Tag Archives: Taliesin

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


In the quote I used at the end of the last part was “[...] he seems to have been a hero of legend without a clear genealogy or location [...]”. This is what those of the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp use as another piece of evidence. It very well could be an indication, but the reason could also be because a historic Arthur was either from a part of Britain whose genealogies didn’t survive because of early ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dominance (and that’s a large area) or he was of a military position and not a royal one (see THIS blog) so wasn’t part of a surviving royal court. It could also be that his bloodline ran dry. There’s no known surviving genealogy for Ambrosius Aurelianus (Welsh Emrys Guledig), or certainty about his area of ‘residence’, and we know he and his offspring existed. However, if Gildas had not mentioned him, and had more sites than Dinas Emrys been named after him, we would think otherwise.

The other possibility is the ‘original’ Arthur as was one of the other historical Arthurs of the 6th and 7th centuries: Arthur ap Pedr of Demetia (Dyfed), Artúr mac Áedán of Dál Riata/Dalraida (Western Isles), Artúr mac Coaning of Dalraida (same area, but could be the same person as Artúr mac Áedán) or Arthur ap Bicoir of Kintyre(?). If it was one of these, such as Arthur ap Pedr; we have to discount the H.B. and A.C. that tell us Arthur fought at Badon … unless the Badon referred to is not the one mentioned by Gildas. However, there is no known battle of Badon during his lifetime, only one before and one after, and the Annales Cambriae (A.C.) puts the first one at least 70 years earlier (more later). You also have to move the date of Battle of Camlann where Arthur died … or didn’t, as the case may be. The Demetian Arthur fighting and dying at the known Afon Gamlan in North Wales isn’t inconceivable … although, generally agreed, not at that date. One of Arthur’s ‘tribal thrones was said to be at Menevia (St. Davids) … right in his territory (Triad 1). Were some of his exploits, knowingly or not, attached to the Arthur of Badon?

None of these other Arthurs can be totally discounted as the bases for the legends, and if it were one of them it would mean, whilst you didn’t have an Arthur of Badon, you still had a historical Arthur, who may have done great things, for all we know. Artúr mac Áedán may have done something famous enough for his grandson to call himself Feradach hoa Artúr (‘Feradach grandson of Artúr’). (See THIS blog). However, as I have discussed in other blogs, it would be odd for the Britons to knowingly use this Gael (who was the enemy after all) as the bases of their national hero.

These other Arthur’s are very important to the arguments in these current blogs, and are often skirted over or ignored completely. For example, Oliver Padel in his excellent work Arthur of Welsh Literature, makes no mention of Arthur ap Pedr at all. Anyone new to the subject reading this (hard to get a copy of) book would very easily conclude that Arthur was either mythical or folkloric. They would think there was only the one Arthur, not  four or five. Yet if there was no Arthur of Badon, then these become a very important part of the equation. (More on this later).

Why oh why?

But, how would a possible 5th/6th century famous military leader, or even if he was, in fact, one of the Arthurs mentioned above, end up with all these strange legends attached to him as explored in the previous blogs? Legends that bear no resemblance to a 5th/6th century – or any other century – commander or king, except in a few poems. Legends that have parallels in Ireland. Those of the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp say it’s because he never existed; that the soldier figure was purely a creation out of the folkloric or mythical one and these others Arthur’s may have been named after him. (Higham et al).

St. Germanus

What are the alternatives? Well, apart from these Arthurs being named after an original of Badon (see THIS blog), there is a theory that it could be the folkloric of mythical stories existed with the main character having another name (see below) and the name Arthur was applied to him (or them) later, just as could have happened with the onomastic and topographical sites to begin with; or that there was both a mythical/folkloric Arthur and a historic one of Badon, just as there were historic ones in the 6th and 7th centuries; or, because there was so little information on Arthur it meant any storyteller could go to town on him, making up what they wanted. The latter certainly happened with the other historical characters mentioned before Arthur in the H.B.. Even when there was more known about a historical figure, it didn’t stop them being drastically changed by storytellers; Ambrosius Aurelianus, St. Germanus, Urien Rheged and his son Owain being cases in point.

In the MS Peniarth 147 a story tells us that Urien of Rheged went to Rhyd y Gyfarthfa in North Wales, where he met the goddess Modron, daughter of the god Afallach, and Owain and his sister Morfudd were conceived, as it was supposedly prophesied.  We also find this in Triad 70. Thomas Green argues that this is because Urien too may have been mythical and not, as most assume, historical (Green, 2007). This historicity is based on a number of poems ascribed to a 6th century bard called Taliesin. There are many poems said to be by Taliesin, but Ifor Williams identifies only twelve as being of the period (The Poems of Taliesin, 1975). Green doesn’t relate this information and just suggests Urien could also have been mythical.  Well, it’s certainly an easy way out of having to admit Urien was historical (although Green does say he could have been) and, once again it can be pointed out (and it is by Gidlow) that if none of Taliesin’s work survived about Urien and only the mythical story above, he too would be deemed ‘unreal’. (By the way, I’ve communicated with him on a couple of occasions and he seems a very nice man … that’s Thomas Green, not Urien)

Dux bellorum

Joshua and the Israelite people, Karolingischer Buchmaler, c.840

The H.B. battle list is most definitely about a soldier, calling him the dux bellorum (‘leader (or military leader) of battles’) – see THIS blog for more on that – and victor of 12 battles. But was he a mythical or folkloric soldier? and where did this list come from; and why didn’t Nennius (said to be the compiler of the H.B., but some doubt it) use any of the other Welsh Arthurian stories or poems? Padel, Higham and Green say it is because the battle list was either made up for the H.B. or the battles were mythical or fictional ones, or those of others ascribed to Arthur. Many would disagree, (and Christopher Gidlow gives the best argument against them) and I would certainly say these are only possible explanations. Firstly we have to note that nowhere in existing Welsh Arthurian stories is he called a ‘battle leader’. Higham says this comes from Nennius associating him with the Biblical Joshua who was called a dux belli. (More later on that).

The nearest thing to the title ‘dux bellorum‘ (although it isn’t actually a title but a description) pre-Galfridian (before Geoffrey of Monmouth) is ‘pen tyrned’ (leader/chief/head of lords/princes/kings/sovereigns). This is from Culhwch ac Olwen, and it’s the one reference I point to when it is said the Welsh, pre-Galfridian, didn’t call him a king. This may not be king per se, but it sound even more than a king and could mean ‘high king’. The poem Elegy for Geraint ab Erbin (from a c. 14th C document but probably earlier) calls Arthur an ‘amherawdyr’, which literally translates as ‘emperor’ or ‘imperator’, and appears to be talking about Arthur’s ‘men’ and not Arthur himself. (The term ‘emperor’ is also a later one; ‘Caesar’ or ‘Augustus’ being the titles used). Here’s the verse:

In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s

Heroes who cut with steel.

The Emperor, ruler of our labour.

The use of the term ‘amherawdyr’ shouldn’t be taken literally and doesn’t mean Arthur was seen as one, but just given this superlative by the bard. Once again, it seems to be in the tradition of his men doing the work for him and not Arthur himself, just like in Culhwch ac Olwen. Another interpretation I would forward is ‘Arthur’s Heroes’ was just name given for those who fought against the ‘Saxon’s like Arthur did.

The nearest we get to him being seen as a soldier/military leader is in the, generally overlooked, poem, ‘The Chair of the Sovereign/Prince‘  or ‘The Chair of Teyrnon’ (‘Kadeir Teyrnon’). Ascribed to Taliesin, but almost certainly a later work, it maybe calling Arthur a Gwledig/Wledig/Guledig/Gwledic …  if it’s him the lines refer to:

the venerable Teyrnon,
the fattener, Heilyn,
[and] the third profound song of the sage,
[was sung] in order to bless Arthur.

Arthur the blessed,
in harmonious song -,
as defender in battle
the trampler of nine [at a time]

… later …

There shall arise a ruler [Gwledic],
for the fierce wealthy ones.

(Marged Haycock translation, very kindly supplied by Christopher Gwinn).

