I’ve uploaded the first 35 pages of the latest un-proofread, un-edited work, which you can read here: The Arthur of Badon Taster3. It is significantly different from the blogs now, so worth a look.
Thanks for reading,
I’ve uploaded the first 35 pages of the latest un-proofread, un-edited work, which you can read here: The Arthur of Badon Taster3. It is significantly different from the blogs now, so worth a look.
Thanks for reading,
Everyone’s conclusions to this are going to be different, depending on many different factors: how long you’ve been studying the Arthurian subject, how much you’ve read, your culture, your beliefs, your personality. My conclusions, in a sense, don’t matter, it’s how these blogs have affected your views on the subject.
The original question I posed was:
“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?”
Can there be any certainty that he was a historic figure that fought at Badon? As long as there’s disagreement on the validity of the H.B and the A.C., no. (Perhaps some individuals can be certain, but it’s hard to see there ever being a consensus, unless there’s some miraculous find to prove he existed). Could he have been purely mythical or folkloric? Yes, but I cannot see how there can be any certainty of it. Could he have been both? Yes, but there can be no certainty about that either. Yet many people are certain of one or the other.
Probability is another matter. If the probability question where to do with the weight of evidence and the odds of existence to none-existence, then the odds would (probably) be against his existence. But this depends on the interpretation of the evidence in the first place. For example, if you think the Welsh material probably came from a mythical figure you will have a different outcome to if you think the material probably came from Arthur of Badon, or his name replaced a mythical figure. The same goes for the information in Y Gododdin, the Historia Britonnum and the Annales Cambriae. If you think these sources valid you have a totally different outcome to if you don’t. If you think they’re valid, historical documents, then he existed. Even if it’s only the H.B. that can be taken as valid (if not accurate) then he existed. But if you don’t … So, we probably can’t use probability!
For me, there is no firm conclusion to be had, but I hope I’ve, at least, added something to this debate. It cannot be proven that there was a historical, 5th century Arthur, that’s impossible to do, but I hope these blogs have shown that, if there was one, there’s no reason his name couldn’t have come about by the same means argued for the 6th and 7th century Arthur/Artúrs by Higham et al; or that, if his name (and some stories) did derive from folkloric or mythical sources, or there was also a mythical (or historical) character(s) of similar or the same name, why later confusion, even by the 9th century or before, would arise. In essence, Higham’s and Green’s argument for the naming of the other Arthurs can be applied to an early Arthur. Why? Because it appears (to me) that this Arthur of Welsh folklore or myth bears little or no resemblance to the Arthur in the H.B.. One’s a Saxon fighter, the other isn’t. One fights giants and the Otherworld, the other one doesn’t appear to. One supposedly was a leader of battles for kings of Britain, the other one wasn’t. One fought at Badon, the one of the early tradition didn’t. However, this doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a Saxon fighting Briton who got turned into this fantastical character, just as Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Urien were used in stories that had nothing to do with their actual lives. These stories alone prove that this happened and this is too often ignored.
From how I interpret the evidence, we cannot rule out a historical figure who fought at Badon being the ‘original’ and the later legends and topographical and onomastic sites merely being a distortion in response to folk culture and internal and external political events. That’s probably the simplest answer, but the simplest answer isn’t always the right one. Nor can we rule out that there was no ‘Arthur of Badon’ … but it is also possible that there were two totally independent mythical and historical characters that were merged and confused, or even a mythical figure whose name was changed to Arthur, be that earlier than the 6th century or after. The problem arises as to why a purely British folkloric or mythical figure would be given a Latin name (rather than a Latinized name), be that Arturius or Arturus. It would have to be yet another unique case. But that also doen’t mean it couldn’t have happened. (‘Arthur’s Wain‘ – The Plough – could be an indication that Arcturus became Arturus).
What it means, to me at least, is that it cannot be stated categorically that Arthur of the 5th century was historical, but neither can it be stated categorically he was purely mythical or folkloric. But it’s possible that the name was all of these things. However, if Arthur cannot be categorically stated to have been real from the evidence we have, then other Early Medieval figures who are considered historical without question should be treated in the same way.
(I’ve italicized ‘possible’ twice above as that is, in the end, all we can use).
Whichever historical Arthur you go for, whether that be one who was at Badon, Artur ap Pedr or Artúr mac Áedán, you have to come up with theories that explain the anomalies between them and the sources. You either have to come up with reasons why Arthur of Badon doesn’t appear in genealogies or near contemporary sources or why one of these other Arthur’s were said to be at Badon; and how, if their respective royal houses knew they were THE Arthur, they didn’t make political mileage from it. Neither Demetia/Dyfed or Dalriada appear to have done so … although the MacArthur/Campbells tried to do so later (See THIS blog). Adomnán makes nothing of Artúr, only his father Áedán. Hywel Dda of Dyfed could, perhaps, have slipped it into to his Laws somewhere that they were the descendants of the great Arthur, but he didn’t. If any of them did try and do so, it’s been suppressed or lost.
So, has my 65% leaning towards a historical Arthur changed? Yes. It may have gone to up 67% now. Why? Because of re-looking at the H.B. battle list and the use of Arthur here. Unless there was something in the Welsh tradition about a Saxon fighting Arthur it doesn’t make sense, to me at least, that he would be used if he was the same as the Welsh folkloric figure we know of today. Of course, stories of a mythical Arthur who fought Saxons might have been around and they’ve been lost, but we can only look at the evidence as it is.
What I may consider now more than before I started these blogs is the possibility of an independent mythical figure alongside the historic one(s). A figure that was, at some point in history, given the name Arturius/Arthur/Arturus, but who may have started life under another guise.
Having said all the above, I want to finish by quoting Christopher Gidlow from his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’ (2010):
“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. These chimerical Arthurs have left legends which have, for inscrutable reasons, been attached to a military figure of the fifth or sixth century who, if he existed, cannot possibly have borne the name Arthur. Whatever name he had must, despite his importance, have become irretrievably lost. The author of the Historia Brittonum has for his own purpose for the Britons, uniquely put this composite figure in a narrative which otherwise only features major figures already placed in this time period. All other references to Arthur as a historical figure derive from this single source. The counter-argument, that Arthur was a real person who fought the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, who later attracted legendary tall tales, has the advantage of simplicity and requires fewer unknown steps and sources.” (p.193)
Thanks for reading, and, as always, I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.
IF YOU CAME HERE VIA THE BLOG ‘IN SEARCH OF THE ORIGINAL KING ARTHUR‘, CLICK HERE TO RETURN TO IT.
