Tag Archives: Ken Dark

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

To be or not to be?

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Arthur didn’t exist, and this is because they either have genealogies (Arthur ap Pedr) or are attested to in trusted historical documents (Artúr mac Áedán, Artúr mac Coaning, Arthur ap Bicoir). Yet Arthur of Badon is attested to in two historical documents (and some dubious genealogies), but we are told these cannot be given as evidence, because they are not contemporary (Dumville) or the Arthur they contain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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a striking resemblance!

Merlin reads his prohecies to King Vortigern. ...

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

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

Weight of evidence v popular evidence

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

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


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

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

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

Etymologically speaking …

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

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

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

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

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



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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part 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 – Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Six

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.


If Ken Dark (and others) are right, and the eastern provinces were still trying to function, even with ‘Anglo-Saxon’ presence, then Arthur could have been used in the fight back against them within these provinces. There could have been British elite elements within them that came together to fight the cultural and military expansion of the Germanic (and Scandinavian?) elements. This may seem more unlikely, especially in light of what Gildas says about the division between these two cultures in his day after the victory of Badon and subsequent battles, but it’s still a possibility. Below is a map created for the blog All Quite On The Eastern Front? that shows the possible british enclaves. (Ken Dark think these eastern British areas may have been even larger).

A rough placing of the 'Anglo-Saxon' regions (map based on Howard Wiseman))


Many have struggled to place the battles within these two eastern provinces, but without much success. This is not surprising for the opposite reason to the Cornish and Welsh or even Scottish battle sites: the domination of English place names.

A none-royal military dux could be exactly what we would find in what was the Civil Zone. If Arthur was, indeed, the defeater of the southern ‘Saxons’, then, perhaps, this is where the battles should be. This is where Collingwood tried to place them in the 1930s … in the southeast. Fighting mainly within these provinces certainly shouldn’t be ruled out, but it is slightly harder to understand why all those western seaboard kings gave their sons the name in the late 6th century – unless he was brought in from outside to the eastern provinces, or married in from outside – or as to why Gildas talks of a division between Britons and ‘Saxons’ after Badon.


Whilst most cities had gone into disuse by Gildas’s time, archaeology has shown us that there are a number that didn’t: Wroxeter, York, Chester, Silchester, London,  Cirencester and others. What these cities were like at the end of the 5th century, or what they were used for, is hotly debated.  No matter what their use was - administrative, market  centre, ecclesiastical - any city would need its own militia to protect it, and either their hinterland supplied extra men when needed or they themselves may have needed to supply some men to a provincial force. The cities could have brought in mercenaries or feoderati. Two of these cities had Irish (or Goidelic speaking Britons) buried in them: Roman Wroxeter (Viriconium Cornoviorum) in modern day Shropshire, and Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) in Wiltshire:

  • Wroxeter: CVNORIX | MACVSM/A | QVICO[L]I[N]E, ‘Cunorix son of Maqui Coline’ (c.460-475, Wright/Jackson/1968)
  • Silchester – EBICATO[S]/[MAQ]I MUCO[I--], ‘of Ebicatus, son of the tribe of … ‘ (c. 500-700, Fulford/Clarke/1999 or 350-425, Fulford et al 2000).

Wroxeter was in Britannia Prima, but Silchester was in Maxima Caesariensis … if we’ve got the borders right! What these gentlemen were, we may never know, but they could have been warriors.

What these cities called their military leaders is unknown. Perhaps St Germanus’ meeting a man of tribuni status at St Albans (Verulamium), might point to it being this, but this event was some sixty years previous.


The one point on which most of these scholars who forward the possible survival of the provinces agree on, and I’d have to agree with them too, is the unlikelyhood of a dux in charge of warriors of all the remaining British run provinces in Britannia, or, to add to this, that a comes would be allowed to function cross provincial borders … but, never say never. This being the case it makes it hard to know why a dux of Britannia Prima, for example, would be fighting north of the Wall … if this is where some of the Arthurian battles were? Conversely, what would a northern dux of Valentia, for example, be doing fighting at Badon, IF it was in the southwest, in Britannia Prima, or even at the proposed Lincolnshire site (Thomas Green, 2008)?

Of course, the simple answer could be the battles weren’t in the north, or those in the north were either later additions or the battles of some other Arthur. All possible. There are other possibilities: provinces assisted one another at times; Arthur fulfilled the position as dux (or comes or tribunus) for two or more provinces, at different times in his career; he fought battles as a warband ‘battle leader’ in the Old North (between the Walls)  and became a dux (or comes or tribunus) for a southern province; he was actually only a dux of a single kingdom/civitas and this still could see him in charge of ‘kings’ in the form of petty kings. Poetry or oral ‘history’ about him would probably not remember or mention such details, or mix details of deferent parts of his life into one narrative. However, as discussed earlier, at the time of Badon, was it only the more Romanised regions (and possibly the north) that would have military only (none-royal) duces? Perhaps not, and the evidence from Gildas isn’t conclusive.

