Tag Archives: Hadrian’s Wall

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

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

The map above isn’t quite correct in it’s placement of some of the northern tribes and will be updated soon.

In the next three blogs I want to look at the various regions, starting with the north, and how a military commander of some kind could fit into the political situations. (Apologies for its length!)


The strongest arguer for a provincial dux in the north probably comes from Professor Ken Dark with his theory on the northerly province (or provinces) as possibly retaining (or reattaining) someone who had a similar command in the north to the old dux Britanniarum. (Not to mention those who favour this region as being where Arthur was from). This, he postulates in both Civitas To Kingdom and Britain & The End Of The Roman Empire, is because all but one of the forts under the command of the dux Britanniarum show signs of reuse into this period (this is the only region were Roman forts were reused and not hillforts) as well as the road from York to the Wall appearing to have been maintained.

As explored in my Valentia – The Fifth Romano-British Province’ blog, this northern area was most likely divided into two, with one of these provinces being Valentia and the other either Britannia Secunda or Flavia Caesariensis (depending on which scholar’s theories you go with) as discussed in the last blog. We don’t know what happened to this division after Roman rule ended, but it’s possible they became one again … if they, indeed, survived. There may be more chance for this (or these) surviving in the area in question as it appears to have been made up largely of the very large civitas of the Brigantes (capital at York), and so possibly less likely to fragment at the time, not to mention because the number of descendants of Roman soldiers there. However, with the amount of Roman soldiers (mainly Germanic or Gaulish) that may have been left here, it’s hard to see how they would give it over to a tribal group(s) or leader(s) … although, by the last decade of Roman period there may have to have been British militias to supplement them. (They would also most likely be married to local woman and have ‘British’ offspring). It’s more likely to be governed by whoever was the most powerful militarily. (More on this below).

In fact, Dark’s theory suggests it might have been a Brigantian based hegemony, centred at York, that would have to have done this. This could be why all these civitates tribal names disappeared. There wasn’t just the Brigantes! There were also the Carvetti (may have become Rheged), the Latenses (became Elmet), the Gabrantovices, the Sentantii, the Lopocares, the Corionototae, the Parisi (became Deira) and probably more, including Bryneich (became Bernnicia). It should be noted though, that some other scholars do not see this region as a united area at any time.

There is another factor that Professor Dark doesn’t consider, and that’s the division of the northern province in the mid 4th century. As explored in my Valentia blog, the Roman expert, J C Mann, argues that this division has to have been the splitting of this northern province (rather than between the Walls) because that was Roman policy when creating a new one in an existing diocese. Whether this was done north/south or east/west, he argues that for it to have been given consular status, which it was, its capital must have been York, the second city … unless this had been changed to somewhere like Chester and Anne Dornier’s theory about Valentia being in the west is right. What it means is that the Brigantian civitas must have been divided also. What then happened to the western portion of this, which appears to have been between the Carvetti (northern Cumbria) and Sentantii (southern Lancashire) civitates? Had it been an area that wasn’t actually Brigantian but was under its hegemony, so was happy to be split from it? We’ll never know, but it would have to be ‘reclaimed’ in Dark’s theory, and there’s always the possibility that it was Coel Hen that started this and was the first ‘overlord’ (in whatever form) of the north. There is even a (tenuous) link given for Coel Hen to Arthur, via Coel’s supposed son-in-law, Cunedag (Cunedda). But, let’s not get carried away! (As an aside, the only poem we have about Cunedda – The Death Song of Cunedda – only mentions him fighting in the east (around Durham somewhere) and west (Carlisle) of this area. No mention of Wales).

Perhaps a telling point is the sharp delineation of the ‘Anglian’ and British areas at the River Trent; the river thought to have been the provincial and civitas boundary to the southeast. There’s also what might have been the difference between the Parisi/Deira region and Brigantia with the former containing ‘Anglian’ settlement on a large scale. Of course, there could have been other reasons for the Trent delineation, nothing to do with military unity or strength, but it’s certainly a possibility that it was a strong northern British force (or forces) that kept them at bay. There’s also the possibilities that the province or civitates that bordered to the southeast were just as worried by their powerful northern British neighbours as they were of the Germanic expansion, and placed (more) Germanic and/or Scandinavian mercenaries in them as a safeguard.


Y Gododddin

It may be from north of the Wall (near the Antonine Wall actually) but this is where we get, what some argue to be, the first mention of Arthur in the collection of poems that went up to make the Y Gododdin.

