appeal to those of the north and the south. A call to arms to unite, as they once (supposedly) had been in order to defeat the ‘Saxons’.

Back at the sites …

Even if these Arthurian onomastic and topographical sites are all based on a mythical or folkloric Arthur, this in itself is unique. For example, you don’t get the same thing happening with Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) of Ireland, who some say is Arthur’s Irish mythical equivalent. Even the Giant’s Causeway in Ulster, which the giant Finn is said to be partially responsible for, doesn’t bear his name in Gaelic and is called Clochán na bhFórmorach: ‘stepping stones of the Fomorians’. His only named site (that I could find) is Cath Fionntragha (Battle of Fionn’s Strand), which is in Ventry, Co. Kerry. There are the mountains of Scurr a’ Fionn Choir on the Isle of Skye and Fionn Bheinn in the Highlands of Scotland but whether these relate to the mythical character or just mean ‘fair’ I couldn’t say. (More on Finn later). In fact, you don’t get any other mythical or historical figure having this effect on the landscape. (The nearest mythical figure to him would be the god Woden, and even he doesn’t appear to have as many! – my thanks to historian Jonathan Jarret for pointing Woden out in the comments below). The one other (adopted) British god figure whose name is found in a few places in Scotland (Lochmaben), Wales (Llanfabon, Rhiwabon) and his namesake in Cornwall (St Mabyn) is Mabon (‘Divine Son’), son of Modron (Divine Mother). She is the Gallo-Brittonic goddess Matrona and he Maponos; but at least he is known from two Roman inscriptions as Apollo Maponus from the Roman fort of CORSTOPITVM (Corbridge, Northumberland).

Yet even Mabon doesn’t get around as much as Arthur; but for all Arthur’s diverse locations, from Scotland to Cornwall and all points in between, no one has found an Arthur cult or inscription, of any kind. How can this be if he was the most famous mythical figure even when the Romans were in Britannia (as some argue)?  They could, of course, just not have been found yet, or he was folkloric and not mythical. If he was an ancient folk hero, as envisaged by Padel and Higham, then he’s not going to leave this kind of dedication. But his diverse geographical locations could be less (or not just) to do with a mythical/folkloric status and more to do with popularity.

If anyone does find a MARS ARTURVS (or the like) dedication it would answer a lot of questions. But would it necessarily follow that it would mean an Arthur of Badon didn’t exits? (More later).

In Part Three we’ll look in more detail at giants, giant killers and these Arthurian sites, and who might have been naming them? as well as a look at the ancient tale of a boar hunt.

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



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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part One (Introduction)

I actually can’t believe I’m tackling this subject, but here goes …


Whether the figure of Arthur was a historicized mythical or folkloric figure or a mythologized or folkloric man has been debated and written about numerous times, some might say ‘to death’. There’s not much point writing about the subject again unless something new can be brought to the discussion, and that’s what I hope to do at points in this twelve part blog. If I am, accidentally, reiterating what others have said I apologise in advance. I also apologise for not covering everything, but if I did, this would turn into a book! It’s already 20,000 words!

In these blogs the legends I will mainly be referring to are those of the Welsh, which predate those began by the Anglo-(Breton)-Norman Geoffrey of Monmouth (early 12th c) who first made Arthur famous outside Wales and Cornwall, by at least two hundred years. The King Arthur and his famous knights of the roundtable, the Holy Grail and his battles around Europe all came to light between the 12th to 15th centuries, and it will be these stories most will be aware of. The earlier, Welsh tales and poems are, in general, about a very different superhero, who fights – or battles through his men – witches, giants and the Otherworld, but there does appear to be ‘Arthur the Soldier’ in amongst them.

Personally, I have waxed and wained over the years between the one possibility and the other as I have read the various arguments. When I joined the group Arthurnet, I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. Before embarking on this ebook I was about 65% (if a percentage could ever be given!) in favour of the likelihood that the original Arthur was a 5th and 6th century figure of some description … but, who knows, that could swing the other way at some point. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of this. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.

. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of these blogs. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.

What may help a little is that I’m agnostic. It doesn’t really matter to me whether Arthur really existed or not. I have no nationalistic tendency to want him to have been from what are now England, Scotland, Wales or even Ireland. None of these existed at the time. What I do want is a fair ‘hearing’, so to speak. I will try and do what Christopher Snyder does when he says

My own contributions on the scholarship of Arthurian origins have been attempts to establish a middle ground between academic skepticism and unbridled lay enthusiasm”. (A history of Arthurian scholarship,  Lacy, 2006, p.13).

Although I am in the “lay” camp, of course! There is another quote from Mr. Snyder to keep in mind:

 “ [...] academic historians, playing by the rules of our disciplines, can say little of value about Arthur.” (The Britons,   Snyder, 2003, p.94)

I can go further than a professional historian, but I will endeavour to keep the rules of their disciplines in mind.

Hit of Myth?

First a few ‘for and against’ quotes:

 “Drawing on the postmodern theory of Jean Baudrillard, it is possible to interpret Arthur as a simulacrum – that is, as a copy which has no original. The textual Arthurs that survive are reformatted copies of earlier ideas of Arthur, referring always to each other but never to an originary Arthur, since such a person cannot be identified or retrieved.” (A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Helen Fulton, 2009, p.16)

“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. (Christopher Gidlow in his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’, 2010, p.193)

“This is not the stuff of which history can be made. The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books” (David Dumville, 1977, p.188).

