Tag Archives: Celidon

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


As I mentioned in earlier parts of this blog, the same ‘all or nothing’ argument goes for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as Dumville, Higham and Green are concerned (although Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else). For Higham the H.B. uses Arthur purely as a ‘Joshua figure’ to St Patrick’s ‘Moses’ type, and the 12 battles are simply a Biblical providential number. (The number is certainly not based on Joshua, who fought 31 of them!). I think the H.B. may very well be using Arthur in this way, (although Gidlow points out how unlike his supposed Biblical counterpart Arthur is made) but that doesn’t mean he or the battles were made up (entirely?) for the purpose. Arthur, like Patrick (who is mythologized in the H.B.), could have been chosen because he fitted the bill … or was adjusted to fit the bill. Had someone else fitted this bill, it might be them we would be writing about. But what was it about him that made him the choice?

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


Christopher Gidlow counters:


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

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

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

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

The later Vatican recension of the H.B.:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem – Part Three

(Click HERE for Part one – Click HERE for Part Two)

Is it time to rhyme?

The question comes as to whether any poetry about Arthur was composed during his supposed lifetime or many years later.  As Keith mentions and Gidlow points out, the limited surviving early battle poetry we know of only exists between ca 580 and 640; this means that there is a lot that has been lost to us.  But if the type of battle poetry that the H.B. was based on – if it was – only had a relatively short life and had finished by the mid-seventh century then we might deduce that it was compose during this time and not before or after.  If it was in this period it gives a completely different slant to why or how it was composed.  The ‘why’ is possibly easier to answer.  This was the second phase of the Anglo-Saxon migration, expansion and conquest.  What better time to bring a national hero (or great warrior) back from the dead and sing his deeds to the warbands before they faced their Germanic enemies?  “He beat them! So can you!”  This would be the way in which his name could travel the length and breadth of the British Isles, beside him possibly already being a legend in certain regions.  This is the exact period when those Hibernian-British or Cambro-Irish Arthur names appear, adding greater strength to the poem(s) being composed at this time.  (I explore further in THIS blog about Arthur being an Hiberno-Britannian).

The ‘how’ would need either known poetry, or stories.  Any stories or legends would be, perhaps, two or three generations old so we can imagine the level of corruption that may have already occurred.  The possibility of any poetry having being written down in British at this time is slim.  However, if it did exist, it may have had to adjust and develop to the changing language.  This itself could lead to corruption.

Recently I have wondered about Aneirin’s involvement in all this.  This is the man (if it is indeed his own words) who gives us the first mention of the name Arthur in Y Gododdin (not forgetting that there are some scholars who argue this verse is a later interpolation):

Ef gwant tra thrichant echasaf,

Ef lladdai a pherfedd ac eithaf,

Oedd gwiw ym mlaen llu llariaf,

Goddolai o haid meirch y gaeaf.

Gocharai brain du ar fur caer

Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.

Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,

Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwawrddur.

He charged before three hundred of the finest,

He cut down both centre and wing,

He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,

he gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.

He fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress

Though he was no Arthur.

Among the powerful ones in battle,

In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)

It’s a bit of a negative compliment, but not totally unusual.  Everyone else mentioned in this poem are either living or recently dead and Arthur is the only one from the distant past … if, indeed, he is and this isn’t Artúr (Arturius) mac Áedán of Dalriada (see THIS blog).  If it is an ‘original’ Arthur of Badon fame, why mention him in particular?  Why now? The ‘why now’ I answered above.  It could also be he just happened to have a name that rhymed with Gwawrddur.  Another explanation is that he was from that region and, added to this, if there was current poetry being circulated about him it would already be in the audience’s mind. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Aneirin himself had composed work about Arthur.  Could he have been the first?  This might make the mention even more logical.

(Those observant amongst you might have notice something odd about the rhyming in this section:

Gocharai brain du ar fur caer

Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.

Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,

Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwawrddur.

Caer’ does not appear to rhyme with ‘Arthur’ or the previous line.  This bothered me for a little while until making a search through Y Gododdin and finding the following:

‘A’n gelwid i nef bid athleddawr ym mid!

Ef crynid ei gadwaywawr.

Cadfannan ryorug clud, clod fawr,

Ni chynhennid na bai llu iddo llawr.