Arthurian Probability Test
King Arthur, Merlin, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, and Guinevere decide to go to their favorite restaurant to share some mead and grilled meats. They sit down at a round table for five, and as soon as they do, Lancelot notes, “We sat down around the table in age order! What are the odds of that?”
Merlin smiles broadly. “This is easily solved without any magic.” He then shared the answer. What did he say the odds were?
I’ll give the answer soon!
BATTLING WITH THE BATTLES … AGAIN! (Part Two)
It’s argued by the mythical or folkloric camp that these Arthurian battles had to be seen as wide ranging because it had to show Arthur as a figure who commanded the kings of a united ex-Roman diocese of Britannia … this being the only way to defeat the ‘English’. It’s also argued that a Britannia of the time wasn’t united and had fragmented, so such a figure couldn’t have existed. The latter point may be closer to the truth, but this still doesn’t mean a figure couldn’t have been wide ranging, especially if he was something like a ‘mercenary’ general. (See THIS blog for further discussion). However, he could still have been historical, not wide ranging, but made so for the purpose of the H.B.. But if the H.B.’s audience thought all but two of these battles were northern, they wouldn’t be seeing him as pan-British anyway. They may have been seeing him as another hero of Hen Gogledd (the Old North) like those of Y Gododdin and Urien Rheged … whether he was in actuality or not.
Could Nennius have been clever enough to make up these battles for this reason, or choose the battles of others and attach them to Arthur? It’s conceivable, but he too, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, might have to claim he had an ‘ancient book’ or sources that no one else had seen to get away with it. He would know some of the English would read this and if they knew none of these Arthurian battles happened it wouldn’t have the affect it was supposed to have … on them at least.
Of course, if Arthur was historical and these battles (in general) were actual events that had been recorded in poetry, and they were mostly in northern regions (or were thought to be), then he would be the perfect choice for Nennius. He would have a British hero and one who defeated the North Walian’s contemporary foes. If he was also the victor at Badon, (or was thought to have been) that makes him the hero of the southern Britons H.B. readers against Wessex.
Please consider …
There seems to be no consideration by those who argue this list coming from a mythical or folkloric Arthur that Tribruit could have been a real battle that was mythologised. Bregion as a battle Urien Rheged fought – an insignificant battle in the Taliesin poem – could have been a battle fought in the same location; or, as Gidlow points out, an Arthurian battle attributed to Urien! To say the battle of Urbe Legionis was ‘borrowed’ from the Battle of Chester doesn’t make much sense, considering Nennius (or whoever) would have known it was a defeat for the British and would have known his North Walian audience, whose ancestors would have fought there, knew. (King Arthur of Demetia could have been present at that battle however). Not to mention the difference in names between this and Cair Lion/Cair Leon (unless Nennius deliberately changed it). Or was it used as an answer to the defeat at the Battle of Chester to show that the score wasn’t 1 – 0 but 1 -1? The Bassa explanation hardly makes sense either. It’s not what the battle’s called in the poems and no river of that name is mentioned. The only possible mythical battle we could identify would be Traith Tribruit. (But, you may see all this differently).
So, are we asked to except this battle list as either fictional or derivative merely because the name Arthur is attributed to them? Would it be a different case if some other figure’s name was there?
Once again it should be stressed: if some of the characters preceding Arthur in the H.B. had not been attested elsewhere we would think them mythological too because they have supernatural occurrences attached to them: Vortigern’s magical tower, Ambrosius’ virgin birth, St. Patrick’s angel in the burning bush, St. Germanus’ fire from heaven, etc. The only thing applied to Arthur is the killing of 960 (or 940) at his own hand … or, rather, God’s hand. So this was in keeping with the preceding stories. If ‘Nennius’ was trying to big him up in the same way he does to the others he didn’t do a very good job. Arthur simply fought twelve battles and won at Badon. The Vatican recension of the H.B. went to pains to make sure we knew Arthur was merely a soldier (miles). Did they do this to counter English claims (or even Welsh ones) that this Arthur never existed and didn’t beat them at Badon? We’ll never know. The difference is, Arthur’s name seems to have spread like wildfire.
In the next part we’ll look at the weight of evidence as well as the other Arthurs and how it might effect them if Arthur of Badon didn’t exist.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.
OH SOLDIER, SOLDIER …
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).
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)
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. http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/papers/Aladur.pdf ). 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.
There will be a lot of people out there asking “What on Earth is a Wledig!” The answer is … no one really knows. Here’s some background.
There appear to be many figures in Arthurian and Welsh literature who are given the title Wledig (various spellings: Gwledig/Guletic/Guledic), by either being referred to as one or having it attached to their name.
Here are some, in no particular order:
Mascen Wledig (Magnus Maximus)
Emrys Wledig (Ambrosius Aurelianus)
Urien Wledig (Urien of Rheged)
Ywain Wledig (could be Owain, Urien’s son)
Ceritic Wledig (thought to be St Patrick’s Coroticus)
Amlawdd Wledig (supposedly Arthur maternal grandfather)
Fflewdur Flam Wledig
… but Arthur is only called Wledig in one poem (possibly two – see below), but the title didn’t stick. The poem, ‘The Throne of the Sovereign’, is attributed to the 6th century bard Taliesin, but it’s thought to be by some later bard.
There they are sought, the bold,
The lost men of battle.
I compare the fierce ranks
Of the late Penduic,
Of the death-dealing ranks,
Of the breastplated legion,
The Wledig raised
On the old-renowned border,
To a broken grass-stalk
Arthur’s supposed maternal grandfather, Amlawdd Wledig, bore the title but not him. He is called a pen teyrned, ‘leader/chief of kings/princes/rulers, which is impressive, but he wasn’t made to keep up with the Joneses … in this case, Ambrosius Aurelianus (Emrys Wledig) and Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig).
Whilst in Modern Welsh the meaning of gwledig is ‘rural, countrified, country, agrarian‘, there are differing explanations as to what exactly an Early Medieval Wledig was. These ranges from ‘land holder’, to ‘(hereditary) sovereign lord’ and ‘lord over other’s country through victory’. The Indo-European data base gives:
Proto-Celtic: *wlati- ‘sovereignty’ [Noun]
Old Irish: flaith [i f, later m] ‘sovereignty, ruler’
Middle Welsh: gulat [f] (OW), MW gwlad ‘country’
Middle Breton: guletic (OBret.)
Cornish: gulat gl. patria
The GPC defines Gwledig as:
“lord, king, prince, ruler, term applied to a number of early British rulers and princes who were prominent in the defense of Britain about the time of the Roman withdrawal; (possibly) commander of the native militia (in a Romano-British province).
Their definition of teyrn is:
“monarch, sovereign, king, prince, lord, ruler, leader, dictator, tyrant; (figuratively) sovereign (adj.), royal.