“I disagree, however, with those skeptics who believe there is proof that Arthur is pure fabrication. Theories that trace his origins to mythology or folklore are as unconvincing as those that ‘prove’ his historicity.” (Christopher Snyder, ‘The Britons’, 2003, p.94)

Thomas Charles-Edwards conclusions about the Historia Brittonum were:

At this stage of the enquiry, one can only say there may well have been an historical Arthur [...] but “[...] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him” (1991. p.29).

[Arthur is] above all else [...] a defender of his country against every kind of danger, both internal and external: a slayer of giants and witches, a hunter of monstrous animals — giant boars, a savage cat monster, a winged serpent (or dragon) — and also, as it appears from Culhwch and Preiddeu Annwn, a releaser of prisoners. This concept is substantiated from all the early sources: the poems Pa Gur and Prieddeu Annwn, the Triads, the Saint’s Lives, and the Miribilia attached to the Historia Brittonum [...] in early literature he belongs, like Fionn, to the realm of mythology rather than to that of history.” (R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans (edd.), ‘Culhwch and Olwen. An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale’ (Cardiff, 1992), pp. xxviii-xxix)

That is the question?

First we have to define what the correct question is. To ask, “Did Arthur exist?” will illicit the response, “Which Arthur? King Arthur of Malory, of Wace, of Chrétien, of Layamon, of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or ‘William’ the author of the Breton Legend of St. Geoznovius. Or Arthur of the 9th century Historia Brittonum (H.B.), or of the 10th century Annales Cambriae (A.C.); or do we mean Arthur of the early Welsh stories or the early Welsh poetry?” So, the question I will pose is: “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?”

That’s just your opinion!

Opinion as to whether the figure that became the legend of King Arthur was based on a historical person or not, or whether he was one of the other slightly later known historical Arthurs, has vacillated over the decades and centuries between ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’. Today, some of those scholars firmly in the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp are David Dumville (1977), Oliver Padel (2000), Nick Higham (1994, 2002) and Thomas Green (2001-2007), following Padel. Those in the ‘historical’ camp (to varying degrees) who look to a possible 5th century Arthur would be Christopher Snyder (2003, 2006), Christopher Gidlow (2004, 2010) and Francis Pryor (2004) … with many a lay historian added to that list. The original as the 6th century prince Artúr mac Áedán of Dal Riata (Dalriada) is put forward by Richard Barber (1972) following suggestions by Norma Chadwick, but also the lay historian David F. Caroll (1996) with 6th century king of Demetia (Dyfed), Arthur ap Pedr, only forwarded by Dr. Ken Dark (2000). Both the Early-7th century Arthur ap Bicoir and Arthur ap Pedr have been explored by August Hunt, but he has since rejected them in favour of the Late-6th century Arthur Penuchel (2011). (Many of you may be unaware of these other Arthurs, and if you’d like to know more about them before reading further, see THIS blog; although they will be discussed here).

It could be argued that some lay historians (and professional historians!) haven’t helped a historical Arthur’s case much either by the way they’ve argued for him, and it is mainly the academic scholars who argue against his existence that put the best cases. (In this respect I hope not to make things worse!). The academic who, to me at least, has made the best case for the possible existence of a historical figure called Arthur (as opposed to someone else who became known as Arthur, such as Riothamus or Ambrosius Aurelianus) is Christopher Gidlow, but even he hasn’t explored the folkloric aspects in detail.

It should be noted from the start that both Nick Higham and Thomas Green had concluded that Arthur didn’t exist before beginning their books on the subject. Higham had concluded this in his book on Gildas’s 6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae (DEB): ‘The English Conquest- Gildas and Britain of the fifth century’ (1994). This is because he sees the evidence showing that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ where the ones in charge after Badon, and not the Britons, so there was no place for an Arthur character. Green, in Concept of Arthur (2007), follows Padel’s folkloric Arthur theory and had been writing about this online for a number of years, long before the publication of his book. If you start from those assumptions, or rather conclusions, in a book then you are approaching the subject in the same way as those who start from the assumption that he did exist. The book is there to prove your point. That doesn’t mean what is explore in their books is worthless! Far from it, they are excellent in their ways. It also doesn’t mean they’re wrong, and I bow to their superior knowledge, it does mean this should be kept in mind.

If one looked at the early Welsh material alone, one might have to conclude that Arthur was either mythical or folkloric and Padel does make a very important point in his book, ‘Arthur Of Welsh Literature’ (2000): many (not all) who accepted Arthur as a historical figure (or that he shouldn’t be dispelled as one) do so without considering this Welsh, Cornish and Scottish mythical or folkloric Arthur and the questions these stories and poems throw up with regards to his historicity. I hope not to be one of those and will face these full on in these next (shortish) ten blogs.

So, that’s the introduction. In Part Two we’ll look at Arthur in the landscape of Britain and the possible mythical or folkloric origins, as well as some possible later historical comparisons.

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


PS: Just in case there are folk out there thinking, “he’s writing ‘a historical’ instead of ‘an historical’, the former is correct. The only time to use ‘an’ is before a word with a silent ‘h’, like ‘honour’. In the past when I’ve used ‘an’, it’s out of habit.


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

To do the subject justice, I’m afraid this has become a seven part blog!

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

The (wonderful!) map above isn’t quite correct in its placement of some of the northern tribes and will be updated soon, but I wanted to get this blog out this weekend.


