Tag Archives: Thomas Green

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

Before I get to the final part and the conclusion to all of this, I’d like to first look at one piece of evidence, which, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been discussed before (but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been!).

Bran’s good for you!

Español: Obra del escultor Ivor Roberts-Jones,...

Bran statue at Harlech Castle.

It is interesting that Artúr mac Áedán had a brother called Bran – Welsh Brân - earlier also *Vran and *Uran – (‘Raven’ or ‘Crow’). There is an argument to be had by those who see Arthur as an historicized mythical figure that the fact his brother was named Bran (also the name of an ancient giant and king of British and Irish mythology – Brân fab Llŷr (son of Llŷr) or Bendigeidfran (‘Bran the Blessed’) – with the Irish equivalent Bran mac Febail), might indicate that both siblings were named after mythical figures. (Not to mention that one of Finn’s magical dogs was called Bran).

Source: Village of Llangollen in North Wales/U...

Dinas Brân

Branodonum (Photo by Nigel Stickells)

However, Bran Hen (the Old) was the name of a king of Bryneich (now Northumbria), and the supposed name of the father of Caractacus (Caradoc or Caradawg), the British famous enemy of Rome. (Although the latter may have been made up in the 18th century!). Ireland had Bran Becc mac Murchado (died 738) and Bran Ardchenn mac Muiredaig (died 795), both kings of Leinster, as well as a Lough Bran in County Leitrim. Wales has Dinas Brân in Denbighshire, Aber-Brân in Powys, Llyn (Lake) Brân in Denbighshire and Cwmbrân in Gwent. Scotland has a River Bran in the Highlands and a Loch Bran. John Koch wonders if there is an association between this character and the Roman fort of Brancaster (Branodunum) in Norfolk, England. (Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Vol. 9, (1989), pp. 1-10 – article available at JSTOR). Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the King’s of Britain included an Arthurian Brennius (Book III, Ch.1). This may be Brân in another name, although this name could also be from the 3rd and 4th century BC Brennus. In the Mostyn MS 117 Genealogies, known as the Bonedd yr Arwyr (Decent of the Heroes), Brân map Llŷr (son of Llŷr) is made an ancestor of Arthur, in true royal genealogical style. It’s hard to know why Arthur was given descent from Brân but it could have been through association with the stories that circulated. Having said that, Triad 37 tells of Arthur digging up the head of Brân, which was supposedly protecting Britain, from where the Tower of London now stands, saying he was the only one who could do so. That’s not a way to treat your supposed ancestor! Could it be that this was a different tradition to the Bonedd yr Arwyr?

All these historical or topographical Brans/Brâns could have been named after the mythical figure; or, it was also simply a name the British (and Irish) liked to use. Sound familiar? For all we know, a 5th century Arthur, if he existed, could also have had a brother (or father?) named Brân, hence why Áedán named his sons thusly. The duel British/Irish nature of Bran can be used both for the mythical argument and for a historical name being given to princes from these cultural or ethnic unions (as with Áedán supposedly marrying a British woman), and this might have been the case with the name Arthur/Artúr. The difference between them is that Brân/Bran is a well attested ‘Celtic’ name, and Artúr /Arturius/Arthur isn’t.


If all these historical Arthurs, or the first one (whoever he was), was/were named after a figure of ancient legend or folklore and both stories of a historical and a mythical superhuman/giant/Messianic hero came down in parallel, then were later merged, were later badly separated, then just took on a life of their own … then it’s no wonder we’re all confused! Perhaps both camps (not all members of them I admit) are trying to make each very different figure fit something that only the name ‘Arthur’ itself matches? So people try to find the historical Arthur in the stories, poems and Triads of the Welsh, Cornish and Scots and the onomastic and topographic sites of Britain, when a historical Arthur could (initially) have had nothing to do with them, just as it is argued these 6th to 8th century Arthurs didn’t. Thomas Green finds this explanation “too complicated” (as does Christopher Gidlow), but sometimes history is. I’m not saying this was the case, but it can’t be ruled out just because we don’t like its complexity. Occam’s Razor can get blunted over the centuries.

Politically motivated

There’s also the political aspect of Arthur, which cannot be overstressed. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth (and I would say even before) claiming Arthur (as a king) was from your territory was claiming descent from who they thought were the first Britons, the Trojans, and therefore suzerainty over the whole of Britain, especially if he ruled from London. The more you could point to where he was from, or had been, the better your case. So onomastic and topographical sites could have been named for more than just folkloric reasons.

In the final part of this blog we’ll see if any conclusions can be drawn form all this and whether or not we can give any answers to the question posed in Part One.

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



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

To be or not to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a striking resemblance!

Merlin reads his prohecies to King Vortigern. ...

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

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

Weight of evidence v popular evidence

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

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


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

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

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

Etymologically speaking …

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

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

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

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

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



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


As I mentioned in earlier parts of this blog, the same ‘all or nothing’ argument goes for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as Dumville, Higham and Green are concerned (although Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else). 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 mythologized 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?

Higham argues that the format of the battles was merely taken from a known battle poem of Gwynedd: Canu Cadwallon ap Cadfan. Cadwallon has 16 battles to Arthur’s 12 (2007, pp.145-147). Nick Higham says:


Christopher Gidlow counters:


The Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith is sometimes brought in as an example here. In this 9th century poem about him, the fictitious 7th century poet (scop) is given travels all over the known world (over 50 places!) or knows of them. Arthur isn’t; he’s given nine locations, twelve battles, and all in Britain … as far as we know. (You can read the Widsith poem here: ). So he’s hardly a comparison at all.

If we look at the point of this section in the H.B. and why Arthur was used, it raises questions that, to me, Dumville et al do not address: whoever was placed at this point in the H.B. would have to be known as a ‘Saxon’ fighter, and possibly the victor at Badon. Unless we’ve lost the stories that included this information, the Arthur of the Welsh pre-Galfridian tradition did neither (unless we can count Llongborth). Nor is he anywhere in this tradition depicted as the leader of battle for kings of the Britons or the victor at Badon. If he was never seen as doing any of these things in Welsh tradition, what would be the point in using him or listing some mythical battles that his Welsh audience would have known were not against ‘Saxons’?

Let’s look at the battles in more detail and what was/is known about them. First the Harleian version 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. 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.”

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.”