Patrick Sims-Williams notes in “The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems” from The Arthur of the Welsh (p. 52) that Arthur might be the otherwise unnamed Prydein Wledig - ‘Lord of Britain’ – referred to in the poem Kat Godeu (which refers to Arthur later on).
‘Lord over other’s country through victory’, put forward by Fabio P. Barbieri in an article at the Faces of Arthur section at Robert Vermaat’s Vortigern Studies website ( http://www.facesofarthur.org.uk/ ), does seem to have some logic to it. Here is part of it:
“Now, Taliesin seems to me to draw a marked distinction between two words for “king”, Teyrn and Gwledig. (He never uses Brenhin, which is significant, but if I make out the original Welsh right, he does sometimes use the very archaic Rieu for “kings in the mass, the whole class of kings, both gwledig and teyrn”.) When Urien’s bard praises his lord in the most emphatic and ringing terms, he calls him gwledig. Urien is the gwledig of cattle-lifters at his great battle at Gwenystrad, in the sense that nobody in the world is better at taking wealth away from enemies. Gwenystrad must have been a tremendous triumph for Urien: speaking of it, Taliesin describes this single northern lord as the scourge of the men of all the island, gathered in battle-lines (gwyr Prydein adwythein yn lluyd). Clearly a large coalition had been gathered to teach the impudent cateran a lesson – and had ended up learning one instead. It is by virtue of this great victory over men from many parts of the island that Taliesin awards his lord the title of gwledig, qualifying it, even then, as gwledig only in that he takes cattle away from so many enemies. He still is not said to rule over them, even though he defeated them. It seems clear that the sovereignty of Rheged, alone, does not make a gwledig. Gwledig is a term of praise, specifically for victory, and in particular for the kind of victory that proves supremacy over a large number of competitors.” ( http://www.facesofarthur.org.uk/fabio/book1.7.htm)
There is only one Guletic mentioned in the 7th to 9th century collection of poems Y Gododdin, that being a character called Ywain/Ewein/Owein (who could be Owain Rheged) and John Koch interprets the meaning differently to that above:
“Ewein [Owein] is twice referred to as of particularly high status, called *couri(g)entin penn – ‘rightful privileged chief’ and guletic ‘(hereditary) sovereign lord’. The latter title is not lightly accorded in Early Welsh sources.” (‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, p. 225
Whether Arthur was historical or not, and whether an historical Arthur was a Wledig or not, it is odd that he wasn’t later given this prestigious title for literary effect. Why wasn’t it used in his stories to bolster his standing, or was pen teyrned enough? Did someone come up with pen teyrned purely because of how they interpreted the battle list in the Historia Britonnum and because Arthur had no Wledig title? There is only one other person I know of given the title pen teyrned and that is Gwenddoleu, who in the Myrddin poem Oianau is called “pen teyrnedd Gogledd” (“Pen teernet goglet“); translated as, “chief of lords of the Old North”.
Arthur does jump to being an imperator and, unless someone was particularly well read in the ways of the Roman Republic, they meant emperor and not military commander! This could have been a translation of Wledig to imperator, seeing as Macsen went from imperator to Wledig. It’s unlikely that Macsen, who was the emperor Magnus Maximus, was actually a Wledig, but he was given the title anyway, probably to Brittonicize this Spaniard.
Ambrosius (Emrys) received it for his greatness and even Cunedda, the supposed ridder of the Irish from what are now north and southwestern Wales has it, but not Arthur, the supposed ridder of the Saxons.
Of course it wasn’t just Arthur who wasn’t a Wledig. Vortigern isn’t called a one either and even the powerful Maelgwn (Gildas’s Maglocunus) doesn’t seem to be, and, according to Gildas, a taker of other people’s country was exactly what he was, IF that’s its meaning. Maybe Vortigern wasn’t known as a taker of other’s county, more of a loser of his own through the bad press he received. As for Maelgwn, it may simply be because we don’t have any surviving bardic poetry, unlike Urien, calling him such … and he may not have been liked much either!
But there’s a fly in the ointment to all this.
MS. HENGWRT 536.
TEIOED ARTHUE AE WYE
Teir Lleithicltiyth Ynys Prydein. Arthur yii pen teyrned
ym Mynytf a Dewi yn pen ysgyb a MaelgCn Gtfyned yn pen
hyneif. Arthur yn pen teyrned yg Kelliwic yg Kernetf a
Betwini esgob yn pen esgyb a Charadatfc ureichuras yn pen
hyneif. Arthur yn pen teyrned ym Pen Eionyd yny gogled
a Chyndeyrn Garthwys yn peri esgyb a Gtfrthmwl Wledic yn
TRIADS OF ARTHUR AND HIS WARRIORS.
Three tribe thrones of the Island of Prydain. Arthur the chief lord at Menevia, and David the chief bishop, and Maelgwyn Gwyned the chief elder. Arthur the chief lord at Kelliwic in Cornwall, and Bishop Betwini the chief bishop, and Caradawc Vreichvras the chief elder. Arthur the chief lord at Penrionyd in the north, and Cyndeyrn Garthwys the chief bishop, and Gurthmwl Guledic the chief elder.
So here we have a pen teyrned and Wledig mentioned together.
The translation makes teyrned a ‘lord’ and not king. I believe it should be plural in both cases, but I could be mistaken. The same goes for Arthur’s mention in ‘Culhwch and Olwen, where I’ve seen pen teyned translated as ‘sovereign lord’. No wonder everyone’s confused and say Arthur wasn’t originally called a king. However, if teyrn is only a ‘lord’ and a brehin only a king, then it seems to me we have an awful lot more lords and Wledigs compared to kings in the Early Medieval period … but I may just may not be aware of them!
So what’s the difference between a pen teyrned and a Wledig? Once again I’d like to quote Fabio P. Barbieri (Chapter 1.7: Resurgent Celticism: Function and power of Gildas’ kings):
“Teyrned, therefore, are those of the lord class who either cannot fight or are defeated in battle, an inferior kind of lordship. Gwledig are the kings who assert their right to rule by victory, who take cattle and do not have cattle taken away from them (surely a poetic version of the claiming and refusal of tribute). But this is not merely a contingent fact depending on the changing fortunes of arms: these ranks are at least to some extent permanent.”