… and …

A ddalwy mwng blaidd heb bren yn ei law

Gnawd gwychnawd yn ei len:

O gyfrang gwyth ac asgen

Trengis, ni ddiengis, Bradwen.

So it is a specific bardic device).

As already mentioned, if he fought at Celidon, then this was most likely in the Gododdin’s back yard.  There are some, including Keith, who place other battles from the list in this region:

Glein: the River Glen in Northumbria (Gododdin),

Breguoin: High Rochester in Northumbria (Roman Bremenium in Selgovae (Gododdin)

… and one battle not in the H.B. …

Camlan: Roman Camboglanna – Castlesteads, Cumbria (Carvettii region).

If these are right, and we will never know, they not only add more weight to Aneirin’s mention of Arthur, but to all but one of the 6th/7th century Arthur names appearing in the same region.  Of course, these battle placings pose problems to some who look for a southern Saxon fighter. If these battle were in the north and the rest in the northwest Midlands and east, it would only leave Badon in the south; unless you follow Green’s siting of this in Lincolnshire, leaving none!  This is a mine field that I am not going to venture any further into, but the more taken away from the south leaves you wondering ‘who was the British leader in the region of Britain that seemed to be undergoing the biggest expansion’?

Silua Celidonis

One last point about this battle, wherever it was: there has to have been more information contained in a Latin text (if that’s what it was) than the name itself.  It has to have been more than “Arturius bellum silua Celidonis”.  (Apologies for my none existent Latin!).  As I postulated earlier, it could have been a complete list of the battles in Latin, which differed only from the British poem by this one battle, hence why it was included and had to be glossed.  However, it could have also contained urbe Legionis and monte Badonis.  After all, all the other battles in the Latin version of the H.B. have purely British names with no Latin endings to them.  Of course, this is most likely because they couldn’t be given them.  It is interesting that these three all have the same ‘nis’ endings.  It’s not completely out of the question that there was also once a Latin poem containing these three battles. If there was a Latin poem, it could indicate that this was the earliest of them all.


It would be naïve to think that the bards were not politically or ambitiously influenced in their poetry.   Whilst such poetry was meant to be learnt verbatim, it would also be naïve to think that later bards might not add to or adjust what they had learned, especially if they added material from a storyteller to spice it up.  This might mean that any poetry coming down to ‘Nennius’ would not be an accurate historical record, even if it was composed at the time of Arthur’s life.  On the meagre evidence we have I think the probability is more towards a 6th century composition of any poem … with the possibility of an earlier Insular Latin poem containing less battles.  It could actually be in its favour not being politically useful to any one dynasty.  There may be no ‘need’ to change it.  Then again, if it was as much for bolstering the British warriors against the English, the greater they made Arthur, the better.

The one positive note is that the ‘original’ poems of Taliesin and Aneirin did make it to us (as far as we can tell) and an ‘original’ Arthurian work may have found its way to ‘Nennius’.  This does give us the very pertinent question of what happened to such a poem or poems, and Latin texts, if they existed?  If the poem was in written form one would think it would be guarded with someone’s life.  Especially if there was only one in existence.  It could, of course, have been lost or destroyed along with any text; perhaps even by the later Anglo-Norman enemy.  It could be argued that if it was still in oral form, which might explain the variation in the different recensions of the H.B., it eventually was lost or transformed into something unrecognisable.  However, it seem a little odd that the poems of Taliesin and Aneirin survived and those of Arthur didn’t.

Taking the Historia battle list on face value is an act of blind faith.  It does not mean there isn’t truth held within it, but with three hundred years of transmission during turbulent times when the language itself was under great changes, and the 9th and 10th century political situations possibly effecting ‘Nennius’ translation, we should tread carefully.

