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Tag Archives: De Excidio Britanniae

King Arthur – the Christian pagan?

(As well as updating older post as I develop the ebook, I am also going create some new blogs out of the additional material that’s going into it. Here’s the first).

A Christo-Pagan symbol called "Pentacross...

A Christo-Pagan symbol called “Pentacrossagram”. Which is a Christian Cross within or mounted on a Pagan Pentagram. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question about what religion King Arthur followed depends on which King Arthur we’re referring to? King Arthur of the Medieval Romances is most definitely Christian as is the one of the Historia Britonnum.; the mythical one appears to have been a Christian and a possible historic one of the Late-5th century would most likely be a Christian, but this would also be dependent on which part of Britain he was from.

In Culhwch ac Olwen, (possibly 11th century) where Arthur has many ‘pagan’ friends, such as Gwyn ap Nudd (of the Otherworld) and the god Mabon, he or Cai mention “Heaven” at least three timesWhether these mentions were part of the original story or were added later we may never know, but, if they did want to make Arthur like the one of the Historia Britonnum (H.B.) of the Early-9th century, they did very little to do so. Had they wanted to change him to a Christian hero against the Otherworld they could have gone much further. Of course, it is thought there were many more Arthurian tales around in the 9th to 11th centuries and some of these could have made more of his Christianity.

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as...

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as patron saint of Istanbul, detail: Emperor Constantine I with a model of the city (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is much debate about what religion Arthur might have been – mainly in the lay community - and many are determined to make him either a pagan or devout and exemplar Christian. We’ve no idea exactly what he might have believed in (although we know what they made him in the H.B), because we don’t know where exactly he might have been from, or when. There is a very high probability that he’d be a Christian if he’d been from south of Hadrian’s Wall as it had been the official religion since 381 and the Council of Constantinople, when orthodoxy was imposed and any heretics (whether pagan or other Christian sects, such as Pelagianism) were not tolerated after that … not that this stopped some British from practicing Pelagianism, possibly up to the Mid-5th century. Things may also have changed in some regions once the empire had lost its hold over Britannia and the church lost some of its enforcement powers.

Christianity itself had been tolerated and not persecuted since the emperor Constantine the Great made it so in 313. (See: Freeman, AD 381, 2008). Three British bishops had been present at the Council of Arles in 314. (Eborius, bishop of York, Restitutus, bishop of London, Adelfius, bishop of Lincoln).

Eusebius wrote

“The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.” (De Demonstratione Evan­gellii, Lib. 111).

Possibly the first British saint, Alban, was martyred around 250AD, perhaps even earlier, and there are the legends regarding King Lucius (c.156) being Christian and St. Cadval (c.170) possibly being from Britain. Even if these legends aren’t true there had been Christians on the island for a long time. Britain also produced St. Patrick in the 5th century and, in the next century, a whole host of other British and Welsh saints. But the church was a very different organisation then. Any ‘churches’ were in the declining remaining cities, whilst other priests (presbyter) and bishops (sacerdos) could have been attached to royal courts with some being itinerant.

So, as you can see, Christianity had been present in Britain for at least two hundred years in one form or another before any possible Late-5th century Arthur came along. It had been the official religion for almost one hundred years. Gildas, in his Early-6th century De Excidio Britanniae, makes no reference to British pagans (of the elite) and he would be the first to do so had it been present, in his part of the oldl diocese at least. No pagan shrines, apart from Anglo-Saxons ones, have been found for this period. However, there’s every possibility that some, probably peasants, went ‘underground’ with any ‘old beliefs’. Perhaps this is what encouraged some of them to go over to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture in the east of the island.

The level of Christianity must have changed in the lifetime of a possible historical Arthur. If he lived between c.475 and c.525 he must have witnessed its spread and, possibly, the nature of its influence and power. If he resided north of the Wall in what is now northern England and southern Scotland he may have seen its introduction and the way it changed the various societies there as they were influenced both from their southern neighbours and from monastic sites like Whitehorn (Candida Casa - the ‘White (or ‘Shining’) House’) founded by Saint Ninian in what is now southwest Scotland. This site is thought to have been there since the Late-4th century.