Not sure about this. That would make a pen teyrned the ruler of teyrns, which seems to make the title almost the same as Wledig! However, Christopher Snyder in a post at Arthurnet said:
“Tigernos” is a common Celtic term (variants include teryn, theryn, tiern, and thigern) for a ruler, usually a local ruler)”
So calling Arthur a pen teyrned could mean several things. A pen teyrned who is just the ‘chief/leader of local rulers’ is very different from one who is a ‘leader of kings’ (‘sovereign lord’?). If it is the former, it could have given rise to the ‘not a king but a leader of kings in battle’, whilst the latter translation could have led Geoffrey of Monmouth (and others) to interpreted him as being a ‘king of kings’ or even ‘emperor’? Maybe this is what confused the hell out of the Historia Britonnum and Annales Cambriae compilers.
Thanks for reading,
In this final blog I want to look at the possible consequences if Dornier’s theory about the placing of Valentia was correct.
Coel Hen (Old King Cole)
Coel Hen is difficult to tie down, as a historical figure, what he was and when he lived. If he did ‘rule’ over the North, did he expand Britannia’s borders? He supposedly gave Brynaich (approximately modern day Northumbria and possibly down to the River Tees) to one son and attacked Strathclyde, and both lay beyond the Wall. Did he expand Valentia (or Britannia) into the Novante region (Dumfries & Galloway), thereby creating what would become the northern (or western) extremes of the enigmatic kingdom of Rheged? (see below). Many genealogies certainly went on to claim descent from him in the same way others used usurper emperor Magnus Maximus, whether their claim was legitimate or not.
The Coelings (descendants of Coel) may have dominated a great portion of the North above the Mersey/Humber line, but it’s hard to know their activities above the Wall.
If Dornier is right, could this possibly explain the supposed movement/migration of Cunedda, Coel Hen’s son-in-law, to North Wales … if, indeed this move ever actually happened? If he was ‘hired’ by Valentia, who may have had close ties with Manau Gododdin (approximately southwest Fife), he could have started in the North (as one poem has him fighting at Carlisle and County Durham) and made his way down the western seaboard, ending up in north and southwestern Wales, rather than just being sent there, or migrating there. Britannia Prima and/or Demetia could have then called on his assistance once he was in the area; hence ‘Allt Cunedda’ in Dyfed, if this isn’t a later antiquarian naming. If he was Dux Valentianum or even the Dux Britannium it would explain the range of his supposed operations.
There are many arguments as to why Cunedda’s ‘migration’ may only be a foundation myth for the 9th century rulers of Gwynedd to make a claim over Northumbria. However, choosing someone from Manau Gododdin seems a little odd. This area is centred around the Firth of the Forth. Why not choose someone who supposedly came from Gododdin proper or, better still, Brynaich or Deira? These are the kingdoms that became Northumbria.
The Late 5th Century
Wherever Valentia was, it would be difficult to know what state it, and Britannia, were in by the last quarter of the 5th century. There is no evidence that there was a political entity Britannia by this time, just many kingdoms of various sizes. Whichever of these were at the Wall it’s hard to determine of their borders still ended at the Wall or if this only became an annoyance in stone, possibly cutting in two, for example, what in the west may have become the kingdom of Rheged. It could appear from the archaeological evidence that is was still a guarded boundary in places, but if Rheged and Brynaich straddled the Wall, what exactly was it defending? Well, possibly only their own small commander-patronus territories according to archaeologist Tony Wilmott of English Heritage. There’s certainly no archaeological evidence, as mentioned earlier, that the Wall’s length was ‘guarded’ by a permanent force, even by the Early 5th Century.
If that 16th century document calling Brochmael the ruler of Guelentius is right, then some semblance of it remained, even if it was only in name. There is always the possibility that Powys was called Valentia previously, but how far north did it go?
Taliesin, Urien & Mailcun/Maelgwn
If Valentia was were Dornier suggests, and did last longer than most, or a (fluctuating) alliance between its constituent ‘states’ did, could this also be why the 6th century bard Taliesin writes both for a king of Rheged (Urien) and a king of Powys (Cyngen, son of Brochmael)? Is this why Urien is also associated with Powys in some of the praise poetry. His supposed cousin Llywarch Hen of ‘South Rheged’ certainly is associated with Powys. Is this why Maelgwn (Gildas’ Maglocunus) was so powerful: he may have been ruler over Gwynedd, but he held sway over Powys (or its northern region) and whatever kingdoms made up the western seaboard, at the time? This might give him the contact with the north that he is said to have had.
We may never know where the kingdom of Rheged lay, and historian and archaeologist Tim Clarkson (Senchus blogger) in his new book ‘The Men of the North” questions some assumptions about its location, but what if it was a ‘huge’ power, covering what was Valentia north of the Mersey and west of the Pennines … or a large portion of it? Not a single kingdom but a confederacy, or made up of client kingdoms? We’ll never know, and Tim may indeed be right that Rheged was not as big as we’d like to imagine, or where some have placed it.
If Valentia did encompass the above and if Maelgwn did control more than we think then the 6th century cleric Gildas could indeed be referring to more than Britannia Prima in his polemic; he could be referring to the remains of Britannia, or certainly western Britannia.
Could this have any baring on the historical Arthur debate. Well, I suppose it could if he was a military commander of Valentia at some point. Many of his battles have been placed by some in northwestern Britannia, or just north of the Wall.
Regardless of all the above, there was some reason why Brochmael was called the ruler of Guelentius (Valentia) many generations after Roman administration had left Britannia, and was still known as such to the Bretons in the 16th century. Why that might have been, we do not know, but if anyone has any thoughts or theories on this I look forward to hearing them.
Thanks for reading.
Anyone studying Arthuriana knows the split between those who think these documents can be used as evidence (Gidlow et al) and those who don’t (Dumville et al). Personally, I think we should be extremely cautious with both.
Historia Brittonum (ca 835)
(This is an extract from the upcoming ebook. I can’t place the whole chapter here as it is simply too long, but when the book is complete, I will attach a link to a PDF version of the chapter).
The H.B.’s Arthurian section cannot be discussed without first knowing exactly what kind of ‘history’ it was, and the point of its composition. There’s much argument and debate about this, not helped by the fact the everyone has been waiting for Dr. David Dumville to complete his new work on it. We’ve been waiting for 15 years now! He has made comments on it, however, and especially the Arthurian section and we’ll explore this below. There are plenty of others who have commented on it and put their theories forward as to what it is, and we’ll look at those in a moment.
First a word about Nennius/Ninnius/Nemnius/’Nennius’, said to be the original compiler of the H.B.. Whilst Dumville tells us the preface is a later forgery, as Nennius doesn’t appear in the two earlier MMS, not all agree that this means a man called Ninnius wasn’t the first compiler. There are other editors and compliers mentioned also in the various recensions, namely Samuel, Beulan, Euben, Marcus and even Gildas! But why mention a Ninnius if they (or someone) didn’t think him to be the original, even if the preface was forged in his name.