(The next section about Y Gododdin is copied and pasted from an earlier blog. You can aways skip it if you’ve read it)

Attributed to the bard/prince Neirin/Aneirin, ‘Y Gododdin’ (The Gododdin) is a British poem (actually a collection of poems), the originals parts of which are thought to date to the early 7th century. (Koch, 1999).  It tells of a doomed battle at Catraeth (thought by most, but not all, to be Catterick in North Yorkshire) between the men of Gododdin and their allies against the ‘English’ of what would become Northumbria:  the Bernicians and the Deirans.  In it is contained what is thought to be the earliest reference to Arthur:

He charged before three hundred of the finest,

He cut down both centre and wing,

He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,

he gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.

He said black ravens on the ramparts of fortress

Though he was no Arthur.

Among the powerful ones in battle, in the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)

John Koch in his translation of the work conclude that this section is part of the original B Text and not a later addition, as discussed earlier, although there are other scholars who disagree with him (Isaacs et al). Even if Koch is right, we still can’t be certain, as explored and mentioned in earlier blogs, which Arthur it refers to: an ‘original’ or, possibly, Artúr mac Áedán or even Arthur son of Bicoir, both of whom could have been active in the area.  If we knew the exact date of the battle we might have a better chance of coming to some informed conclusion.  By this I mean If the battle or the poem took place before Dalriada became the enemy then it could indeed be referring to him.  If it happened after, then it is unlikely.  Unless they were in the habit of praising their enemy.

If Y Gododdin is referring to someone other than the Arthur of Badon fame he was obviously gaining public attention in the last quarter of the 6th century (if Koch’s dating is right!) and the fact that most of the Arthur names occur in the North has led some to the conclusion that he must have originally been from there or had been active there.  It would certainly make sense of Aneirin mentioning him if he was also their most famous ‘local’ hero.  But ‘local’ could mean anywhere from the Hadrian’s Wall northwards.

(To read the full blog of the above, click HERE)


There are going to be a lot of IFs in the next paragraph, but just bear with me:

If Arthur was a dux for this province or provinces, does this help make any sense of the (meagre) information we have for him, such as the Historia Britonnum  (H.B.) battle list, or any other information above? (See THIS blog for a discussion of the H.B. battle list). Well, firstly, I don’t think him being a dux of some kind would necessarily lead to him being called ‘dux erat bellorum’ (leader of battles). If the H.B list is based on a poem (or poems), then it obviously just called him this (in Brittonic) and not ‘dux Valentium’ or whatever. Secondly, if the battle list is anywhere near the ‘truth’ (and it may not be) there are some who place many of these battles in the north. Many of these would be outside these provinces (to their north and south). Only Camlan, if it was Camboglana (Birdoswald) on the Wall (its border), and Guinnion, if it is Binchester, would be within it … if it was one province. If it was two provinces then one would be in each if they had been divided north to south.

This could mean one of several things if we’re looking at a possible Arthur as dux: he helped those Britons north of the Wall against the Picti and/or Scotti; he fought against Britons north of the Wall (and attacking beyond the border was a usual tactic); the battles were the result of the province being expanded (Coel Hen is supposed to have fought around Strathclyde); he fought for or against Britons to their south (same tactic); he helped Britons to their south against Scotti raiders or in a British civil war … or the H.B. list and those who place them in the north are just wrong! Remembering how Gildas complained about civil wars, it could be any or all of these.

There is a good case for a northern Arthur, but, like everything else Arthurian, it is based on information that may not be accurate or, indeed, true. However, this is just as much about the case for the existence of a military leader in the region in the last quarter of the 5th century, and that is a possibility.

In the the Parts Five and Six we’ll look at the other two regions 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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Northern Britain and the Fall of the Roman Empire

A stretch of Hadrian's Wall viewed from Vercov...