Many saints of the period, in what became Wales, either started life as or were warriors kings or princes. Even the much chastised Maglocunus (Mailcun/Maelgwn/Malgun) of Gwynedd by the 6th century cleric Gildas gave up his monarchy for a while and became a monk. However, monasticism wasn’t as large a movement as it became in Medieval times.

The British Christians did seem to cause problem for the Roman church now and again, firstly with the anti-elite, no-original-sin Pelagius (Early-5th century) and then with Gaulish Bishops complaining that two British priests were actually preaching to woman! But it would be wrong to think there was a very different, unified ‘Celtic’ church; it was still a relatively conservative ‘Catholic’ Christianity, but with difference. To quote Patrick Wormald:

“One of the common misconceptions is that there was a ‘Roman Church’ to which the ‘Celtic’ was nationally opposed.”

(‘Bede and the ‘Church of the English’, The Times of Bede, Edited by Stephen Baxter, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006, p. 207.)

Illustration from page 16 of The Boy's King Ar...

Illustration from page 16 of The Boy’s King Arthur: “And when they came to the sword that the hand held, King Arthur took it up.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They respected the pope as much as their continental brethren, and we are also reminded by Wormald that there were many differences even between the Irish and British churches. Most scholars prefer the term ‘Insular Christianity to ‘Celtic’ Christianity.

This doesn’t mean that a historical 5th century Arthur wouldn’t have believed in pagan elements and traditions, just as many culture, even today, mix them; he just may not have ‘worshipped’ them or, if he did, he’d stay quiet about it. Throwing swords into water was one such tradition, and we know that this was done well into the Middle Ages. (Prior, Britain A,D. p.216) There are, of course, many pagan overtones to both the early and later Arthurian stories, from magical boars to Avalon and swords in stones. Even Christianity couldn’t bury these long held beliefs … and besides, they made a great story!

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

Mak

 

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King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Three

Provinces based on Anne Dornier's theory with my own thoughts (kindly created for me by Steffon Worthington)

UPDATED 20.1.12 Updates in bold type

RECTORES (GOVERNORS)

Gildas tells us that Britain had rectores. This has been taken by many to mean it had governors – which it can mean along with ‘rulers’ and ‘administrators’ – (Higham, 1994, p178) although, in strict terms, the governors would be the praeses, but no one (apart from Nick Higham?) can be certain of what rectores were by Gildas’s time. (More below).

Gildas says:

Britain has rulers [rectores], and she has watchmen/bishops [speculatores]: why dost thou incline thyself thus uselessly to prate [to talk idly and at length] ?” She has such, I say, not too many, perhaps, but surely not too few: but because they are bent down and pressed beneath so heavy a burden, they have not time allowed them to take breath. (DEB, §26)

Whilst Gildas has used rectores in the DEB when talking about Roman governors, it seems a little odd in this instance to says “She has such, I say, not too many, perhaps, but surely not too few”, if talking about governors and these were provincial governors and there were only two or three provinces left. This is something Professor Higham doesn’t tackle and he sees these rectores as being from London, Cirencester and Lincoln. But Britannia could hardly have “but surely not too few”? So is he referring to another function of these rectores or did some civitates (and kingdoms?) have their own at this time? Higham believes these governors based mainly in ‘Saxon’ controlled or tribute paying areas and under great burden, as Gildas tells us they were. Gildas certainly had some respect for the rectores, at least more than he had for the five kings, in his own time.

I recently noticed, whilst rereading Christopher Gidlow’s excellent book The Reign of Arthur (2004), that he questioned the same thing as mentioned about. He notes that the 5th century writer Ammianus calls emperors, provincial governors, military officials and even barbarian client kings “rectores”, whilst a certain Tutvwlch in the poem Y Gododdin is even called one. (p.120) He also points out something about the Historia Brittonum and its use of dux (or the plural duces) and that is that in every instance before its connection with Arthur when using this term it either means a general or a governor subordinate to the Emperor. (p.44). This could mean when the H.B. says Arthur was a dux, it meant something very specific.

Speculatores used to be one of two things: in Roman military terms they were scouts or spies, but in earlier times they were public attendants. Nick Higham forwards two possibilities: that the rectores/speculatores partnership was civil governor and military captain, or a civil and ecclesiastical one. (Higham,1994, p158). David Dumville simply says the latter were bishops. (After Empire-Towards an Ethnology of Europe’s Barbarians’ (‘Studies in Archaeoethnology, Volume 1’, 1995)).

