Tag Archives: Gwledig



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.


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,




Posted by on June 2, 2011 in King Arthur


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Why Wasn’t Arthur Known As A Wledig?

There will be a lot of people out there asking “What on Earth is a Wledig!” The answer is … no one really knows. Here’s some background.

There appear to be many figures in Arthurian and Welsh literature who are given the title Wledig (various spellings: Gwledig/Guletic/Guledic), by either being referred to as one or having it attached to their name.

Here are some, in no particular order:

Mascen Wledig (Magnus Maximus)

Emrys Wledig (Ambrosius Aurelianus)

Cunedda Wledig

Gwallawg Wledig

Urien Wledig (Urien of Rheged)

Ywain Wledig (could be Owain, Urien’s son)

Ceritic Wledig (thought to be St Patrick’s Coroticus)

Casnar Wledig

Cynfelyn Wledig

Amlawdd Wledig (supposedly Arthur maternal grandfather)

Dewrarth Wledig

Gwerthmwl Wledig

Celydon Wledig

Gerthmwl Wledig

Fflewdur Flam Wledig

Deorthach Wledig

Aflaw Wledig

Cylidd Wledig

Einudd Wledig

… but Arthur is only called Wledig in one poem (possibly two – see below), but the title didn’t stick. The poem, ‘The Throne of the Sovereign’, is attributed to the 6th century bard Taliesin, but it’s thought to be by some later bard.

There they are sought, the bold,

The lost men of battle.

I compare the fierce ranks

Of the late Penduic,

Of the death-dealing ranks,

Of the breastplated legion,

The Wledig raised

On the old-renowned border,

To a broken grass-stalk

Fragile likewise.

Arthur’s supposed maternal grandfather, Amlawdd Wledig, bore the title but not him. He is called a pen teyrned, ‘leader/chief of kings/princes/rulers, which is impressive, but he wasn’t made to keep up with the Joneses … in this case, Ambrosius Aurelianus (Emrys Wledig) and Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig).

Whilst in Modern Welsh the meaning of gwledig is ‘rural, countrified, country, agrarian‘, there are differing explanations as to what exactly an Early Medieval  Wledig was. These ranges from ‘land holder’, to ‘(hereditary) sovereign lord’ and ‘lord over other’s country through victory’.  The Indo-European data base gives:

Proto-Celtic: *wlati- ‘sovereignty’ [Noun]

Old Irish: flaith [i f, later m] ‘sovereignty, ruler’

Middle Welsh: gulat [f] (OW), MW gwlad ‘country’

Middle Breton: guletic (OBret.)

Cornish: gulat gl. patria

The GPC defines Gwledig as:

“lord, king, prince, ruler, term applied to a number of early British rulers and princes who were prominent in the defense of Britain about the time of the Roman withdrawal; (possibly) commander of the native militia (in a Romano-British province).

Their definition of teyrn is:

“monarch, sovereign, king, prince, lord, ruler, leader, dictator, tyrant; (figuratively) sovereign (adj.), royal.

Patrick Sims-Williams notes in “The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems” from The Arthur of the Welsh (p. 52) that Arthur might be the otherwise unnamed Prydein Wledig  - ‘Lord of Britain’ – referred to in the poem Kat Godeu (which refers to Arthur later on).

‘Lord over other’s country through victory’, put forward by Fabio P. Barbieri in an article at the Faces of Arthur section at Robert Vermaat’s Vortigern Studies website ( ), does seem to have some logic to it. Here is part of it:

“Now, Taliesin seems to me to draw a marked distinction between two words for “king”, Teyrn and Gwledig. (He never uses Brenhin, which is significant, but if I make out the original Welsh right, he does sometimes use the very archaic Rieu for “kings in the mass, the whole class of kings, both gwledig and teyrn”.) When Urien’s bard praises his lord in the most emphatic and ringing terms, he calls him gwledig. Urien is the gwledig of cattle-lifters at his great battle at Gwenystrad, in the sense that nobody in the world is better at taking wealth away from enemies. Gwenystrad must have been a tremendous triumph for Urien: speaking of it, Taliesin describes this single northern lord as the scourge of the men of all the island, gathered in battle-lines (gwyr Prydein adwythein yn lluyd). Clearly a large coalition had been gathered to teach the impudent cateran a lesson – and had ended up learning one instead. It is by virtue of this great victory over men from many parts of the island that Taliesin awards his lord the title of gwledig, qualifying it, even then, as gwledig only in that he takes cattle away from so many enemies. He still is not said to rule over them, even though he defeated them. It seems clear that the sovereignty of Rheged, alone, does not make a gwledig. Gwledig is a term of praise, specifically for victory, and in particular for the kind of victory that proves supremacy over a large number of competitors.” (