There was a ‘Nennius’ of the Late-8th century as attested in a 9th century Welsh MS Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Auct. F.4.32, dated 817. This Nemnuuis was a Welsh ecclesiastic who, when challenged by an English scholar about the lack of a British alphabet, supposedly designed one on the spot. It is likely that this Nemnuuis was Ninnius. Because of all this, Nennius is usually written with inverted commas, ‘Nennius’, but I will just be calling him Nennius.
As Robert Vermaat has notes at his Vortigern Studies website
“How is the “Nennian” authorship affected by all that? Dumville believed that the name of Ninnius was no older than c. 1100, when a new edition was made under the direction of Beulan, by the scribe Euben, in praise of Samuel, and ascribed to Ninnius. However, it is the last part I cannot agree with. If there was no known author, what made the editors so sure that they would ascribe it to this famous Welsh scholar? Surely, there would have been other candidates, such as the more famous Elfoddw? I think it therefore much more acceptable to agree that the name of Ninnius or ‘Nennius’, was already known to them as author of the text. But to be completely correct, I am using the name of ‘Nennius’.” (http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/historia.htm).
John Koch has written:
“However, Dumville has argued that the Nennian Prologue is a later forgery and was never part of the recensions which now lack it; the work should therefore be treated as anonymous. Although Dumville’s case has been widely accepted, and one can hardly ignore the fact that only one recension mentions Nennius at all, Field has since argued that, because the prologue rebuked British scholars as ignorant, the other recensions understandably omitted the passage as offensive. Beneath the authorship question, there are some theoretical issues. Are we seeing the activities of an author or rather a compiler? Must Historia Brittonum have a formal authorial starting point, as opposed to beginning as an informal workbook, a miscellany of notes, or a commentary on Gildas which gradually grew before it was later— and not altogether successfully—dressed up as a ‘History of the Britons’?” (‘Celtic Culture – A Historic Encyclopedia’, John Koch, 2006, p.927)
In the preface that does mention Nennius, he says that all he has done is made “a heap of thing”; taking what information he knows and merely putting it together as a narrative. No one believes this for a moment and it is not only a synthetic and synchronistic ‘history’ it’s also has both political and ecclesiastical axe to grind.
Dr. Dumville is of the opinion that it has no historical value apart from showing us the mindset of those that compiled it. In his view, unless a work is contemporary to the events it describes, it can’t be trusted. In answer to this, Charles-Edward notes that, if this were the case, there’s much history we cannot trust, and that, conversely, we may be able to trust histories written at a distance to the events more than those written at the time, which may be clouded by political and other factors. (See Charle-Edward: ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’),
As to why it was compiled, there is a general consensus that it was written in answer to the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede’s Early-8th century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’). How it answered Bede’s work is not always agreed on. The Arthurian section in particular is said to be used to two very different way: one argument is that it showed that there was a great British warrior who defeated the ancestors of their current foes and demonstrated it would take British unity to defeat them again; the other is that it showed that no matter how many times the British were victors over the English, even through Vortimer and Arthur, they could only be ‘defeated’ by converting them to Christ, as was done by St. Patrick and (supposedly) Rhun ap Urien of Rheged. This is what Bede criticized the Britons of not doing and the Anglo-Saxons, and their subsequent rise to power, were God’s retribution on the Britons. Bede, of course, was following on from Gildas’s damnation of his own people in the 6th century.
It is as much an ecclesiastical work as a history of the people of Britain and its title, the Historia Britonnum, isn’t present in all the MMS. Probably. like Bede’s work, it should be called ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the Peoples of Britain’. It spends more time on St. Germanus and St. Patrick than anyone else (Arthur gets a mere short chapter) and its main point is: God is boss!
Nor can it be separated form the political and ecclesiastic times in which it was compiled. There is a the question as to the date of its composition. Whilst it is generally thought to date to the fourth year of the reign of Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd (c.829/830) it has been suggested that it could have started life much earlier. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews has argued for the Late-8th century (The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010) but John Koch notes that the Breton MS, which was destroyed during the Second World War at Chartres, attributed the text to a ‘son of Urien’ (filius Urbagen), and one suspects this to be a son of Urien Rheged. However, Rhun supposedly died in the Mid-7th century, so, like the H.B. attributed to Gildas, it is a chronological impossibility. But, the Chartres recension is thought to have been the oldest MS, dating to the 10th century. (The dating of the MSS is the date of the earliest surviving copy, and not when they were composed).
John Koch says:
“One further reason for considering the possibility that there had been an earlier version of the text, as much as 140 years older than the synchronisms of 829, is that the last historical events mentioned are the battle of Nechtanesmere (OW gueith Linn Garan) in 685 and St Cuthbert’s death in 687. The possibility of a prototype for the Historia Brittonum as early as this could be ruled out if its use of Beda’s Historia Ecclesiastica of 731 could be proved: although the two histories deal with many of the same events from starkly opposed national perspectives, Beda does not name his Brythonic sources, the Welsh text does not name its English ones, and the case remains open.” (2006, p.926)
If some of its sections do date from an earlier period, this changes things somewhat, especially if the Mirabilia section was a later addition. (More on that later). This means the Arthurian battles section could itself date from earlier, before Nennius’ compilation, although the Chartres recension cut off before the battle list.
The H.B. was compiled during extremely turbulent times in Britain, although things may have been a little easier for Gwynedd, hence why it could produce the H.B.. Whilst their old enemy of Northumbria had been beaten back and their more recent one of Mercia was involved in in-fighting (and later in the 9th century the Danes) they still had their Welsh neighbours of Powys and Dyfed to contend with.
In Gwynedd’s recent history Mercia had ravaged both it and Powys. Now that Wessex was on the ascendency again and Mercia were involved in civil war, Gwynedd had the chance to get its history out. A history it had, perhaps, started much earlier, not long after Bede’s work.
If Nennius’s patron was, as most scholars think, Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd, his boss made sure that Arthur got far more ink than any of the Gwynedd kings. That may seem odd, but there was a good reason for it: Mervyn was an outsider from the Isle of Man; a usurper to the Gwynedd throne and the first of a new dynasty. (And, being a Manx man, probably of Gael-British blood). He couldn’t show the First Dynasty of Gwynedd as being too great, nor could he show any Powysian heroes and it’s probably for this politcal reason that the H.B. made Vortigern into a bad guy and the cause of all the Britons’ problems … and that couldn’t have gone down well in Powys! Nor does any south Walian king get a mention. Apart from calling Maelgwn (Maglocunus) a great king he plays down the rest and, as Michelle Ziegler has observed, more is made of the Northumbrian king Oswald than the great 7th century Gwynedd king, Cadwallon. (Ziegler, ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006): http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/9/ziegler.html). To quote her online article:
“§41. Considering Cadwallon’s importance in Gwynedd, several oddities about his treatment in the HB stand out.