Image via Wikipedia

This isn’t a blog of mine really, but it points to a blog (which was from a lecture) given by Professor Guy Halsall (Historian on the Edge blogger).  It is easiest to explain the subject of this lecture by quoting the introduction:

“The argument goes essentially as follows: we ought to think about Roman-barbarian relations in the north of Britain more in the context of those on the other frontiers, African as well as Rhenish; we ought to think about Roman-barbarian relations much less exclusively in terms of conflict and confrontation – the two worlds were inter-twined; on the Rhine frontier it is possible to suggest a rough three-band conceptualisation of barbarian polities, with those in the middle, intermediate band most affected by the imperial crisis around 400 AD; the North Sea should be seen as a cultural zone of two-way interaction and not just as a frontier across which one-way ‘migration’ or invasion took place; the ‘Pictish’ confederacies discussed by late Roman sources started at Hadrian’s Wall, not the Forth – the rough frontier of the seventh-century Pictish kingdom; a military reorganisation of Britain took place in the reign of Magnus Maximus which involved a movement of regular troops away from the line of the Wall and the (probably only temporary, at least as initially envisaged) handing over of authority in the highland  zone to local military leaders and ‘irregulars’; this affected the southern Pictish areas between the walls and perhaps areas further north too; by the middle of the fifth century it produced crisis in that area and a fragmentation of an earlier extensive but weak confedearcy into smaller competing units; it might be that the British on the wall expanded north and became a dominant power; in the period around 600, crucial changes led to a shift in the balance of power towards the English in the south-east (the Scottish east coast should be seen as in the North Sea cultural zone) and the Scots and other powers on the west coast; the British in the intra-mural zone might have been squeezed militarily from both sides and an English political identity might well have become more popular in local competitions for authority; shifts in these years produced change and perhaps political crises in the Pictish areas north of the Forth; it might be to this period that we should trace the creation of the Scottish and indeed other kingdoms, such as Bernicia; internal Pictish strife might explain why the Picts do not seem to be a very active player in the early seventh-century politics that are visible to us.]”

To read this very thought provoking blog, click HERE.


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Dark Age Durham – Part One

I’m writing this mainly for my very large extended family who live in Northwest County Durham (the Stanley area of Derwentside), but I hope there will be others that may find it of interest.

Like many regions of the UK we are taught so little in our history lessons about this period. It’s as if nothing happened before the Romans came, or between them leaving at the formation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. I hope to readdress this in some way.

I also hope to dispel a few myths, such as the Danes being the origin of the very distinct north-east dialect and that it was the Picts who lived the other side of Hadrian’s Wall.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with where County Durham is, and you’d be surprised at how many people in England don’t know where it is, it lies in the north-east of England above Yorkshire and below Northumbria between the rivers Tyne and Tees.

This county is of interest to me because it is the place of my birth and where I spent the first 17 years of my life.  When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s it was a county in decline as its main industries of coal mining, shipbuilding and steelmaking were on the wane.

There is very little known about the county in the fifth and sixth centuries, as there is indeed for the UK as a whole.  It’s not called the ‘Dark Ages’ for nothing … although academia prefers us to call it the Early Medieval Period. County Durham’s Dark Age history is overshadowed somewhat by the county of the Northumbria and Hadrian’s Wall to the north and York (Ebrauc) to the south.  It is thought to have originally been part of the Brigantes territory, but this doesn’t mean its inhabitants were Brigantian; they could have been under its hegemony. We only have the 2nd century geographer Ptolemy and epigraphical (carved on stones) evidence to go on for the identification of tribal regions. Ptolemy obviously got this wrong on a number of occasions, and it’s only by the chance find of inscribed stones that we know that tribal areas such as the Carvetii in modern day Cumbria existed, and the Setantii were in Lancashire because Ptolemy mentions PORTVS SETANTIORVM (Fleetwood, Lancashire): the Port of the Setantii. Otherwise we would have thought this was all Brigantian territory.

What have the Roman’s ever done for us?

Before we get to the Dark Ages in Part Two, let’s have a quick reminder of what happened before this:

The Romans, of course, had a number of forts in this area, namely Piercebridge (MORBIVM) Lanchester (LONGOVICIVM), Chester-le-Street (CONCANGIS), Binchester (VINOVIA), Ebchester (VINDOMORA) and South Shields (ARBEIA).

Of course, there were people living in County Durham and the north-east in general long before the Romans arrived in the area around 80AD. What these tribes were called is another matter. As I mentioned above Ptolemy puts Durham area under ‘rule’ of the Brigantes and certainly places Binchester in their territory, but it’s my guess that there may have been smaller tribal regions here who were under their rule. Rivers became tribal boundaries and with the Tyne to the north, the Tees to the south, and the Wear through the centre I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re were two tribal nations in the area divided by the River Wear.