THE PROVINCES

So, what were these provinces that made up the old Roman diocese of ‘The Britains’? There’s no complete agreement about which ones were where or where their boundaries were, but I’ll use the three maps (below) as a guide. The provinces were:

Maxima Caesariensis

Flavia Caesariensis

Britannia Prima

Britannia Secunda

Valentia

The following three maps show different possibilities to their locations … and there are more.  (For further discussion on Valentia see THIS blog).

Provinces based on various theories.

Provinces based on J C Mann's theory

Provinces based on Anne Dornier's theory with my own thoughts (kindly created for me by Steffon Worthington)

The map above isn’t quite correct in its placement of some of the northern tribes and will be updated soon.

These provinces (wherever they were) made up the imperial diocese of Britanniae (The Britains). It is all but the two southeastern ones that are argued to still have existed in some form in Gildas’s time, although a few scholars think even these could have still functioned, either under British (Dark) or ‘Saxon’ (Higham) rule. If it’s the latter, then these two eastern provinces were either under a certain degree of, or complete, Germanic control and/or the Germanic culture had taken hold there. For Nick Higham, the region between the two eastern provinces and the eastern portion of Britannia Prima were also under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suzerainty. (For further discussion on the extent of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ control, see THIS blog). He appears the only scholar to have forwarded this possibility.

The provinces were generally divided along tribal boundaries, but not always … although it’s almost impossible to know where some of the tribal boundaries were. There are various discussion and theories as to whether these tribal civitates and kingdoms made it into the period we are talking about, or whether they had changed. Some regions still retained their civitas (tribal) name, such as Demetia (Dyfed) or Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall), but this doesn’t mean it reflects the pre-Roman political situation and it could be that they simply used the name. Others didn’t; the Ordovices became Venedota (Gwynedd) and possibly part of Powys, with the Cornovii becoming part of Powys and Pengwern, although later Mercians would call them Wreocensæte, Pencersaete etc. No one knows when exactly these changes started to happen or as to what the political tensions were between the various British civitates after Roman rule had ceased. The various competing theories (by scholars and laymen alike) are what make it hard to judge whether the provinces remained intact, disappeared by the Late 5th century or simply changed size and shape. History being a complex affair means it could be a mixture of the above or something completely different.

Several scholars who have studied Gildas’s DEB in depth (but most notably David Dumville and Nick Higham) point to both him, and Continental sources, indicating that provinces did still exist in his day. If they all did, then two of them may have been under complete ‘Anglo-Saxon’ control … and the Gallic Chronicles for 441AD seems to tell us they were. But some scholars argue otherwise. If they are right, then the question is, how much control did they have, and were they united in by someone? Most would say no, but Higham says yes and that it is an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ over-king that Gildas refers to in the name of the ‘father-devil‘. Who’s right makes a difference to the subject of this blog, but since there is no consensus, we’ll continue with the hypothesis that the western and northern provinces could fight back and Badon was a decisive victory for the Britons … although the Britons not being the overall victors still makes these military positions possible at the time.

(Please keep in mind that when I say “Anglo-Saxon’ we’re still talking about Britons being in these regions. Some may have fought against these ‘masters’, other will have sided with with. Some Britons would be slaves, others would be in alliance or inter-marrying).

EACH TO HIS STATION

Gildas tells us that (in his opinion at least) things were a little different at the time of Badon …

[...] and in regard thereof, kings, public magistrates, and private persons, with priests and clergymen, did all and every one of them live orderly according to their several vocations. (DEB, §26)

So we cannot assume that the political and military situation in Gildas’s time was the same as at the time of Badon … unless you’re one of those of the opinion that Gildas meant that Badon only happened one month previous to him writing and not 43 years and 1 month. This argument is based on Gildas’s Latin, and this is beyond me I’m afraid. Most take the view that it was the latter, but there is also a theory that places the battle of Mount Badon, not just to a possible decade but to something far more specific: February, 483! This solution, by D. O. Croinin, is based on the 84 year ‘paschal cycle’. (The ‘lost’ irish 84-year easter table rediscovered, Peritia (6-7), 1987-1988, p. 238). Another theory sees Gildas meaning it happened 43 years and 1 month after Ambrosius’ first victory and another that is was this duration after the Saxon Advent.