No one knows for certain what this title means, but it showed greatness and was also bestowed on Ambrosius (Emrys Guledig) and the usurping emperor Magnus Maximus (Macsun Guledig) and could have some military meaning. (see THIS blog for more on this).

Thomas Green has argued that this poem, once again, shows Arthur as a mythical figure because it relates him to the divine person of Teyrnon (from the Mabinogion) and of the god Alator: ‘echen aladwr’, (“of the family of Aladwr”). (“A Note of Aladur, Alator and Arthur”, STUDIA CELTICA, 41, 2007, 237-41. ). He also treats it as pre-Galfridian. However, as August Hunt points out in one of his blogs:

“Arthur was of the family of the Breton Aldroenus, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  In the Welsh genealogies, this Aldroenus becomes Aldwr.  Uther’s father Constantine/Custennin was the brother of this Aldwr.  ‘Aladwr’ is thus merely a slight misspelling or corruption of Aldwr.  Arthur is ‘of the family of Al(a)dwr’ and not of the god Alator [...] The poem is thus immediately shown to NOT be pre-Galfridian.  We must, therefore, be extremely cautious in how we approach this material. Especially as components from earlier Welsh tradition and from Geoffrey can be mixed in the same composition.

( )

He also points out that the word ‘teyrnon’ had later become to mean ‘prince’. However, I would add that it is possible that Geoffrey got this from an older tradition and even the poem itself, but August’s point should be taken.

The thing to note here, and I think it’s an important note, is these kinds of poems are exactly where we might expect the warrior leader to be found. No supernatural occurrences in these poems, it’s about war. But if ‘Kadeir Teyrnon’ is post-Galfridian it is then relating to the Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or has had him attached to it. If it’s pre-Galridian it could be relating to Arthur of the H.B., although there’s no direct reference to it. The most interesting thing about this poem, for me, is that it is the only one to call him a Guledig.

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

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



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King Arthur – 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 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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Why Wasn’t Arthur Known As A Wledig?

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

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

Here are some, in no particular order:

Mascen Wledig (Magnus Maximus)

Emrys Wledig (Ambrosius Aurelianus)

Cunedda Wledig

Gwallawg Wledig

Urien Wledig (Urien of Rheged)

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

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

Casnar Wledig

Cynfelyn Wledig

Amlawdd Wledig (supposedly Arthur maternal grandfather)

Dewrarth Wledig

Gwerthmwl Wledig

Celydon Wledig

Gerthmwl Wledig

Fflewdur Flam Wledig

Deorthach Wledig

Aflaw Wledig

Cylidd Wledig

Einudd Wledig

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

There they are sought, the bold,

The lost men of battle.

I compare the fierce ranks

Of the late Penduic,

Of the death-dealing ranks,

Of the breastplated legion,

The Wledig raised

On the old-renowned border,

To a broken grass-stalk

Fragile likewise.

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

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

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

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

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

Middle Breton: guletic (OBret.)

Cornish: gulat gl. patria

The GPC defines Gwledig as:

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

Their definition of teyrn is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Teir Lleithicltiyth Ynys Prydein. Arthur yii pen teyrned

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

hyneif. Arthur yn pen teyrned yg Kelliwic yg Kernetf a

Betwini esgob yn pen esgyb a Charadatfc ureichuras yn pen

hyneif. Arthur yn pen teyrned ym Pen Eionyd yny gogled

a Chyndeyrn Garthwys yn peri esgyb a Gtfrthmwl Wledic yn

pen hyneif. 



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,



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The Fifth Romano-British Province of Valentia – Part Four

In this final blog I want to look at the possible consequences if Dornier’s theory about the placing of Valentia was correct.

Coel Hen (Old King Cole)

Coel Hen is difficult to tie down, as a historical figure, what he was and when he lived. If he did ‘rule’ over the North, did he expand Britannia’s borders? He supposedly gave Brynaich (approximately modern day Northumbria and possibly down to the River Tees) to one son and attacked Strathclyde, and both lay beyond the Wall. Did he expand Valentia (or Britannia) into the Novante region (Dumfries & Galloway), thereby creating what would become the northern (or western) extremes of the enigmatic kingdom of Rheged? (see below). Many genealogies certainly went on to claim descent from him in the same way others used usurper emperor Magnus Maximus, whether their claim was legitimate or not.

The Coelings (descendants of Coel) may have dominated a great portion of the North above the Mersey/Humber line, but it’s hard to know their activities above the Wall.


If Dornier is right, could this possibly explain the supposed movement/migration of Cunedda, Coel Hen’s son-in-law, to North Wales … if, indeed this move ever actually happened? If he was ‘hired’ by Valentia, who may have had close ties with Manau Gododdin (approximately southwest Fife), he could have started in the North (as one poem has him fighting at Carlisle and County Durham) and made his way down the western seaboard, ending up in north and southwestern Wales, rather than just being sent there, or migrating there. Britannia Prima and/or Demetia could have then called on his assistance once he was in the area; hence ‘Allt Cunedda’ in Dyfed, if this isn’t a later antiquarian naming.  If he was Dux Valentianum or even the Dux Britannium it would explain the range of his supposed operations.

There are many arguments as to why Cunedda’s ‘migration’ may only be a foundation myth for the 9th century rulers of Gwynedd to make a claim over Northumbria. However, choosing someone from Manau Gododdin seems a little odd. This area is centred around the Firth of the Forth. Why not choose someone who supposedly came from Gododdin proper or, better still, Brynaich or Deira?  These are the kingdoms that became Northumbria.

The Late 5th Century

Wherever Valentia was, it would be difficult to know what state it, and Britannia, were in by the last quarter of the 5th century.  There is no evidence that there was a political entity Britannia by this time, just many kingdoms of various sizes. Whichever of these were at the Wall it’s hard to determine of their borders still ended at the Wall or if this only became an annoyance in stone, possibly cutting in two, for example, what in the west may have become the kingdom of Rheged.  It could appear from the archaeological evidence that is was still a guarded boundary in places, but if Rheged and Brynaich straddled the Wall, what exactly was it defending? Well, possibly only their own small commander-patronus territories according to archaeologist Tony Wilmott of English Heritage. There’s certainly no archaeological evidence, as mentioned earlier, that the Wall’s length was ‘guarded’ by a permanent force, even by the Early 5th Century.

If that 16th century document calling Brochmael the ruler of Guelentius is right, then some semblance of it remained, even if it was only in name.  There is always the possibility that Powys was called Valentia previously, but how far north did it go?

Taliesin, Urien & Mailcun/Maelgwn

If Valentia was were Dornier suggests, and did last longer than most, or a (fluctuating) alliance between its constituent ‘states’ did, could this also be why the 6th century bard Taliesin writes both for a king of Rheged (Urien) and a king of Powys (Cyngen, son of Brochmael)? Is this why Urien is also associated with Powys in some of the praise poetry. His supposed cousin Llywarch Hen of ‘South Rheged’ certainly is associated with Powys. Is this why Maelgwn (Gildas’ Maglocunus) was so powerful: he may have been ruler over Gwynedd, but he held sway over Powys (or its northern region) and whatever kingdoms made up the western seaboard, at the time? This might give him the contact with the north that he is said to have had.

We may never know where the kingdom of Rheged lay, and historian and archaeologist Tim Clarkson (Senchus blogger) in his new book ‘The Men of the North” questions some assumptions about its location, but what if it was a ‘huge’ power, covering what was Valentia north of the Mersey and west of the Pennines … or a large portion of it?  Not a single kingdom but a confederacy, or made up of client kingdoms?  We’ll never know, and Tim may indeed be right that Rheged was not as big as we’d like to imagine, or where some have placed it.


If Valentia did encompass the above and if Maelgwn did control more than we think then the 6th century cleric Gildas could indeed be referring to more than Britannia Prima in his polemic; he could be referring to the remains of Britannia, or certainly western Britannia.




Could this have any baring on the historical Arthur debate.  Well, I suppose it could if he was a military commander of Valentia at some point. Many of his battles have been placed by some in northwestern Britannia, or just north of the Wall.

