Tag Archives: Ambrosius

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


English: Scanned from frontispiece of Ab Ithel...

Annales Cambriae

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.

Page from the Book of Aneurin , MS c. 1275. Fr...

Y Gododdin

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 If you think these sources valid you have a totally different outcome to if you don’t. If you think they’re valid, historical documents, then he existed.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).

Hywel Dda

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.



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!


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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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