There maybe clues to certain parts of Durham not being in Brigantia by a Roman inscribed stone found at Lanchester, dedicated to the goddess Garmangabis. The inscription reads:  DEAE GARMANGABI ET N GORDIANI AVG N PRO SAL VEX SVEBORVM LON GOR VOTVM SOLVERVNT M (To the goddess Garmangabis and the divine spirit of our lord, Giordanus, for the health of the detachment of Suevi in Gordian’s lingones [who] deservedly fulfilled their vow). The Suevi were a Germanic tribe from the right bank of the Rhine, but this doesn’t mean the goddess was Germanic as the usual Roman practice was to worship the local god or goddess. Those in Brigantia are usually defined by dedications to the British goddess Brigantia. The dedicator might have been Seuvian but his mounted legion, the Cohors Primae Lingonum Gordiana – The First Cohort of Gordian’s Own Lingones – were from central Gaul (France). This is a perfect description as to how Roman units were originally formed in tribal regions but through time became manned by people form all over the Empire. This makes it hard to know the ethnic identity of the units.  It’s slightly different for the feoderati (federates) units who were from outside the Empire and fought for them for cash.  Basically groups of mercenaries, they came to dominate the late Roman military machine. They may have kept some kind of ethnic identity.

We all know about Hadrian’s Wall, built somewhere between 122 and 128 A.D., but very few people are aware of why it was built and how long it lasted as a defensive barrier against those to the north. The first thing to mention is that those north of the Wall where not Picts. Well, not in the true sense, although the Romans possibly called anyone who painted or tattooed themselves from this region, ‘Picts’. The true Picts, or rather Picti, lived many miles to the north, way past the Antonine Wall beyond Glasgow and Edinburgh. Those to the north of the Wall were Britons just the same as those to the south and, in fact, the Wall divided some of these tribes just as the Berlin Wall did to the people of Germany.

We know of at least four tribal nations, or kingdoms, to the north of the Wall, they being the Votadini (pronounce Wotadini) of what is now eastern Northumbria, Lothian and southwestern Fife. The Selgovae of central Northumbria and Lothian. The Carvetii of north Cumbria and part of Dumfries & Galloway. The Novantae of Dumfries and Galloway and the Damnonii of Clydesdale. (There is still some scholarly debate about the exact placing of these, but this is roughly where they were). Of course, this is what the Romans called them, not what they called themselves. This would be something more like the Guodothin, Selkow, Carguet, Nowanth and Damnon of Davnon.

The political situation at the time is also probably oversimplified and just like any country that has been under an empirical thumb; there would have been those happy to have them there, those hating them being there, and those who didn’t care either way as they just had their British masters replaced by Roman ones. Either way they were there, and would be for the next 340 years or so. But the occupation and situation in the area would have changed greatly in that time as legions were withdrawn to other areas and then replaced. The military situation also changed in the fourth century when the troops were allowed to marry local women.

It is also wrong to imagine a bunch of Italians patrolling the area and the Wall. They were from all over the Empire and in later years were dominated by feoderati and not legionaries. Also get out of your mind the idea of the military regalia of the Hadrianic period, these guys could very often be covered head to foot in chain mail and carry large oval shields.

So, why was the Wall built? Well it wasn’t just to keep the Picts or the northern Britons out. Both could sail around it if they wanted to raid. It was as much as a policing post where the Romans could keep an eye on who (and what) was passing between northern Britain and the diocese of Britannia.    It would also have prevented that great Celtic past time of cattle raiding.(Britannia by the mid 4th century was in fact five provinces: Maxima Caesariensis, Valentia (possibly called Constantia first), Flavia Caesariensis, Britannia Prima, Britannia Secunda. Durham would have either been in Britannia Secunda or Valentia, depending on whose theory you go with).

It would appear that northern Britannia was as much trouble to the Romans as those north of the Wall hence why there were so many forts and camps in the area. It was indeed a military region in the same way that what is now Mid and North Wales were, and never really truly became Romanised like the east and southeast of England. Ironically, however, the North is where a great many vici (villages) sprouted up next to forts, so the locals probably had a great deal of contact with the military.  Later, when they were allowed to marry, the vici disappear and the inhabitants of them probably moved into the forts.

Hadrian, who had the Wall built, decided it was time to stop expanding their British territory, and their territories in general, and pulled it back to the Solway/Tyne isthmus.  However, it must be stressed that it was the most heavily garrisoned border in the whole of the Empire.