Summing up

Regardless of all the above, there was some reason why Brochmael was called the ruler of Guelentius (Valentia) many generations after Roman administration had left Britannia, and was still known as such to the Bretons in the 16th century.  Why that might have been, we do not know, but if anyone has any thoughts or theories on this I look forward to hearing them.

Thanks for reading.



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

The Harley 3859

UPDATED 2.6.12

Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae

Anyone studying Arthuriana knows the split between those who think these documents can be used as evidence (Gidlow et al) and those who don’t (Dumville et al).  Personally, I think we should be extremely cautious with both.

Historia Brittonum (ca 835)

(This is an extract from the upcoming ebook. I can’t place the whole chapter here as it is simply too long, but when the book is complete, I will attach a link to a PDF version of the chapter).

The H.B.’s Arthurian section cannot be discussed without first knowing exactly what kind of ‘history’ it was, and the point of its composition. There’s much argument and debate about this, not helped by the fact the everyone has been waiting for Dr. David Dumville to complete his new work on it. We’ve been waiting for 15 years now! He has made comments on it, however, and especially the Arthurian section and we’ll explore this below. There are plenty of others who have commented on it and put their theories forward as to what it is, and we’ll look at those in a moment.

First a word about Nennius/Ninnius/Nemnius/’Nennius’, said to be the original compiler of the H.B.. Whilst Dumville tells us the preface is a later forgery, as Nennius doesn’t appear in the two earlier MMS, not all agree that this means a man called Ninnius wasn’t the first compiler. There are other editors and compliers mentioned also in the various recensions, namely Samuel, Beulan, Euben, Marcus and even Gildas! But why mention a Ninnius if they (or someone) didn’t think him to be the original, even if the preface was forged in his name.

There was a ‘Nennius’ of the Late-8th century as attested in a 9th century Welsh MS Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Auct. F.4.32, dated 817. This Nemnuuis was a Welsh ecclesiastic who, when challenged by an English scholar about the lack of a British alphabet, supposedly designed one on the spot. It is likely that this Nemnuuis was Ninnius. Because of all this, Nennius is usually written with inverted commas, ‘Nennius’, but I will just be calling him Nennius.

As Robert Vermaat has notes at his Vortigern Studies website

“How is the “Nennian” authorship affected by all that? Dumville believed that the name of Ninnius was no older than c. 1100, when a new edition was made under the direction of Beulan, by the scribe Euben, in praise of Samuel, and ascribed to Ninnius. However, it is the last part I cannot agree with. If there was no known author, what made the editors so sure that they would ascribe it to this famous Welsh scholar? Surely, there would have been other candidates, such as the more famous Elfoddw? I think it therefore much more acceptable to agree that the name of Ninnius or ‘Nennius’, was already known to them as author of the text. But to be completely correct, I am using the name of ‘Nennius’.” (

John Koch has written:

 “However, Dumville has argued that the Nennian Prologue is a later forgery and was never part of the recensions which now lack it; the work should therefore be treated as anonymous. Although Dumville’s case has been widely accepted, and one can hardly ignore the fact that only one recension mentions Nennius at all, Field has since argued that, because the prologue rebuked British scholars as ignorant, the other recensions understandably omitted the passage as offensive. Beneath the authorship question, there are some theoretical issues. Are we seeing the activities of an author or rather a compiler? Must Historia Brittonum have a formal authorial starting point, as opposed to beginning as an informal workbook, a miscellany of notes, or a commentary on Gildas which gradually grew before it was later— and not altogether successfully—dressed up as a ‘History of the Britons’?” (‘Celtic Culture – A Historic Encyclopedia’, John Koch, 2006, p.927)

In the preface that does mention Nennius, he says that all he has done is made “a heap of thing”; taking what information he knows and merely putting it together as a narrative. No one believes this for a moment and it is not only a synthetic and synchronistic ‘history’ it’s also has both political and ecclesiastical axe to grind.

Dr. Dumville is of the opinion that it has no historical value apart from showing us the mindset of those that compiled it. In his view, unless a work is contemporary to the events it describes, it can’t be trusted. In answer to this, Charles-Edward notes that, if this were the case, there’s much history we cannot trust, and that, conversely, we may be able to trust histories written at a distance to the events more than those written at the time, which may be clouded by political and other factors. (See Charle-Edward: ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’),

A manuscript of Bede's, Historia Ecclesiastica...

A manuscript of Bede’s, Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As to why it was compiled, there is a general consensus that it was written in answer to the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede’s Early-8th century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’). How it answered Bede’s work is not always agreed on. The Arthurian section in particular is said to be used to two very different way: one argument is that it showed that there was a great British warrior who defeated the ancestors of their current foes and demonstrated it would take British unity to defeat them again; the other is that it showed that no matter how many times the British were victors over the English, even through Vortimer and Arthur, they could only be ‘defeated’ by converting them to Christ, as was done by St. Patrick and (supposedly) Rhun ap Urien of Rheged. This is what Bede criticized the Britons of not doing and the Anglo-Saxons, and their subsequent rise to power, were God’s retribution on the Britons. Bede, of course, was following on from Gildas’s damnation of his own people in the 6th century.

It is as much an ecclesiastical work as a history of the people of Britain and its title, the Historia Britonnum, isn’t present in all the MMS. Probably. like Bede’s work, it should be called ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the Peoples of Britain’. It spends more time on St. Germanus and St. Patrick than anyone else (Arthur gets a mere short chapter) and its main point is: God is boss!

Nor can it be separated form the political and ecclesiastic times in which it was compiled. There is a the question as to the date of its composition. Whilst it is generally thought to date to the fourth year of the reign of Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd (c.829/830) it has been suggested that it could have started life much earlier. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews has argued for the Late-8th century (The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010) but John Koch notes that the Breton MS, which was destroyed during the Second World War at Chartres, attributed the text to a ‘son of Urien’ (filius Urbagen), and one suspects this to be a son of Urien Rheged. However, Rhun supposedly died in the Mid-7th century, so, like the H.B. attributed to Gildas, it is a chronological impossibility. But, the Chartres recension is thought to have been the oldest MS, dating to the 10th century. (The dating of the MSS is the date of the earliest surviving copy, and not when they were composed).

John Koch says:

“One further reason for considering the possibility that there had been an earlier version of the text, as much as 140 years older than the synchronisms of 829, is that the last historical events mentioned are the battle of Nechtanesmere (OW gueith Linn Garan) in 685 and St Cuthbert’s death in 687. The possibility of a prototype for the Historia Brittonum as early as this could be ruled out if its use of Beda’s Historia Ecclesiastica of 731 could be proved: although the two histories deal with many of the same events from starkly opposed national perspectives, Beda does not name his Brythonic sources, the Welsh text does not name its English ones, and the case remains open.” (2006, p.926)

If some of its sections do date from an earlier period, this changes things somewhat, especially if the Mirabilia section was a later addition. (More on that later). This means the Arthurian battles section could itself date from earlier, before Nennius’ compilation, although the Chartres recension cut off before the battle list.

Turbulent times


The H.B. was compiled during extremely turbulent times in Britain, although things may have been a little easier for Gwynedd, hence why it could produce the H.B.. Whilst their old enemy of Northumbria had been beaten back and their more recent one of Mercia was involved in in-fighting (and later in the 9th century the Danes) they still had their Welsh neighbours of Powys and Dyfed to contend with.

In Gwynedd’s recent history Mercia had ravaged both it and Powys. Now that Wessex was on the ascendency again and Mercia were involved in civil war, Gwynedd had the chance to get its history out. A history it had, perhaps, started much earlier, not long after Bede’s work.

If Nennius’s patron was, as most scholars think, Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd, his boss made sure that Arthur got far more ink than any of the Gwynedd kings. That may seem odd, but there was a good reason for it: Mervyn was an outsider from the Isle of Man; a usurper to the Gwynedd throne and the first of a new dynasty. (And, being a Manx man, probably of Gael-British blood). He couldn’t show the First Dynasty of Gwynedd as being too great, nor could he show any Powysian heroes and it’s probably for this politcal reason that the H.B. made Vortigern into a bad guy and the cause of all the Britons’ problems … and that couldn’t have gone down well in Powys! Nor does any south Walian king get a mention. Apart from calling Maelgwn (Maglocunus) a great king he plays down the rest and, as Michelle Ziegler has observed, more is made of the Northumbrian king Oswald than the great 7th century Gwynedd king, Cadwallon. (Ziegler, ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006): To quote her online article:

“§41.  Considering Cadwallon’s importance in Gwynedd, several oddities about his treatment in the HB stand out.