Poet’s corner

Before I embark on my feeble attempts at battle poetry, a pertinent quote by Nora Chadwick:

“It is almost impossible for anyone who is not a native Welsh speaker, familiar with the strict Welsh metrical prosody, to appreciate justly, still less to convey, the intellectual mastery of this tight-knit poetry, its concentrated brevity of phrase, its use of repetition and inversion and crescendo to achieve the climax of the final impact on the emotions which comes to us almost as a shock. This is, in fact, the effect at which the poet aims, for example, in the Lament for Urien of Rheged above, where the closing stanza achieves the finality of bereavement. To obtain his effect, the bard sacrifices reflection to emotion at a white-heat. Unfortunately no early Scottish poetry has survived.” (Chadwick, 1963, §6)

Below are new version of the poems I did before. The first does not follow the correct meter(s), but the second uses the 8 and 7 syllable, 24 line style.  I have removed Celidon and Agned from these exercises:


Leader of battle for the kings of fair Prydein,

There fell many at the confluence of Glein.

In Linnuis four time the victor at the Dubglas,

Gore filled the waters at the river of Bassas.

Slayer of dogs for a day at Caer Guinnion,

He fed the black crows on the walls of Caer Lion.

Blood stained the fetlocks on the shore’s of the Tribruit,

At Caer Bregion the tramplers did acquit.

Three days the siege on the green hill of Badon,

He charged and fell forty-seven score Saeson.


Leader of battle he has been,

War lord for kings of Prydein.

The red cloaked reaper he was seen,

At the confluence of Glein.

In Linnuis four times victors mass,

Gore filled waters of Dubglas,

On legion’s ford below the pass

Blood stained fetlocks at Bassas.

No one spared where the boar had gone,

For a day at Caer Guinnion.

Glutted black crows thereupon,

The ramparts of Caer Lion.

On cold bleak shores they did acquit

As blue blades flashed at Tribruit.

At Bregion’s fort the pyres were lit,

For hostile crews no earthly pit

Long the siege upon Mount Badon,

The giant charged, his sword prayed on

Forty-seven score skulls of Saeson,

For the Lord of Creation.


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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Arthurian Battle Poems



Below are two attempts at what the battle poem of Arthur may have looked like, if it was this the entry in the Historia Brittonum was based on.

The first has no real 6th century precedence, although there are similar awdlau by Taliesin. I have not used the correct syllable count or meter. (It is, indeed, much harder to do in English than Primitive or Old Welsh.)

The second is a stanzaic attempt, although most stanzas have only 8 or 12 lines and mine has 20.  There are those with 24 and 28 lines in Y Gododdin, but these tend to have 5 syllables per line.  This one was much more difficult to do because I did try to use alternating lines of 7 and 8 syllables. I discovered afterward that I should have started with the 8 syllable line, but have left it as it is.

Doing these, especially the stanza, certainly makes you appreciate the bard’s craft.  Finding four rhymes one after the other whilst sticking to the story must have been quite an undertaking. This is not counting the stresses they had to put on certain syllables and the use of internal rhyming.  I wasn’t going to even attempt the latter! Mind you, the did have a very long apprenticeship to get it right.

(I will be posting a blog soon specifically about the possible transmission of the oral material).


Leader of battle for the kings of fair Prydein,

There fell the hostile crew at aber Glein.

In Linnuis four time the victor at the Dubglas,

Blood stained the waters at the river of Bassas.

Slayer of the dogs in the wood that is Celidon,

The Mother on his shoulder at the fort of Guinnion,

Feared the name Arthur in every dark region,

He fed the black crows on the walls of Caer Lion.

Blood stained the fetlocks on the shore’s of the Tribruit,

They reaped with blue steel on the hill that is Agned.

Three days the siege on the green hill of Badon,

He charged and fell forty-eight score of Saeson.


Leader of battle he has been,

War lord for kings of Prydein.

Slayer of black dogs at Aber Glein,

The red cloaked reaper was seen.

In Linnuis the vanguard did mass,

Four times victors they did pass,

Blood stained waters of the Dubglas,

Fed wolves cubs above the Bassas.

No one spared in Coit Celidon.

Broken bodies at Guinnion.

Glutted black crows thereupon

The ramparts of Caer Lion.

On cold bleak shores they did acquit

As blue blades flashed at Tribruit

At Bregion’s fort beneath Agned

The hostile crew of there did rid.

Long the siege upon Mount Badon,

The giant charged and prayed on

Forty-eight score skulls of Saeson

On his shield the Holy Maiden.