What is slightly odd about County Durham is the lack of Roman and civilian settlements on the coast. There have been a number of small finds but nothing major. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the archaeological saying goes and it may be just that the haven’t been found yet.

We mustn’t forget good old Newcastle in all this; or ‘The Toon’ as it is affectionately known. The Romans called it Pons Aelius, and it was just another fort on the Wall. It was home to the Cohort Prima Cornoviorum, possibly the only British formed Roman unit at one point.  The Cornovii (Corno-why-ee) in question (as there were two other tribes of the same name) would be those of what is now Shropshire (where I now live) and parts of Heredfordshire and Cheshire.

Binchester was the largest fort in the region, one of a chain built in the late 70s of the first century AD to guard Dere Street, the main north-south Roman road east of the Pennines and the principal route to Scotland. It controlled the crossing of the River Wear. Inscriptions show that the units stationed here at one time or another included a squadron of Spanish cavalry (Ala Vettonum civium Romanorum), a unit of Dutch cavalry (Cuneus Frisiorum) and possibly a detachment of the Sixth Legion.

In Part Two we’ll get to the Dark Age bit!

Thanks for reading,



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In Search of the ‘Original’ Arthur – Part Nine

UPDATED 1.6.12


(I was hoping this would be the last blog in this series, so I could end on that auspicious ‘Celtic’ number 9 (3×3), but I’m afraid it’s become even longer!)

There are alternatives, of course, to those regions outlined in the previous blogs. One is put forward as a possibility by Christopher Gidlow in his latest book Revealing King Arthur.  Beside being an excellent rebuttal to the likes of Green, Higham and Dumville, his argument (or one of them, as he forwards several) that there could have been an Arthur based in the north of Britannia is well thought out.  (Of course, he’s not the first to have this theory).

Basing his proposal on evidence given by such credible names as Dark, Wilmott and even Dumville he shows that the north – that is the provinces of Britannia Secunda and possibly Valentia (see THIS blog) – could have survived under Roman military type rule for quite a long time.  Those Roman frontier troops left behind wouldn’t all have decided to take up farming; some would have set up their own petty kingdoms or decided to make a living out of protecting the locals, many of whom had married them.  (This is if the Romans hadn’t left the protection to the locals). This may have amounted to extortion in some cases.

The following quotes are from a paper called ‘The Post-Roman archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall AD 400-1000’ from Durham Archaeology, about the Roman forts of BANNA (Birdoswald – 1), VINDOLANDA (Chesterholm – 2), ARBEIA (South Shields – 3) and VINOVIA (Binchester – 4 -not on the Wall but 30 miles south of it):

“ [...] The south granary was clearly reused, possibly as a hall building, with the hearths at the western end provided for the leading figures in the fort community. If the timber structures were the functional successors of this building, as seems likely, the TPQ for the first is c 388-95. As the Theodosian coin was worn, however, this could be assumed to be later, perhaps c 420. An estimated life of 50 years for each building would bring the close of occupation to c 520.”

A very interesting closing date of occupation.  If the information about the Battle of Camlan is correct, and it happened 21 years after Badon, that could place Arthur’s fall between 511 and  521, depending on whose dating you go with. Could be a complete coincidence of course.

Though Birdoswald and South Shields are the only detailed sequences on the Wall line itself, there is another similar sequence in the Wall hinterland at Binchester (Ferris and Jones 1996, 58). These sequences clearly demonstrate continuity of occupation within at least some Wall forts beyond the conventionally understood end of the Roman period in Britain, and into the fifth century. Further, the character of this occupation clearly changes during the fifth century.

Also at Vindolanda the early Christian tombstone of Brigomaglos dating to c. 500 indicates a late Roman / early post-Roman Christian presence (Jackson 1982, 62), as does other recently discovered artefactual evidence.”

It’s worth reading more about what Tony Wilmott of English Heritage himself has to say.  The following is from an article that appeared on the BritArch website:

Roman commanders Dark Age kings

“[...] It may be that the kind of commander-patronus attested by the large commanders’ houses in the late forts continued to be an important figure as the 5th century went on. These men may have been of sufficient influence to become imperceptibly more like chieftains in control of warbands than Roman commanders. Such an idea would explain the use of the hall as a centre to the settlement. Birdoswald may have become the centre of a small petty kingdom indistinguishable from others with totally different antecedents north of the Wall, or to the west of Britain.”