There is only one Guletic mentioned in the 7th to 9th century collection of poems Y Gododdin, that being a character called Ywain/Ewein/Owein (who could be Owain Rheged) and John Koch interprets the meaning differently to that above:

“Ewein [Owein] is twice referred to as of particularly high status, called *couri(g)entin penn – ‘rightful privileged chief’ and guletic ‘(hereditary) sovereign lord’. The latter title is not lightly accorded in Early Welsh sources.” (‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, p. 225

Whether Arthur was historical or not, and whether an historical Arthur was a Wledig or not, it is odd that he wasn’t later given this prestigious title for literary effect. Why wasn’t it used in his stories to bolster his standing, or was pen teyrned enough? Did someone come up with pen teyrned purely because of how they interpreted the battle list in the Historia Britonnum and because Arthur had no Wledig title? There is only one other person I know of given the title pen teyrned and that is Gwenddoleu, who in the Myrddin poem Oianau is called “pen teyrnedd Gogledd” (“Pen teernet goglet“); translated as, “chief of lords of the Old North”.

Arthur does jump to being an imperator and, unless someone was particularly well read in the ways of the Roman Republic, they meant emperor and not military commander! This could have been a translation of Wledig to imperator, seeing as Macsen went from imperator to Wledig. It’s unlikely that Macsen, who was the emperor Magnus Maximus, was actually a Wledig, but he was given the title anyway, probably to Brittonicize this Spaniard.

Ambrosius (Emrys) received it for his greatness and even Cunedda, the supposed ridder of the Irish from what are now north and southwestern Wales has it, but not Arthur, the supposed ridder of the Saxons.

Of course it wasn’t just Arthur who wasn’t a Wledig. Vortigern isn’t called a one either and even the powerful Maelgwn (Gildas’s Maglocunus) doesn’t seem to be, and, according to Gildas, a taker of other people’s country was exactly what he was, IF that’s its meaning. Maybe Vortigern wasn’t known as a taker of other’s county, more of a loser of his own through the bad press he received. As for Maelgwn, it may simply be because we don’t have any surviving bardic poetry, unlike Urien, calling him such … and he may not have been liked much either!

But there’s a fly in the ointment to all this.



Teir Lleithicltiyth Ynys Prydein. Arthur yii pen teyrned

ym Mynytf a Dewi yn pen ysgyb a MaelgCn Gtfyned yn pen

hyneif. Arthur yn pen teyrned yg Kelliwic yg Kernetf a

Betwini esgob yn pen esgyb a Charadatfc ureichuras yn pen

hyneif. Arthur yn pen teyrned ym Pen Eionyd yny gogled

a Chyndeyrn Garthwys yn peri esgyb a Gtfrthmwl Wledic yn

pen hyneif. 



Three tribe thrones of the Island of Prydain. Arthur the chief lord at Menevia, and David the chief bishop, and Maelgwyn Gwyned the chief elder. Arthur the chief lord at Kelliwic in Cornwall, and Bishop Betwini the chief bishop, and Caradawc Vreichvras the chief elder. Arthur the chief lord at Penrionyd in the north, and Cyndeyrn Garthwys the chief bishop, and Gurthmwl Guledic the chief elder.

So here we have a pen teyrned and Wledig mentioned together.

The translation makes teyrned a ‘lord’ and not king. I believe it should be plural in both cases, but I could be mistaken. The same goes for Arthur’s mention in  ‘Culhwch and Olwen, where I’ve seen pen teyned translated as ‘sovereign lord’.  No wonder everyone’s confused and say Arthur wasn’t originally called a king. However, if teyrn is only a ‘lord’ and a brehin only a king, then it seems to me we have an awful lot more lords and Wledigs compared to kings in the Early Medieval period … but I may just may not be aware of them!

So what’s the difference between a pen teyrned and a Wledig? Once again I’d like to quote Fabio P. Barbieri (Chapter 1.7: Resurgent Celticism: Function and power of Gildas’ kings):

“Teyrned, therefore, are those of the lord class who either cannot fight or are defeated in battle, an inferior kind of lordship. Gwledig are the kings who assert their right to rule by victory, who take cattle and do not have cattle taken away from them (surely a poetic version of the claiming and refusal of tribute). But this is not merely a contingent fact depending on the changing fortunes of arms: these ranks are at least to some extent permanent.”  