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“dux erat bellorum”


This was originally from a post – with some additions – I made on Arthurnet about why Nennius (or whoever) used the term “dux”. The update, below, is taken from the up-coming ebook.

Dux erat bellorum/Dux belli

The discussion about what ‘Nennius’ (or whoever the compiler(s) and/or translators where) meant by “dux erat bellorum” (or ”dux belli” in the Vatican recension) in the Arthurian section of the H.B. has gone on for decades. Some have used it as an argument to say he was given the old Roman command of dux Britanniarum (‘Duke of  the Britains’) in command of the northern troops, but others point out that if he’d been given the title then why didn’t the H.B. call him such?

In actuality, there may have only been two position he could have been in to be a battle leader or commander-in-chief and they are some kind of general or an Over King. This I’ll look at later as it’s not what I want to explore here.

I think there are actually two question: 1) WHY was dux used, and  2)  WHAT words in Primitive or Old Welsh were they translated from … if they were?  An Arthur of Badon couldn’t have been the first or last to be called a ‘leader/lord of battle’. Perhaps it’s just a case of finding it. To try and answer this, I wanted to look at a nearer contemporary source (at least in John Koch’s view) and see if it could help: the British collection of poems, ‘Y Gododdin’.

The why?

First why was dux used? Was it simply because in Latin it meant ‘leader’ or ‘lord’? Very possibly. But, as mentioned before, Higham argues that a mythical Arthur was used as a Biblical ‘Joshua-figure’ in answer to St. Patrick’s ‘Moses-figure’ in the H.B., and that he was given this title because Joshua was called a dux belli.[1] It is a valid point and I would have agreed with Higham’s conclusions once upon a time, but even if Arthur was used in this way in the H.B., and given this title after Joshua, it does not mean that he was invented to be this, but was, rather, perfect for the Biblical comparison, just as St. Patrick was for his. Had someone else been used we might all be writing about them.

We should also keep in mind that, if the H.B. was in reply to Bede’s earlier work, the English called the Gaul, St. Germanus a ‘dux belli’ and the title could have been used because of this.

But there is the point that the Harleian H.B. says “dux erat bellorum”. If it had wanted to make him Joshua, why not just call him, as the Vatican recension does, “dux belli”. Did the Vatican editor make him Joshua, or did he just clarify the comparison? However, it cannot be ruled out that a possible historic Arthur wasn’t called a “dux bellorum” in any poetry and Nennius used this term because of the Biblical, or St Germanus, comparison he was trying to make.

There’s also another point to bring up here and it is another one made by Higham, but this time in his book ‘English Conquest – Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century‘ (1994). Higham is adamant that Gildas’s use of duces (plural of dux) is meant as “military leaders”, but this could apply to a king or a civil position. How long between the 5th and 9th centuries this was used by Britons, we’ll never known, (see below) but it is at least a possibility “dux erat bellorum” meant ‘military leader of battles’  for clarification as dux had other meanings.  (See THIS blog for further discussion on this).

Whilst dux does mean ‘leader’ or ‘lord’ in Latin, this may not have been the only way those of 9th century Britain would have read it, besides the possibilities mentioned above. Let’s look at it another way: what was a dux or duke in the 9th century?

As far as I’m aware, the Welsh never used the term dux as a specific title but across the border in England and over the Channel in Brittany, they certainly did. In England it meant a ‘supreme landlord’, only second to the king, and there were quite a lot of them. They could very often be princeps and dux of a county or shire and, like the dukes across the English Channel, by the 10th century they gained even more power.[2] So choosing dux the H.B.’s Latin literate 9th century audience are possibly going to imply something very different to us. The English would interpret it their way, Bretons, Welsh etc., theirs. (Like Higham, I think the H.B. was aimed as much at the English, and specifically the Mercians, as the Britons).

Christopher Gidlow in his book The Reign of Arthur points out something else about the Historia Brittonum and its use of dux, and that is in every instance before its connection with Arthur when using this term it either means a ‘general’ or a ‘governor subordinate to the Emperor’.[3] This is very similar to an English duke, who was subordinate only to the king. So, did the translator or compiler use dux knowing the English would read it as more than just ‘leader’? Of course, the answer comes back as to why he didn’t just say he was simply a dux if they’d know what a dux was? But, if it had more than one meaning, adding “of battles” would be for clarification. Did he/they use the term specifically for the ‘English’? It could be argued that he did, as the H.B. (as argued by Higham) was aimed just as much at them.