What about a Magister Militum? This was the highest military rank you could achieve and a very famous 5th century one, Aegidius, is said to have been made a king by the Franks (reges Romanorum/Romanorum rex/princeps Romanorum in various sources), although some scholar have doubted this. David Dumville has wonder if this person could have either inspired or was used as a model by the British in the more Romanised regions (2003). Is this what Ambrosius Aurelianus was? As mentioned earlier, it is this position that Gidlow wonders being given to the ‘Saxon’, ‘Hengist’ (or whatever his name might have been), which is why they were able to take two provinces during the rebellion.

If there was a Magister Militum in late 5th century Britain, it’s impossible to discern him from the only source we have.


To digress slightly, the one questions that is always foremost in my mind with the ‘continuity’ argument (as opposed to those who say Britain fragmented not long after Roman withdrawal)  and that is why, if we had enough soldiers in Britannia and it was still a united diocese, we couldn’t stop the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ rebellion and domination of culture? If the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ seized the two more Romanised province then why didn’t the huge provinces of the north and west band together to expel them?

Complex question, I know, which probably has an even more complex answer. Those who argue fragmentation would simply point out these areas weren’t united enough to defeat them, but there are other alternatives:

1. The northern and western provinces were united but didn’t care what was happening in the east; perhaps even thinking these provinces deserved it. It didn’t seem a problem until they became a threat to them.

2. They saw a benefit in these provinces being weakened and took advantage of it.

3. The whole of the diocese was actually under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ control (or rule) for a while at least, via a Germanic vicarus and Magister Militum as per Christopher Gidlow’s, and Nick Higham goes along the lines.

There’s no reason why it couldn’t be the latter if there had been a coup d’état. It would just be one more usurpation with a ‘Saxon’ in charge instead of, say, a Spaniard (Magnus Maximus). (For this to work, however, it would have to be early on, I would have thought, when there was a diocese). But they then brought more ‘friends’ over the North Sea to help and, in time, they militarily outnumbered the British even though they were still outnumbered perhaps 10:1 or even 20:1 in the population as a whole.

In the last part (promise) I will look at civil roles and if any conclussins can be drawn from all my ramblings.

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


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



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

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


Many great military leaders have gone on to political position, either by force or being elevated to them. If Britain’s provinces did survive and tried to keep some form of Roman structure (even if not law), it is not inconceivable that someone who was once a general of some kind went on to be, or was given, the position as a rectores (governor) or even king. As noted, the tribuni of the province of Egypt also held a military position. If the chronological gap between the subduing of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ (unless Nick Higham’s theory is right and they subdued the Britons) and Arthur’s supposed death at Camlan, twenty-one years after Badon, have any bases in truth (and it may not) then it could have been that he fulfilled this position for at least some of this time. Or, he could have been elevated to a king … and not necessarily an over-king. Or, perhaps Camlan could have been him trying to rise to a military position again, and failing? We’ll never know. (I’m I’m going to explore this question of the supposed gap between Badon and Camlan at a later date).


Gildas seems to indicate that the five kings he chastises were led by a ‘Pharaoh’, and some have wondered if he is referring to a provincial governor or military commander. Here’s what Gildas says:

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

He is obviously being metaphorical but how literal? He has already compared the Proud Tyrant to the Pharaoh of Isaiah 19. The above is a bit of a strange sentence, as the ‘five aforesaid lascivious horses’  should, perhaps, be leading the Pharaoh as metaphorical horses, not the other way around. If it were this way around it might mean they were leading their governor (or over-king) down the wrong path, and he couldn’t do anything about it; but this appears to mean they were following his lead … if he was a ‘he’. Gildas, unfortunately, says nothing more on the matter. Was there someone above these kings even Gildas wouldn’t dare to chastise? Possibly. The alternative is Gildas simply meant that they where led by the example of the Proud Tyrant; that is, they were carrying on in his manner. Nick Higham takes this to mean that they behaved in exactly the same way as the council that ill advised (in his eyes) the Proud Tyrant to bring in ‘Saxon’ federates.

*The Proud Tyrant is generally thought to have been (the over-king or equivalent?) Vortigern, and Bede certainly names him as this figure, (as does a later version of the DEB) but there are some scholars who believe it could be referring to either of the usurping emperors from Britannia, Magnus Maximus or Constantine III. If it were one of these, I’d say the latter.