Let’s take them one at a time, and rather than thinking about where these battles might have been, I want to consider where the H.B.’s North Walian readers might have thought these battles to be:

  1. At the mouth of (or a confluence of) the River Glein/Gleni. (Nothing known. Could be in Northumbria, Lincolnshire or Sussex … or other locations. Enemy unknown, but if the Welsh audience took this to mean Northumbria, then the enemy would be Northumbrian (Bernician) Angles - Angles would still be called ‘Saxons’).
  2. Four battles above the River Dubglas/Duglas in the region of Linnuis (Linnuis is generally taken to be Lindsey=Lincolnshire, but not all agree. However, this is where the H.B’s readers would most likely think them to have been. Enemy may have been taken to be Northumbrian (Deiran) Angles or East Angles).
  3. Above the River Bassas. (Several locations given. Said to be taken from Eglwysseu Bassa (Churches of Bassa) in the Canu Heledd poems. Apart from the difference between Bassa and Bassas, there is no River Bassas mentioned in these poems, only the Tren, Trydonwy, Twrch, Marchnwy, Geirw, Alwen and Hafren (Severn). In both poetic cases Bassa and Bassas are odd, none British names. The battles in Canu Heledd were against Northumbrian Angles. The H.B.’s audience may have taken this to have been against Northumbrian or Mercian Angles)
  4. At Coit Celidon (Wood of Celidon). (Thought to mean a woodland in the Scottish borders, but not by all. Green identifies this with the mythical battle of Coit Godue, although why it wouldn’t be called Coit Godue is anyone’s guess if this was the case. Enemy unknown, but if the H.B’s audience equated Celidon with the north they would have taken the enemy to be Northumbrian (Bernician) Angles).
  5. At Castello Guinnion/Gurnion. (Many identify this with the Roman fort of Vinuium (Binchester), although it is argued that this doesn’t work etymologically speaking by Jackson,(Once Again Arthur’s Battles, Modern Philology, 1945), but Rivet thinks it shouldn’t be reject out of hand (The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 1992). There is a Cerrig Gwynion in Wales, which is an old Iron Age hillfort between Llandudno and Bangor … not to mention the not far away hillfort of Bwrdd Arthur. Would the North Walian reader take it to be this location or Binchester? Enemy unknown, but may have been taken to be Northumbrian (Deiran) Angles if in the north or against Irish raider if in Wales).
  6. Urbe Ligionis (City of Legions). (Generally thought to be either Chester or Caerleon. Said to be a borrowing of the Battle of Chester of c. 613; a battle the Britons lost to the Northumbrians. This battle is mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work as Legecester (the Anglo-Saxon version of Fort of the Legion) and in the Welsh version, the Brut y Brenhinedd, the battle is called Perllan Fangor (Bangor Orchard). Bede calls Chester civitas legionum and Gildas calls somewhere urbs legionum (possibly Caerleon?). If Chester was known as Urbe Ligionis, this naming wasn’t used in any of these other works so Nennius didn’t get it directly from Gildas or Bede. In the Vatican recension of the H.B. it is glossed as meaning Cair Lion in Welsh. This is interesting because perhaps that should come from Castra Ligionis? There is some argument as to the difference between urbe (or urbs as used by Gildas) and cair/caer, and whether this could actually mean somewhere else, such as York, which was a civil colonia as well as a fortress and an administrative ‘city’. But most favour Chester or Caerleon even though the two mentions in the H.B. should mean Cair ligion/lion=Fortress of the Legion and Urbe Ligionis=City of the Legion (see P.J.C Filed’s article at ). If the readers thought this was Chester it would have been taken to be Mercian or Northumbrian Angles; if they thought it Caerleon they may have thought Mercians).
  7. On the banks of the Tribruit/Treuroit. (Various locations given. Argued to be a mythical battle because of its mention in the poem Pa Gur yv y Porthaur? and the story of Culhwch ac Olwen. Not ‘Saxon’?).
  8. At the mountain of Breguoin/Agned. (Argued to be a battle Urien Rheged  fought, called “cellawr Brewyn” or ‘cells of Brewyn’. Some identify the location with the Roman fort of Bremetennacum (Ribchester, Lancashire), but, once again, the etymology doesn’t work. (Rivet & Smith 1979, p.277). A better candidate might be Bremenium (High Rochester, Northumbria). Urien’s enemy in this battle is unknown although the “Angles” (‘Saxons’) are mentioned later in the poem, but other British and Gael enemies are also inferred. The battle merely appears in a list of seven in a Taliesin poem, but isn’t singled out. (See: ). It would most likely to have been taken to be Northumbrian Angles).
  9. At Mount Badon: (Generally located in the south around Bath/Badbury, but also Lincolnshire (Green) and other locations. Known battle against ‘Saxons’, as mentioned by Gildas in the 6th century. Dated between 483 and 516. The H.B.’s readers would most likely take the enemy to have been Wessex (West Saxons), unless they knew (or thought) otherwise).

NB: These English kingdoms (Mercian, Northumbria, etc.) wouldn’t have existed in the late 5th century, but the H.B.’s audience in general wouldn’t have known this and would think of the known kingdoms of the time. It is interesting to note that, to the H.B.’s readers at least, many of these battles may have been seen to be against Mercian or Northumbrian Angles. These were who the North Walians had had run-ins with, especially the latter in earlier times, whilst the south had problems with Saxon Wessex. Was this the reason why Arthur and/or these battles were chosen? If so, then Badon (if it was in the south) may not have been as important to them as his other battles. (Of course, I’m referring to who the H.B.’s readers might take the battles to have been against, not who they actually might have been against). It would mean the H.B. did three things: 1) showed Arthur defeated the Northumbrian’s (and Mercian’s) ancestors, 2) showed Cadwallon (died 634) of Gwynedd later defeated the Northumbrians, 3) refuted the Northumbrian monk Beds’s view of the Britons. Was this the point of Arthur? A call to unity as of old against the same old foe, whilst the Mercian were busy with the Danes?

(Alex Woolf, wonders if the genealogists have inserted Bede’s Cadwallon into the pedigree of the Kings of Gwynedd? He forwards that Bede’s Cadwallon might be Catguallaun liu, son of Guitcun, grandson of Sawyl Penuchel who were rulers in the north. Woolf, 2004).

The second part of this section will continue looking at the battles.

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



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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 – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Two


Arthur's Seat

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

To quote Padel:

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

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

From Man to Myth

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

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

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

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

Back at the sites …

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hit of Myth?

First a few ‘for and against’ quotes:

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

“It is worrying just how convoluted, how complex, the arguments against Arthur are. Faced with the mass of evidence, opponents are forced to imagine an unknown British god called Arthur (with a convenient taboo against naming him), or landscape features named after other Arthurs of earlier history or mythology whose importance to the inhabitants is nowhere attested. (Christopher Gidlow in his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’, 2010, p.193)

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

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

Thomas Charles-Edwards conclusions about the Historia Brittonum were:

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

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

That is the question?

First we have to define what the correct question is. To ask, “Did Arthur exist?” will illicit the response, “Which Arthur? King Arthur of Malory, of Wace, of Chrétien, of Layamon, of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or ‘William’ the author of the Breton Legend of St. Geoznovius. Or Arthur of the 9th century Historia Brittonum (H.B.), or of the 10th century Annales Cambriae (A.C.); or do we mean Arthur of the early Welsh stories or the early Welsh poetry?” So, the question I will pose is: “Can it be deduced with any certainty or probability that the Arthur depicted in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, said to have fought at the first battle of Mount Badon, was based on a historical character of the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries or an earlier mythical or folkloric figure? or that he could have been both?”