Not sure about this. That would make a pen teyrned the ruler of teyrns, which seems to make the title almost the same as Wledig! However, Christopher Snyder in a post at Arthurnet said:

Tigernos” is a common Celtic term (variants include teryn, theryn, tiern, and thigern) for a ruler, usually a local ruler)”

So calling Arthur a pen teyrned could mean several things. A pen teyrned who is just the ‘chief/leader of local rulers’ is very different from one who is a ‘leader of kings’ (‘sovereign lord’?). If it is the former, it could have given rise to the ‘not a king but a leader of kings in battle’, whilst the latter translation could have led Geoffrey of Monmouth (and others) to interpreted him as being a ‘king of kings’ or even ‘emperor’? Maybe this is what confused the hell out of the Historia Britonnum and Annales Cambriae compilers.

Thanks for reading,



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Coming soon

I haven’t posted for a little while as I’ve been too busy with the day job of being a puppeteer at the BBC.

Coming soon will be a blog called Why Wasn’t Arthur Known As A Wledig? There will be a lot of people out there asking “What on Earth is a Wledig!” The answer is … no one really knows, but in my next blog this is what I’ll be exploring.



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“dux erat bellorum”


This was originally from a post – with some additions – I made on Arthurnet about why Nennius (or whoever) used the term “dux”. The update, below, is taken from the up-coming ebook.

Dux erat bellorum/Dux belli

The discussion about what ‘Nennius’ (or whoever the compiler(s) and/or translators where) meant by “dux erat bellorum” (or ”dux belli” in the Vatican recension) in the Arthurian section of the H.B. has gone on for decades. Some have used it as an argument to say he was given the old Roman command of dux Britanniarum (‘Duke of  the Britains’) in command of the northern troops, but others point out that if he’d been given the title then why didn’t the H.B. call him such?

In actuality, there may have only been two position he could have been in to be a battle leader or commander-in-chief and they are some kind of general or an Over King. This I’ll look at later as it’s not what I want to explore here.

I think there are actually two question: 1) WHY was dux used, and  2)  WHAT words in Primitive or Old Welsh were they translated from … if they were?  An Arthur of Badon couldn’t have been the first or last to be called a ‘leader/lord of battle’. Perhaps it’s just a case of finding it. To try and answer this, I wanted to look at a nearer contemporary source (at least in John Koch’s view) and see if it could help: the British collection of poems, ‘Y Gododdin’.

The why?

First why was dux used? Was it simply because in Latin it meant ‘leader’ or ‘lord’? Very possibly. But, as mentioned before, Higham argues that a mythical Arthur was used as a Biblical ‘Joshua-figure’ in answer to St. Patrick’s ‘Moses-figure’ in the H.B., and that he was given this title because Joshua was called a dux belli.[1] It is a valid point and I would have agreed with Higham’s conclusions once upon a time, but even if Arthur was used in this way in the H.B., and given this title after Joshua, it does not mean that he was invented to be this, but was, rather, perfect for the Biblical comparison, just as St. Patrick was for his. Had someone else been used we might all be writing about them.

We should also keep in mind that, if the H.B. was in reply to Bede’s earlier work, the English called the Gaul, St. Germanus a ‘dux belli’ and the title could have been used because of this.

But there is the point that the Harleian H.B. says “dux erat bellorum”. If it had wanted to make him Joshua, why not just call him, as the Vatican recension does, “dux belli”. Did the Vatican editor make him Joshua, or did he just clarify the comparison? However, it cannot be ruled out that a possible historic Arthur wasn’t called a “dux bellorum” in any poetry and Nennius used this term because of the Biblical, or St Germanus, comparison he was trying to make.

There’s also another point to bring up here and it is another one made by Higham, but this time in his book ‘English Conquest – Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century‘ (1994). Higham is adamant that Gildas’s use of duces (plural of dux) is meant as “military leaders”, but this could apply to a king or a civil position. How long between the 5th and 9th centuries this was used by Britons, we’ll never known, (see below) but it is at least a possibility “dux erat bellorum” meant ‘military leader of battles’  for clarification as dux had other meanings.  (See THIS blog for further discussion on this).

Whilst dux does mean ‘leader’ or ‘lord’ in Latin, this may not have been the only way those of 9th century Britain would have read it, besides the possibilities mentioned above. Let’s look at it another way: what was a dux or duke in the 9th century?