All the above considered, Gildas’s duces could have been the major military leaders at that time of Badon and before and in the east and Midlands they may have be purely military rather than kings. However, it could be argued that Gildas simply means ‘leaders‘, which is another translation of duces, but Higham points out that Gildas always uses this and similar terms when referring to ‘military leaders‘. (Higham, 1994, p182 & p189). But in Gildas’s time king and duces, in some regions, had merged … in Gildas’s view.

So Britain may have still had provinces and some of those (and perhaps some civitates) appear to have had governors (if this is what rectores were). There also appears to be military leaders (duces?). Sometimes (in the west?) these were also the kings, but further east it may have been a different story, with rectores and duces (and possibly iudices) fulfilling the separate military and civil roles that the kings made into one. We have no idea of the situation in the north as Gildas doesn’t seem to mention it. (Unless those who theorise that Maglocunus was in the north are right). Once again, there can be no certainty, but these seem to be strong possibilities.

In the next blog we’ll look at what it may have meant if the existing provinces did have commanders.

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

Mak

PS: HUGE thanks to the map maker Steffon Worthington for creating the Anne Dornier based map free of charge! There are lovely people at the Facebook King Arthur Group page!

 

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King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Two

Map of Roman Britain, showing the road from Cl...

PROVINCIAL ARMY?

If these military positions, or one of them, did exist, in some form, in mid to late 5th century Britannia, the question arises as to who exactly these individuals would command: the province’s various warbands or his own provincial army … or both? Generals of the late empire would very often be in command of feoderati (federates) and/or bucellarii (literally meaning ‘biscuit eaters’), but, of course, they could afford them! The former would come in federate ethnic groups, the latter as individual mercenaries, and, perhaps, some ethnic groups.  Bucellarii where his personal household troop and could add up to a considerable number when needed. The magister militum Aegidius had 12,000 at one time.

Here is an interesting quote from a paper with the very long title of ARMIES, WAR, AND SOCIETY IN THE WEST, ca.300-ca.600:LATE ROMAN AND BARBARIAN MILITARY ORGANIZATIONS AND THE ‘FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE’ by Richard Abels:

Generals used federates and bucellarii

Dick Whittaker observes that the “twin process of soldiers becoming landlords and landlords becoming soldiers” in the late empire facilitated 1) the collapse of the frontiers, 2) the integration/fusion of German ‘barbarian’ and Roman culture, 3) the breakdown of law and the growth of a new culture of private power in which ‘the poor became increasingly dependent on the arbitrary will of the landed rich” (Rich 281). As soldiers became landlords and landlords became the masters of soldiers, private individuals became the heads of military retinues of bucellarii. Though by law bucellarii were required to take an oath not only to their employers (a private contract), but one as well to the emperor (public). Surviving Roman administrative records show that bucellarii performed public duties (under the direction of their civilian masters) and were liable for military service if called upon by government authorities. The wealthy Apion family of early sixth-century Egypt received tax breaks for hiring bucellarii, whom they used to collect taxes and maintain order during games in the hippodrome. (Lee 165, citing Liebeschuetz, Barbarians and Bishops 45-6. But, as Whittaker points out, “the public oath was of limited relevance if the patron rebelled or if imperial rule was not recognized: the loyalty of the soldiers than became private obsequium [a personal following]” (295).

Archaeologically, one of the key developments of the fifth century was the increasing ‘nucleation of rural sites. … Small farms disappeared, many vici (villages) were abandoned or removed to old Iron Age hilltop sites, while larger villas … survived, expanded and were often fortified. … [There is evidence] of concentration of property holdings, the increased isolation and inaccessibility of estates and the compulsion on peasants to seek the refuge of the rich’ (292).

Increasingly in the fifth century, the “remnants of the Roman army operated in towns,” and bands of bucellarii in the service of local great men, their patrons, controlled the countryside. The Roman sources term these bands as ‘robbers,’ but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority.

This process was not restricted to ‘Roman’ landlords. It was true also of German chiefs, many of whom were ‘Roman’ generals or federate chieftains. The distinction between ‘Roman’ and ‘German’ itself was disappearing as the cultures merged.