What if Arthur were dux (or one of the other ranks) of Britannia Prima (II of the map)? This province (which, unlike in this version of provincial placements, could have got up to the Mersey and included North Wales) could have existed in its immediate post Roman form, or, it could have shrunk by fragmentation. Most scholars see this province of the Late Roman period with the more Romanised Britons to the east (in the Lowland or Civil Zone) and the less Romanised to the west (in the Highland and Military Zones), as based on the archaeology. However, they appear to have taken to Roman material goods and Latin inscribed stones after the Empire had departed, possibly through the influence of Roman Christianity, but possibly for other reasons too, which I’ll explore below.

Most argue that it is kings of this province who Gildas refers to in DEB. Ken Dark puts forward the possibility of three eastern civitates of this province surviving in a more ‘Roman’ form, under some kind of administration (DobunniCornovii and Silures as Gwent) whilst the rest were ruled by kings (petty kingdoms with an over-king) and Nick Higham and David Dumville, in general, agree. It could have been only these three civitates that made up the province, one of which Gildas was in. Or, conversely, if Higham’s theory is right, the more westerly kingdoms could have made up the province, as he certainly sees the Dobunni and Cornovii as tribute payers to the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. But, they all could still have been part of it even if the two or three of its civitates were having to do so. (The provinces could also have been only in name with no real political power).

(There are two very opposing views with regard Dobunni and Cornovii given by Christopher Gidlow (Revealing King Arthur, 2010), who sees the archaeology pointing to these two being a major force against the east, and Nick Higham, who sees the Cornovians as being weak and both civitates being tribute payers. Right there is a perfect example of the problems on agreement with this period in general. Not to mention that one sees the evidence pointing to Arthur existing and one not.)

The sum of all parts?

With a province made up of so many parts (if it still was), and that would be around 8 (major ones) that we know of, it’s hard to know how they would agree to a provincial army and its dux without the Empire there to enforce it. (Unless it did have an over-king, such as the later king Maglocunus/Mailcun/Maelgwn, to enforce this?). Each civitates and kingdom could have been obliged to supply men, as explored earlier, or, the dux could have had bucellarii (of Hibernians?) as his personal force making him slightly independent of them but able to be supplemented by them. Or, the most powerful and dominant civitas or kingdom chose the dux or general … or it was done on a rotational basis. All these points go for the northern provinces too.

With either Irish feoderati, laeti, settlers or Goidelic speaking Britons in many western parts of this province (northern Dumnonia, Demetia and northwest Venedota), it could be they who were used to supplement the Britons. If Arthur was a general of mixed race (or a Goidelic speaking Briton) it might go some way towards explaining why it was one of these regions (Demetae/Demetia) that may first have reused the name, followed by others in the north, as I explored in THIS blog … if, indeed, that is was reused and Arthur ap Petr (King Arthur of Demetia) wasn’t the ‘original’ himself.

There are suggestion by Dark (2003) and Stuart Laycock (2010) that it was this province that was courted by the Western and later Byzantine Empire in a reversal of fortunes – which is why ‘Roman’ material goods are found within it, especially at Tintagel – and it was Dumnonia and perhaps other Britannia Prima elements that supplied the king, Riothamus and his supposed 12,000 men to fight for the failing western Empire in Gaul in the 470s. If the figure of 12,000 men is anywhere near the truth (and it may not be) this is a huge force. Whether they were all Britons (or just Britons from Britannia) is another question, but, either way, he was commanding (or in charge of with a commander?) a large force, and an army of this size, or even part of it, couldn’t have come form one kingdom or civitas. (David Dumville (2003) thinks southern Britain may have been his base).

If there was this coordination (or cooperation) in the 460s/470s, (again, possibly instigated by Ambrosius Aurelianus) enabling a single king to command this many Britons, there’s the possibility that it could have still been there in the 490s where most place the Siege of Badon … although the fact that Riothamus was defeated could have had a major impact on the following decades, depending on how many of those 12,000 were lost, or simply didn’t return to Britannia. We can only guess as to what this defeat (yet another one after Magnus Maximus and Constantine III) did to the morale of the British.

(There’s always the haunting question of how a British king could afford to take this many men abroad (if he did) during a time when we were supposed to be suffering attacks from the ‘Saxons’. Of course, there could have been a peace at the time, but it’s not out of the question that some of his men were Saxo-Britons or other Germanic elements).

As an aside: imagine if we’d never heard of Riothamus via the Continental sources and only from a legend that told us how a British king (who left no British genealogy) fought alongside Romans in the 470s with 12,000 men? We’d probably think he was only a myth. The same would go for Ambrosius Aurelianus had Gildas not mentioned him. (I’m not a supporter of Riothamus=Arthur or Ambrosius=Arthur, by-the-way, but I always keep an open mind).


Looking at where those Arthurian battles are placed by those who champion a Britannia Prima Arthur (North Wales, South Wales East Wales, Somerset, Cornwall, Devon), they range from being localised as civil war battles or against Hibernians (Blake and Lloyd) to having him fighting deep within ‘Anglo-Saxon’ territory. (Rodney Castledon, 2000/2003). There is, of course, a Camlan in northwetern Wales (Afon Gamlan); there’s a Camelford in Cornwall, a Killbury (Celliwig, Celliwic, Kelliwic, KelliwigKelli Wig?) in Cornwall, a Gelliweg (Celliwig, Celliwic, Kelliwic, KelliwigKelli Wig?) on the Llŷn Peninsular, as well as a Guinnion (Cerrig Gwynion), which is an old Iron Age hillfort between Llandudno and Bangor … not to mention the not far away hillfort of Bwrdd Arthur. Chester or Caerleon (City of Legions?) and Badon (if it is where some suggest) lie within or in the border region of this province. But we shouldn’t be surprised to find such names like Camlann or Gwynion here. Not because Cornwall and Wales have a huge Arthurian tradition (which, of course, they do) but because their languages derived from Brittonic and these names may not be that uncommon.