This leads on to what might have been translated, if it didn’t come from Nennius and it had come from an ancient poem or poems …

The what?

Y Gododdin

In the Arthurian battle list of the H.B. there seems evidence from the rhyming of some of the names that this originally came from a battle poem or poems. If the poem(s) or Triads that came down to 9th century were in Primitive or Old Welsh, what might this be and what other evidence is there for such a title or description as ‘leader of battle’ (if dux erat bellorum hadn’t been added later)? One would think it should come down as pen llu (leader of the hosts/legion/army), pen kat (leader of battle), pen budinor (leader of armies) or penteulu (leader of household troop); or, to really big him up, guledig; but he’s never called these, or no evidence has survived, and only the latter title once in the poem Kadeir Teyrnon. He is called penn kadoed Kernyw (‘Leader of the battalions of Cernyw’) in the poem ‘Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr’ – ‘Arthur and the Eagle’ (dated to around 1150 AD), but that could just be the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, none of these titles, except guledig, are mentioned in Y Gododdin. (You find pen llu, and even penn draig/penn dragon/pendragon (‘head/leader warrior’) in the poetry of the Medieval Welsh poets and these could have, perhaps, been used by those further south in earlier times. Pen llu would be the closest).

I did find other possibilities in Y Gododdin: *cintrenn/cyntran, *(ri/si) chatvarchawc, and *aer dwyw/ry(ri)dywys.

Starting with *cintrenn/cyntran (‘centurion’ according to Koch), here’s a position that the H.B. translator might have known, judging by the fact that three of the four mentions of it in Y Gododdin are from the later A text, dated to the 8th/9th centuries.  This is, indeed, a ‘battle leader’ of sorts, whether you take Koch’s interpretation as a ‘centurion’ or not.  Jarman does not translate this as a leader of a hundred men, just as ‘warrior’ or ‘leader’.  Koch’s reasonings are thus:


 “[BI.13] 253 *ar-tege can(t)=uur ‘he used to lead a hundred men’ is evidence for the persistence of Roman office of centurion, a heroic ideal and poetic convention if nothing else.”

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.168)

“[A.5] 48 … A further possibility is that the original had the t- pret. of the verb (*cintrann (…) rac-uant rac bodinor ‘a centurion (who) counterthrusted against armies’).

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes. p.180)

“[A.18] 196 *cintren’n‘ [MS kynrien] ‘battle leaders, centurions’.  We expect a third personal name here, but this word is frequent in the diction of the Cynfierdd as a common noun.   Furthermore the preceding two names *Conrig and *Conuon have Celt. *kuno – ‘hound’ as the first element, whereas *cintren’n’ has *kintu – ‘foremost’, so the alliteration would weaken.  The general sense of kynran is ‘first in its part’, thus more specifically in Hengerdd ‘commander, captain, (under-)chieftain.  The transparent preform would therefore be Brit. *cintu-rannos.  This form probably rose as a popular etymology applied to the Lat. centurio, centurionis during the Roman Period.  In favour of this interpretation one may further adduce CA A.24.287 diua oeda gynrein gan-wyr ‘his centurion’s centuries (hundred-man units) perished’.) It is probable therefore that the name of the third hero has dropped out or been transformed in transmission into the common noun.”

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.194)

“[A.24] 287 *diba oid i-cintrenn cant-guir ‘his centurion’s hundred-man units perished’.

(‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes, p.199)


The information in of itself is fascinating – if Koch is right – and shows that even those north of the Wall were fighting in a legionary way. (Even though a Roman centurion was actually in charge of eighty men).

There is another instance when ths was used, this time in a ‘Llywarch Hen’ poem about Marwnad Cynddylan (‘Elergy for Cynddylan’), an 9th century poem about a 7th century occurrence:


Mawredd gyminedd! Mor fu da[f]fawd

a gafas Cynddylan, cynran cyffrawd;

saith gant rhiallu’n ei <yspeidawd>,

pan fynnwys mab pyd, mor fu barawd!