As far as I’m aware, the Welsh never used the term dux as a specific title but across the border in England and over the Channel in Brittany, they certainly did. In England it meant a ‘supreme landlord’, only second to the king, and there were quite a lot of them. They could very often be princeps and dux of a county or shire and, like the dukes across the English Channel, by the 10th century they gained even more power.[2] So choosing dux the H.B.’s Latin literate 9th century audience are possibly going to imply something very different to us. The English would interpret it their way, Bretons, Welsh etc., theirs. (Like Higham, I think the H.B. was aimed as much at the English, and specifically the Mercians, as the Britons).

Christopher Gidlow in his book The Reign of Arthur points out something else about the Historia Brittonum and its use of dux, and that is in every instance before its connection with Arthur when using this term it either means a ‘general’ or a ‘governor subordinate to the Emperor’.[3] This is very similar to an English duke, who was subordinate only to the king. So, did the translator or compiler use dux knowing the English would read it as more than just ‘leader’? Of course, the answer comes back as to why he didn’t just say he was simply a dux if they’d know what a dux was? But, if it had more than one meaning, adding “of battles” would be for clarification. Did he/they use the term specifically for the ‘English’? It could be argued that he did, as the H.B. (as argued by Higham) was aimed just as much at them.

This leads on to what might have been translated, if it didn’t come from Nennius and it had come from an ancient poem or poems …

The what?

Y Gododdin

In the Arthurian battle list of the H.B. there seems evidence from the rhyming of some of the names that this originally came from a battle poem or poems. If the poem(s) or Triads that came down to 9th century were in Primitive or Old Welsh, what might this be and what other evidence is there for such a title or description as ‘leader of battle’ (if dux erat bellorum hadn’t been added later)? One would think it should come down as pen llu (leader of the hosts/legion/army), pen kat (leader of battle), pen budinor (leader of armies) or penteulu (leader of household troop); or, to really big him up, guledig; but he’s never called these, or no evidence has survived, and only the latter title once in the poem Kadeir Teyrnon. He is called penn kadoed Kernyw (‘Leader of the battalions of Cernyw’) in the poem ‘Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr’ – ‘Arthur and the Eagle’ (dated to around 1150 AD), but that could just be the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, none of these titles, except guledig, are mentioned in Y Gododdin. (You find pen llu, and even penn draig/penn dragon/pendragon (‘head/leader warrior’) in the poetry of the Medieval Welsh poets and these could have, perhaps, been used by those further south in earlier times. Pen llu would be the closest).

I did find other possibilities in Y Gododdin: *cintrenn/cyntran, *(ri/si) chatvarchawc, and *aer dwyw/ry(ri)dywys.

Starting with *cintrenn/cyntran (‘centurion’ according to Koch), here’s a position that the H.B. translator might have known, judging by the fact that three of the four mentions of it in Y Gododdin are from the later A text, dated to the 8th/9th centuries.  This is, indeed, a ‘battle leader’ of sorts, whether you take Koch’s interpretation as a ‘centurion’ or not.  Jarman does not translate this as a leader of a hundred men, just as ‘warrior’ or ‘leader’.  Koch’s reasonings are thus:


 “[BI.13] 253 *ar-tege can(t)=uur ‘he used to lead a hundred men’ is evidence for the persistence of Roman office of centurion, a heroic ideal and poetic convention if nothing else.”

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.168)

“[A.5] 48 … A further possibility is that the original had the t- pret. of the verb (*cintrann (…) rac-uant rac bodinor ‘a centurion (who) counterthrusted against armies’).

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes. p.180)

“[A.18] 196 *cintren’n‘ [MS kynrien] ‘battle leaders, centurions’.  We expect a third personal name here, but this word is frequent in the diction of the Cynfierdd as a common noun.   Furthermore the preceding two names *Conrig and *Conuon have Celt. *kuno – ‘hound’ as the first element, whereas *cintren’n’ has *kintu – ‘foremost’, so the alliteration would weaken.  The general sense of kynran is ‘first in its part’, thus more specifically in Hengerdd ‘commander, captain, (under-)chieftain.  The transparent preform would therefore be Brit. *cintu-rannos.  This form probably rose as a popular etymology applied to the Lat. centurio, centurionis during the Roman Period.  In favour of this interpretation one may further adduce CA A.24.287 diua oeda gynrein gan-wyr ‘his centurion’s centuries (hundred-man units) perished’.) It is probable therefore that the name of the third hero has dropped out or been transformed in transmission into the common noun.”

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.194)

“[A.24] 287 *diba oid i-cintrenn cant-guir ‘his centurion’s hundred-man units perished’.