There’s the poem ‘The Elergy of Gereint son of Erbin’, said to be fought at Llongborth and, whichever location you go with, it would most likely be in this province. Here are a couple of verses:

In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s Heroes [men] who cut with steel.

The Emperor [ammherawdyr] ruler of our labour.

In Llongborth Geraint was slain,

A brave man from the region of Dyvnaint [Devon],

And before they were overpowered, they committed slaughter.

(There are arguments that, if this really happened, this may have involved Arthur’s men only, or a unit named after him, and not necessarily Arthur. (Gidlow, 2010).

No other surviving early poetry (if, indeed these poems are early) gives Arthur a (possible) geographical location … this is excluding the Triads, which do.


It is most likely either a Geoffrey of Monmouth invention, or a Cornish one, but he, of course, places Arthur’s conception at Tintagel (Din Tagel), and calls him ‘The Boar of Kernyw‘. However, there may have been a number of Kernyw/Cornows in this province in the 5th century, including Cornovii (Cornow) and one in central Wales, beside the one that gave its name to Cornwall (Kernow), and it may not have come from an ancient source at all.

In Part Six we’ll look at the eastern provinces and conclusion on all this will appear in Part Seven.

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



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


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Baillie’s Comet & Gildas

Image of comet C/1996 B2 (Hyakutake), taken on...

Halley's Comet

Some years ago Professor Mike Baillie brought out a book called ‘Exodus to Arthur: Catastrophic Encounters with Comets’ (Batsford, 1999). As Wikipedia says: “[it] relates the findings of his tree-ring studies to a series of global environmental traumas over the past 4400 years that may mark events such as the biblical Exodus, the disasters which befell Egypt, collapses of Chinese dynasties, and the onset of the European Dark Ages.” But he also relates it to Arthur and even the Grail. In his latest book, New Light on the Black Death: The Cosmic Connection (Tempus, 2006), he explains how the tree-ring and Greenland ice core evidence and descriptions in annals, myths and metaphors adduced in support of the global environmental downturn at AD 540, which included the Justinian plague, also applies to conditions extant at the time of the Black Death in AD 1348. He went a little far with his ‘Arthurian’ connections (IMHO) so I will just concentrate instead on these finding and how they might relate to the writing of the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) by Gildas in the 6th century.

When I first heard of this, and this event’s dating, and that of when Gildas is thought to have written, it made me wonder why Gildas wouldn’t seize on such a event of Biblical proportions and use it in his writing? Did this mean he had to have written before, or well after this event? Or was this a case of him having waited 10 years before completing and ‘publishing’ his work, as he tells us in the DEB?


First, the event. To do the information justice, I would like to quote part of Professor Baillie’s paper on this ‘540 event’, missing out the Arthurian and Grail stuff, to help clarify exactly what the issue is here. You can skip passed it if you wish. You can also download a PDF version of it at the following URL:

M G L Baillie School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University, Belfast

I recognize that going into a field such as Celtic myth is much like going into a card game where all the other players are experts at the game. There is a good chance of the outsider, me, coming to grief. The only real defence I have for sitting down with the experts – the Celtic scholars – is the fact that I do have access to a body of precisely-dated information that never existed before; the results of several decades of tree-ring studies. This means that I come to the card game, not so much with an ace, but, at least, with a joker. I therefore feel confident that I can take at least one ‘trick’.

The Background

In the early-mid 1980s the tree-ring group in Belfast completed one of the worlds longest tree-ring chronologies (Pilcher et al 1984) (At that time there were only five really long regional chronologies in the world; three for oak, namely Ireland, North Germany and South Germany, and two for bristlecone pine from the western United States). Not long after the Irish chronology was completed back to 5289 BC it was discovered that if the chronology was interrogated for narrowest ring events (points in time where numbers of trees from different sites exhibited their narrowest growth rings at the same time) the dates 3195 BC, 2345 BC, 1628 BC, 1159 BC, 207 BC and AD 540 dropped out of the bog-oak chronology (Baillie and Munro 1988). The initial hypothesis was that these abrupt environmental downturns were due to the effects of explosive volcanic eruptions. This hypothesis held up fairly well until the early 1990s when it began to become clear that some of the events were complex and did not seem to conform to what one would expect from point events such as big volcanic eruptions.

Moreover, volcanologists repeatedly pointed out that the environmental effects of even a big volcano should be over in a few years because volcanoes inject material up into the atmosphere from whence it washes out in a relatively short time. So some of the tree-ring events which appeared to last for longer periods – five, ten even eighteen years – did seem to be out of step with conventional wisdom on volcanic effects (Pyle 1989). This was most apparent with the so-called AD 540 event that seemed to span 536-545. As interest developed in the environmental event, which must have been responsible for the narrow rings in the oaks, it became apparent that the event was not restricted to oaks; the rings for 536 and 541 were singled out by temperature sensitive pine chronologies from Northern Sweden and the Sierra Nevada as among the coldest in 1500 years (Baillie 1994). Subsequently the rings immediately around AD 540 indicated reduced growth in chronologies from Siberia through Europe, to North America, to Argentina. Thus dendrochronology hinted strongly at a global environmental downturn. Moreover, there appeared to be no equivalently severe and widespread event anywhere between 540 and the present. The happening at 540 therefore had to be highly unusual.