Grandeur in battle! So good was the destiny

that Cynddylan, the battle leader, got

seven hundred chosen soldiers in his retinue,

When the son of Pyd requested, he was so ready![4]


However, it may be wondered why the H.B. translator wouldn’t call Arthur a centurionis in Latin if this is what he was; unless they wanted to make him something more than this?

But there may be other clues in Y Gododdin, as mentioned above. For example: the leader of an Irish or Hiberno-British fianna (warband) would be a ri fianna > ‘leader (lord) of the warband’. I found in Koch’s translation a reference to the *tri ri chatmarchoc, ‘the three directors of the cavalry brigades’. If you look in Jarman’s book the ri isn’t there at all and it’s translated as ‘Three battle-horsemen’. In yet another version it has *Tri si chatvarchawc, which gets translated as ‘Three hundred knights of battle’. We don’t know which one’s right, but if it’s Koch’s then here’s an example of Britons using ri (modern Welsh rhi = ‘king’ or ‘lord’) as a leader, this time of cavalry units. (If he was called a ri (Brittonic *rigos) at anytime and not meaning ‘king’ but ‘leader’, this itself could have caused confusion over his status). But Arthur seems to be even more than these. He’s made out to be more of an overall leader; a commander or general if you will. The only reference in Y Gododdin I could see is:


*Aer dywys, rydywys ryfel > ‘Battle leader, he led to war …’

(LXXIII, A 72, 690. ‘Aneirin – Y Gododdin’. Jarman)

*Air=tiuis > ri- tiuis > ribel_> ‘A battle leader can lead in war’

(A.72, 904 ‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, Notes,113).


Here seems to be a point on which the two eminent scholars agree. Once again there is that ri usage by the Britons, which here is translated as ‘led/lead’. (Later Welsh might interpret ri-dywys as ‘king/lord of war’).  In fact, if you change the hero of this and the previous verse in Y Gododdin that these appears in, from “Ywain” (the only  possible Guledig mentioned in the piece) to “Arthur”, it would fit perfectly:


Battle leader, he led to war,

The land’s multitude loved the mighty reaper. [Arthur was called the Red Revenger]

On the green earth there was fresh blood around the green grave,

He wore armour over his crimson garment.

A trampler of armour, an armour’s trampler, [Arthur was called the trampler of nine]

Like under death weariness falls.

Spears were shattered at the commencement of battle,

A path to a clearing was the aim of the spearthrust. (Jarman)


A battle leader can lead in war.

A sovereign’s host loved the powerful reaper.

The mighty Forth is blood around a new grave.

It was armour that he had over his red [garments].

An armoured trampler used to trample on armour.

The appearance of death fell on the exhausted.

Spear-shafts in shields at the outset of battle —–

a path towards the light was the purpose of the spear thrust. (Koch)


These ‘titles’ would seem to me the strongest contenders for what could have been translate to “dux erat bellorum”.  Here the translator gets the chance to call him a dux, as in ‘leader’, as well as letting any Breton or English reader translate it as a ‘duke’ with military command but second to a king.

Why any of the above would also account for Arthur being called a pen teyrned (teyrnedd) > (‘chief/leader of kings/lords/rulers’) in Culhwch ac Olwen and the Triads, I’m unsure. Unless this was just some Welsh bard’s interpretation of the leader of kings (in battle). Pen tyrned could be interpreted as meaning the ‘Head of Kings’: a ‘High King’, but there is no indication of this in the H.B. and if he was commonly thought to be a king, of whatever class, one would think the H.B. would have made political use of it … had they known.

As mentioned before, Stephen Knight argues that in the 9th/10th century Arthur of their stories may have simply been fashioned into a Welsh over-king of the times, in the mold of Rhodri Mawr and Hwyel Dda.[5]  Many later Medieval Welsh kings were styled this by the Gogynfeirdd (‘The Less Early Poets’).

It should be ask here why Nennius, if making the whole thing up, didn’t just call Arthur a High King, or even a king? Why call him a battle leader for kings? Was it because this is what he was (or was thought to have been) or was it because the English had no knowledge of a ‘King Arthur’ so ‘Nennius’ had to give him another title? Or was that it was such commonly known fact that he was a High King that it didn’t need to be stated? But then why did the Vatican recension tell us there were those more nobler than him?