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.199)


The information in of itself is fascinating – if Koch is right – and shows that even those north of the Wall were fighting in a legionary way. (Even though a Roman centurion was actually in charge of eighty men).

There is another instance when ths was used, this time in a ‘Llywarch Hen’ poem about Marwnad Cynddylan (‘Elergy for Cynddylan’), an 9th century poem about a 7th century occurrence:


Mawredd gyminedd! Mor fu da[f]fawd

a gafas Cynddylan, cynran cyffrawd;

saith gant rhiallu’n ei <yspeidawd>,

pan fynnwys mab pyd, mor fu barawd!

Grandeur in battle! So good was the destiny

that Cynddylan, the battle leader, got

seven hundred chosen soldiers in his retinue,

When the son of Pyd requested, he was so ready![4]


However, it may be wondered why the H.B. translator wouldn’t call Arthur a centurionis in Latin if this is what he was; unless they wanted to make him something more than this?

But there may be other clues in Y Gododdin, as mentioned above. For example: the leader of an Irish or Hiberno-British fianna (warband) would be a ri fianna > ‘leader (lord) of the warband’. I found in Koch’s translation a reference to the *tri ri chatmarchoc, ‘the three directors of the cavalry brigades’. If you look in Jarman’s book the ri isn’t there at all and it’s translated as ‘Three battle-horsemen’. In yet another version it has *Tri si chatvarchawc, which gets translated as ‘Three hundred knights of battle’. We don’t know which one’s right, but if it’s Koch’s then here’s an example of Britons using ri (modern Welsh rhi = ‘king’ or ‘lord’) as a leader, this time of cavalry units. (If he was called a ri (Brittonic *rigos) at anytime and not meaning ‘king’ but ‘leader’, this itself could have caused confusion over his status). But Arthur seems to be even more than these. He’s made out to be more of an overall leader; a commander or general if you will. The only reference in Y Gododdin I could see is:


*Aer dywys, rydywys ryfel > ‘Battle leader, he led to war …’

(LXXIII, A 72, 690. ‘Aneirin – Y Gododdin’. Jarman)

*Air=tiuis > ri- tiuis > ribel_> ‘A battle leader can lead in war’

(A.72, 904 ‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes,113).


Here seems to be a point on which the two eminent scholars agree. Once again there is that ri usage by the Britons, which here is translated as ‘led/lead’. (Later Welsh might interpret ri-dywys as ‘king/lord of war’).  In fact, if you change the hero of this and the previous verse in Y Gododdin that these appears in, from “Ywain” (the only  possible Guledig mentioned in the piece) to “Arthur”, it would fit perfectly:


Battle leader, he led to war,

The land’s multitude loved the mighty reaper. [Arthur was called the Red Revenger]

On the green earth there was fresh blood around the green grave,

He wore armour over his crimson garment.

A trampler of armour, an armour’s trampler, [Arthur was called the trampler of nine]

Like under death weariness falls.

Spears were shattered at the commencement of battle,

A path to a clearing was the aim of the spearthrust. (Jarman)


A battle leader can lead in war.

A sovereign’s host loved the powerful reaper.

The mighty Forth is blood around a new grave.

It was armour that he had over his red [garments].

An armoured trampler used to trample on armour.

The appearance of death fell on the exhausted.

Spear-shafts in shields at the outset of battle —–

a path towards the light was the purpose of the spear thrust. (Koch)


These ‘titles’ would seem to me the strongest contenders for what could have been translate to “dux erat bellorum”.  Here the translator gets the chance to call him a dux, as in ‘leader’, as well as letting any Breton or English reader translate it as a ‘duke’ with military command but second to a king.

Why any of the above would also account for Arthur being called a pen teyrned (teyrnedd) > (‘chief/leader of kings/lords/rulers’) in Culhwch ac Olwen and the Triads, I’m unsure. Unless this was just some Welsh bard’s interpretation of the leader of kings (in battle). Pen tyrned could be interpreted as meaning the ‘Head of Kings’: a ‘High King’, but there is no indication of this in the H.B. and if he was commonly thought to be a king, of whatever class, one would think the H.B. would have made political use of it … had they known.

As mentioned before, Stephen Knight argues that in the 9th/10th century Arthur of their stories may have simply been fashioned into a Welsh over-king of the times, in the mold of Rhodri Mawr and Hwyel Dda.[5]  Many later Medieval Welsh kings were styled this by the Gogynfeirdd (‘The Less Early Poets’).