There is one more character worth looking at and that is the one Gildas says is the kings’ “father the devil” (pater diabolus). This Higham takes to be the over-king of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (Aelle?) but he translates it as ‘father-devil“. It’s an excellent observation given that Gildas refers to the ‘Saxons’ as devils. (It’s not one David Dumville agrees on). Gildas also calls Constantine of Dumnonia an “instrument of the devil” and he appears to mean the devil in the Biblical sense. So, as far as my none-academic, none Latin literate mind can tell, Gildas could simply mean … well, “their father the devil“. Unless this ‘father-devil’ could be an over-king/over-lord of Britannia Prima? I will have to bow to those of superior knowledge in all things Gildasian and Latin.


There are two questions to be answered here:

1. Could there have been provincial duces, comes and/or tribunus?

2. If Arthur existed, could he have been one of these?

If my reading of the evidence is right (and it may not be!) there where duces (military leaders) even in Gildas’s time (early to mid 6th century), but there’s no mention (unless that ‘Pharaoh‘ is he) of an overal dux (but see below). Gildas doesn’t appear to mention the north, however, so we can’t say for this region., (Although there are arguers for Maglocunus being of the north and not (just?) North Wales).

Gildas is more than a generation away from Badon, so things could have been different then. In the west and those regions that had kings, they too could be the duces, and Gildas seems to say as much. Only areas that still retain some semblance of a division of civil and military rule may have had duces who weren’t kings (per se). Those kings in the west and north who weren’t perhaps so war-like, or had visions of old Imperial grandeur, could also have used duces to lead their warbands. It might be more correct to say these war leaders were tribunus: generals, but given the name duces in later (Gildasian) times? Christopher Gidlow in his book The Reign of King Arthur (2004) also points out that the term duces could be used in all manner of ways in Late Antiquity (pp.41-44).

The Dux of Britannia Prima?

There’s a very good conclusion to Gildas’s use of these five kings of Britannia Prima (?) made by Professor Higham, and that is that Gildas is berating them not just because of their lapsed moral ways, but because he knows they are the province’s (or Britannia’s) only military hope and is trying to scare them into doing something about the ‘Saxon’ problem. Higham also points out that Gildas spends more time on Maglocunus than on all the other kings put together, and this was because, in Gildas’s eyes at least, he was the most powerful amongst them or, perhaps, held some kind of sway over them, or some of them. Gildas says this king is “higher than almost all duces of Britannia in both royalty and physique“. Not “all” but “almost all”, so there was another. In Higham’s eyes this is the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ over-king, in GIdlow’s it’s Outigern. Whether Higham is right is another matter, and his conclusions fits with his ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dominance of even eastern Britannia Prima, so it might be coloured by this. (But who am I to argue?).

Could this mean Maglocunus was the Dux Britannia Prima at the time of Gildas, and so he as an over-king held this ‘military’ position? If Higham is wrong, then who is the dux who is higher than him? Someone of the north, if Maglocunus wasn’t from there or held power over it? It doesn’t seems to be one of the other kings mentioned. Gidlow wonders if this figure was Outigern.

If there were other positions active before Gildas’s time he wasn’t aware of them, or didn’t mention them, but it would seem that the LIfe of St Germanus mentions a tribuni, but this was over a hundred years before Gildas. However, we have got a ‘protector‘ in western Britannia. I’ve mentioned this title before, but here’s a quote, again from Robert Vermaat’s Fectio website, to tell you what one was:

The protector (title) was originally a member of the select corps that Gallienus created as a group of loyal men around him. This group changed into a kind of school for officers, making men who were promoted from the ranks to become a protector before they were posted to their new ranks and duties. Some of these protectores were posted to the staff of field commanders (deputati) to gain experience, and performed a great number of duties. They could be sent to round up recruits and vagrants, or act as border guards controlling exported goods. Their more military duties could include the arrest of important persons, as related by Ammianus Marcellinus, who himself was a member of the ten protectores domestici in the staff of the general Ursicinus.This group was named domestici (men serving in the entourage of the Emperor, although also dispersed over the lower army staffs) to distinguish them from ordinary protectores, who succeeded to a command of a unit after serving for a number of years as protector. Other military tasks included special missions, such as preparing temporary forts on campaign, or the arrest of officers.

When a soldier reached this stage of cadet officer, it finally meant a break from his original unit, because only the Emperor could decide to transfer men from one unit to another. Promotion was therefore very slow and it is not surprising that higher officers used their influence to get instant commissions for their sons. Bribery was rife in the Roman army, but men appointed thus instead of rising through the ranks had to pay certain fees and charges. When during the fifth century the flexibility of the promotion system decreased, the domestici and protectores became a static body.

I doubt very much that this is what Vortiporix (the gentleman who held this title in Demetia) was, but old Imperial ranks and titles (such as rectores, magister and speculatores) were being used, even if their role wasn’t the same. Counter to Collingwood’s theory, a comes (companion or count) with a field army may be the one position that didn’t survive, but a dux of the time may have fulfilled that role also.