- There is less information in the HB on Cadwallon than in Bede’s History, a known source for the HB.
- The destruction of Edwin’s lineage is credited to the army of Gwynedd, deflecting credit away from Cadwallon.
- His death is mentioned as a credit to his slayer.
- There is no effort to counter Bede’s demonization of Cadwallon in the HB.”
(At The Heroic Age website: ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)
Cadwallon is the king that the Welsh Prophesies refer to as a hero, yet the H.B. plays him down. This was either Nennius’s religious bent coming to play – after all, Cadwallon won with a pagan ally – it was Mervyn’s idea, or Nennius wasn’t writing for Gwynedd at all. With Nennius unable ( or uninterested) to go to town on any of Gwynedd’s own kings, or those of his neighbours, its no wonder he had to look to the past and chose Arthur.
Arthur the Great
There are valid arguments put forward for Geoffrey of Monmouth making Arthur into European wide campaigner in answer to the famous 8th century Carologinian king and emperor Charlemagne (‘Charles the Great’). Britain didn’t have its equivalent so Geoffrey supplied him.
Again the H.B. could have done something similar had it wanted to really big Arthur up. Charlemagne must have been the most famous man in Europe at the time. Did it do this by saying he lead kings in battle? Perhaps. Charles-Edward argues it’s because he wanted to make him like the ‘Saxon’ Hengist or the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda. (More on Arthur’s dux bellorum description in Part Two).
But then the later Vatican recension says he was less noble than the kings. Its editor probably had his own political or religious reasons for doing this, unless it was part of the general tradition? This would seem unlikely considering Culhwch ac Olwen called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain.
If he was seen as the great man we think him today, then why didn’t Nennius spend anymore than a single chapter on him? There are no stories like the other characters depicted before him, just a short description and a list of battles. It could indeed be because he was only a warrior, and one that only won with God’s aid. Had he been made a saint, it would probably have been a different matter.
Arthur’s battles all appear to be in Britain (unlike in Culhwch ac Olwen and Geoffrey’s History), so it doesn’t seem he was needed to be that great; the usurping emperors Magnus Maximus and Constantine III probably filled those purple shoes.
If there was a historical Arthur, could he have been a hero especially to Mervyn, the man from Man? An island of Gaels and Britons? I’m probably taking the link too far, but once again there is that cultural mix. If he was trying to say that the Britons could only defeat the English by being united under God and a leader of Gael and British blood, then it’s another very good reason for choosing Arthur if he was too. Is this the reason why St. Patrick was also chosen for the H.B. and not one of the Welsh saints or even St. Gildas? Patrick was, of course, British, but had both British and Irish connections.
Another area where there’s no complete agreement on is what the sources were that went into make up the H.B.. There seems quite a mixture ranging from Irish to Kentish material, northern English, northern British and Welsh. Gidlow argues for the battle list possibly being from various sources and regions and not a single poem. It is argued that some if not all of the Arthurian section could have come from a northern tradition and not a Welsh of Kentish one, and some of the battles might bear that out. There have been arguments for many years over whether Arthur is directly related to the Kentish material that immediately precedes the battle list, or if it is the beginning of a new chapter and doesn’t relate directly to it. It could sound as if it follows on from the Kentish kings, but it could also just be Nennius who made the connection. After, it’s almost impossible to identified any battles in that region, even though Collingwood tried to do so in the 1930s.
Read all about it!
As you may have already surmised, the history of the various H.B. manuscripts is an extremely complexed one, not only beyond the scope of this ebook, by my ken! To quote Keith’s 2010 paper:
“The textual history of the Historia Brittonum is well known to be complex to the point that it is all but impossible to determine what the original text contained. Some forty manuscripts are known to exist, not all of equal weight in reconstructing the text and not all of independent value, as some are clearly copies of extant manuscripts. The work was also quoted by several Anglo-Norman historians and even the French encyclopaedist Lambert of St-Omer (Dumville 1976b), who may have had access to manuscripts no longer extant.” (pp.2-3)
His deduction are the later Vatican recension is more related to the first Chartres recension than any of the others, so it is these that should be heeded. Keith believes there to have been an earlier archetype version of the H.B. that all the others were based on, especially the Chartres and Vatican, possibly dating to the Late-8th century – some sixty years before the Harleian recension. If he’s right, it was started when their Mercian enemy were still strong.
“Importantly, though, the Chartres recension not only lacks the computus §16 but also contains a rambling passage towards the end of §31, which seems to indicate that it should be dated to some point after the mid-eighth century (sicut libine abas iae in ripum ciuitate inuenit uel reperit, ‘as Sl.bine, Abbot of Iona (752-767) came across or discovered in the city of Ripon’). In other words, the passage dating the Historia Brittonum to 828×9 is secondary and must date the archetype of the remaining branches containing the Vatican, Harleian, pseudo-Gildas, pseudo-Nennius and Sawley recensions.” (p.3)
As you will see when we get to the battles, there is a difference between one of them in the Harleian and Vatican recensions. One names agned and the other breguoin/bregonium. Here are Keith’s thoughts on that:
“The results of this cladistic analysis do not produce a text of the Arthurian section of §56 that is radically different from Mommsen’s, but at least one well-known problem is cleared up: the difficult in monte qui dicitur <agned> of the Harleian recension. It has long been suspected to have been truncated, as its close relatives render the clause in longer form as in monte qui dicitur cat bregomion, but a consideration of the Vatican recension’s in monte qui nominatur breguoin, ubi illos in fugam uertit quem nos cat bregion appellamus enables us to reject <agned> completely as an inferior reading. Although we cannot now be certain of the original reading, we can reconstruct something along the lines of in monte qui dicitur breguoin, [*id est ] cat bregion (*id est is added as in the other instance where an Old Welsh battle name is given, it is introduced with the phrase id est). It is therefore apparent that the nonsensical must be a corrupt contraction of A W Wade-Evans (1910,134) wrongly believed that in monte badonis was a late intrusion into the text and that it and breguoin were the eleventh and twelfth battles respectively. There is no textual justification for this view.” (p.4)
A good point well made
Before getting to the battle list, I’d like to make one last quote from Keith’s paper, which probably sums up what I’m beginning to think:
“[...] but the major challenge to the academic historian must be to confront the perception that this chapter of the Historia Brittonum is a straightforward record listing late fifth- or early sixth-century battles incorporated verbatim or at only one remove into a ninth-century compilation, a perception that continues to dominate the popular literature on Arthur (e.g. Ashe 2003;; Castleden 2000;; Gidlow 2004;; Moffat 1999;; Pace 2008). Such a confrontation need not, of course, be hostile or destructive. Indeed, if it can be shown that the list consists of information that makes sense only in terms of a late fifth- or early sixth-century historical context, then it provides considerable support for the existence of an ‘historical Arthur’ at that period. If, on the other hand, it contains information that makes sense only in terms of a seventh-century or later context, then it is perhaps the final nail in his coffin.” (‘The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010, p.1).