  1. There is less information in the HB on Cadwallon than in Bede’s History, a known source for the HB.
  2. The destruction of Edwin’s lineage is credited to the army of Gwynedd, deflecting credit away from Cadwallon.
  3. His death is mentioned as a credit to his slayer.
  4. There is no effort to counter Bede’s demonization of Cadwallon in the HB.”

(At The Heroic Age website: ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Cadwallon is the king that the Welsh Prophesies refer to as a hero, yet the H.B. plays him down. This was either Nennius’s religious bent coming to play – after all, Cadwallon won with a pagan ally – it was Mervyn’s idea, or Nennius wasn’t writing for Gwynedd at all. With Nennius unable ( or uninterested) to go to town on any of Gwynedd’s own kings, or those of his neighbours, its no wonder he had to look to the past and chose Arthur.

Arthur the Great

There are valid arguments put forward for Geoffrey of Monmouth making Arthur into European wide campaigner in answer to the famous 8th century Carologinian king and emperor Charlemagne (‘Charles the Great’). Britain didn’t have its equivalent so Geoffrey supplied him.

Again the H.B. could have done something similar had it wanted to really big Arthur up. Charlemagne must have been the most famous man in Europe at the time. Did it do this by saying he lead kings in battle? Perhaps. Charles-Edward argues it’s because he wanted to make him like the ‘Saxon’ Hengist or the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda. (More on Arthur’s dux bellorum description in Part Two).

But then the later Vatican recension says he was less noble than the kings. Its editor probably had his own political or religious reasons for doing this, unless it was part of the general tradition? This would seem unlikely considering Culhwch ac Olwen called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain.

If he was seen as the great man we think him today, then why didn’t Nennius spend anymore than a single chapter on him? There are no stories like the other characters depicted before him, just a short description and a list of battles. It could indeed be because he was only a warrior, and one that only won with God’s aid. Had he been made a saint, it would probably have been a different matter.

Arthur’s battles all appear to be in Britain (unlike in Culhwch ac Olwen and Geoffrey’s History), so it doesn’t seem he was needed to be that great; the usurping emperors Magnus Maximus and Constantine III probably filled those purple shoes.

If there was a historical Arthur, could he have been a hero especially to Mervyn, the man from Man? An island of Gaels and Britons? I’m probably taking the link too far, but once again there is that cultural mix. If he was trying to say that the Britons could only defeat the English by being united under God and a leader of Gael and British blood, then it’s another very good reason for choosing Arthur if he was too. Is this the reason why St. Patrick was also chosen for the H.B. and not one of the Welsh saints or even St. Gildas? Patrick was, of course, British, but had both British and Irish connections.

H.B. sources

Another area where there’s no complete agreement on is what the sources were that went into make up the H.B.. There seems quite a mixture ranging from Irish to Kentish material, northern English, northern British and Welsh. Gidlow argues for the battle list possibly being from various sources and regions and not a single poem. It is argued that some if not all of the Arthurian section could have come from a northern tradition and not a Welsh of Kentish one, and some of the battles might bear that out. There have been arguments for many years over whether Arthur is directly related to the Kentish material that immediately precedes the battle list, or if it is the beginning of a new chapter and doesn’t relate directly to it. It could sound as if it follows on from the Kentish kings, but it could also just be Nennius who made the connection. After, it’s almost impossible to identified any battles in that region, even though Collingwood tried to do so in the 1930s.

Read all about it!

As you may have already surmised, the history of the various H.B. manuscripts is an extremely complexed one, not only beyond the scope of this ebook, by my ken! To quote Keith’s 2010 paper:

“The textual history of the Historia Brittonum is well known to be complex to the point that it is all but impossible to determine what the original text contained. Some forty manuscripts are known to exist, not all of equal weight in reconstructing the text and not all of independent value, as some are clearly copies of extant manuscripts. The work was also quoted by several Anglo-Norman historians and even the French encyclopaedist Lambert of St-Omer (Dumville 1976b), who may have had access to manuscripts no longer extant.” (pp.2-3)

His deduction are the later Vatican recension is more related to the first Chartres recension than any of the others, so it is these that should be heeded. Keith believes there to have been an earlier archetype version of the H.B. that all the others were based on, especially the Chartres and Vatican, possibly dating to the Late-8th century – some sixty years before the Harleian recension. If he’s right, it was started when their Mercian enemy were still strong.

“Importantly, though, the Chartres recension not only lacks the computus §16 but also contains a rambling passage towards the end of §31, which seems to indicate that it should be dated to some point after the mid-eighth century (sicut libine abas iae in ripum ciuitate inuenit uel reperit, ‘as Sl.bine, Abbot of Iona (752-767) came across or discovered in the city of Ripon’). In other words, the passage dating the Historia Brittonum to 828×9 is secondary and must date the archetype of the remaining branches containing the Vatican, Harleian, pseudo-Gildas, pseudo-Nennius and Sawley recensions.” (p.3)

As you will see when we get to the battles, there is a difference between one of them in the Harleian and Vatican recensions. One names agned and the other breguoin/bregonium. Here are Keith’s thoughts on that:

“The results of this cladistic analysis do not produce a text of the Arthurian section of §56 that is radically different from Mommsen’s, but at least one well-known problem is cleared up: the difficult in monte qui dicitur <agned> of the Harleian recension. It has long been suspected to have been truncated, as its close relatives render the clause in longer form as in monte qui dicitur cat bregomion, but a consideration of the Vatican recension’s in monte qui nominatur breguoin, ubi illos in fugam uertit quem nos cat bregion appellamus enables us to reject <agned> completely as an inferior reading. Although we cannot now be certain of the original reading, we can reconstruct something along the lines of in monte qui dicitur breguoin, [*id est ] cat bregion (*id est is added as in the other instance where an Old Welsh battle name is given, it is introduced with the phrase id est). It is therefore apparent that the nonsensical must be a corrupt contraction of A W Wade-Evans (1910,134) wrongly believed that in monte badonis was a late intrusion into the text and that it and breguoin were the eleventh and twelfth battles respectively. There is no textual justification for this view.” (p.4)

A good point well made

Before getting to the battle list, I’d like to make one last quote from Keith’s paper, which probably sums up what I’m beginning to think:

“[...] but the major challenge to the academic historian must be to confront the perception that this chapter of the Historia Brittonum is a straightforward record listing late fifth- or early sixth-century battles incorporated verbatim or at only one remove into a ninth-century compilation, a perception that continues to dominate the popular literature on Arthur (e.g. Ashe 2003;; Castleden 2000;; Gidlow 2004;; Moffat 1999;; Pace 2008). Such a confrontation need not, of course, be hostile or destructive. Indeed, if it can be shown that the list consists of information that makes sense only in terms of a late fifth- or early sixth-century historical context, then it provides considerable support for the existence of an ‘historical Arthur’  at that period. If, on the other hand, it contains information that makes sense only in terms of a seventh-century or later context, then it is perhaps the final nail in his coffin.” (‘The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010, p.1).

Chapter and verse

With all this in mind, let’s look at the battles of §56 in detail. First the Harleian version of the Arthurian section of the H.B.:

“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the leader in battle [dux bellorum]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon [Battle of the Wood of Celidon]. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders [or shield]; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet [Agned]. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.” (H.B. §56)

Note that the first sentence can be read as Arthur being a king or not. Also note, as Charles-Edward has, that the last section can be interpreted as Arthur being partly the cause of more ‘Anglo-Saxons’ arriving.(See Charles-Edward, ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’)

The later Vatican recension of the H.B.:

“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders [shield?], and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon*. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.” (H.B. §56)

This is the one that goes to pains to make Arthur out to be less noble than those he leads.