That’s just your opinion!

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Four

This blog is going through a rethink and rework as of 12.11.11. New material or changes will be in bold type.


Warning! Warning!

I want to look at who the enemies of these western Britons might have been, but first a very important point from Barbara Yorke I kept in mind:

“The existence of these numerous small provinces suggests that southern and eastern Britain may have have lost any political cohesion in the fifth and sixth centuries and fragmented into many small autonomous units, though late Roman administrative organization of the countryside may have helped dictate their boundaries.” (Yorke, ‘Kings & Kingdom’s of Early Anglo-Saxon England’, 1990, p13)

I also kept in mind, whether you agree with him or not, Stuart Laycock’s theories that there could be old British tribal scores to settle and animosity after the Romans left. Their ‘tribal’ identity (for want of better name) would mean more to them than ‘British-ness’. If using Germanic mercenaries or Anglo-Britons (and their culture) to forward their cause (and their territory) would help, then I’m sure they’d use them. (The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ settlement/culture does seem to match what are thought to be the boundaries of the eastern Britannian provinces of Maxima Caesariensis and Flavia Caesariensis). This use of them, of course, may have backfired on the Brits as they found themselves becoming second class citizens if they kept their cultural identity. This is not to exclude sheer invasion and expulsion in some areas.

A rough placing of the 'Anglo-Saxon' regions


(At the time thought to be roughly that of the British civitates of the Antrebates and the eastern Antrebatic half of the Belgae)

We should explore if every ‘Saxon’ or ‘Angle’ (remembering that these could be Anglo-British/Saxo-British ethnically mixed – clarifying my position after comments below) in the ‘east’ was the enemy. Let’s start with the infamous ‘West Saxons’. The words “can” and “worms” come to mind here. (I’ll use these later terms, such as ‘West Saxon’ and ‘East Angles‘, merely for convenience. The kingdoms didn’t exist, as far as we know, and I believe they would be made up of smaller groups of *-ingas or *-ge and the like rather than kingdoms at this point in time. We should also keep in mind that all these southern ‘Saxon’ areas have much smaller cemeteries compared with the ‘Anglian’ regions, which is what has led some to think these areas were indeed élite take-overs). The ‘West Saxons’; Cerdic and Cynric (two very British names) are said to ‘arrive’ in the area in 495 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC).  With regards to this date I would like to quote the following:

“David Dumville’s detailed study of the regnal dates given in the Chronicle and in the closely related West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List reached the conclusion that the fifth—and sixth century dates were extremely unreliable and had been artificially extended to make it appear that the kingdom was founded at an earlier date than was actually the case. His calculation on the basis of the reign-lengths given in the Genealogical Regnal List was that Cerdic’s reign was originally seen as beginning in 538, with the arrival of Cerdic and Cynric in 532.” (Yorke, 1990, p131)

However, regardless of who was ‘expanding’ in this region, some peoples of ‘Saxon’ culture were there prior to Badon. As many argue, Cerdic and Cynric may not have ‘arrived’ from anywhere but have been either Britons or Saxo-Britons of the area. (Besides their possible British names, Wessex does claim later men with the other British names. There are also mixed cremation/inhumation as well as inhumation cemeteries here which, according to Ken Dark, could point to mixed British/’Saxon’ sites). However, whichever of the dates for their arrival is correct, and whichever date for Badon is correct, could have a bearing on whether they were personally involved at the Battle of Badon and what would happen afterwards.

There are two arguments as to where the ‘West Saxons’ (as the Geuissae) originate from: the western Thames Valley, and southern Hampshire. Some think the Geuissae or Gewissae could themselves have been a Saxonized British group or even Jutish. These may have been confused or merged with the group around Dorchester-on-Thames. To quote Keith Matthews’ (aka Bad Archaeology blogger) article, ‘What’s in a name? Britons, Angles, ethnicity and material culture from the fourth to seventh centuries’ (Heroic Age, Issue 4, 2001)

“The exception is the upper Thames valley, where there are large numbers of villas and small towns but an early group of German material culture remains. What makes this group stand out is the early date of the material culture and its homogeneity: this group appears to have few contacts with the local Romano-British population, unlike the thousands of Germans whose material culture sits alongside that of indigenous groups elsewhere in the Late Roman diocese. The upper Thames Valley group has long been identified as in some way anomalous (e.g. Leeds: 53), as the invasion/settlement hypotheses are clearly inadequate to explain so massive a penetration so deep into central Britain at this date. Furthermore, it is not identifiable as the core of a later Anglo-Saxon kingdom, despite valiant attempts to link it with Wessex (e.g. Stenton: 26). Here is perhaps the best evidence for the Germanic mercenaries mentioned by Gildas (Higham 1994: 104).”

Whoever they were, or whatever they were called, they could indeed have posed a threat. (However, we should keep in mind that by the late 5th century they may have married locally). It could depend on where Britannia Prima’s border lay and which side of it the Dorchester-on-Thames group where on. It’s very difficult to know if this ‘border’ was an east-west division of the Atrebates, Belgae and Regni civitates, or if it cut through them. If it originally did, we also don’t know what would have happened after the empire ‘fell’ and if a border would be ‘redrawn’ or how much they had fragmented into smaller polities. Since it looks as if many ‘Saxon’ take-overs used these civitas boundaries, it’s worth keeping them in mind. I’d also like to quote another passage from Yorke:

“A further problem with the Chronicle’s account of the origins of Wessex is that it seems to locate the origins of the kingdom in southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, though unfortunately not all the place-names it cites can be identified. Bede, on the basis of information supplied to him by Bishop Daniel, indicates that southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were independent provinces which did not become part of Wessex until after their conquest by King Cædwalla in 686–8. A number of sources, including Bede and placename evidence, affirm that the people of southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were classed as Jutes and not as Saxons.  It seems impossible to place the origins of the kingdom of Wessex in these Jutish provinces.” (Yorke, 1990, p131)

So wherever the ‘West Saxons’ were coming from it may not have been from the south. Let’s say the Dorchester-on-Thames group were on the east side of the border, in what was the old Roman province of Maxima Caesariensis, and weren’t on the Brits side, and Ælle (or whomever) managed to recruit both them and ‘West Saxons’. If Badon was in the south and they were the enemy then they are most likely to get the brunt of the aftermath of a victory … if they didn’t run east and south for protection. (Higham’s theory not withstanding). If Badon was in, say, the Lincolnshire proposed site (by Thomas Green), they could either have had nothing to do with a battle in that part of the country or they were involved with one of the subsequent (or previous) battles to Badon that Gildas mentions in their own region.