With all this in mind, it seems that it it is entirely possible that an historical Arthur (if he existed) fulfilled some kind of none-royal military position … someone did! This could have been any of the three ranks, but with more likely that of tribuni or dux. If there was a a military provincial dux I would favour there being one of the north, as Ken Dark suggests, because of its Roman military past and the forts that were reused, but other regions having one (or several) is not out of the question. In fact, if we are reading Gildas right, they did have several, we just don’t know their exact military function. It’s something we may never be able to answer as we may never know the political situation and structure of late 5th century Britannia, unless there is some miraculous literary find.

Arthur in such a position could make sense of two things: why the name was only used by later Hiberno-Britannians (or regions) or Hiberno-Britons (see THIS blog) and why he, like Ambrosius Aurelianus, left no (reliable) lineage. The first reason could have been because he was, indeed, from one of the several British regions of a Gaelic speaking/British mix (and this could even include what is now part of Cornwall) and was chosen as a military leader because of his past military deeds, because it was felt he was someone they could trust … or because of his wealth.  He could have been from within a province or brought in from another one … or, even from outside of the diocese.

The second reason for an Arthur of Badon not appearing in any (reliable) regional genealogies would be because he wouldn’t be of a kingdom’s royal line, or an over-king, so no genealogy would survive. But that only may apply to the west and north. If he was from the east he may not leave any genealogy even if he was a great king because of the ‘Saxon’ conquest. (Yet Wales preserved even northern kings’ lineages). Whatever he was and wherever he was from, (if he existed!) he would, however, had to have still been a ‘wealthy’ and powerful man.

This blog has explored only one possibility for what Arthur might have been, and it certainly helps makes sense of him being in charge of kings and their warbands in battle as per the H.B., but not being a king (or major king) himself if he was in a military position. However, there are always other options, which I’ll explore at a later date.

Thanks for taking the time to read the lengthy ramblings of a layman, and, once again I look forward to your comments, thoughts and corrections,


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


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

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

UPDATED 20.1.12 Updates in bold type


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

Gildas says:

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

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

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

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


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

Maxima Caesariensis

Flavia Caesariensis

Britannia Prima

Britannia Secunda


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

Provinces based on various theories.

Provinces based on J C Mann's theory

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

So we cannot assume that the political and military situation in Gildas’s time was the same as at the time of Badon … unless you’re one of those of the opinion that Gildas meant that Badon only happened one month previous to him writing and not 43 years and 1 month. This argument is based on Gildas’s Latin, and this is beyond me I’m afraid. Most take the view that it was the latter, but there is also a theory that places the battle of Mount Badon, not just to a possible decade but to something far more specific: February, 483! This solution, by D. O. Croinin, is based on the 84 year ‘paschal cycle’. (The ‘lost’ irish 84-year easter table rediscovered, Peritia (6-7), 1987-1988, p. 238). Another theory sees Gildas meaning it happened 43 years and 1 month after Ambrosius’ first victory and another that is was this duration after the Saxon Advent.

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


If these military positions, or one of them, did exist, in some form, in mid to late 5th century Britannia, the question arises as to who exactly these individuals would command: the province’s various warbands or his own provincial army … or both? Generals of the late empire would very often be in command of feoderati (federates) and/or bucellarii (literally meaning ‘biscuit eaters’), but, of course, they could afford them! The former would come in federate ethnic groups, the latter as individual mercenaries, and, perhaps, some ethnic groups.  Bucellarii where his personal household troop and could add up to a considerable number when needed. The magister militum Aegidius had 12,000 at one time.

Here is an interesting quote from a paper with the very long title of ARMIES, WAR, AND SOCIETY IN THE WEST, ca.300-ca.600:LATE ROMAN AND BARBARIAN MILITARY ORGANIZATIONS AND THE ‘FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE’ by Richard Abels:

Generals used federates and bucellarii

Dick Whittaker observes that the “twin process of soldiers becoming landlords and landlords becoming soldiers” in the late empire facilitated 1) the collapse of the frontiers, 2) the integration/fusion of German ‘barbarian’ and Roman culture, 3) the breakdown of law and the growth of a new culture of private power in which ‘the poor became increasingly dependent on the arbitrary will of the landed rich” (Rich 281). As soldiers became landlords and landlords became the masters of soldiers, private individuals became the heads of military retinues of bucellarii. Though by law bucellarii were required to take an oath not only to their employers (a private contract), but one as well to the emperor (public). Surviving Roman administrative records show that bucellarii performed public duties (under the direction of their civilian masters) and were liable for military service if called upon by government authorities. The wealthy Apion family of early sixth-century Egypt received tax breaks for hiring bucellarii, whom they used to collect taxes and maintain order during games in the hippodrome. (Lee 165, citing Liebeschuetz, Barbarians and Bishops 45-6. But, as Whittaker points out, “the public oath was of limited relevance if the patron rebelled or if imperial rule was not recognized: the loyalty of the soldiers than became private obsequium [a personal following]” (295).