Germanic bodyguards were used by Emperors and it could be as much that they were there, not just for their violent tendency, but because they were (usually) neutral and exotic. (They looked different and talked differently).* This could have been as much the reason some British elites used them as any other … although the fact Constantine III may have taken all the best units (not all) with him to the Continent in his bid for the western Empire may have something to do with it. However, just as happened in the Empire, your bodyguard could turn against you. (Interesting that the emperor Augustus didn’t dismiss his bodyguard, but put them on an island out of harms way* just as the Britons are supposed to have done with the ‘Saxons’ on the Isle of Thanet. (But see THIS blog).

STRUCTURE

The question comes as to how a provincial force would (or could) operate in Sub Roman Britain, especially if the likes of Higham and Dark are right and we had both ‘tribal’ (‘Celtic’) king based kingdoms (in the west and north) and more civil and military civitates in the Midlands and east, at the same time? How do you get powerful kings and their warbands to work under an ‘outside’ commander? The other question is, how would they be ‘paid’? (Higham’s theory not withstanding that this civil zone was under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suzerainty or Chris Wickham‘s theory on a greatly fragmented Britain).

The answer to the first question could be that they would probably need to function, in some way at least, modeled on the Late Roman army system. (This, of course, being complicated by the Late Roman Empire’s use of barbarian federates who fought in the own ways). Whether they followed what militarily changes had been going on on the Continent is another matter, and their system may have been an old fashioned one, or a mixture of British and Roman. It may also depend on the part of the old diocese that was in question. If we take northern Britannia first, this could have seen an overall commander in charge of the various forces/warbands that occupied/re-occupied the still existing forts there when they were needed to come together as a combined force. This dux could have either been some over-king (or the equivalent) or a general in the employ of an over-king (as envisaged by Ken Dark). If this over-king had illusions of old imperial Roman grandeur he just might have done the latter. However, if this was the case he may have had to come from a ‘wealthier’ region of the north where surplus grain could be grown, such as the Yorkshire Plain. The old legions of the north had to rely on the southern grain regions to feed the amount of men that were there, though that number would be greatly reduced by this time.

We must also keep in mind, as discussed by Alex Woolf in ‘Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval’ (2003, p360), that kings of Gildas’s time – generally thought to be writing in the first half of the 6th century by all but Higham – in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) and before may not have functioned in the same way as later, Late 6th century and onward kings did and Gildas’s berated five kings of western Britannia may not be representative of those further east or in the north. Nor should the poetry of the 6th century bards Aneirin and Taliesin of the ‘Heroic Age’ be seen as showing how earlier or more Romanised ‘armies’ functioned. Woolf wonders if the other leaders Gildas isn’t happy with (but doesn’t mention by name) in these Romanised regions are the iudex mentioned by him:

Reges habet Britannia, sed tyrannos; judices habet, sed impios —“kings Britain has, but tyrants; judges she has, but wicked ones” (DEB, §27)

… if they are not one and the same as Gildas later says the kings also act as judges. Higham thinks these leaders were the rectores, speculatores and duces (more on this later).

The question often arises as to why use feoderati and bucellarii when you could use your own indigenous people? There are two answers: 1) Using, what has been termed the Gurkha Syndrome by military sociologist C.H. Enloe, you chose the most feared warriors to deal with the feared enemy, just as the British used the Gurkhas, and ‘Saxons’ were certainly feared. 2) Contrary to public perception, mercenaries are actually more likely to fight because that is their chosen profession, unlike some ‘levyman’ plucked from the fields. It also means you can keep them active for longer as they don’t have to farm. This is not to mention that mercenaries were very often put at the front, to save a kingdom’s own warriors.*

The more attractive alternative (and one perhaps borne out by the archaeology) might be that the various civitates and/or kingdoms that made up a province had to supply the men when needed for a combined force. Or, they were there to support a provincial army by only having to supplement a smaller group of feoderati and/or bucellarii that were the dux’s personal troop. This latter scenario might have been more acceptable, as any general with a large army could have become a threat himself. This would see him with his own smaller unit, or field army, for deal with raiding and the like, and supplemented by a combined large force for set battles. If this is how a historical Arthur did function it would be somewhat of an irony, especially if we add the possibility that he was of mix Hibernian (Gaelic) and British blood (More on this below or see THIS blog). Imagine: an Hiberno-British Arthur fighting with Germanic/Scandinavian/British/Hibernian mercenaries! Sacrilege! Yet perfectly normal for the time.