What isn’t obvious, and I’ll explore it more below, is who were those ‘Anglo-Saxons’ before the Mercians north of Oxford: those of the south Midlands. They were the ones bordering on what Christopher Gidlow thinks to be the real power base of the Britons: the Cornovii and the Dobunni. (But who Higham thinks were vassals of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’!) If the Britons did win back some of these Midland territories also, the ‘Germanic’ inhabitants don’t seem to have gone anywhere. If Dumville’s 538 dating is right, however, this date could have been the start (or false start) of the push back by the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, in the south at least, although it could have been even much later elsewhere. It may not even have been a ‘push back’ at all but the first push by them if they didn’t become a force to be reckoned with until 532 or after.

If it was around these dates that the Gewissae start to appear, then it may not have been very long after Gildas had completed his polemic before he could say, “I told you so!” This region would be relatively close to Gildas, if he wrote where most think he did in the Durotriges tribal region (roughly western Somerset and Dorset), giving him a very good reason to be nervous. (Always keep in mind that any push or expansion is most likely nothing to do with an ethnic group fighting another ethnic group, but merely the leaders of a group proving what great a leader they are by either raiding, taking a territory or making other territories tributary either through conquest or fear.)

Wherever Badon was, this lot seem to have stopped expanding too, so something may have halted their ambitions and with this possibly being relatively close to Gildas he should have been aware of anything going on here. It could be these peoples that made him worried, but it’s more likely to be those even closer: the ‘Jutes’ of Hampshire (see next blog). If the map above is remotely close to the politcal situation, there was a British divide between Gildas (if he was in the southwest) and them. Of course, as I put forward above, these ‘Saxons’ could even have given allegiance to the Brits and not been a threat at all … at this time. Although it should be noted that Gildas never mentions such alliances.


(At the time thought to be roughly that of the British civitates of the Dobunni and southern Cornovii)

But who were those further west, but north of the ‘West Saxons’? I found it very difficult to find anyone writing about those who made up the settlers of what is now the southwest and west Midlands of England at this time. The archæological evidence shows they were there, bordering on (or even within) the civitates of the Dobunni and possibly Cornovii. They may not have been Middle or West Saxons at all, but, what I will call, ‘West Angles’. If they were ‘West Saxons’ they certainly weren’t to become Wessex but the Hwicce and part of Mercia. (I realise it’s a lot more complicated than that and I apologise for the over-simplification.) To quote, ‘Research issues in the Post-Roman to Conquest period in Warwickshire’ by Sally Crawford with regards to Warwickshire, for example …

“The social organisation of the earlier Anglo-Saxon period is also one which would bear further research. The cemetery evidence supports the idea that there was a significant ethnic division within the county, with two separate groups based around the upper and lower Avon, which is echoed in the later documentary sources as a division between the tribes of the Hwicce and the Mercians (Hooke, 1996:100). “

Apparently Warwickshire does not fair well in its Early Medieval archæology so it’s almost impossible to judge the power or status of those “Saxons’ or ‘Angles’ there and their relationship with the Britons. However, the mixed nature of the cemeteries might show a mixed ethnic group. I found a little more information from John Morris (The Age of Arthur), although I don’t know how accurate or up-to-date it is.  His information shouldn’t always be trusted:

“But the south western borderlands of the corner of Cornovii have plain evidence; four large mixed cemeteries guarded the main crossing of the Avon on their side of the river, near Coventry and at Warwick, Stratford and Bidford. Their burials began very early in the sixth century and the main ornament derived from the Middle Angles. Further south a larger number of smaller burial grounds circle the territory of Cirencester and Gloucester on the north, the west, and the south, approximately on the borders of the Roman Dobunni. The earliest of them, Fairford, maybe as early as the Avon site cemeteries, but the ornament of most seem somewhat later, and was drawn from the Abingdon English; it passed onto Bidford, the nearest of the Avon garrisons, but only a little of it reached further north, though the Cotswolds sites about Cirencester took little or nothing of the Anglian ornament of Avon. Cornovian territory admitted brides and peddlars within its borders, but Cirencester allowed no traffic in the opposite direction.” (p.284)

I’m not exactly sure what he means by “Cornovian territory admitted brides and peddlars within its borders …” or where that information comes from!?

There isn’t universal agreement of which pre-‘Saxon’ eastern British tribal regions bordered here: some say the Corieltavi could have stretched that far south, others the Catuvellauni. It could be both, of course. Perhaps the Dobunni stretched further north than we think, although, I believe, coin distribution places them were the later Hwicce would be. But someone bordered with the Dobunni and Cornovii and it’s these eastern borders where the cemeteries of ‘Anglo-Saxons’ are found (cremations in the north and mixed and inhumations further south). Some could even have been within their territories. If these ‘Saxons’ were at Badon, or were involved in the struggle against the British of the west at the time, it’s hard to discern what happened to them in the aftermath or during this ‘peace’. Of course, if the Dobunni and Cornovii (or whatever they were called by this time) did ‘defeat’ them, and ‘threw them out’, would the archæology show this? If either of these British civitates were as powerful as Gidlow thinks, (and not as weak as Higham thinks!), then perhaps the ‘Saxons’ may have not tried to expand any further west or south because they were too scared of the consequences.

As Stuart Laycock puts forward (and others I believe) in his book ‘Britannia – The Failed State’ (2009), these ‘Anglo-Saxon’ groups may have been placed there by rival British civitates in the first place. Whether these too would have revolted at some stage or stayed on the Brits side we will never know, but it might explain Gildas telling us the revolt went from sea to sea. Meaning, there were revolts in their regions, rather than those of Kent marauding from the FRETVM GALLICVM (English Channel) to the Severn Sea (Bristol Channel). (However, always keep in mind the E. A. Thompson believes the revolts Gildas is talking about took place in the north (which is the region Gildas is discussing) and went from the North Sea to the Irish Sea). Those upper and lower Avon groups could reflect two sides of the divide, although the Avon appears to run through the centre of the Dobunni region. We must considered the distinct possibility that some of them, at least, weren’t the enemy.

In the next blog I’ll look at the ‘Jutes’ of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and the ‘South Saxons’.

Thanks for readin and I look forward to any comments,



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

UPDATED 21.5.12 

What’s in a name?

Before getting into the possible meaning of the name Arthur and where it might have originated from, there’s a quote I’d like to make from Thomas Green’s book, ‘Concepts of Arthur‘:

“To have all four [of these Arthurs] ‘named after ‘the historical Arthur’ … would be a type of commemoration for which Celtic tradition tradition offers no parallel,’ as no less an authority than Rachel Bromwich has made clear (1975-6: 178-9). So what can the solution be?” (p.49)

Now, I haven’t read this particular work Green cites, and far be it from me, a layman, to criticise the late, great Rachel Bromwich, but there are some other names that seemed to have been used on a number of occasions, which might be worth looking at.  These are:

Constantine/Constantin/Costentyn/Custennin/Custennyn (and many other variations)

Caraticus/Coroticus/Ceretic/Caratawc/Caradog/Cerdic (?)