Archaeologically, one of the key developments of the fifth century was the increasing ‘nucleation of rural sites. … Small farms disappeared, many vici (villages) were abandoned or removed to old Iron Age hilltop sites, while larger villas … survived, expanded and were often fortified. … [There is evidence] of concentration of property holdings, the increased isolation and inaccessibility of estates and the compulsion on peasants to seek the refuge of the rich’ (292).

Increasingly in the fifth century, the “remnants of the Roman army operated in towns,” and bands of bucellarii in the service of local great men, their patrons, controlled the countryside. The Roman sources term these bands as ‘robbers,’ but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority.

This process was not restricted to ‘Roman’ landlords. It was true also of German chiefs, many of whom were ‘Roman’ generals or federate chieftains. The distinction between ‘Roman’ and ‘German’ itself was disappearing as the cultures merged.

Germanic bodyguards were used by Emperors and it could be as much that they were there, not just for their violent tendency, but because they were (usually) neutral and exotic. (They looked different and talked differently).* This could have been as much the reason some British elites used them as any other … although the fact Constantine III may have taken all the best units (not all) with him to the Continent in his bid for the western Empire may have something to do with it. However, just as happened in the Empire, your bodyguard could turn against you. (Interesting that the emperor Augustus didn’t dismiss his bodyguard, but put them on an island out of harms way* just as the Britons are supposed to have done with the ‘Saxons’ on the Isle of Thanet. (But see THIS blog).


The question comes as to how a provincial force would (or could) operate in Sub Roman Britain, especially if the likes of Higham and Dark are right and we had both ‘tribal’ (‘Celtic’) king based kingdoms (in the west and north) and more civil and military civitates in the Midlands and east, at the same time? How do you get powerful kings and their warbands to work under an ‘outside’ commander? The other question is, how would they be ‘paid’? (Higham’s theory not withstanding that this civil zone was under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suzerainty or Chris Wickham‘s theory on a greatly fragmented Britain).

The answer to the first question could be that they would probably need to function, in some way at least, modeled on the Late Roman army system. (This, of course, being complicated by the Late Roman Empire’s use of barbarian federates who fought in the own ways). Whether they followed what militarily changes had been going on on the Continent is another matter, and their system may have been an old fashioned one, or a mixture of British and Roman. It may also depend on the part of the old diocese that was in question. If we take northern Britannia first, this could have seen an overall commander in charge of the various forces/warbands that occupied/re-occupied the still existing forts there when they were needed to come together as a combined force. This dux could have either been some over-king (or the equivalent) or a general in the employ of an over-king (as envisaged by Ken Dark). If this over-king had illusions of old imperial Roman grandeur he just might have done the latter. However, if this was the case he may have had to come from a ‘wealthier’ region of the north where surplus grain could be grown, such as the Yorkshire Plain. The old legions of the north had to rely on the southern grain regions to feed the amount of men that were there, though that number would be greatly reduced by this time.

We must also keep in mind, as discussed by Alex Woolf in ‘Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval’ (2003, p360), that kings of Gildas’s time – generally thought to be writing in the first half of the 6th century by all but Higham – in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) and before may not have functioned in the same way as later, Late 6th century and onward kings did and Gildas’s berated five kings of western Britannia may not be representative of those further east or in the north. Nor should the poetry of the 6th century bards Aneirin and Taliesin of the ‘Heroic Age’ be seen as showing how earlier or more Romanised ‘armies’ functioned. Woolf wonders if the other leaders Gildas isn’t happy with (but doesn’t mention by name) in these Romanised regions are the iudex mentioned by him:

Reges habet Britannia, sed tyrannos; judices habet, sed impios —“kings Britain has, but tyrants; judges she has, but wicked ones” (DEB, §27)

… if they are not one and the same as Gildas later says the kings also act as judges. Higham thinks these leaders were the rectores, speculatores and duces (more on this later).

The question often arises as to why use feoderati and bucellarii when you could use your own indigenous people? There are two answers: 1) Using, what has been termed the Gurkha Syndrome by military sociologist C.H. Enloe, you chose the most feared warriors to deal with the feared enemy, just as the British used the Gurkhas, and ‘Saxons’ were certainly feared. 2) Contrary to public perception, mercenaries are actually more likely to fight because that is their chosen profession, unlike some ‘levyman’ plucked from the fields. It also means you can keep them active for longer as they don’t have to farm. This is not to mention that mercenaries were very often put at the front, to save a kingdom’s own warriors.*

The more attractive alternative (and one perhaps borne out by the archaeology) might be that the various civitates and/or kingdoms that made up a province had to supply the men when needed for a combined force. Or, they were there to support a provincial army by only having to supplement a smaller group of feoderati and/or bucellarii that were the dux’s personal troop. This latter scenario might have been more acceptable, as any general with a large army could have become a threat himself. This would see him with his own smaller unit, or field army, for deal with raiding and the like, and supplemented by a combined large force for set battles. If this is how a historical Arthur did function it would be somewhat of an irony, especially if we add the possibility that he was of mix Hibernian (Gaelic) and British blood (More on this below or see THIS blog). Imagine: an Hiberno-British Arthur fighting with Germanic/Scandinavian/British/Hibernian mercenaries! Sacrilege! Yet perfectly normal for the time.