Birdoswald Roman Fort

Both Christopher Gidlow and, more surprisingly, Francis Prior, have commented that if ever there was a place crying out for an Arthur, it was Birdoswald.

(There could be evidence of many more post-Roman forts on the Wall, many not having their finds published yet, and I’d point anyone wanting to know more to August Hunt’s article on the subject at Robert Vermaat’s Faces of Arthur website. August himself puts forward nearby Etterby (once known as Arthuriburgum) as the site of Arthur’s ‘court)’.

As another proponent for an Hiberno-British or Irish Arthur, Gidlow realises that such positions in the north could have lead to Arthur either rising to a command position or inheriting one.  His ethnic background wouldn’t have mattered a jot, just as those around him could have been descended from any number of ‘nationalities’.   By this point they all would be, essentially, Britons.  Of course, some of these areas would eventually have morphed into kings and kingdoms, as mentioned above.

One does have to wonder how a powerful Hiberno-Briton might have come about here, especially since military service was hereditary; as the same became with later kingdoms in the area.  Historians might be able to leave it floating, but for a story or screenplay you need to have more than that.  If Gaelic blood came from his father, then how would he become part of this military society?  There are only a few possible Hiberno-British units that we know of: those derived from the Attacotti after the so called Barbarian Conspiracy of 369. The Attacotti (Atticoti, Attacoti,Atecotti, Atticotti, Ategutti) are an enigmatic group of Britons (if, indeed they were Britons) as no one can be sure where they were from.  Most place them in the Western Isles, but there is an argument put forward by Philip Rance (‘Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: The Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain’, 2001) that they were a sept of the Déisi of Demetia and known as the aichechthúatha (‘client people’), so would have been in southwestern Wales. (There are counter arguments to this on linguistic grounds, which I won’t go in to).

(For further thoughts on the Attacotti, see THIS blog).

An earlier idea I had for a screenplay (and one to which I have recently returned) had this Arthur’s father serving with the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani (or the Honoriani Atecotti seniores) in Gaul.  After the unit is virtually decimated and his father killed, whilst supporting Riothamus, the remnants flee to Amorica. The 15 year old Arthur then ends up in Dumnonia and the story goes on from there. (In case anyone is wondering … no, the Attecotti didn’t have a dragon as a shield pattern).

So how might Arthur as an Hibernian-Briton be on the Wall? Not because of being Hibernian, but because it appears to have been a closed system?  Well, he could have joined as a mercenary or part of a bucellarii, fighting under a commander, if they were short of numbers.  If his father had his own fianna warband (which would make him a ri fianna), they could have given their services to one of these groups on the Wall and, eventually, stayed with them.  Alternatively, Arthur could have been a ri fianna and done this with his own warband.   If his Hiberno blood was from his mother, the answer is simpler, of course.  However, if Eigr was actually his mother’s name, I’ve yet to find an Irish name that could have sounded anything like it.

(For further thoughts on what military position Arthur might have had, see THIS blog).


The above could take us back to the Campbell genealogy one of which shows a descent to Coel Hen, thought by some to have been the last Roman Dux Britanniarum (‘Duke of the [Five] Britains’) who was militarily in-charge of the Wall area and the northern provinces.  However, no other Coeling genealogy shows Arthur as one of the descendants.

Cunedda’s northern battles

But Arthur also is given a connection to the Coelings via Cunedda who (supposedly) married Coel’s daughter Guaul.  This sounds a little bit suspect as the name means ‘Wall’ … although, I believe it can also mean ‘blood‘.  He may, instead, have given his support to Coel and the Wall … if there was, indeed, any connection.  The poem Marwnad Cunedda (‘The Death-son of Cunedda’) attributed to the 6th century bard Taliesin, but probably a later composer, has Cunedda fighting at Caer Weir (2), somewhere in County Durham just south of the Wall, and Caer Lliwelydd/Ligualid (Carlisle), Roman LVGVVALIVM (1): practically on the Wall.  (Interestingly, this poem makes no mention of Gwynedd!).


You get those who, understandably, try to give Arthur a sphere of activity.  Many can’t accept that there would be a Britannia (and beyond) wide ranging ‘commander’ as Gidlow and others have suggested so they look for battles just in the north, or the east and the south … or just in Wales (Blake and Lloyd).