Geraint, Gereint









There are probably more, but these are the ones I have spotted. Yet a search of the Welsh Brut y Tywysogion‘The Chronicle of the Princes’ (Jesus MS 111 Red Book of Hergest), which covers six hundred years of north Walian history, will bring up only one Arthur, and that is the Arthur, mentioned in a Latin verse commemorating Rhys of Gwerthrynion on his death in 1197.

Cesar et Arthurus leo fortis uterque sub armis

Nil par vel similis Resus utrique fuit.”

“Julius Caesar and Arthur, each a strong lion under arms

Nothing like or similar to either one was Res (Rhys).”

(Kindly translated by Christopher Gwinn)

The south Walian didn’t use the name either, from what we can glean from the genealogies. (The only possible 12th century Welshman was a priest called Arthur of Bardsey). The same period in Ireland brings up at least five Arthurs: ARTUIR on a tombstone in Co. Tipperary,  Fergus mac Artuir (Leinster), Artur mac Muiredaigh (Western Liffey), Artúr ua Tuathail, Artúr Clérech, Artúr mac Bruide (Source: ‘Early Irish examples of the name ‘Arthur’, Bart Jaski)

Surprisingly, we do not get the reuse of Ambrosius or even the British version of it, Emrys, as far as I’m aware.  Why not, I wonder?  It could be because the others gained national and international fame and Ambrosius, for all Gildas’ praising, only gained relatively ‘local’ fame.  Or, perhaps, they just didn’t like the it!

It would help if there was some certainty over where the name ‘Arthur’ comes from or its meaning.  There is no universal agreement on this. One of the main contenders (and the one most etymologist favour) is the Classical Latin name ‘Artōrius’, which, through Vulgar (Insular) Latin renders ArtūriusTo quote Dr Kip Wheeler:

 “The strongest evidence that Arthur may be a historical hero comes from etymology. The name Arthur, unlike Rhiannon or many other Celtic names in Welsh literature, does not appear to originate in the remnants of a divinity. Nitze was among the first to argue convincingly for a link between the etymology of the name “Arthur” with the Latin name Artorius (585-96), as opposed to the Welsh/Irish cognate Arth  (“bear”) as suggested in Bromwich’s introduction to The Arthur of the Welsh. Artorius was a common Roman name from the gens Artoria, one of the founding families of Rome.” (Arthuriana: Summary of the Welsh Tradition, 1999, p.3)

Back to ‘Arthur’

.Contenders for the derivation of Arthur are:

  1. ‘bear king’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-rigos OW Artorix
  2. ‘bear’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto (with Latin decknamen of Artōrius)
  3. ‘bear man’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-guiros - OW Arthguir/Arthwr
  4. ‘guardian of the bear’ – from Greek star *Arktourus – Latin Arcturus – Neo-Brittonic *Arturus
  5. Classical Latin Artōrius - Insular Latin  Artūrius - Neo Brittonic *Artur - OW Arthur.
 (I am indebted to Chris Gwinn of Arthurnet during correspondents at his Celtica-Camelot website for this and following information.  (To see full the discussions go to

(Philips and Keatman in their book King Arthur – The True Story. put forward Owain Ddantgwn (Owain Whitetooth) of Rhôs - a small kingdom next to Gwynedd – as Arthur, saying the name was an epithet. They suggest that Arth (bear) was joined with Latin ursus (bear) to make Arthursus. Apart from the fact this would have to be unique and British epithets attached to names had nothing to do with animals, etymologists simply don’t agree).

*Arto-guiros should make Old Welsh Arthwr and *Arto-rigos, Old Welsh *Erthir or, possibly, *Arthric. *Arto-guiros or *Arto-uiros is one of the British etymologies that has been considered more than most. The reasons are extremely complicated and it will be easiest form me to quote a paragraph on the subject directly fro Thomas Green’s book:

“Whilst *Arto-uiros would have, through regular changes, become Archaic Welsh Art(u)ur, it ought to have developed into Old Welsh *Arthgur and Middle Welsh *Arthwr (see Schrijver, 1995: 151-2 for *-uiros > *(u)ur -wr. Simms-Williams, 1991b: 27,72 discusses the dating of medial -u > -gu-, which he sees as a ninth-century and later development; it is not, however, a universal change, so the name might have been regularly Arthur through the Old Welsh period – Jackson, 1953: 387, 392-3; Higham, 2002:74). There are two possible solutions to this. The first is that the Archaic Welsh (and perhaps Old Welsh) version could have been petrified as Art(h)ur through popular usage, so that it did not participate in the expected later changes. Alternatively, Griffen has argued that *Arto-uiros may have taken the form *Artgur by c.AD 500, at which point he argues it would have regularly become Art(h)ur, as -g- would be lost in this period (Griffen, 1994a: 85-6; Griffen, 1994b). This latter route is very doubtful, however, and we would still have to rely on a petrification in an early form.” (2007, p.190)

That’s how complicated this whole debate is! It is why Artūrius is preferred, because it takes less etymological gymnastics to get it to Arthur.

However, here is another possibility I will forward, following on from these British and Brittany names:




If his name was originally Artorix (*Arto-rigos) this would render Latin Artōrius, which then could have become Insular Latin Artūrius – Neo Brittonic Artur/Arthur – Goidelic Artúr. But, for this to work he would have to have been known by his Latin and not British name, which could be hard to argue as British characters are known by their British names.

A name coming from the Greek star Arktourus (Latin Arcturus) would be unusual but not out of the question. After all, this star and its constellation of Boötes, looks after Ursa Minor (‘The Little Bear’) and Ursa Major (‘The Great Bear’), otherwise known as The Plough, and Arthur’s name later became attached to this constellation when it would be known as ‘Arthur’s Wain’ or ‘Arthur’s Hufe’, and this could have derived from Ar(c)turus’ Wain. To the Romans the constellation Ursa Major was known as ‘The Bear-like Wagon’ or ‘The Chariot. (Germanicus Caesar, 1976, p.55)

There are plenty of ‘Art’ based names, both in Britain and Ireland.  In Britain its meaning is ‘bear’ (from Brittonic *artos modern Welsh ‘arth’, plural ‘eirth’) and, possibly, ‘warrior’. In Goidelic it could mean ‘bear’, ‘stone’, ‘noble’ or ‘warrior’. There have been those who put the name Arthur forward as being of Goidelic origin, but the problem is, whilst there are many ‘Art’ names in Irish, there are none, apart from Artúr, ending with ‘úr’ and it’s hard to find a meaning for this … as it is with Brittonic.  The nearest is Old Irishúr’, meaning ‘noble’:- (c) of persons (a) noble, generous, (b) fair, active. It can also mean ‘earth’ or `evil’.  As Dane Prestano pointed out in a comment below:

‘Art’ can mean Bear, God, hero, noble and stone. So various meanings could be constructed in Goidelic, the ‘noble bear/god/hero’, the ‘evil bear/god/hero’. I would have thought the former would be more likely but we do have that Sawley gloss where he is called “horrible from his youth” to contend with. I suppose we do need to find some Goidelic names with this ending to see if either of these were actually used in names., there are no other names with this ending.  It could be unique, but it looks unlikely.