To need a provincial army, of course, would require there being a large enough enemy or enemies to warrant it, with a large enough border to protect, perhaps covering more than one civitas/kingdom. Or, maybe, it could be used to bring more force to bear at a particular point along that border than could be supplied by a single civitas/kingdom army? Is this restructuring what Ambrosius Aurelianus started and what enable the Britons to fight back?

How would they be paid? Well, they would be paid in kind, in some way; certainly not with money, except old coinage to melt down. They could also have been given food, metals or a share of any booty. They may have been promised land, either during service or after it.


Most Roman emperors didn’t lead from the front (although, of course, some did) unlike the Hellenistic kings, like Alexander, who did fight at the front.* How did the British kings in the 5th century see themselves? like their ancient British forefathers or like mini Roman emperors who used generals or what the later Welsh would call the pen teulu (captain of the kings retinue)? Could have been a mixture of course.


The Late Roman army had to change its tactics in the 5th century and learned that large pitched battles were not always the answer and smaller guerrilla type operations were the way to go against the northern barbarians. A type of warfare that had been used against them for centuries. It’s this kind of warfare that Collingwood envisaged Arthur undertaking as a comes with a field army against his enemies, who very often may not have been united themselves. It’s always possible that a commander of a provincial force would fight this way at times, as set battles with one large army against another is not always the answer. There would have to be offensive tactics used with surprise attacks on strategic points. Arthur’s supposed battles, many at rivers, may have been just this. Cutting off supply routes or attacking places such as salt production sites or mineral mines could also have been a method used.

(* My thanks to the Ancient Warfare podcast: War as a livelihood – Mercenaries in the Ancient world - of 04/03/09 for this information.)

In Part Three we’ll look at what Gildas called rectores. These could be provincial governors and I’ll explore if this is what Gildas meant by the term, as well as looking at the five provinces that made up the old Roman diocese of Britannia and the various theories as to some of them still existing in Gildas’s time.

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



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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

(For more information on inscribed stones of Wales: )

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

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

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



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Where Did Gildas Write?

Those eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that are old county maps of Britain.

Apologies for any typos, but I did this in somewhat of a hurry. I will try to correct in the coming days.

There have been many theories as to where the 6th century cleric/deacon, and later saint, Gildas wrote his polemic against five of the British kings at the time in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB). Most favour the Somerset/Dorset area, based on the fact Gildas seems to be berating kings of what was (or still was in his day) the province of Britannia Prima. However, there is one scholar who disagrees: E.A. Thompson.

Thompson, in a paper from 1978 (available at JSTOR), reads the evidence as Gildas writing somewhere north of Britannia Prima, or, possibly, Chester. (Chester was most likely in this province, but we’ll come back to that). His reasoning is based on a pretty good argument.

His thinking behind why Gildas may have been in the north is because, when discussing the section about the Scotti and Picti raids and the ‘Saxon’ deployment answer to this, it is all about the north. He doesn’t discuss the south at all with regards to Germanic feoderati.

Gildas tells us that the raids happen thusly …

No sooner were they [the Romans] gone, than the Picts and Scots, like worms which in the heat of mid-day come forth from their holes, hastily land again from their canoes, in which they had been carried beyond the Cichican valley, differing one from another in manners, but inspired with the same avidity for blood, and all more eager to shroud their villainous faces in bushy hair than to cover with decent clothing those parts of their body which required it. Moreover, having heard of the departure of our friends, and their resolution never to return, they seized with greater boldness than before on all the country towards the extreme north as far as the wall. To oppose them there was placed on the heights a garrison equally slow to fight and ill adapted to run away, a useless and panic-struck company, who clambered away days and nights on their unprofitable watch. Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground. Such premature death, however, painful as it was, saved them from seeing the miserable sufferings of their brothers and children. But why should I say more? they left their cities, abandoned the protection of the wall and dispersed themselves in flight more desperately than before. The enemy, on the other hand, pursued them with more unrelenting cruelty than before, and butchered our countrymen like sheep, so that their habitations were like those of savage beasts; for they turned their arms upon each other, and for the sake of a little sustenance, imbrued their hands in the blood of their fellow countrymen. Thus foreign calamities were augmented by domestic feuds; so that the whole country was entirely destitute of provisions, save such as could be procured in the chase. (DEB, 19)