It was quickly ascertained that other scientists had noted happenings in AD 536. There were descriptions by several Mediterranean writers of a dim-sun event in 536-7 which volcanologists Stothers and Rampino (1983) had ascribed to a major volcanic eruption. For China, Weisburd (1985) had pointed out the catastrophic cold and famines in 536 and the following two years. Interestingly no one had ever previously noticed anything untoward at 540-1-2. So, by the early 1990s a combination of historical sources and dendrochronology hinted at a two-stage environmental event; could it have been a doublet – namely two large volcanic eruptions happening about four years apart with perhaps a re-enforcing effect? However, one had to ask, if that had been the case why was there no reference to the second dust veil, why were the records so quiet on what happened in the early 540s? It was also noted that the plague of Justinian, which seems to have originated in about 540, broke out with a vengeance in 542. Could there be some link between the environmental happenings around 540 and the outbreak of this severe plague?

In order to preserve the (then) current paradigm, various scenarios were envisaged wherein more than one large volcano had erupted in a short space of time, or that there existed a class of volcanoes that were more environmentally effective than those we have witnessed in recent centuries. However, by 1993, revelations about the dating of layers of volcanic acid in the Greenland ice in the vicinity of the AD 540 event – or rather the revelation that there were no acid layers dating to the years around AD 540 – meant that the volcano hypothesis was starting to look thin. This combination of factors allowed a new paradigm to be contemplated – was it possible that the serious global environmental event around AD 540 was not due to a volcano or volcanoes, but rather was due to the next most likely cause of a global environmental event i.e. some loading of the atmosphere from space? In 1994 the first tentative hint of this paradigm shift was published in the journal The Holocene (Baillie 1994). Within a short time it was discovered that three British astrophysicists had published a prior hypothesis, back in 1990 (Bailey, Clube and Napier 1990), in which they had proposed that the period between AD 400-600 had been a period of risk of bombardment by comet debris. It may interest readers to see exactly what the astrophysicists said. They were reviewing the hazard represented by the earth running into swarms of comet debris. They said,

“Overall, it seems likely that during a period of a few thousand years, there is the expectation of an impact, possibly occurring as part of a swarm of material, sufficiently powerful to plunge us into a Dark Age.”

They went on to say,

“The occurrence of Tunguska-like swarms in recorded history is therefore expected. Thus we expect a Dark Age within the last two thousand years.”

They then suggested that the incidence of meteor showers represented the best guide to when such bombardments might have taken place and they singled out two periods namely AD 400-600 and AD 800-1000. Thus these workers provided target date ranges for a hazard from space and our AD 540 event fell neatly into one of them. From a scientific viewpoint this juxtaposition of a prior hypothesis and a contemplated new paradigm has a chilling resonance.” In 1994 the scientific community witnessed the impact of some twenty fragments of the broken up comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 ploughing into the giant planet Jupiter with devastating effect. For those not familiar with those events back in July 1994, some of the impacts were in the 10 million megaton to 100 million megaton range – such impacts are now generally known as dinosaur killers, i e they were of the same magnitude as the impact some 65 million years ago that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs after a successful evolutionary run of about 150 million years.

The dendrochronolgy for Britain, Ireland and other European and Scandinavian countries, as well as other reports from around the world, and the sulphur spike in the ice core, show something major happened, which seems to point to a volcanic event rather than cosmic … unless they got both. The two year duration the ice cores show ties in with what John of Ephesus reports in 535:

“The sun was dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months; each day it shone for about four hours; and still this light was only a feeble shadow [...] the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes.”

We have reports from Constantinople (John of Lydus) Mesopotamia (John of Ephuesus) and Carthage (Prokopius) of crop failure and famine as well as “failure of bread” in Ireland and famine in China, Japan and Korea; all in 536/7 (China had snow in July and August ). There’s also the entry in the Annales Cambriae (A.C.) of plague in Britain and Ireland, and plague very often leads to famine, or comes after it. Severe drought shows up in ice caps of the Andes in southern Peru roughly between 540 and 560, and droughts lead to famine. This doesn’t include the tree ring data from the USA and Chile.  The trees aren’t growing because of cold and drought, which must have effected crops too. This was, indeed, worldwide.  (Source: ‘The great Maya droughts: water, life, and death’ by Richardson Benedic p229)

What has been observed (by Benedic) is that the latitudes around North Africa had the dark skies for 18 months and those further north, on a latitude with Rome, for 14 months. One might take from this that northern Europe may have experienced the ‘dry fog’ for 12 months or less.


As you may know, in many cultures, including European ones, the sight of a comet was the foreteller of the death of a king, as well as a whole host of nasty things. It wasn’t a good heavenly object to behold, so I can’t see how it would be associated with the Grail, as Ballie suggests! They still believed this in 1066 and children in Martin Luther’s day sang a song about it. (David Talbot THE GREAT COMET AND THE DEATH OF KINGS, 1997). Geoffrey of Monmouth, of course, tells us of one before the death of Ambrosius Aurelianus (Aurelius Ambrosius) and the naming of Uther after it. It would be amazing if this, in some way, did relate to Halley’s Comet in July 451 … but I somehow doubt it.

Mary Proctor notes:

“The comet of A.D. 451 or A.D. 453 announced the death of Attila, and the comet of A.D. 455 that of the Emperor Valentinian.  So widely spread was the belief in the connection between the death of the great and those menacing signs in the heavens that the chroniclers of old appear to have recorded comets which were never seen, such as the comet of A.D. 814, which was supposed to have presaged the death of Charlemagne.”