As a side note: in what’s known as the Sawley Glosses, from the monks at Sawley in Yorkshire (c. 1166), two things were added: the prologue by ‘Nennius’ telling us he’d “[...] made a heap of all that I found [...]” (hence Dumville’s dating) and a gloss to Mount Badon. To quote Gidlow:

“The first Arthurian gloss appears in the margin of the battle-list, by the description of Arthur at Mount Badon. ‘Mabutur’ [later glosses ‘in British’] that is ‘horrible son’ [glossed ‘in Latin’] since from his boyhood he was cruel. Arthur, translated into Latin means ‘horrible bear’ or ‘Iron hammer’, with which the jaws of lions were broken.’ This gloss reveals the author’s interest in Welsh etymology. Mab uthr could mean ‘horrible son’ and arth uthr is Welsh for ‘horrible bear’. Most writers agreed that Arthur does indeed derive from Arth. Welsh for hammer ordd is less plausible and has not found favour.” (Gidlow, 2044, p.179)

Battle lines drawn

An ‘all or nothing’ argument seems to go for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as most writers on the subject are concerned, although Thomas Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else. They either all happened, or they all didn’t.

For Higham the H.B. uses Arthur purely as a ‘Joshua figure’ to St Patrick’s ‘Moses’ type, and the 12 battles are simply a Biblical providential number. (The number is certainly not based on Joshua, who fought 31 of them). I think the H.B. may very well be using Arthur in this way, (although Gidlow points out how unlike his supposed Biblical counterpart Arthur is made) but that doesn’t mean he or the battles were made up (entirely?) for the purpose. Arthur, like Patrick (who is mythologised in the H.B.), could have been chosen because he fitted the bill … or was adjusted to fit the bill. Had someone else fitted this bill, it might be them we would be writing about. But what was it about him that made him the choice? Could it be because the Welsh called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain?

I may disagree with Higham’s assessment of the battle list, but not with his general take on the H.B.. He makes some very interesting points about how it was used specifically against Mercia but also Northumbria, and I will look at these in the context of the battle list in a moment. However, we must also keep in mind the opinions that it was also to show that war was not the answer, but conversion to Christ.

Nicholas Higham argues that the format of the battles was merely taken from a known battle poem of Gwynedd: Englynion Cadwallon (Higham, 2007, pp.145-147). Cadwallon has fourteen battles (and 60 skirmishes) to Arthur’s twelve. Here are nine of them:

Before his death, Cadwallon’s victories made us glad,
fourteen great battles in fair Britain,
and sixty skirmishes.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Caint;
he fought the English across the water like birds of prey;
he opened his hand and honor was set free.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the YYdon;
he was sorrow to his enemy,
a Lion, with armies victorious over the Saxons.

The encampment of famous Cadwallon
was on the summit of Digoll Mountain
for seven months with seven battles daily.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Severn,
and on the other side of the Dygen
the plunderers burnt Meigen.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Wye.
after a voyage over water,
he followed to battle the round-shields.

The encampment of Cadwallon was by Ffynnon Bedwyr;
in front of the soldiers he was righteous,
Cynon there was skillful.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Taf,
where are to be seen the powerful
armies of the lord, strong in battle.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Tawy,
he smote in the breach;
praiseworthy and seeking conflict.

The encampment of Cadwallon was beyond Caer,
one-hundred armies with one-hundred ardent warriors
in one-hundred battles destroyed one-hundred fortresses.

The first point is that, like the other battles poems, it is written posthumously. The first thing you may notice is the use of exaggeration, exactly in keeping with Arthur killing 960/940; then you may notice that none of these battle sites rhyme. Each battle is kept within its own three line englyn, so if Nennius was trying to make it look like it came from a similar type of poem, the rhyming scheme of some of the battles doesn’t work … or wouldn’t need to work. Why not just have all the battles able to rhyme?

Yet this is the Gwynedd monarch Nennius or his king, Mervyn Frych played down, not giving him much credit for anything, and crediting his killer (Saint) Oswald more than he.

Thomas Green makes much of people approaching the battle list in an a priori manner that he existed. This is true, but so are there a priori assumptions applied that it is based on a mythical or folkloric Arthur, so one is bound to see the list in a different light if one doesn’t think it of a historic Arthur. I believe one should approach it knowing it could be based on either, or, indeed, both. But it should also be recognised that no other figure around his time in the H.B. is mythical, but there are plenty of instances of mythologising historical figures.

What’s the point?

If we look at the point of this section in the H.B. and why Arthur specifically was used, it raises questions that, to me, all these mythical commentators do not fully address: whoever was placed at this point in the H.B. should have to be known as a ‘Saxon’ fighter (meaning a fighter of any of the ‘Germanic’ groups) and possibly the victor at Badon. Unless we’ve lost the stories that included this information (which is possible) the Arthur of the Welsh pre-Galfridian tradition did neither. Nor is he anywhere in this tradition depicted as the leader of battle for kings of the Britons; instead he leads a mixture of mythical and historic figures from a variety of times and places on a boar hunt or to retrieve a magical cauldron. If he was never seen as fighting ‘Saxons’ in the early Welsh story tradition, what would be the point in using him or listing battles that his Welsh audience would never before have associated him with?

Nor is he, in the Welsh tradition, an exemplar of Christian virtue. He doesn’t fight his foes in the name of God (even though ‘heaven’ is mentioned in Culhwch ac Olwen) but does it because his cousin Culhwch asks him a favour! Yet the H.B. makes him this too.

Why not just use Ambrosius Aurelianus as the victor of Badon? This is what the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede (Bǣda or Bēda) inferred in the Early-8th century in his less well known Chronica Maiora (‘Greater Chronicle’) and the H.B. is argued to be in response to his works. Bede, taking his lead from Gildas wrote:

“The Britons, under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus (a gentleman who, alone of the Romans, had survived the disaster of the Saxons in which his parents, who had worn the purple, had been killed) challenged the victors to battle and defeated them.”

Notice, he doesn’t actually mention Badon. This he’s taken from Gildas:

“After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions …. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.” (DEB, §25.2)

This is followed by:

“After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.” (DEB, §26)

There is argument over whether these two chapters should be separated and there was a passage of time between Ambrosius and Badon. For now, let’s just concentrate on Ambrosius.

Higham suggests the use of Arthur instead of Ambrosius in the H.B. was because Gildas called Ambrosius a Roman and not a Briton and Nennius needed a Briton to be the hero at this juncture; it is a valid point, and even though the H.B. gives Ambrosius his ‘British’ name Embreis/Emrys, he’s still called a Roman. But, considering the H.B. relies on St. Germanus (a Gaul) to save the day at one point, this argument could be weakened. He could only not have used Ambrosius as the victor of Badon (one would have thought) if the compiler(s)/editors of the H.B., or the tradition that he/they worked from, thought him not to be the victor, so he either had to come up with one, or use the tradition that said Arthur was he.

I would also add that it would be in Gwynedd’s interest to make Ambrosius the victor at Badon. After all, this is where the hillfort of Dina Emrys lies and in Welsh poetry the men of Gwynedd have been called the ‘men of Emrys’. The H.B. could have used his British given name and made him the hero of the day. That is unless Christopher Gidlow’s argument that Mervyn Vrych wasn’t the patron but Fernmail of Buellt was.

Book of Taliesin

There is one possible pre-Galfridian reference to Arthur at Badon and that’s in a poem contain with the story Ystoria Taliesin (‘The History of Taliesin’) or Hanes Taliesin (‘Tale of Taliesin’), c.Mid-16th century. The poem in question is about Maelgwn of Gwynedd, but mentions the following:

“Let the fools be silent,

As erst in Badon’s fight, -

With Arthur of the liberal ones [...]”

This Taliesin is, of course, the mythical Taliesin and not the bard of the Late-6th century. The poem, in Middle Welsh, is hard to date (as most of them are). This particular copy was written down in the 16th century but elements may date to the Early-13th. (See: Patrick Ford, Ystoria Taliesin. 1972). None of the poems contained in this story are in the older Llyfr Taliesin (‘Book of Taliesin’), only twelve of which are thought to be genuine. (See: Williams, The Poems of Taliesin, 1975).  If this is the case it is post-Galfridian. Even if it was pre-Galfridian it was most likely influenced by the H.B..