Thompson goes on to argue …

According to him [Gildas], in the years preceding 446, the date of Aetius’s third consulship, the Picts and Scots, coming by sea (as he repeatedly emphasizes) seized northern Britain as far as the Wall. We do not know what exactly he means by ‘northern’ Britain; but since he describes the area as ‘all the northern and extreme part of the land as far as the wall’, omnem aquilonalem extremamque terrae partem . . . muro tenus, we can hardly be wrong in supposing that the area which he has in mind is some or all of that part of Britain which lies north of the Mersey and the Humber. The words, which are emphatic, would be wholly unsuited to describe the Midlands or Wales or East Anglia or any region that included any of these. As a description of Kent, of course, they would be ludicrous. On the other hand, the words cannot mean Scotland north of the Wall: the activities which Gildas goes on to describe undoubtedly took place within the old British diocese, and indeed he is unlikely to have cared what went on north of the Wall. He is not speaking here, then, about Britain as a whole. The events which he is narrating took place in the north only: the Picts and Scots came down by sea, landed on the east and west coasts of this region, and ravaged northwards as far as the Wall. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this fact: Gildas is speaking of the very north of Roman Britain.

(I’m not going to get into the argued dates of the Adventus Saxonum (Saxon Advent) here as that’s a whole other kettle of fish!)

Gildas then tells us how the ‘Proud Tyrant’ (thought to be Vortigern but other forward Constantine III) responded by using *‘Saxon’ feoderati against them, basing them in the ‘east of the island’. Meaning, according to Thompson, in the northeast, where the raids were happening, and not the southeast. (This could have been east and/or southeast Yorkshire and East Anglia – more below). It would certainly make more sense than the Isle of Thanet, which is where they are traditionally placed. Not that they weren’t there, but that this may have been a different group, possibly at a different (earlier?) time. Something was obviously going on in the south as the Gallic Chronicles (as well as the archaeology) tell us so. Here’s Thompson response to that:

We also have some information from a south Gallic chronicler, who may have been writing at Marseilles and who was certainly an exact contemporary of the events in question. The Chronicler of A.D. 452 tells us that the British provinces, which had hitherto suffered a variety of calamities, were ‘reduced to subjection by the ‘Saxons’ about the years 441-2. The statement is an exaggeration, but we cannot dismiss it out of hand. A Gallic chronicler is more likely to have been in touch with southern Britain than with the Midlands or with the North. We have convincing evidence, then, that in 441-2 the Saxons inflicted a catastrophic blow on parts of Britain – in all probability, the southern parts of Britain. And these events were so disastrous that news of them had even reached southern Gaul and were thought there to be so significant as to deserve an entry in a very brief chronicle. The report had (falsely) convinced men there that the Britons had succumbed permanently to the invaders. Even as late as 452 the effects of this disaster were still felt – or at any rate, the news of any British recovery had not yet reached southern Gaul. Now, a very few years later a synod of British bishops (as it seems) was able to meet and to invite Germanus of Auxerre to pay his second visit to Britain; and Germanus was  able to travel to the island and complete his business there without ever clapping an eye upon a Saxon. He must have come to a more westerly region than he had reached in his first visit in 429, when he saw plenty of Saxons. But in spite of this we cannot write off the Chronicler’s words. It is his sole reference to the Britain of his own day, so that the event must have seemed to him to be of exceptional importance and interest. Let us suppose that the Saxon successes to which he refers took place in the south-east of the island: we can then account for Gildas’s silence about them, for, as we have seen, he is concerned with the north of Britain, and we can also account for Germanus’s freedom to travel, for his second visit (as we may guess) took him further to the west than the danger area.

There are those who argue that we cannot trust the Gallic Chronicles before 450 (Miller) but I would offer that it also could have been British migrants to Gaul who passed and spread this (dis)information.

Gildas’s knowledge of the first half of the 5th century is shaky, so it’s not surprising it is confused, but it appears that two different things were happening and either Gildas got his information wrong, the dates are wrong or the appeal was because the ‘Saxons’ of the south were a problem before the (reoccurring) northern problem and the appeal was about both; that is, Picts and Scots in the north and ‘Saxons’ south of the River Humber.

When the ‘Saxons’ (of the north?) rebelled, because they weren’t paid enough, they ravaged from sea to sea, according to Gildas. Thompson argues that Gildas is not referring to from the English Channel to the Bristol Channel, but the North Sea to the Irish Sea, before possibly turning their attention south.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a rebellion in the south, but that Gildas is only referring to what he knows more about: north of the Mersey/Humber line; that is, what was (or still was) Britannia Secunda/Valentia. It’s a very valid point that Gildas makes no mention of the southeast or south if he was writing from the southwest and very near ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cultural and military expansion.