It should be ask here why Nennius, if making the whole thing up, didn’t just call Arthur a High King, or even a king? Why call him a battle leader for kings? Was it because this is what he was (or was thought to have been) or was it because the English had no knowledge of a ‘King Arthur’ so ‘Nennius’ had to give him another title? Or was that it was such commonly known fact that he was a High King that it didn’t need to be stated? But then why did the Vatican recension tell us there were those more nobler than him?

Dux Britannium

There is always the possibility that because the translator was working form an Old Welsh copy of a poem, it may have used the equivalent of the Old Welsh translation of “Dux Britannium”.  We mustn’t forget that this was at the end of a transmission of the story, which may even have gone form Latin to Primitive Welsh to Old Welsh to Latin.  Even if it didn’t start as Latin, it still came down as language and military knowledge had changed.  Did it come down as something like “aer dywys, pen tyrned prydein” > “Leader of battle, chief of the rulers (kings) of Britain”?

A digression

Just to digress for a moment, I think Keith (Fitzpatrick-Matthews) in his recent paper on the H.B. (The Arthurian Battles of the Historia Britonnum July 2010 – available on Scribd) makes an interesting point about battle poems.  It appears (from the limited evidence we have) that they lie between 580 and 635 AD. (Urien Rheged   (Ardwyre   reget,   Williams  1960,  7),  Cynan  Garwyn  (Trawsganu  kynan  garwin,  Williams  1960,  1)  and  Cadwallon   ap   Cadfan   (*Marwnad   cadwallon   ap   cadfan*,   Gruffydd   1978,   34 ) [6]. They could have, of course, been in use before this and it is just a case that none have survived.  But if they do belong to a narrow window of time, and did not begin until after Arthur’s death then even the first poems about him may not have surfaced until after the event(s) and so they themselves would be based a folk memory, unless there were bards present at Arthur’s battles at the time to transmit the information, or as wondered by the likes of Christopher Gidlow (2004), some of the transmission was originally in Latin.  Even these may not necessarily have been in an accurate, historical way; that’s not what the bards were there to do.  As Keith points out, the chances are, all these poems may have been written after the fact, and this too is the opinion of Dumville. [7]

There is the question of whose bards might have been praising Arthur, if he was neither king or prince? (Not that he couldn’t have been a prince).  The bards were there to praise their patron.  As in 9th century Wales, there may have been two bards: the itinerant ‘chief of song’ (pencerdd) and the ‘poet of the warband/household’ (bard teulu); the former praising whomever he might be visiting as well as others and the latter his king and his warband and whoever might have been fighting with them.  Aneirin seems to fall into the former category.  He sings of the exploits of the various warriors, some from other kingdoms, fighting together.  If Arthur did command kings in battle, as Ywain in Y Gododdin may have done, then Arthur could have been praised by several bards over several campaigns … unless he employed is own.  If there was indeed a battle poem then it could have been the condensing of several other’s lyrical works.

What we may never know is what was written in Latin, if anything.  The royal courts seem to have had a priest in their employ. Whether any of these put quill to parchment and wrote down any of Arthur’s deeds, we’ll never know. But, just perhaps ‘silua  celidonis’ was a case in point? – (see THIS blog for further discussion).

Back to the point

In the Vatican recension of the H.B. Arthur’s position is clarified as being a miles, interpreted today as “soldier”.  On this point there’s an interesting thought from Dane Prestano in a post from Arthurnet in November 2007:


This `miles’ issue has bothered me for a while.  In `The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood’ By Christopher Harper-Bill, Ruth E. Harvey, Stephen Church, which can be found on Google books it is stated that by the 9th/10th C `miles’ had become synonymous with a Knight, not a soldier and by the 12th C this was evident in medieval manuscripts. It could be argued that the later additions of ‘miles’ where because someone interpreted the same was as later generation are doing.  He’s a leader of battle. So this throw away term in the H.B. might be a clear indication that Arthur was a mounted knight, lending a much more Romance slant to the H.B. Arthur material than thought before.


I may not agree with Dane that this shows Arthur was a cavalryman, but it may prove that is how he was perceived at the time, making him into a contemporary horse-backed duke.

Thanks for reading and be sure to take a look at the comments below,




[1] Green, Concepts Of Arthur, 2007; p.151

[2] Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, 2001, p.152

[3] Gidlow, Reign of Arthur, 2004, p.44

[4] From Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews’ website:

[5] Knight, 1983, p.32-34

[6]  -List from Fitzpatrick-Matthews, 2010, p.19)

[7] Dumville, 1977, p.188


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