To my mind the Arthur of the H.B. had to be one of two things: historical or historicised much earlier so the compilers wouldn’t know the difference. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t have added to him in either case!

Christopher Gidlow suggests that the H.B. is showing that it wasn’t so much the kings of the 5th/6th century that were fighting the Saxons, but their ‘generals’. Vortigern used Vortimer, Ambrosius, possibly, Arthur and, he suggests, Maglocunus (Maelgwn) had Outigern, who fought against the Northumbrians (Gidlow, 2010, p.145). It’s an interesting theory though impossible to prove and there no actual connection between the latter two.

What if we look at this with Hiberno-British tinted glasses? Do we see anything else?  Could it be that it was known he was neither a king or a pure blooded Briton?  Two reason why there were those more nobler than him?  I’d be the first to admit that this is probably pushing it!

Annales Cambriae (ca 955-990)

The Annales Cambriae (A.C.) is believed to have originated in the once Hiberno-British region of southwestern Wales; that which was Demetia and became Dyfed, but at this time was part of Debeubarth.  It was a powerful kingdom, although probably under the thumb of the English kings at the time, but its rulers originated from Gwynedd in the north.

It is thought to be an amalgamation of an Irish Annale and a northern English one. There are two entries in the A.C. relating to Arthur and some scholars think the were later interpolation:

516 –  The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.

537 – The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

Most think the date for Badon incorrect, and place it at least 20 years earlier, some over 30 years.  For this discussion it doesn’t matter. This early section of the A.C. is believed to have been based on a lost Irish annal, possibly from the Clonmacnoise-group, and most of the earlier entries are to do with Ireland, Irish saints or Welsh saints who had connections with Ireland.  It does appear as if the Arthurian entries were shoehorned into it.

Nick Higham (whose conclusions are there was no historical Arthur of Badon) did do an excellent job of deconstructing the first Arthurian entry in the A.C. in his book ‘King Arthur – Myth Making & History’. His basic argument is that most of the wording of the the first entry comes from the earlier H.B. (The second one doesn’t appear in the H.B.).  It certainly could look that way, but there have recently been many comments on Arthurnet that this simply isn’t the case. However I want to put those Hiberno-British tinted glasses on again and take another look at it.

There is another possible option to that proposed by Higham, and that is the original Irish annal had the Arthurian entry, but in a far briefer form and the Welsh scribe added the detail from the H.B.  I can see the problems with this hypothesis in that there are no other Irish annals that include these Arthurian sections and, indeed, why would they. It would take some Irish connection or interest.  But, just to go with this for a little longer, what could such an entry be?

516 –  Battle of Badon, in which Artúr and the Britons were victors.

537 – Battle of Camlann, in which Artúr and Medraut fell; and there was a great plague in Ireland and Britain.

If this was the case, and it is a huge IF, why would the dates be out … that’s assuming they are? It may had to have been a guess on the scribe’s part.

But, if Arthur was Hiberno-British and the annalist knew this (more likely the later southwestern Welsh scribe), Arthur being inserted in amongst Irish entries is not so out of place.  It means he has a possible connection.

The possibility must also be faced that the Battle of Camlan actually involved Arthur map Petr of Demetia and not an Arthur of Badon.  After all, a battle between Demetia (modern day Dyfed and possibly Ceredigion) and Venedota (Gwynedd) around Afon Gamlan (River Camlan) in today’s Welsh county of Merioneth, is certainly conceivable.  The date would, of course, be well out for Arthur map Petr but there could be many reason why it was inserted, especially keeping in mind the region in which the A.C. was composed.

So, can any Hiberno-Arthur been seen in either of these documents.  Probably not.  If anyone was still aware in the 9th and 10th centuries of an Hiberno-British Arthur, they made nothing of it.

In the next and, you’ll be glad to hear, final blog in this series and be looking at my conclusions to all this.

Thanks for reading,



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

UPDATED 5.6.12

Artúr (Arturius) mac Áedán and Artúr mac Conaing  (born c.560s-590s)

Artúr (Arturius) mac Áedán of Scottish Dalriada (Kintyre, Western Isles) is not well documented, although his father is. It should also be stressed that it isn’t certain whether he was the son or grandson of Áedán, or both … two different Artúrs of course. This other Arthur would be Artúr mac Conaing, whom I’ll deal with below.

Artúr’s date of birth his hard to ascertain as it’s hard to know when his father was born. Whilst the Annals of Tigernach date Áedán’s birth to c.532, no where else confirms this. If this is the case, and Artúr was born c.570, he didn’t conceive Artúr until his early 40s, hence why an earlier date is sometimes given.

Bart Jaski’s paper:

“In the Vita Sancti Columbae [1], written by Adomnán of Iona († 704), we find the name Arturius [...] He figures as one of the four sons of Áedán mac Gabráin († 604), and St Columba foretells that three of them will not succeed their father in the kingship of Dál Riata in Scotland, as they would fall in battle. This came to pass, for Arturius and his brother Eochaid Find were slain in a battle against the Miathi, while Domangart was killed in a battle in England. The Annals of Ulster only record the slaying of Áedán’s sons Domangart and Bran in 594, but the so-called Annals of Tigernach add that Eochaid Find and Artúr also fell in that battle, which is located at Circhend (i cath Chirchind). Circhend may have been in the territory of the Miathi, and be located around Stirling. If so, the addition to the Annals of Tigernach may have been wrongfully attached to the record of the slaying of Bran and Domangart, since Adomnán says that the latter was slain in England in a different battle than Eochaid Find and Artúr.” (p. 92, 93)

[1] Thought to incorporate elements from a lost earlier life of Columba, De virtutibus sancti Columbae by Cumméne Find.

This Artúr has been championed by some as the ‘original’, especially Richard Barber (1972) following suggestions by Norma Chadwick, but also the lay historian David F. Caroll (Arturius – A Quest for Camelot, 1996) and this Arthur has his merits. Caroll partly argues on the bases of the later legends’ similarities to some elements of Adomnán work and partly because he says that Áedán had a daughter call Morgana (Caroll, 1996, pp.68-69). However, Michelle Ziegler has proven otherwise in the case of the daughter question:

“The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee lists a Muirgein (“birth of the sea”) on January 27, which D. F. Carroll has suggested provided inspiration for the linkage of Morgana (Morgan le Fay) and King Arthur as siblings. This assertion is based on Whitley Stokes’s (1905:53) suggested identification of Muirgein as “Muirgein, daughter of Aedan, in Belach Gabrain.” The suggestions for the location of Belach Gabráin are not Dalriadan at all. Belach Gabráin has been identified as a passage between Leinster and Ossory and therefore on the border between Leinster and Munster in Ireland. It is unlikely that Muirgein nic Aedan of Belach Gabráin was related to the family of Aedan mac Gabran of Scottish Dalriada.” (1999 – Source:

Y Gododdin

The other bases of the argument is that Artúr, alongside his father, fought in the area where some place the Arthurian battles: between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. Áedán also took Orkney, something the legendary Arthur is said to have done by Geoffrey of Monmouth. If he was the ‘original’, and others took the name from him, then he may have had to have been an exceptional warrior (and born well before Arthur ap Pedr). If he was, then Adomnán didn’t make anything of it, all his praises were for Áedán. Artúr did die in battle, like the Arthur of legend (although not at a battle called Camlann), and he was in the same region as the source of the (possible) first mention of Arthur in earliest stratum of the British collection of poems, Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’) about the doomed Battle of Catraeth; this section of the poem being dated between the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th centuries by John Koch, (The Gododdin of Aneirin, 1997) but not all scholars agree. Some believe it could be a later interpolation (Charles-Edwards et al) possibly not being attached until the 8th to 10th centuries and merely based on the H.B.. (I will deal with the Y Gododdin and the verse in question in more detail in a later blogs).

If it is the Dalriadan Arthur Y Gododdin refers to, and not an Arthur of Badon fame, (or a mythical Arthur as argued by Green) then the Dalriadans and British had to have been ‘friends’ at the time of compilation and not, as they later became, enemies. Without knowing the exact date of composition it is difficult to argue either way.