To need a provincial army, of course, would require there being a large enough enemy or enemies to warrant it, with a large enough border to protect, perhaps covering more than one civitas/kingdom. Or, maybe, it could be used to bring more force to bear at a particular point along that border than could be supplied by a single civitas/kingdom army? Is this restructuring what Ambrosius Aurelianus started and what enable the Britons to fight back?

How would they be paid? Well, they would be paid in kind, in some way; certainly not with money, except old coinage to melt down. They could also have been given food, metals or a share of any booty. They may have been promised land, either during service or after it.

LEADING FROM THE FRONT?

Most Roman emperors didn’t lead from the front (although, of course, some did) unlike the Hellenistic kings, like Alexander, who did fight at the front.* How did the British kings in the 5th century see themselves? like their ancient British forefathers or like mini Roman emperors who used generals or what the later Welsh would call the pen teulu (captain of the kings retinue)? Could have been a mixture of course.

GUERRILLA WARFARE?

The Late Roman army had to change its tactics in the 5th century and learned that large pitched battles were not always the answer and smaller guerrilla type operations were the way to go against the northern barbarians. A type of warfare that had been used against them for centuries. It’s this kind of warfare that Collingwood envisaged Arthur undertaking as a comes with a field army against his enemies, who very often may not have been united themselves. It’s always possible that a commander of a provincial force would fight this way at times, as set battles with one large army against another is not always the answer. There would have to be offensive tactics used with surprise attacks on strategic points. Arthur’s supposed battles, many at rivers, may have been just this. Cutting off supply routes or attacking places such as salt production sites or mineral mines could also have been a method used.

(* My thanks to the Ancient Warfare podcast: War as a livelihood – Mercenaries in the Ancient world - of 04/03/09 for this information.)

In Part Three we’ll look at what Gildas called rectores. These could be provincial governors and I’ll explore if this is what Gildas meant by the term, as well as looking at the five provinces that made up the old Roman diocese of Britannia and the various theories as to some of them still existing in Gildas’s time.

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

Mak

 

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ARTHUR: KING OR COMMANDER?

ARTHUR: KING OR COMMANDER?

The title really should be ‘Arthur: King, Commander, both, or neither’, but it’s not quite as catchy.

Those not au fait with the Arthurian subject and the search for an historical 5th or 6th century figure will just assume Arthur was a king. The first you might have been aware of an alternative view would be the last King Arthur film, if you saw it.

The flip side of the coin is those who do study the subject and believe he wasn’t a king because the 9th century document, the Historia Brittonum (in all its various versions), doesn’t make it sound as if he was a monarch but only a “leader of battles”.  Some will also say that the early Welsh stories of Arthur never call him a king, but as we will see, they do far more than that.

For the sake of this discussion we will assume there was a late 5th century figure called Arthur who fought at the Siege of Badon.

The main problem, as I discussed in the Arthurian poetry blog, is knowing where the battle list in Historia Brittonum originated from. If it was from a poem, whether oral or written, it may not have been made explicit within it that Arthur was a king, whether he was or not. There are examples in later mediaeval Welsh poetry where the bard extolled the virtues of his king in verse but does not say he was a king, because he knows his audience is already aware of this fact. If we didn’t have the relevant genealogies we wouldn’t know they were kings either, and could come to the conclusion that they may just have been military leaders of some kind. The same could have happened to Arthur.

As for the early Welsh stories of Arthur not saying he was a king, we only have to look to the story of Culhwch and Olwen (c. 10th century) to see that he was called a pen tyrned: a leader/chief/head of rulers/princes/kings. They seem to be making him out to be is some overlord or High King. It is certainly not making him out to be just a leader of battles. The Welsh poem, ‘The Elegy of Geraint’ (c. 9th to 11th centuries), even calls him an “ameraudur”. This could literally be translated as “emperor” but it is also possible it means “commander” or “general”.

Of course, it can be argued that this was only down to the later storytellers wanting to make him into a character closer to the rulers of their own day. This is a very valid point. However, whoever gave Arthur the above title chose an unusual one. For example, they didn’t call him a Gwledig; which seems to have been the highest accolade for someone in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries: Emrys Wledig, Macsen Wledig, Urien Rheged (Wledig) and many more. There was only one poem – attributed to Taliesin but most likely a later bard – that calls Arthur by this appellation. (See THIS blog.)