Chapter and verse
With all this in mind, let’s look at the battles of §56 in detail. First the Harleian version of the Arthurian section of the H.B.:
“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the leader in battle [dux bellorum]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon [Battle of the Wood of Celidon]. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders [or shield]; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet [Agned]. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.” (H.B. §56)
Note that the first sentence can be read as Arthur being a king or not. Also note, as Charles-Edward has, that the last section can be interpreted as Arthur being partly the cause of more ‘Anglo-Saxons’ arriving.(See Charles-Edward, ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’)
The later Vatican recension of the H.B.:
“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders [shield?], and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon*. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.” (H.B. §56)
This is the one that goes to pains to make Arthur out to be less noble than those he leads.
As a side note: in what’s known as the Sawley Glosses, from the monks at Sawley in Yorkshire (c. 1166), two things were added: the prologue by ‘Nennius’ telling us he’d “[...] made a heap of all that I found [...]” (hence Dumville’s dating) and a gloss to Mount Badon. To quote Gidlow:
“The first Arthurian gloss appears in the margin of the battle-list, by the description of Arthur at Mount Badon. ‘Mabutur’ [later glosses ‘in British’] that is ‘horrible son’ [glossed ‘in Latin’] since from his boyhood he was cruel. Arthur, translated into Latin means ‘horrible bear’ or ‘Iron hammer’, with which the jaws of lions were broken.’ This gloss reveals the author’s interest in Welsh etymology. Mab uthr could mean ‘horrible son’ and arth uthr is Welsh for ‘horrible bear’. Most writers agreed that Arthur does indeed derive from Arth. Welsh for hammer ordd is less plausible and has not found favour.” (Gidlow, 2044, p.179)
Battle lines drawn
An ‘all or nothing’ argument seems to go for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as most writers on the subject are concerned, although Thomas Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else. They either all happened, or they all didn’t.
For Higham the H.B. uses Arthur purely as a ‘Joshua figure’ to St Patrick’s ‘Moses’ type, and the 12 battles are simply a Biblical providential number. (The number is certainly not based on Joshua, who fought 31 of them). I think the H.B. may very well be using Arthur in this way, (although Gidlow points out how unlike his supposed Biblical counterpart Arthur is made) but that doesn’t mean he or the battles were made up (entirely?) for the purpose. Arthur, like Patrick (who is mythologised in the H.B.), could have been chosen because he fitted the bill … or was adjusted to fit the bill. Had someone else fitted this bill, it might be them we would be writing about. But what was it about him that made him the choice? Could it be because the Welsh called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain?
I may disagree with Higham’s assessment of the battle list, but not with his general take on the H.B.. He makes some very interesting points about how it was used specifically against Mercia but also Northumbria, and I will look at these in the context of the battle list in a moment. However, we must also keep in mind the opinions that it was also to show that war was not the answer, but conversion to Christ.
Nicholas Higham argues that the format of the battles was merely taken from a known battle poem of Gwynedd: Englynion Cadwallon (Higham, 2007, pp.145-147). Cadwallon has fourteen battles (and 60 skirmishes) to Arthur’s twelve. Here are nine of them:
Before his death, Cadwallon’s victories made us glad,
fourteen great battles in fair Britain,
and sixty skirmishes.
The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Caint;
he fought the English across the water like birds of prey;
he opened his hand and honor was set free.
The encampment of Cadwallon was on the YYdon;
he was sorrow to his enemy,
a Lion, with armies victorious over the Saxons.
The encampment of famous Cadwallon
was on the summit of Digoll Mountain
for seven months with seven battles daily.
The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Severn,
and on the other side of the Dygen
the plunderers burnt Meigen.
The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Wye.
after a voyage over water,
he followed to battle the round-shields.
The encampment of Cadwallon was by Ffynnon Bedwyr;
in front of the soldiers he was righteous,
Cynon there was skillful.
The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Taf,
where are to be seen the powerful
armies of the lord, strong in battle.
The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Tawy,
he smote in the breach;
praiseworthy and seeking conflict.
The encampment of Cadwallon was beyond Caer,
one-hundred armies with one-hundred ardent warriors
in one-hundred battles destroyed one-hundred fortresses.
The first point is that, like the other battles poems, it is written posthumously. The first thing you may notice is the use of exaggeration, exactly in keeping with Arthur killing 960/940; then you may notice that none of these battle sites rhyme. Each battle is kept within its own three line englyn, so if Nennius was trying to make it look like it came from a similar type of poem, the rhyming scheme of some of the battles doesn’t work … or wouldn’t need to work. Why not just have all the battles able to rhyme?
Yet this is the Gwynedd monarch Nennius or his king, Mervyn Frych played down, not giving him much credit for anything, and crediting his killer (Saint) Oswald more than he.
Thomas Green makes much of people approaching the battle list in an a priori manner that he existed. This is true, but so are there a priori assumptions applied that it is based on a mythical or folkloric Arthur, so one is bound to see the list in a different light if one doesn’t think it of a historic Arthur. I believe one should approach it knowing it could be based on either, or, indeed, both. But it should also be recognised that no other figure around his time in the H.B. is mythical, but there are plenty of instances of mythologising historical figures.
What’s the point?
If we look at the point of this section in the H.B. and why Arthur specifically was used, it raises questions that, to me, all these mythical commentators do not fully address: whoever was placed at this point in the H.B. should have to be known as a ‘Saxon’ fighter (meaning a fighter of any of the ‘Germanic’ groups) and possibly the victor at Badon. Unless we’ve lost the stories that included this information (which is possible) the Arthur of the Welsh pre-Galfridian tradition did neither. Nor is he anywhere in this tradition depicted as the leader of battle for kings of the Britons; instead he leads a mixture of mythical and historic figures from a variety of times and places on a boar hunt or to retrieve a magical cauldron. If he was never seen as fighting ‘Saxons’ in the early Welsh story tradition, what would be the point in using him or listing battles that his Welsh audience would never before have associated him with?
Nor is he, in the Welsh tradition, an exemplar of Christian virtue. He doesn’t fight his foes in the name of God (even though ‘heaven’ is mentioned in Culhwch ac Olwen) but does it because his cousin Culhwch asks him a favour! Yet the H.B. makes him this too.