There is a verse in Y Gododdin used to add weight to his claim. Within it is the following:

Peredur of the steel weapons,

Gwawrddur and Aedden

Attackers in the flight with broken shields.

And though they were slain, they slew;

No one returned to his homeland.

(Jarman translation)

Here, the warrior who is compared to Arthur in Y Gododdin, Gwawrddur, is mentioned with an ‘Aedden’, who happens to have the same name as the father of Artúr mac Áedán.  It is quite a coincidence, if that’s what it is. The thing against using this as evidence as this Áedán being father of Artúr mac Áedán are the lines: “And though they were slain, they slew; No one returned to his homeland”. Unless this is poetic license, then this can’t be Áedán of Dalriada as we know he was not slain at the Battle of Catraeth.

Koch has this to say:

 “The presence of the name [Aedden] in this list is consistent with the interpretation that the heroes named here (and the list in A.30) were assembled as a sort of ‘grab bag’ of northern tradition put together by a poet in Wales from the older strata of Y Gododdin itself and from other sources that were available by the later OW period.” (Koch, 1997, p.206)

Koch also points out that it became a common enough name, even amongst the British. Never-the-less, it is interesting that later interpolators put Gwawrddur and this Aedden together. Another thing about this verse is the mention of Peredur. If this is Peredur, son of Eliffer (from ‘somewhere’ in the North, usually taken to be York), then he’s dying at the wrong battle! Peredur (possibly the same Perudur to later be attached to the Arthurian romances) supposedly died c. 573.  (In one genealogy Perudur is said to have had a brother called Arthur Penuchel, and I’ll look at this later). Another point to be made is that this Aedden is not mentioned anywhere else in Y Gododdin. All those from outside of Gododdin are described as such: an unknown ‘lord of Dumbarton’, Llyfrddlew from the ‘land of Pobdelw’, Cynon of Aeron, ‘Cynddylig of Aeron’, ‘Gorthyn of Rhufoniog’ and ‘Madawg of Elmet. No Aedden of Bentir. This could be because a verse is missing. It could also be because he simply wasn’t involved. There is also the line in Y Gododdin that says:

“ [...] ar gynt a Gwydyl a Phryden”

[...] against the heathen tribes of both Scot and Pict” (Koch, B1.6)

This is not saying they fought them at Catraeth, but that the warrior it describes had fought them. (Strange it should call the Scots (Hiberno-Britannians) ‘heathen’ as they are generally thought to have been Christian, but this could just be propaganda).

Dumbarton Rock & Castle

The matter gets even more confusing when we factor in the relationship between Áedán and Rhydderch of Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock). Adomnán tells us that St Columba was a emissary between the two kingdoms. At times they cooperated and there was a peace but at some point, according to the Triads, Áedán laid waist to Alt Clut, gaining the epithet “The Wily” or “The Treacherous” (‘Aeddan Fradawg’). (Clarkson, Men the North, 2010, pp.80-81). If the Y Gododdin verse in question was composed, not in Gododdin but in Strat Clut and during a time of peace, is it possible they would have compared Gwawrddur with Áedán’s son? Unfortunately, the poem is not thought to have travelled to Alt Clut until after the fall of Gododdin c. 638.

Added to this, the genealogy, Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd (‘The Descent of the Men of the North’) shows Áedán’s connection to the British king Dumnagual Hen of Alt Clut, via marrying one of his daughters … not that we can trust this text that also makes Dumnagual the grandson of the usurping emperor Magnus Maximus and seems a bit confused!

Áedán was not only meant married a British woman but to be half British himself, supposedly having a mother called called Lluan verch Brychan (Lluan daughter of Brychan). In the De Situ Brecheniauc (The Situation of Brecheniauc);

“Luan filia Brachan, mater Haidani bradouc

Luan daughter of Brychan, mother of Aeden the Treacherous”

In the Cognatio Brychan (The Family of Brecheniauc):

“Lluan, mater Aidan grutauc et uxir Gafran vradavc

Lluan, mother of Aiden ‘the Grit-lke’ and mother of Gafran ‘the Treacherous'”

Brychiniog (The Brecons, Wales)

She is said to be one of the (many) daughters of Brychan of Brycheiniog in central Wales. However, this mentions another son, Gafran; a son not mentioned anywhere else. It looks like a Welsh version of Gabrain, Áedán’s father’s name, which is why many scholars think this more the case, or that the pedigree can’t be trusted at all. This the later Plant Brychan made clearer:

 “Lleian Brychan gwraic Gawron mam Aeddan Vradoc”

“Lluan ferch Brychan was the wife of Gawron [Gabrain] and mother of Aeddan Fradog”

You will also see it stated on the internet that Brychan was from Manau Gododdin (southwest Fife, Scotland). How can this be? It’s because the De Situ Brecheniauc says his grave was at Ynysbrychan (Brychan Island) near Mannia, which has been taken to be Manau. It also says he had a daughter called: ‘Befchan daughter of Brachan in Mannia‘. Lundy Island has also been put forward as Ynys Brychan. Whether this is Manau or another Mannia we may never know but Bartram in his Welsh Classical Dictionary puts forward two Brycheiniogs (or Brychans), one in Wales, the other in Manau Gododdin.

But, another Irish legend tells us Áedán was the son of Federlm Derg, the daughter of one Feidlimid mac Amalgaid a king of Moy (Co. Tyrone). (A Middle-Irish Poem on the Birth of Āedān Mac Gabrāin and Brandub Mac Echach, M. A. O’Brien Ériu Vol. 16, Contributions in Memory of Osborn Bergin (1952), pp. 157).  Yet this too is thought suspect.

Once again, the Scottish sources don’t relate any of the British connection, only the Welsh ones. They either made it up or there was another Brychan. If it isn’t the case that there was a British connection either via Lluan or Dumnagual, then it may take the Hiberno-British element out of the argument and make the question of why he chose the name Artúr an even bigger one. Could he have used it in spite of the British? Possibly. However, it then would be a case of giving your son the name of a famous enemy hero, and that would be unusual.

Tall Tales

Áedán also appears in a tale called Gein Branduib maic Echach ocus Aedáin maic Gabráin (‘The Birth of Brandub son of Eochu and of Áedán son of Gabrán’ –  c. 1130) and a lost Irish tale called Echtra Áedáin mac Gabráin (‘The Adventures of Áedán son of Gabrán’ – MacQuarrie, ‘Echtra Áedáin mac Gabráin’ listed in “Scéla: Catalogue of medieval Irish narratives & literary enumerations”. 2006, p. 109.).  He was also made a character in the epic story Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin (‘The Story of Cano mac Gartnáin’ – Anderson, ‘Early Sources of Scottish History A.D 500–1286’, volume 1, pp.154-155) as well as in the Compert Mongáin (‘The conception and birth of Mongán’ – Wiley, “The Cycles of the Kings: Compert Mongáin“, 2004).

The story of Compert Mongáin is related both to Áedán and another Arthur we will look at later, Arthur son of Bicoir. The semi-mythical Mongán in question was said to be conceived by the sea-god Manannán mac Lir whilst Fiachnae (Mongán’s father) was campaigning with Áedán mac Gabráin. (Various version give various reasons why Manannán spent the night with Cáintigern, Fiachnae’s wife – one of three mentioned).

There’s a version of the story in the earlier Immram Brain (‘The Voyage of Bran’) that tells how Manannán prophecies Mongán’s birth and likeness to the god Bran. Bran was also a name of one of Artúr mac Áedán’s brothers. (More on this later).

In yet another tale the story ends telling us that Mongán was the reincarnation of Finn mac Cumaill (Finn McCool) (Scél asa mberar co mbad hé Find mac Cumaill Mongán ocus aní día fil aided Fothaid Airgdig; MacKillop, pp. 333–334)

(However, this could be because Mongán’s father was also known as Fiachna Finn). What the above demonstrates is how known historical figure were attached to mythical figures and happenings.

There is no doubt this Artúr’s father was considered a great man, even by his enemies. As I mention earlier, the Welsh (or the North) included him in their Triads … although they did give him the epithet of “The Wily” or “The Treacherous”. He took great swathes of Pictish, British and even English territory. So, it can be argued that if the British included Áedán in their Triads though he was the enemy, why not his son, Artúr?