The one problem is with the reversal of the words to get ‘Noble Bear’ (*úr-art). I know it can happen, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough to be sure. My first rendition of Art-úr was ‘bear (of the) earth’ or ‘stone (of the) earth’, which has similarities to Peter (Petr). However, I believe the main problem, as Chris Gwinn points out, is not so much the etymology, but the distinct lack of names ending in úr.

We don’t have that many comparisons of the use of Latin name in Britain for the period but there are a few that have survived. From inscribes stone in Wales: Peturus, Potentinus. Quenvendanus, Marti Pumpeius, ‘great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus’, ‘Etternus son of Victor’, Vitalianus … and from Devon and Cornwall we get:  Ingenuus, Iustus, Latinus. Most other names we know of are Latinised British one. (Source: BableStone

L. Artorius Castus (LAC) is thought to be from Dalmatia (the Balkans) but a number of Italian scholars think the name to be Messapic (southeast Italy on the ‘heal’) but of unknown meaning. Another derivation could be from the Latinisation of the Etruscan name Arnthur. (Chelotti, Morizio, Silvestrini, Le epigrafi romane di Canosa, Volume 1, 1990, pp. 261, 264)

Artorius is, in fact, a family name (cognomen) and LAC would most likely have been known by the praenomen Lucius, not Artorius, to his friends at least. It’s not known in Britain, besides LAC, but must have been at some point to be given to a mythical or historical figure. It’s relatively common elsewhere in the Roman world.

If Arthur is a name used by Hiberno-Britannians/Hiberno-Britons, though not necessarily an Hibernian (Gaelic) name as mentioned above, it might go someway to explaining why the British don’t appear to have used it. Could there also have been the added possibility that in Goidelic Artúr had some semblance of a meaning but in Brittonic and Welsh it didn’t – apart from ‘bear – ur‘, so wasn’t used? We still have to understand why the Britons and Welsh wouldn’t name their sons Arthur but were quite happy to have their great folkloric and/or legendary figure have the name … and why a certain 12th century monk/priest called Arthur of Bardsey would take the name.

(For my blog on the pronunciation of the name Arthur in both Brittonic and Goidelic, click HERE).

In the next blog I want to look at the genealogies that include Arthur.

Thanks for reading,



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A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem – Part Two

Transmitting Arthur

(It seems to have turned into a three part blog)

Click HERE for Part One

Before getting to my feeble poetic attempts in Part Three I’d like to go deeper into what might have been transmitted and how this transmission may have come down to even the 9th century, long before Geoffrey of Monmouth got his hands on it, and have been corrupted.

Praise the lord!

The one thing we know about early bardic poetry, from the limited evidence we have, is that the only things they celebrated were the deeds of warriors or kings, their greatness, their generosity, how they died and, sometimes, their descendants.  What we will never hear is a story.  These don’t seem to appear to begin until the 9th and 10th centuries in written form, but they must have existed in oral form for centuries before this.  If the more ‘accurate’ transmission of events was through the bards – and accurate would be a relative term – how could any reliable detailed information about Arthur have come down to even those in the 9th century, such as the names of sons, his horse, his dog, his weapons, his wife or wives … and mistresses?  These would have to have come down through the storyteller, the Cyfarwydd, if they hadn’t simply been made up in the 300 years since his demise.  This folk telling of his exploits is one source but is it possible that some clerics wrote of him in Latin?  This might seem the case if Cat Coit Celidon was first known as silua Celidonis.  I’ll explore this further below.

Whilst the bards were supposed to recite old poems verbatim, we don’t know how strict the storytelling tradition was.  It is obvious from what early stories we do have that contemporary elements have been added to them, so if there was a strict learning of a tale, it went out of the Early Medieval window at some point.

It’s worth looking more closely at what exactly a bard (Irish), or bardd (Welsh), was in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries.

He’s an old poet, and he knows it!

Known as Y Cynfeirdd (‘The earliest poets’), or their work as Yr Hengerdd (‘The old poetry’), their rôle, after training for nine years – if it is the same as those depicted by earlier Romans in Gaul – was more than just a poet.  Part of the triad of Druids, Vates and Bards, he was a poet, musician and satirist.  (Their verses were accompanied with the lyre or harp).  But they were not poets in the sense we imagine.  They were very powerful men (although it’s possible there were woman) who could make a king, or curse him through his satires if he wasn’t treated well, or even make political statements against them. (‘The Welsh King & His Court‘, 2000, p.172). One of the later Welsh bards, or Y Gogynfeirdd (‘The Less Early Poets’), called Cynddelw – the bard of Rhys ap Gruffudd (mid 12th century) – told his master that “without me, no speech would be yours” (Koch, ‘Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia, Volume 1’- p.170). But, it was a symbiotic relationship, and that line just quoted is followed by: “And I,[likewise,] would be unable to utter without you“.

The one thing they were not, is historians.  In the case of the bardd teulu, their job was to make their boss famous, tell a good story or to encourage those about to go into battle as well as recite the lord’s lineage.  This Fame had a name: clod (in Welsh), cliù (in Scottish Gaelic) and clù (in Irish).  This must have led to not only exaggeration but down right lies.  Maybe not just by the original bard, but those that followed him as they attempted to give their court an even greater past.  History for them was not passing down accurate records of event, but making sense of the past through the present.  To quote John Koch:

“ [...] our early Celtic literary texts are to be understood as serving the political needs of specific power elites who were the patrons of the literary classes.” (Koch, 1993)

To quote the great Nora Chadwick:

“In the early British courts, essentially heroic, individualistic and aristocratic, it is believed that the bard’s most important function was that of custodian of the genealogies. In countries with no written laws, or charters, or wills, genealogies were the only guarantee of the right to a share in land, and of the right to inherit. The chiefs depended largely on the bards for their prestige and reputation. Where there were no newspapers or leading articles, all political and personal propaganda was in the hands of the court poets, and the closest personal tie existed between the poet and his patron. It is not surprising that traditions have come down to us of bards who have killed themselves on the death of their lord. We have seen, for example, that British poetical tradition represents the poet Myrddin as losing his wits after the death of his lord Gwenddoleu in the battle of Arthuret.” (Celtic Britain, 1963)

‘Nennius’ in the Historia Brittonum tells us about the bards of the 6th and 7th centuries …

“At that time, Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin [Aneirin], and Taliesin, and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.”