Whoever reigned in Britain in the 6th Century would have got rather worried in 530 when Halley’s Comet passed by again, observed by the Chinese that year. So, even if Gildas would pass up on mentioning darkening skies would he pass up on such a portent of doom? If this is the case, does this push his writing and Badon even earlier? (More on this below).

The A.C. doesn’t mention the 530 arrival but does mention Halley’s Comet when it passed in 676:

“A star of marvellous brightness was seen shining throughout the whole world.”

Though, interestingly, it does not mention its appearance in 760, 837 or 912, closer to when it was compiled. It doesn’t appear that the Irish Annals mention a comet, that I can see, but they do talk about the “failure of bread” in 536 and call 913 (the year after Halley’s) a “Dark and rainy year“. But it could have just been, well, dark and rainy. However, Annals of Ulster also has as its final entry for AD 912: “A dark and rainy year.  A comet appeared.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for 678 (which is most likely 676) says …

“This year appeared the comet-star in August, and shone every morning, during three months, like a sunbeam.”

… and for 730:

“This year appeared the comet-star, and St. Egbert died in Iona.  This year also died the etheling Oswald; and Osric was slain, who was eleven winters king of Northumberland; to whichkingdom Ceolwulf succeeded, and held it eight years [...]  Archbishop Bertwald died this year on the ides of January.”

This, for them, probably proved the point about what comets foretold.

Of course, Baille isn’t the only one to have theories on a comet (or its debris) being the possible cause of the ‘540 event’. The undergraduates Emma Rigby and Mel Symonds under the supervision of Dr Ward-Thompson at Cardiff University believe a much smaller comet could have exploded in the atmosphere, generating the dust veil or ‘dry fog’. Dr. Ward-Thompson says: “The surprising result of these calculations is just how small a comet fragment we have estimated was needed to cause the observed effects.” However, that sulphur spike, although comparatively small, does point to a volcanic event and it may only be small because of the meteorological conditions at the time.

Whatever it was, it may not have even caused the other disasters. They could have just been totally unfortunate to experience a cosmic/volcanic event followed by plague in 537 (if it was the plague) and extremely dry years that caused the stunted tree growth and crop failure. Either way, I believe a series of events such as these – comet in the skies, darkening sun followed by plague – in the space of 7 years would be seized upon by Gildas. IF he did write almost 44 after Badon around 530, or before – a contentious point – then this would take Badon back to 486,or before. I realise this would make Gildas extremely old when he died.


I recently read some very interesting sections from ‘Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire: A Systematic Survey of Subsistence Crises and Epidemics‘ by Dionysios Ch Stathakopoulos, which may be very pertinent to this debate. This is from p25:

“The visitation of the pandemic certainly raised the number of the recorded epidemics in the sixth century and at the same time also the consciousness and the interest of the contemporary writers in such matters. Another possible cause for this interest was eschatological. According to the three prevailing world eras the completion of the year 6000 from the creation of the world fell between 492 and 508. This was the year which Christians held as the advent of Judgement Day. According to the synoptical Apocalypse (Matt 24, Luke 21, Mark 13), the end of days would be preceded by wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes. Therefore it’s not surprising to see the authors of the sixth century develop a particular interest in recording such natural catastrophes.”

Interesting that Gildas didn’t mention this in the DEB, but maybe he didn’t need to. Other 6th century writers don’t mention it either. Could it have inspired him though? He does write about the Last Days in a fragment of a letter attributed to him. Here’s an extract:

“Excessively evil times shall come, and men shall be lovers of self, covetous, boastful, haughty, railers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, impure, without natural affection, without peace, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, holding the good in hate, traitors, headstrong, puffed up, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

I wonder if the Christians of Britain thought God had changed His mind about Judgement Day until Halley’s Comet reappeared in 535 followed by all these other events, including the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon expansion? Could the Britons indeed have dubbed this heavenly body the Uter Pen Drac? (Sorry, don’t know what came over me, went off into Baillie land there!). There are also two more sections of Mr Stathakopoulo’s work worth quoting, which have a bearing on this discusion. This from p52:

“In order to do justice to the complexity of past subsistence crises it is important to adopt multilateral causation models. It is essential to distance ourselves from pure determinism, ascribing crises merely to natural causes and at the same time not revert to the opposite model according to which these events occur solely as a result of political and economic structures. It was not distribution or availability of food that created food crises, but rather a combination of both.”

This from p55:

“The emerging trend [from his survey] shows a clear predominance of drought-induced subsistence crises in rural and mixed environments and at the time an equally evident preponderance of siege-induced famines in urban centres. Famine caused by warfare have a strong presence both in rural and mixed settings, whereas in urban situations famine and shortages tend to develop when the transportation of grain is disrupted.”

One thing’s for sure; these events can’t be used as a reason why the Britons suffered more than the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, allowing them to take over southeastern Britain. It would have affected everyone. What it may have caused is social stress, leading to more raids and civil war. It is interesting, however, that the ‘Saxon Advent’ possibly occurred in the 450s and they started to rise again from the 540s and 550s. Coincidence? May be. This doesn’t mean the Justinian Plague didn’t hit western Britain more than the east. It very well could have, considering its links with the Mediterranean.


Getting back to Gildas: I suppose the alternative could be that he did write later, say between 544 and 547 (if the death Maelgwn entry is correct) and those events had passed and weren’t in the forefront of his mind. However, if he wrote 44 years after 493 (for example) this would be just when things were nasty, but he never mentioned them. Why might that be? I don’t have an answer, but it’s all very interesting, never-the-less.