Below are the pertinent dates for Áedán’s battles from the Annals of Ulster. Those from the Annals of Tigernach are in brackets.

582 Áedán mac Gabrán won the Battle of Manann.

583 Áedán mac Gabrán won the Battle of Manand.

590 Áedán mac Gabrán won the Battle of Leithreid.

595 The Battle of Ráith in Druad and the Battle of Ard Sechain. The slaughter of the sons of Áedán, that is, Brán and Domangart [and Eochaid Find and Artur, in the battle of Circhenn, in which Áedán is defeated, and] the battle of Corann.

600 Áedán fought the Battle of the Saxons[, where there fell Eanfrith brother of Æthelfrith King of the Saxons], in which Áedán was defeated.

606 Áedán mac Gabráin died [in the 38th year of his reign in the 74th year of his life].

(Quoted from a paper done for a Masters degree by the now historian Jonathan Jarret. The paper can be found at

There are questions here: where were the battles of Manann/Manand? The Isle of Man or Manau Gododdin? It could be either, or both, in different years. I’d like to quote again from this Jonathan’s paper:

“In 577 the Ulaid attacked Manau, and this at least must have been the island (AU s.a. 576). However, for 578, the Annals of Ulster record, “The retreat of the Ulaid from Man” (s.a. 577, trans. Mac Niociall). No hint of a battle is given, but in a record so bald as that of the Chronicles argument e silentio is risky. It is best to say that we simply cannot tell what occurred. Then, in 581 and 582, it is recorded that Áedán won this “Battle of Manau” (AU s.aa. 580, 581; cf. AI s.a. 583). It is noticeable that AT uses different languages for the Ulaid’s attacks on Man, and Áedán’s fight or fights at Manau. The former are recorded in Latin and the latter in Irish, suggesting the use of two different sources (cf. Dumville 1982, 1984a p. 119). “It was by him that Manu was cleared; and in the second year after his death the Irish abandoned Manu” (LL 330ab 45, trans. O’Rahilly 1946 p. 504; see also Dobbs 1921 pp. 324, 328).”

Adomnán also mentions them fighting the Miathi (thought to be Sterling=possible Gododdin territory), and this is where Brán and Artúr are killed. So they could either still be seen as the enemy, or they could be seen as their overlords if the Gododdin were defeated.

On the Battle of Miathi, Michelle Ziegler has this to say:

“While Aedan’s motives and objectives can never be fully understood, we can grasp several facets of the situation in which Artúr mac Aedan died. The battle of Miathi was fought near the River Forth in Manau. Adomnan (1.8; Anderson and Anderson 1991:119) indicated that the battle was very costly—”from Aedan’s army, three hundred and three were killed as the saint had also prophesied”—but Aedan was victorious. Adomnan refers to the Miathi as barbarians, perhaps indicating that they were not associated with either the ruling branches of the Picts or the British (Sharpe 1995:269). This might well have been the case if they were caught in a tug–of–war between the Picts, the British, and, in this case, the Dalriada Scots. Considering Aedan and Cenél nGabráin’s ties with the Picts, it seems clear that Aedan and therefore his son Artúr were not fighting as allies of the British.” (Artúr mac Aedan of Dalriada, The Heroic Age, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 1999)

If Michelle’s right, then it is a little odd that the Gododdin should praise this Arthur who may have died fighting against them … unless this praising was done prior to the later battle. Would such a verse be removed once the Dalriadans became the enemy? We’ll never know. However, it seems to me that if there was anyone who was going to be praised it would be Áedán. He is the one that ranged from Eastern Ulster, to Stirlingshire, Angus and the Orkneys. If anyone is to be emulated it is him … and the British did start using the name. However, the British may have gone for Arthur because he was, well, more British? Or simply because his name rhymed with Gwawrddur.

Jarman dates the Battle of Catraeth of Y Gododdin to c. 600, whereas Koch puts it earlier to c. 570 (actually 565×585). However, we don’t know for certain when the earliest parts of the work were composed. The earlier date of the battle, of course, could make a huge problem for the Arthur mentioned in Y Gododdin being Artúr mac Áedán, who must have been extremely young then, or perhaps not even born. But, again, this has to be tempered with the problem of a composition date. Neirin/Aneirin may have ‘sung’ some of it to the court of Din Eidin soon after the battle, but some would have been done in his name by another bard or bards, after his death, probably in Strat Clut (Strathclyde), as argued by Koch and Jarman.

This Artúr as Arthur question isn’t a problem for those who have deduced that the verse that mentions Arthur is a later interpolation (Charles-Edwards et al), possibly of the 8th to 10th centuries, and the Arthur it mentions is the one from the Historia Britonnum. Koch’s reasoning on that subject is thus:

“I see no stylistic, linguistic, or thematic reason to exclude B2.38 [the verse that includes Arthur] from the Ur-Text. From the point of view of style, the use of enjambment in the second half of the awdl (in which the name Arthur occurs) is consistent with the usage and other Arch. segments. Similarly, the occurrence of the hero’s name in syntactic isolation in the last line is not unusual for the Ur-Text.” (Y Gododdin, 1997, pp 147-148)

Isaac thinks the poem may not have been composed until the 10th century. If he’s right, however, this would have massive implications.

If this Arthur was Artúr mac Áedán that does not prove that there wasn’t another, earlier Arthur of Badon fame. It weakens the argument but still does not account for or explain the name being given to a prince of what is now southwest Wales at almost the same time. All that can be said is what is usually said about Arthurian material: no one can be certain about anything.

Artúr mac Conaing (born c. 580-600)

Once again Jaski’s paper:

“Neither Artúr nor Domangart appears among the seven sons of Áedán recorded in the genealogical tract Senchus fer nAlban ‘History of the men of Scotland’, but both names occur among the sons of Conaing († 622) son of Áedán. The original version of this tract has been dated to the middle of the seventh century. It is possible that Artúr and Domangart were omitted from the sons of Áedán by mistake, so that there was an Artúr son of Áedán and an Artúr son of Conaing, or that they were wrongfully placed among the sons of Conaing. Adomnán may also have erred in naming both as sons of Áedán, and the story that they were considered for the succession in the kingship a mistake or even a fabrication. If they were indeed sons of Conaing, they would of course not have been entitled to the succession whilst their father and older kinsmen were still alive.” (p. 93)

However, if Artúr was the son of Coaning and not Áedán he could hardly have died at a battle in 595. If Artúr wasn’t a son but a grandson of Áedán (or there were two of this name), what does this mean for the mention in Y Gododdin, if Koch’s dating is correct? Well, it could help or it could make things worse.

Domnall Brecc was another leader of Dalriada (and Áedán’s grandson) who died in the battle of Strathcarron (c. 642) and he would have been contemporary with an Artúr mac Conaing. There is a verse about Domnall in a later poem attached to Y Gododdin, which tells us he came down from Bentir (Pentir/Kintyre) to be killed in a battle against Eugein (Owein) I of Strat Clut (Strathclyde). This is after the kingdom of Gododdin is thought to have fallen to the Northumbrians at the battle of Din Eidin (Edinburgh) c. 638 and, argued by Koch and Jarman, to have been composed by a Stat Clut bard soon after. This is one of the reasons why Koch argues for Y Gododdin traveling to this area first before arriving in Wales. The difference is when it travelled to Wales: the 7th, 8th, 9th or 10th centuries.

Others think the Strat Clut section a 9th century Welsh interpolation, like the Arthurian one, simply because it doesn’t relate to Gododdin. Regardless of this, what it does show is that the Dalriadans where the enemy at this point. So, could this (or these) Artúrs be the ‘original’? I’ll give my thoughts on that and all the others in the final blog.

(There is a slight irony to Scotland championing a Gaelic (or half-Gaelic) Arthur. This is the culture, said to originate from Ireland, that defeated and dominated the Pictish and British peoples and cultures of what is now Scotland. It’s a little like the Welsh championing an Anglo-Saxon Arthur!).

In the next blog we’ll look at Arthur map Pedr of Demetia (Dyfed, Wales), born ca 570.

Thanks for reading,



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