There are only two of these bards whose work has come down to us -Taliesin and Aneirin – and we know that both of their works were added to at later dates.  Luckily for us we have experts who can tell us this.  Those of the 9th century may not have known, or cared, as long as it forwarded their cause or was a good yarn.  However, it could be that changes didn’t start to be made to their works until after these oral verses were first written down.

If we look at the poems of Taliesin (bard to Urien Rheged) and Aneirin (thought the composer of the earlier section of the early 7th century epic British poem Y Gododdin (The Gododdin) – both from Northern Britain – we see two different kinds of praise poetry: one praising mostly a king and one praising a king but also the deeds of many warriors and warbands besides those of the host.  This may indeed be showing the two kinds of bards we know existed in 10th century Wales through the Laws of Hywel Dda.  There were the itinerant bards, the pencerdd (‘chief of song’ or ‘master poet’) and the household bard: bardd teulu (‘bard of the household/‘bard of the retinue’). They were different in as much the bardd teulu was attached to the court and the pencerdd was ‘free moving’ to a certain extent within a kingdom, but sometimes one could become the other. Each had a different job to do. My two poems (in Part Three) are in the pencerdd style; although the 10th century pencerdd had to also sing a song in praise of God first and the bardd teulu could be asked by the queen to sing three (quiet) songs in her chamber if she wished. But if the pencerdd was present at court, he had superiority. (‘The Welsh King & His Court‘, 2000, p.170)

It is through a pencerdd where we might get multiple names occurring, not being attached to a specific court and free to praise other kings, and, if they weren’t simply later additions to the Arthurian tradition, or visa versa, this is where Cai and Bedwyr – amongst others – could have appeared.  However, they are most likely later, although very early, additions.

In Taliesin’s household bard (bardd teulu) style, it’s mainly his king, prince or chieftain that would be praised; their patrons.  They are going to be given the credit for winning battles.  Y Gododdin, praises a range of warriors, but never focuses for long on one figure.  That could either be because they were killed; because it is about a specific campaign fought by an alliance, or because there are elements of Y Gododdin missing … or all of the above.  We also don’t know the status of those praised. (It would be interesting to know what form it might have taken had the British won).

Aneirin and Y Gododdin may be the better candidate than most of Taliesin’s work if the campaigns Arthur fought in/led were all alliances or he himself wasn’t attached to a specific court but had some military command.  This may have given rise to multiple praising, so to speak, of both kings and lords (including Arthur) alike, by various pencerdd and bardd teulu.  Could Arthur, the “leader of battle”, have begun to stand out because of the frequency in which his name and deeds appeared?  These deeds might have been compiled by some later pencerdd bard or bards into a more coherent poem or poems. However, it still should be kept in mind that any victory in battle is going to go to the dominant king.

Or, Arthur could have been mainly attached to one dominant royal court?  If he went from war leader to political leader in later life, he could have had his own bard.  There are several options open to us and not knowing his status (or, indeed, if he ever existed) makes it impossible to know which it might have been.  For example, if, as put forward by Gidlow, he was a latter day British Magister Militum he’s not likely to have a bard, unless he had his own court also, and could only be remembered by other’s household bards or travelling pencerdd. But Gidlow also points out that if the battles were numbered in an original work, it would be very unusual indeed in the bardic style and may point to some other kind of work.

Clerical error?

Just to digress for a moment.  On the point of why the ‘Battle of the Wood of Celidon’ was called silua Celidonis and had to be glossed in British as Cat Coit Celidon, we are going away from the bards and to the clerics. Unless Alex Woolf is right :

Gildas describes, in unflattering terms, poets at the court of Maglocunus, and it has always been assumed that these poets sang the king’s praises in British. In the light of the foregoing discussion of Insular Romance it is perfectly possible, however, that they recited Latin panegyrics. Indeed Patrick Sims-Williams has demonstrated the influence of Latin panegyric diction and form on early Welsh and, less certainly, on early Irish praise poetry, a phenomenon which almost certainly requires composition and recitation ofLatin poetry to have taken place in sixth-century Britain (THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE ROMAN WORLD - Renga and Gentes, 2003, p375

The fact that no poetry about the very powerful king Maglocunus survived could possibly be down to having be composed in Latin.

However, generally it was the clerics who were the ones going to be writing in Latin.  What was a cleric doing listing a single Arthurian battle … if it is, and he did?  One possibility is that there was more than one battle listed but the others mentioned matched those in a poem.  This doesn’t answer ‘why?’ Was there a British Sidonius, attached to a provincial ‘government’ who listed this?  If there was, he listed an event that happened outside of what is known to have been the Roman diocese of Britannia, well to the north of the old provinces of Britannia Secunda and (probably) Valentia.  (Unless you believe Valentia to have been between the Walls, which I don’t – See THIS blog).

What we don’t know is if the northern borders had been extended through conquest or these battles were simply offensive ones in other regions.  Either way, this battle probably happened in the Selgovian territory near to Caddon on the Tweed and not in what we think of today as the Caledonian Forrest in northern Scotland.  Caddon was recorded in 1175 as ‘Keledenlee’ and ‘Kaledene’ in 1296 (‘Welsh Origins of Scottish Place-names’ by William Oxenham, 2005) – my thanks to Phil over at Tim Clarkson’s Senchus blog for that information.   This is the area where local tradition has Myrddin going to after going mad.  It really looks as though either Kelidon (Celidon) or Kaledon (Caledon) got Anglisized to Keleden, Kaledene and that, possibly, this led to Ca(le)ddon. This is odd in itself as it seems to have gone back to ‘Welsh’.

Of course, they would mean different things in each language: Kaledene=Kaled (OW=hard, rough) + dene (OE=valley) or for Keledenlee either=Kelli/Keli (OW=grove/heaven) + den (OE=den) + lee (OE=pasture/meadow) or Kele could be Céle (OE=a cold thing, coldness) … or a mixture thereof.  The use of the letter ‘K’ instead of ‘C’ points to its ancient British origin.

There is another point made by Chris Gwinn on Arthurnet, and that is that, had Coit Celidon originally been in Latin it should have been Caledonius saltus/Caledonia silua. ‘silua Celidonis’  appears to be a direct Latinization of Coit Celidon. So we may be seeing something that started as Brittonic, being Latinized, then retranslated in the H.B.

Mind your language

Those who have looked at the language used in Y Gododdin (Koch, Jackson, Isaacs) have noted the various transmission and additions through the change of language.  Koch in particular identifies no less that six different strands, if you include the original oral (O) version.  Any Arthurian poetry could have gone through just as many, if not one more, depending on its date of composition and when it may have been first written down.  Y Gododdin is argued by Koch to have been written down in the early 7th century, in its original language, not Latin, and this may have worked against its transmission.  Oral versions, however, may have remained less corrupt for longer; but we can’t be certain of that either.

There is actually a very good example of how the same poem, or information, can get changed. In the supposedly 7th century Gaelic poem that mentions Arthur son of Bicoir the Briton, there are three different version in three different manuscripts. To read about him and these versions, click HERE to read that blog.