Why not just use Ambrosius Aurelianus as the victor of Badon? This is what the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede (Bǣda or Bēda) inferred in the Early-8th century in his less well known Chronica Maiora (‘Greater Chronicle’) and the H.B. is argued to be in response to his works. Bede, taking his lead from Gildas wrote:
“The Britons, under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus (a gentleman who, alone of the Romans, had survived the disaster of the Saxons in which his parents, who had worn the purple, had been killed) challenged the victors to battle and defeated them.”
Notice, he doesn’t actually mention Badon. This he’s taken from Gildas:
“After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions …. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.” (DEB, §25.2)
This is followed by:
“After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.” (DEB, §26)
There is argument over whether these two chapters should be separated and there was a passage of time between Ambrosius and Badon. For now, let’s just concentrate on Ambrosius.
Higham suggests the use of Arthur instead of Ambrosius in the H.B. was because Gildas called Ambrosius a Roman and not a Briton and Nennius needed a Briton to be the hero at this juncture; it is a valid point, and even though the H.B. gives Ambrosius his ‘British’ name Embreis/Emrys, he’s still called a Roman. But, considering the H.B. relies on St. Germanus (a Gaul) to save the day at one point, this argument could be weakened. He could only not have used Ambrosius as the victor of Badon (one would have thought) if the compiler(s)/editors of the H.B., or the tradition that he/they worked from, thought him not to be the victor, so he either had to come up with one, or use the tradition that said Arthur was he.
I would also add that it would be in Gwynedd’s interest to make Ambrosius the victor at Badon. After all, this is where the hillfort of Dina Emrys lies and in Welsh poetry the men of Gwynedd have been called the ‘men of Emrys’. The H.B. could have used his British given name and made him the hero of the day. That is unless Christopher Gidlow’s argument that Mervyn Vrych wasn’t the patron but Fernmail of Buellt was.
There is one possible pre-Galfridian reference to Arthur at Badon and that’s in a poem contain with the story Ystoria Taliesin (‘The History of Taliesin’) or Hanes Taliesin (‘Tale of Taliesin’), c.Mid-16th century. The poem in question is about Maelgwn of Gwynedd, but mentions the following:
“Let the fools be silent,
As erst in Badon’s fight, -
With Arthur of the liberal ones [...]”
This Taliesin is, of course, the mythical Taliesin and not the bard of the Late-6th century. The poem, in Middle Welsh, is hard to date (as most of them are). This particular copy was written down in the 16th century but elements may date to the Early-13th. (See: Patrick Ford, Ystoria Taliesin. 1972). None of the poems contained in this story are in the older Llyfr Taliesin (‘Book of Taliesin’), only twelve of which are thought to be genuine. (See: Williams, The Poems of Taliesin, 1975). If this is the case it is post-Galfridian. Even if it was pre-Galfridian it was most likely influenced by the H.B..
To my mind the Arthur of the H.B. had to be one of two things: historical or historicised much earlier so the compilers wouldn’t know the difference. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t have added to him in either case!
Christopher Gidlow suggests that the H.B. is showing that it wasn’t so much the kings of the 5th/6th century that were fighting the Saxons, but their ‘generals’. Vortigern used Vortimer, Ambrosius, possibly, Arthur and, he suggests, Maglocunus (Maelgwn) had Outigern, who fought against the Northumbrians (Gidlow, 2010, p.145). It’s an interesting theory though impossible to prove and there no actual connection between the latter two.
What if we look at this with Hiberno-British tinted glasses? Do we see anything else? Could it be that it was known he was neither a king or a pure blooded Briton? Two reason why there were those more nobler than him? I’d be the first to admit that this is probably pushing it!
Annales Cambriae (ca 955-990)
The Annales Cambriae (A.C.) is believed to have originated in the once Hiberno-British region of southwestern Wales; that which was Demetia and became Dyfed, but at this time was part of Debeubarth. It was a powerful kingdom, although probably under the thumb of the English kings at the time, but its rulers originated from Gwynedd in the north.
It is thought to be an amalgamation of an Irish Annale and a northern English one. There are two entries in the A.C. relating to Arthur and some scholars think the were later interpolation:
516 – The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.
537 – The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.
Most think the date for Badon incorrect, and place it at least 20 years earlier, some over 30 years. For this discussion it doesn’t matter. This early section of the A.C. is believed to have been based on a lost Irish annal, possibly from the Clonmacnoise-group, and most of the earlier entries are to do with Ireland, Irish saints or Welsh saints who had connections with Ireland. It does appear as if the Arthurian entries were shoehorned into it.
Nick Higham (whose conclusions are there was no historical Arthur of Badon) did do an excellent job of deconstructing the first Arthurian entry in the A.C. in his book ‘King Arthur – Myth Making & History’. His basic argument is that most of the wording of the the first entry comes from the earlier H.B. (The second one doesn’t appear in the H.B.). It certainly could look that way, but there have recently been many comments on Arthurnet that this simply isn’t the case. However I want to put those Hiberno-British tinted glasses on again and take another look at it.
There is another possible option to that proposed by Higham, and that is the original Irish annal had the Arthurian entry, but in a far briefer form and the Welsh scribe added the detail from the H.B. I can see the problems with this hypothesis in that there are no other Irish annals that include these Arthurian sections and, indeed, why would they. It would take some Irish connection or interest. But, just to go with this for a little longer, what could such an entry be?
516 – Battle of Badon, in which Artúr and the Britons were victors.
537 – Battle of Camlann, in which Artúr and Medraut fell; and there was a great plague in Ireland and Britain.
If this was the case, and it is a huge IF, why would the dates be out … that’s assuming they are? It may had to have been a guess on the scribe’s part.
But, if Arthur was Hiberno-British and the annalist knew this (more likely the later southwestern Welsh scribe), Arthur being inserted in amongst Irish entries is not so out of place. It means he has a possible connection.
The possibility must also be faced that the Battle of Camlan actually involved Arthur map Petr of Demetia and not an Arthur of Badon. After all, a battle between Demetia (modern day Dyfed and possibly Ceredigion) and Venedota (Gwynedd) around Afon Gamlan (River Camlan) in today’s Welsh county of Merioneth, is certainly conceivable. The date would, of course, be well out for Arthur map Petr but there could be many reason why it was inserted, especially keeping in mind the region in which the A.C. was composed.
So, can any Hiberno-Arthur been seen in either of these documents. Probably not. If anyone was still aware in the 9th and 10th centuries of an Hiberno-British Arthur, they made nothing of it.
In the next and, you’ll be glad to hear, final blog in this series and be looking at my conclusions to all this.
Thanks for reading,