There is another possibility, beside the one that says these proposed wide ranging battles belong to different Arthurs or they were just made up.  That is that these battles belong to different times in his career, fighting alongside different kings.  This would see him, not as a Britannian Magister Militum, as forwarded by Gidlow, but a ‘general for hire’ figure with his own large retinue.  He would be a mercenary in effect, fighting for whichever province or civitas needed him.  As for him only fighting ‘Saxons’ as the Historia Brittonum seems to imply, I tried to show in my ‘Arthurian’ poem that it would only take one mention of them for us to think these are only group(s) he fought. He could have battled against every one of the various ethnic peoples of these islands.

Even if we could identify a region where he was from it may give us no indication as to where he fought his battles or who were his British allies and enemies.  There’s the added problem of not even knowing what his status was: high king? king? prince? chieftain? general? Magister Militum?  Each of these could give us different options. We don’t know the state of Britannia and how fragmented of united it was. Were the Britannia Secunda and Valentia provinces still in existence? If so, were they allies and did they see themselves as part of Britannia still? Were Britannia Prima and the northern provinces (if Valentia was northern) allies? Would they come to one another’s aid? Each answer give potentially different outcomes.

Could an Hiberno-British Arthur have been at the Wall? It appears as good a place as any of the other sites and I can see why many favour it above all others. Its downside (for an Hiberno-British Arthur) is it isn’t in an Hiberno-British region; but the possible reasons for him being there, outlined above, could answer this.

In the next blog I want to briefly look at the Historia Britonnum and the Annales Cambriae and see what light they might shed on an Hiberno-British Arthur.

Thanks for reading,



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

Arthur named in ‘Y Gododdin

(Some of what appears below is also in the blog about Arthurian Poetry, so apologies for the duplication if you’ve read those).

Attributed to the bard/prince Neirin/Aneirin, ‘Y Gododdin’ (The Gododdin) is a British poem (actually a collection of poems), the original parts of which are thought to date to the early 7th century. (Koch, 1999).  It tells of a doomed battle at Catraeth (thought by most, but not all, to be Catterick in North Yorkshire) between the men of Gododdin and their allies against the ‘English’ of what would become Northumbria:  the Bernicians and the Deirans.  In it is contained what is thought to be the earliest reference to Arthur:

Ef gwant tra thrichant echasaf,

Ef lladdai a pherfedd ac eithaf,

Oedd gwiw ym mlaen llu llariaf,

Goddolai o haid meirch y gaeaf.

Gocharai brain du ar fur caer

Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.

Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,

Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwawrddur.


He charged before three hundred of the finest,

He cut down both centre and wing,

He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,

he gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.

He said black ravens on the ramparts of fortress

Though he was no Arthur.

Among the powerful ones in battle,

in the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)

John Koch in his translation of the work conclude that this section is part of the original B Text and not a later addition, as mentioned earlier, although there are other scholars who disagree with him (Isaacs et al). Even if Koch is right, we still can’t be certain, as explored and mentioned in earlier blogs, which Arthur it refers to: an ‘original’ or, possibly, Artúr mac Áedán or even Arthur son of Bicoir, both of whom could have been active in the area.  If we knew the exact date of the battle we might have a better chance of coming to some informed conclusion.  By this I mean, if the battle or the poem took place before Dalriada became the enemy then it could indeed be referring to him.  If it happened after, then it is unlikely.  Unless they were in the habit of praising their enemy.

Unless Y Gododdin is referring to someone other than the Arthur of Badon fame he was obviously gaining public attention in the last quarter of the 6th century and the fact that most of the Arthur names occur in the North has led some to the conclusion that he must have originally been from there or had been active there.  It would certainly make sense of Aneirin mentioning him if he was also their most famous ‘local’ hero.  But ‘local’ could mean anywhere from the Wall northwards.

Richard Barber (The Figure of Arthur) concludes that because the poem deals only with people in the present (or recent past) this Arthur was of the same era.  It’s a valid point, but what if there was another reason?  What if it was because poems about Arthur, whether based on earlier ones or recently written, were current?  This might not only explain why he’s mention in Y Gododdin but why at the same time the name was being given to ‘princes’.  If it was ‘known’ that the hero of these poems was also an HIberno-Briton or Cambro-Irish it would give even more reason.

Praise the lord!