I want to tell you a story

If there were existing tales about Arthur in the 9th century, and there must have been, then it is interesting that ‘Nennius’ chose not to have drawn from them in the main body of the H.B. (The Mirabilia (Miracles) are believed to have been added later).  He only focuses on the 12 battles, and makes no mention of the Battle of Camlan where Arthur was supposed to have died … although that’s not surprising.  He also makes no mention of Arthur being a king or prince, and so most scholars believe that he wasn’t and this was a later invention.  But I hope to show that this could have purely been because of the way in which the information was passed down.

Arthur’s deeds must have been passed down through storytellers not attached to a royal court. This doesn’t answer the battle list but it might answer other details, accurate or otherwise, that ‘Nennius’ augmented the battle poem with or that the likes of the story of Culhwch & Olwen drew from.  There must have been stories  about those miraculous Arthurian sites for the folktales to exist.  But there appear to be three different strand of the Arthurian legend at work by the 9th century.  The one ‘Nennius’ refers to.  An Otherworld attacking, giant killing, witch skewering superhero, and, as attested to by the topographical and onomastic Arthurian sites of Britain, an Arthur viewed to be a giant, who could hurl massive stones.

To quote Nora Chadwick again:

The Four Branches are also a contrast to the poems in another important aspect. While the poems relate, or purport to relate, to contemporary people and events, especially in the North, the stories of the Mabinogion relate to traditional themes of the far past. The poems are realistic and direct for the most part, even when, as in the vaticinatory poems of Myrddin, they are often very obscure. This sense of reality is heightened by the use of direct speech, monologue or dialogue. The scene is laid for the most part in Wales, never in the ‘North’ and the stories are essentially Welsh. On the other hand the prose is hardly ever realistic, and a sense of illusion is achieved by the simple and almost imperceptible transitions of the story from the world of reality to the world of the supernatural.”

It’s these supernatural Arthurs that drew the likes of Dumville, Padel, Higham and Green to the conclusion that Arthur is an historicized mythical figure, and that the H.B. battle list is either made up by ‘Nennius’ or cannot be used as proof of a 5th/6th century war leader.    It’s Thomas Green’s argument I would like to pick up on first.

One of primary argument against Arthur being historical are the onomastic and topographic Arthurian sites.  These onomastic sites, he points out, show Arthur to have been seen as a giant.  Well, that’s not quite true, and I’ll explain why below.  What is questionable is whether or not a figure had to have been mythical to have his name attached to the landscape.  I would argue not.  All that needs to happen is the following:

“Arthur was a giant of a man”

“Arthur was a giant”

“I think Arthur the giant may have put those stone there”

“Arthur the giant put those stones there”

This is folk history at its simplest. There is also the simple fact that any great ancient hero could not be simply seen as human, but they were either larger than life or had superhuman qualities. What may have heightened the spread of Arthur’s name in the landscape, especially in Wales and Cornwall, could have been the ever present threat of the Anglo-Saxons and later Vikings and Normans.  You’d want a giant or superhuman on your side to try and scare the enemy!

There’s one important point to make about the giants of Wales, and that is they are nearly always named ‘gawr’, meaning, funnily enough, ‘giant’. Here are some (in no particular order): Gogyrfan Gawr (Gwenhwyfar’s da), Idris Gawr, Itta Gawr, Rica/Rhitta Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cribwr Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed and the place was renamed as Cribarth),  Oyle Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cedwyn Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ceimiad Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ophrom Gawr, Ysbryn Gawr, Iwni Gawr, Gwedros Gawr, Howel Gawr, Llyphan Gawr, Pyscoc Gawr, Hedoc Gawr, Diddanel Gawr … and there are many more. Yet there is not one instance of Arthur Gawr, only an Arthur seen as a giant slayer. So, did they think of him as a giant at all, or mainly superhuman?

Him being a giant killer could have been in response to the later Arthurian stories, yet, even after Arthur the soldier took root still onomastic sites were been named after him. Padel notes that site were being given his name in the 19th century following the ‘giant’ or superhuman Arthur lines. This is very interesting, considering that the later stories had gone away from this portrayal.

As mentioned above, it’s also obvious that there were several strands to the Arthurian folk figure.  The topographic and onomastic (mostly) points to a giant.  The stories, such as Culhwch and Olwen, shows a human sized figure but with supernatural powers who fights witches and the Otherworld … or his men do.  Then there’s the figure of the Historia Britanom who is plainly an Earthly warrior.  In fact, he’s made even more Earthly than the figure of Ambrosius.

Higham comes to the conclusion that Arthur of the H.B. is simply a Biblical Joshua-figure to match St. Patrick’s Moses.  He certainly looks that way, alongside the prophetic use of the 12 battles, but this could be a complete coincidence, and had someone else been the victor of 12 battle, ‘Nennius’ would have used them.  Higham also argue that Joshua was a “dux belli”, which is why Arthur is called a “dux erat bellorum” (‘leader of battles’), but surely for this to work he has to assume his Welsh, Cornish, English and Breton audiences know their Bible!

Whatever came down to ‘Nennius’, it doesn’t seem to amount to much, certainly not in comparison with what stories he had on Vortigern or Ambrosius.  If the likes of Culhwch & Olwen, or other poems and triads were around, then he chose not to draw from them.  If Arthur was such a Welsh  ‘national’ hero, ‘Nennius’ either didn’t have the material saying so or he decided not to make that much of it, comparatively speaking.  Why might that be?  Because Arthur was no such thing? because he knew his audience was already well informed about Arthur? or because he had no direct connection with north or eastern Wales, so he didn’t expand on him because he didn’t serve a direct political purpose?  It’s interesting that Maximus and Ambrosius are both given connections to Gwynedd – Dinas Emrys (City/Fortress of Ambrosius) and Segontium (Caernarfon) – so, perhaps Arthur did have some connection … real or imagined.  Depending on whether his lineage had been put together by this time, he was supposed to be the great-grandson of Cunedda the founder of Gwynedd (early 5th century) and this might have been a good enough reason.  (For other comments on the Historia Brittonum, see “dux erat bellorum” blog).

Wherefore art thou Arthur?

There is another thing to consider, of course, and that is the supposed twenty-one years between the Battle of Badon and the Battle of Camlan.  Did Arthur suddenly go into obscurity in this period?  What was happening in the intervening years?  It’s not inconceivable that Arthur spent the time blowing his own trumpet and exaggerating his own exploits.  It also not inconceivable that some of the battles on the list happened after Badon … if he ever fought there.   After all, a poem would be putting battles in an order that rhymed and suites the poem not chronologically.  There’s also the possibility he became a ruler of some kind, or went to fight on the Continent.  There’s also the possibility an Arthur of Badon never existed!  But these questions are for another blog me thinks.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to you thoughts, comments and corrections (see comments below).

Until Part Three,


Click HERE for Part Three


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