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



Plague and the Origin of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Volcanic Eruptions and European History

Halley’s Comet – Part 1 (Intro and Early Records)


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The World Of Geoffrey of Monmouth

Henry I

This (rather rushed) blog is a little off-period and is very much about the Arthur that became legend. It’s about the 12th century political climate, and intrigue, in which Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his opus, Historia Regum Britanniae. (History of the Kings of Britain), which started the medieval Arthurian literature craze. I’m not going to get into the whole ‘what was this ancient book that he based his book on?’ question here, or the ‘how much did he make up?’ debate either. This is about what influences were on him when he wrote.

Geoffrey of Monmouth (Galfridus Monemutensis, Galfridus Arturus, Galfridus Artur, Gruffudd ap Arthur, Sieffre o Fynwy) who lived c. 1100  to  c. 1155, was a cleric from the Welsh Marches – not only the border region between England and Wales at the time from Flintshire southwards as it is today, but most of south and southwest Wales to Pembrokeshire too. The Welsh Marches, or Marchia Wallia, as opposed to Pura Wallia (Principality of Wales), were county palatines. Marcher lords ruled their lands by their own law: sicut regal – “like unto a king” (Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester), but at times would use a Norman version of Welsh Law in legal dealings. They were more like the Welsh Princes in the power they had.

“They could establish forests and forest laws declare and wage war, establish boroughs, and grant extensive charters of liberties. They could confiscate the estates of traitors and felons, and regrant these at will. They could establish and preside over their own petty parliaments and county courts. Finally, they could claim any and every feudal due, aid, grant, and relief” (Nelson 1966)

It was an area populated and colonized by English, Bretons, Flemish, Normans and Welsh, and the barons had

King Stephen

the right to build castles without royal permission; something unheard of in the rest of England. So perhaps Geoffrey’s work should be seen less as an Anglo-Norman or even Cambro-Norman production and more as Cambro-Marchian one, or even Cambro-Breton-Marchian? However, he was probably educated on the continent, where he received the title magister, and spent most of his life in Oxford.

It’s thought that he started writing his History around 1135 and he had several very important patrons, namely King Stephen, Waleran de Beaumont and, most notably, Robert, Earl of Gloucester; the illegitimate son of Henry I.

Here are some of the major political and social points and events of the period, with a few comments. (Not in any particular oder):

* Geoffrey may have began his work when Henry I was still alive, and Henry could very well have been compared to Arthur. Whilst the English king Athelstan has been forwarded as the model for Geoffrey’s Arthur (Collingwood 1926, Sarah Foot 2011) there is just as much chance, and more political gain for Geoffrey, that he used Henry I as inspiration.

* Geoffrey of Monmouth’s main patron was the Marcher lord, Earl Robert of Gloucester.

* Robert of Gloucester appears to have been more than just a patron, but an editor for Geoffrey.

* In Robert, Geoffrey say’s Britain “possesses another Henry”.

* Robert’s brother was the Earl of Cornwall. Geoffrey was to make strong Arthurian connections to Cornwall.

* Henry I died whilst Geoffrey was probably still writing, or before he started writing, on 1 December 1135 and Stephen de Blois, Henry’s nephew, grabbed the throne from Robert’s half-sister, the Empress Matilda whilst she was in Normandy.

* Matilida’s first husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, had been in conflict with Rome and the Pope, something Geoffrey would have Arthur do.

* Matilda’s mother was a queen of Scotland, from an English royal line and her uncle was King David I of Scotland, who tried to come to her aid in the civil war but was repelled by the northern barons.

* Robert, now also lord of Glamorgan, at first supported Stephen, but after a quarrel in 1137 in Normandy and having his English and Welsh estates seized, his support moved to Matilda.

* In general, the west of England supported Matilda.

* Robert didn’t arrive back in England until 1138, when the civil war, known as The Anarchy, started, in which he commanded Matilda’s forces.

* Geoffrey’s first patron, however, was Waleran de Beaumont, a supporter of King Stephen.

* Another edition of Geoffrey’s work has Robert and Stephen as joint patrons. One would think this would have to be in or before 1137, if it isn’t a scribal error.

* Stephen’s Norman settlers came under attack in 1136 from the Welsh, so, perhaps, his patronage of Geoffrey didn’t last long.

* One of the first military attacks Robert made was on Waleran at Worcester.

* It was thought that Robert’s mother was Nesta, daughter of Rhys ap Tudor, but that is now believed to be an Iolo Morganwg fabrication.

* At the time Geoffrey was writing, Matilda had not yet crossed to England but was fighting Stephen’s forces in Normandy.

* Much to the dislike of the Anglo-Norman knights, Robert used Welsh warriors in the civil war to support Empress Matilda against King Stephen.

* One supplier of these Welsh warriors to Robert was Madog ap Maredudd, the last prince of a united Powys.

* It is one of Madog’s retainers who is made famous in the Mabinogion:  Rhonabwy.

* This same story places Badon, which it calls Mynydd Vaddon (Mount Baddon) near the River Severn, whether it actually was or not.

* The hill of Mynydd Baedan lies in Glamorgan; Robert’s territory and another supplier of warriors. Did Glamorgan tradition believe this hill to be Badon?

* At the time, Glamorgan would also have encompassed Caerleon, which Geoffrey made as Arthur’s seat of power.

* In 1136 the Welsh rose against the Marcher lords in south and west Wales.

* Hywel ap Maredudd, lord of Brycheiniog defeated the Norman and English colonists at the Gower.

* Deheubarth joined in the resistance.