Another reason Thompson gives is one of personal safety! Would Gildas say such things against these kings unless he was at a safe distance from them, especially from Constantine of Dumnonia who may have been closest to him if he wrote in the southwest and one of the most violent? It’s a valid point, although Gildas may have thought God was on his side in the matter, or his whereabouts was unknown. It also may be that, whichever kingdom/civitas Gildas was writing in, Constantine didn’t dare do anything against it. However, Thompson then puts forward Chester as a possible place Gildas wrote. A strange choice as it was not far from two other kings he chastised:  Cuneglasus and Maglocunus! For Thompson’s argument to be consistent, Gildas would have to be somewhere further away, I would have thought.

What does the archaeology say about ‘Saxons’ in the British held north for the Late 5th century? Well, very little actually, but there are Germanic finds associated with some Roman forts (Dark, 2003) as well as the major settlements in what was the Parisi region and what would become Deira (southeast Yorkshire) and later part of Northumbria. Professor Ken Dark also wonders if the Roman forts on the Wall that continued into the 6th century were not the result continuous occupation as such, but rebuilt and manned during the fight back against the Scotti, Picti and, later, Saxon rebels, in the mid 5th century.

The fact that there are so few ‘Saxon’ finds in the region could be seen as their expulsion, or containment, being successful. This make sense if they didn’t have the same foothold or hadn’t been in the north for as long as those in the south.

I never considered Gildas being from the north because of his dating of the building of Hadrian’s and the Antonine walls, which he thought happened in the late 4th century. Thompson has a good answer to this:

Gildas advances his theory on the building of the walls for an obvious reason: no self respecting historian of Roman Britain could possibly have left the two most striking monuments of the Roman occupation unaccounted for. Of the entire passage we can only accept those words spoken by the Romans to the Britons pointing out that they could send no more legions to the island: from now on the Britons must look to their own defence. If we had no further evidence we would reject this passage, too, along with the account of the two Roman expeditions which resulted in the building of the walls. We would regard it as part of the same story or theory. But in fact we have other evidence; and this further evidence throws a very different light on the passage. Gildas has heard in some way of Honorius’s famous letter of 410 to the British civitates bidding them defend themselves. So while we dismiss the aetiological stories of how the walls came to be built we must retain this chapter, which contains some sound historical information. The contents of Honorius’s letter are a matter which Gildas could not possibly have invented, and he could not possibly have got the incident right by coincidence. A genuine tradition has reached him here.

(It should be noted here that some scholars now think the the Honorius rescript was not addressed to the Britons at all, but to the Italian cities of the province of Bruttium. However, the jury is still out as Zosimus, who is the source of the information, is talking about Britain just before this is mentioned. Of course, he himself could have got the information wrong).

There is another (tentative) possibility, and one that would still put Gildas in the southwest, and that is that Gildas is specific about the north and doesn’t dwell on the south because he knows his audience are all too aware of what happened there?

There are other ramification to this, of course, and some of these apply whether Gildas wrote in the north or not. For example: was the Proud Tyrant from the north, or did he just have primacy over it? was Ambrosius Aurelianus from this region? did the battle of Badon happen in the north and not, as most assume, in the southwest? and when Gildas talked of peace, was his view of the whole of the diocese of Britannia influenced by a greater peace in the north, whilst it may not have been so peaceful further south? (But see THIS blog).

It’s very difficult to answer these questions. Later ‘histories’ place both Vortigern and Ambrosius in the south and Wales and not in the north. There might be more of a case for the Proud Tyrant – whoever he was – as he’s the one who brought in the ‘Saxons’ to deal with the northern problem. But if their arrival happened in the south before this, then either Vortigern had primacy over the north, he supplied ‘Saxons’ to the north, or this was not done by Vortigern at all and the stories of the north and south were combined.

Ambrosius could have been dealing with ‘Saxons’ anywhere, but the Historia Britonnum gives him a battle at Wallop in the south, unless he was, indeed, a far ranging dux. As for Badon, Thomas Green has put forward a possible ‘northern’ Badon at Baumber (called Badeburg in the Doomsday Book) in Lincolnshire. As for Gildas’s views on the ‘peace’, writing in the north could have clouded his idea of peace in other regions.


My own conclusions are that there is a good argument for considering that Gildas wrote in the north, but I’m not totally convinced. In Chapter 3 of the DEB, for example, his description of the ‘transparent rivers, flowing in gentle murmurs’ of Britain might place him in Hampshire, but he could have just been reiterating something he’d heard, just as he’d learned about the geography of Britain in general. However, writing in the north does make some sense of him not mentioning the ‘Saxons’ of the south, except, perhaps, obtusely through Ambrosius?

I shall continue to think on’t and look forward to your thoughts and comments. (There are some very interesting comments below).

Thanks for reading,


* I have used ‘Saxon’ in inverted commas as this was a generic term for several Germanic groups as well as the Saxons themselves.


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