Like many great men before him and since, Arthur may have fallen out of favour towards the end of his life or after.  It happened to Cromwell and it even happened to Churchill.   This could explain the gap between his supposed death and the Arthur names (and poetry) appearing.  However, two or three generations later great swathes of Britain were falling under ‘Angle’ and ‘Saxon’ rule.  The British probably needed a hero more than ever.  Some clever king or his courtly (or warband) bard may have come up with the idea of using Arthur, and a poem, or poems, in the style of newfangled (if they were) battle eulogy, accurate or not, and so it/they was/were composed.

These poems could already have been based on folk memory, unless there was poetry composed during his life and it outlived him, so could themselves have been a corruption – deliberate or otherwise – of events.  Even poetry composed during his life would be eulogies.  Bards weren’t historian, they were there to prays their lords and make them famous, if they could, and there’s plenty of evidence for the early poetry, if not being changed, then added to by later generations. (See ‘A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem’ blog for further thoughts).

What would be odd is if Badon was added at this point in time (Late 6th century), had he not fought there.  Not impossible, but any stories must have been passed down through folklore only two or three generations old, regardless of the poetry.  What I do find conceivable, is that it was added much later; after all Badon doesn’t appear to have a rhyming couplet in the Historia Brittonum battle list, although I gave it one in my feeble attempt of a battle poem: Saeson (Saxon). (But it also should be noted that battles could be part of internal rhyming and not just line endings). He could also have gone from being portrayed as fighting at Badon in a poem to being the victor and leader.  These poems may have only called him “leader of battle”, but only this ancient audience may have known his true status.  There are many poems that don’t call their hero a king, even though we know they were.  (See blog ‘Arthur: King or Commander?)

Such poems, in the latter half of the 6th century, must have been used to inspire the British warriors who found themselves fighting against the powerful and ever expanding English.  These hypothetical Arthurian poems (or poem) may have been followed by the rekindling of old stories, some more fanciful than others, and his fame, and the stories, would begin to grow – beyond what he was worth some may have thought – and the poems travelled throughout Britain and beyond, from whichever locale they originated from, recited before battles in certain regions to inspire the combatants.  Not every region may have used this hero.  Some may have been uncertain about his lineage or his mixed blood origins (if they were), others may have sided with whoever it was that defeated him at Camlann. This is, of course, only if he was historical and not an historicized mythical figure. (See THIS blog for that particular discussion)

The naming game

At the time this hypothetical poem is in circulation (if Koch’s dating is right) a prince was born in Dalriada to a king called Áedán and, if we follow this hypothesis, decided to name his son Arturius after this hero of old, in honour of the fact that he too had an Hiberno-British boy.  Not long after (or possibly even before) three hundred miles away in Demetia, a king called Petr has heard the poem and, having a similar mixed blooded (or culturally mixed) son, whom he may have wished greatness upon, names him Arthur also.  As, possibly, does a certain Briton of Kintyre called Bicoir.  Meanwhile Britons simply didn’t use that name, as far as we know. To begin with, perhaps, because it was thought to be an Hiberno-British name; later it may be because of his mythical greatness.

Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) c. 550 – c...

Image via Wikipedia

This hypothetical poem, having reached the North, or having originated from it, is perhaps even recited by a warband bard called Neirin (Aneirin) to inspire the retinues of the Gododdin and their allies against their Bernician, Deiran, Picti, Scotti and probably British foes.  Perhaps their forefathers had even fought with him at the Battle of Celidon Wood … if this too wasn’t a later addition or in another region.  It would makes sense, in a poem that was about ‘local’ figures of fame.  After all, Arthur too supposedly fell in battle and, if those who identify the Battle of Camlan with Camboglanna (Castlesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall are right, it too was in their region. (Lots of “ifs”).

In the great British tradition of the trinity and triad, his fame splits into three different forms: to the peasantry he becomes a stone throwing giant, to the storytellers a fighter of the Otherworld and the supernatural, but to the warband bards and warriors, he remains the ‘leader of battle’, if what came down to Nennius is anything to go by.

But, this is all hypothetical; although it could have as much weight as the Arthur of Y Gododdin being one of these other northern figures.  However, if Arthur map Petr came a generation before all these, it could, as Professor Ken Dark suggests, be him. Someone had to have been given the name first and if we didn’t have Arthur being named as the victor at Badon or the infamous battle list, this is who it might point to.  As stated in a previous blog, even if the Arthur mentioned in Y Gododdin isn’t an Arthur of Badon, it still doesn’t prove there wasn’t one.

In the the next blog I’ll explore another region that could have given us an Hiberno-British Arthur: the Wall.

Thanks for reading,



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