* Iorwerth ab Owain, leader of Gwent, displaced by the Norman invasions, ambushed and killed Richard de Clare.

* Owain and Cadwaladr of Gwynedd invaded Norman controlled Ceredigion.

* In September 1136 the combined forces of Gwynedd, Deheubarth, and Powys met the Norman army at the Battle of Crug Mawr at Cardigan Castle, defeating the Normans.

* In 1141 Cadwaladr of Gwynedd and Madog ap Maredudd of Powys were said to be allies of the Earl of Chester in the Battle of Lincoln, and joined in the battle that made King Stephen prisoner of Empress Matilda for a year. (Paul Martin Remfry believes they were Maredudd and Cadwgan, both sons of Madog ab Idnerth of Maelienydd).

Robert of Gloucester

Since, in general, the Welsh were the enemy, it has always seemed strange to me that Geoffrey should write such a lengthy piece about their history and especially one of their national heroes, considering who his patrons and audience were. But perhaps his (possible) Breton ancestry made him identify more with the Welsh than the Normans and his being from the Marches, and his patron being Robert, gave him a certain amount of security to write it. His Anglo-Norman patron certainly went along with it. Of course, other Cambro and Anglo-Normans like William of Newburgh and Gerald of Wales certainly didn’t; although Gerald seems to have criticized him when it suited. J.C. Crick (The British and the Welsh Future: Gerald of Wales, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Arthur of Britain) believes William of Newburgh’s response and work were as much a political answer to the Welsh revolt, changing the emphasis back to Bede and an English history.

The general take of Geoffrey’s History, it seems to me, is that whilst Geoffrey praises the Britons he also chastises them in the same way Gildas does, but, unlike Gildas, he gives them hope. Davies in his book The History of Wales believes that Geoffrey’s telling his audience that because the supposed founder of Britain, Brutus’s eldest son Locrinus ruled what became England, whilst his two younger brothers took Wales and Scotland, then whoever ruled England ruled Britain. Later Tudor and Stuart monarchs cited Geoffrey’s History to support their dynastic successions; but did King Stephen want to use it for something more?

It has been argued that Arthur was the Anglo-Norman answer to Charlemagne. There was simply no one else in their’s, British or English history to compare to his continental counterpart, and Arthur fitted the bill … with a few fictional addition for good measure. But perhaps King Stephen thought, like Robert, that he needed the Welsh (and Bretons) to help him win his civil war? After all, the Bretons were the ones who held great sways of the Marches, especially Monmouth, along with the Flemish. But did all this backfire on them? As I mentioned, Geoffrey at the end of his History said there was hope for the Britons to rise again, in comparison to Gerald who said there wasn’t.

The political situation changed greatly during the period in which Geoffrey wrote his History and, who knows, he may have to had to change or adapt the story as he went along. We don’t know which side Geoffrey was backing but when Robert went over to Matilda was Geoffrey later encouraged by Robert to get it translated in to Welsh to flatter the Britons and try and get a few more of them on his side … and maybe more Bretons? After all, Geoffrey certainly makes the Bretons out to be good guys, which is why it’s thought he may have been of Breton stock himself. It may have been seen as a risky thing to do as the History included the story of Arthur, a story about a Briton who tried to unite his people. Wales was far from united in 1135 and certainly later Anglo-Normans saw the story of Arthur as encouraging the Welsh/Britons to unite and rise again? (There is evidence that the Cornish of the 12th century believed Arthur himself would rise again, but there’s no actual evidence as to whether the Welsh thought the same). And unite they were doing after Henry’s death as explained earlier. Was Geoffrey hedging his bets as he saw the Welsh trying to gain independence and defeating the Normans? Either that, or he totally underestimated what response he would get from the Welsh. After all, the three chapters about Locrinus and the supremacy of England would be forgotten in comparison with the very long Arthurian section. Even placing the capital of Arthur’s Britain in London didn’t seems to bother the Welsh.

It was King Stephen’s lack of response to the Welsh revolt that turned many of the barons over to Matilda’s

The Empress Matilda

side. Whatever happened between 1136 and 1140, and whether it was the inspiration of a story of Arthur (even though Geoffrey’s work may not have appeared yet) or purely political maneuvering – or both – the kingdoms of Gwynedd, Deheubarth, and Powys joined to fight in Ceredigion in 1136 and Gwynedd and Powys came together with the Earl of Chester in 1141 to fight Stephen at Lincoln. Things didn’t improve for the Anglo-Normans until Stephen’s death in 1154 and the crowning of Henry II.

There have been others who have wondered if Henry and Robert inspired Geoffrey to write about Arthur; not that he based Arthur on them but that he saw something of the British hero in them. I am beginning to feel the same. But I’m also wondering if Robert might have been seeing himself as Arthur too, or started modeling himself after him. He’s the only Anglo-Norman to use the Welsh in The Anarchy and I wonder what his motives were beyond just needing more troops? Did Robert patronize Geoffrey’s work because it contained a story about a bastard son going on to be the king of the Britons?  (Did Geoffrey deliberately make Arthur illegitimate?) Robert was unable to take the throne after his father’s demise because of his illegitimate status, even though that didn’t stop William the (Bastard) Conqueror from taking the throne of England in 1066. If Arthur could be king, why not Robert? Although he was a staunch supporter of Matilda, who knows what his true aspirations were?

The fact that Geoffrey was writing at a time when the Welsh were uprising makes it even more interesting to me. Coincidence? Maybe. Fascinating? Definitely.

Thanks for reading,



Posted by on June 8, 2011 in King Arthur


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