Dux Britannium

There is always the possibility that because the translator was working form an Old Welsh copy of a poem, it may have used the equivalent of the Old Welsh translation of “Dux Britannium”.  We mustn’t forget that this was at the end of a transmission of the story, which may even have gone form Latin to Primitive Welsh to Old Welsh to Latin.  Even if it didn’t start as Latin, it still came down as language and military knowledge had changed.  Did it come down as something like “aer dywys, pen tyrned prydein” > “Leader of battle, chief of the rulers (kings) of Britain”?

A digression

Just to digress for a moment, I think Keith (Fitzpatrick-Matthews) in his recent paper on the H.B. (The Arthurian Battles of the Historia Britonnum July 2010 – available on Scribd) makes an interesting point about battle poems.  It appears (from the limited evidence we have) that they lie between 580 and 635 AD. (Urien Rheged   (Ardwyre   reget,   Williams  1960,  7),  Cynan  Garwyn  (Trawsganu  kynan  garwin,  Williams  1960,  1)  and  Cadwallon   ap   Cadfan   (*Marwnad   cadwallon   ap   cadfan*,   Gruffydd   1978,   34 ) [6]. They could have, of course, been in use before this and it is just a case that none have survived.  But if they do belong to a narrow window of time, and did not begin until after Arthur’s death then even the first poems about him may not have surfaced until after the event(s) and so they themselves would be based a folk memory, unless there were bards present at Arthur’s battles at the time to transmit the information, or as wondered by the likes of Christopher Gidlow (2004), some of the transmission was originally in Latin.  Even these may not necessarily have been in an accurate, historical way; that’s not what the bards were there to do.  As Keith points out, the chances are, all these poems may have been written after the fact, and this too is the opinion of Dumville. [7]

There is the question of whose bards might have been praising Arthur, if he was neither king or prince? (Not that he couldn’t have been a prince).  The bards were there to praise their patron.  As in 9th century Wales, there may have been two bards: the itinerant ‘chief of song’ (pencerdd) and the ‘poet of the warband/household’ (bard teulu); the former praising whomever he might be visiting as well as others and the latter his king and his warband and whoever might have been fighting with them.  Aneirin seems to fall into the former category.  He sings of the exploits of the various warriors, some from other kingdoms, fighting together.  If Arthur did command kings in battle, as Ywain in Y Gododdin may have done, then Arthur could have been praised by several bards over several campaigns … unless he employed is own.  If there was indeed a battle poem then it could have been the condensing of several other’s lyrical works.

What we may never know is what was written in Latin, if anything.  The royal courts seem to have had a priest in their employ. Whether any of these put quill to parchment and wrote down any of Arthur’s deeds, we’ll never know. But, just perhaps ‘silua  celidonis’ was a case in point? – (see THIS blog for further discussion).

Back to the point

In the Vatican recension of the H.B. Arthur’s position is clarified as being a miles, interpreted today as “soldier”.  On this point there’s an interesting thought from Dane Prestano in a post from Arthurnet in November 2007:


This `miles’ issue has bothered me for a while.  In `The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood’ By Christopher Harper-Bill, Ruth E. Harvey, Stephen Church, which can be found on Google books it is stated that by the 9th/10th C `miles’ had become synonymous with a Knight, not a soldier and by the 12th C this was evident in medieval manuscripts. It could be argued that the later additions of ‘miles’ where because someone interpreted the same was as later generation are doing.  He’s a leader of battle. So this throw away term in the H.B. might be a clear indication that Arthur was a mounted knight, lending a much more Romance slant to the H.B. Arthur material than thought before.


I may not agree with Dane that this shows Arthur was a cavalryman, but it may prove that is how he was perceived at the time, making him into a contemporary horse-backed duke.

Thanks for reading and be sure to take a look at the comments below,




[1] Green, Concepts Of Arthur, 2007; p.151

[2] Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, 2001, p.152

[3] Gidlow, Reign of Arthur, 2004, p.44

[4] From Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews’ website:

[5] Knight, 1983, p.32-34

[6]  -List from Fitzpatrick-Matthews, 2010, p.19)

[7] Dumville, 1977, p.188


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