The other reason why Arthur is assumed not to have been a king is because there are no (reliable) royal genealogies that name him. Those that do are either derived from the stories or could very well just be made up. (See THIS blog)

There were, of course, great swathes of eastern and central Britain that were lost to the Anglo-Saxons where any ‘King Arthur’ could have resided. The downside to this argument is the fact that all subsequent princes given the name are in the west, nearly all in Hiberno-British held areas or those of Hiberno-British descent. (See THIS blog)

At the time Arthur is supposed to have flourished there may have been a very blurred distinction between a powerful commander and a king. There’s also no certainty that the British would use a commander to lead their battles, even though this is what was happening in Europe This may depend on the state of the ex-Roman diocese of Britannia at this time. It is possible from both archaeological evidence and that given by the 6th century saint, Gildas, that some of the old provinces of Britannia still existed. If they, one one, did, having an overall military commander might have been the answer to stop any of the rulers that made up the province from taking the lead and using this power to their own advantage.

Nor can we determine what kind of commander he might have been; if he was one. By that I mean the general jumping to the conclusion that he had to have been a cavalry leader. He does not have to have been this. At the head of mounted warriors, yes, but they need infantry too, and many mounted warriors would fight on foot. It is thought that cavalry, of the Early Medieval style, were of use only in certain circumstances and were probably mainly used as weapons platforms – that is, high speed javelin throwers – or to cut down a retreating foe. We should keep in mind that, unlike in the glory days of the empire, horses were a little harder to come by and you were going to do whatever you could to safeguard your mount. There is also no British Early Medieval evidence of heavy cavalry.

Of course, a military leader could also be a dangerous figure and there’s no reason why such a person could have tried to make himself the overall ruler. Many powerful military leaders throughout history have gone on to assume political power. If Arthur was or went on to be some kind over over-king, it’s very doubtful that he would be given such a position. He would have won it through military power. That is unless there was a similar system to Ireland, which we have no existing evidence of.

Gildas tells us that Britain had rectores; this was the Roman term for a provincial governor, but it doesn’t mean that that’s what they were by the early 6th century. It could have been a bishop by Gildas’s time. He also tells us, through Biblical comparisons, that the five kings he verbally attacks in his polemic were steering their ‘pharaoh’ to destruction.

“I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh …” (DEB Ch. 37) 

This ‘pharaoh’ could have been the rectore, he could have been a military commander or even over-king. Of course, he could be the devil.

Conclusions?

Can any conclusions as to what Arthur was be drawn form this? I don’t think so. The period, the evidence from Gildas and what was happening on the continent could mean that Arthur fulfilled any of these position, or even all at various points in his life.

This blog is not as in-depth as I normally make them but my work load has made this impossible. I’m hoping that through time, and comments from others, we’ll add to this debate.

Thanks for reading,

Mak

SINCE WRITING THIS I HAVE DONE ANOTHER RELATED BLOG, WHICH COVERS THE SUBJECT IN EVEN MORE DETAIL. CLICK HERE TO READ IT.

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2011 in King Arthur

 

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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part One

INTRODUCTION

(Updated 2.1.12)

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

This article (now an eight part blog) was mainly in response to a question I posted on Arthurnet about what could have caused the supposed two or three generational peace after the Battle of Badon (and other battles) between the Britons and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. I was asking if this subject had been debated by any group of academics, such as was done for the papers and discussions that went into the book ‘After Empire-Towards an Ethnology of Europe’s Barbarians’ (‘Studies in Archaeoethnology, Volume 1’, 1995). and discovered that no one was aware that it had. There have, of course, been numerous individual books and papers on the subject.

One Arthurnet member’s argument was that it was the great victory at Badon that caused the ensuing ‘peace’ and slow down of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ military and/or cultural expansion visible in the archaeology. This article was mainly in response to this, but it took on a life of its own and went on much further from there. However, keep in mind that this was its starting point.

My question was, again, motivated by the Arthurian screenplay I’m contemplating, which I wanted to make post-Badon.  However, it has ended up going much deeper than this and is relevant whether you think there was a historical Arthur of Badon fame or not.

I will concede that my knowledge is not great enough to do this subject much justice. Having said that, my (lengthy) layman/novice meagre stab at it will follow. Since the scholars on the subject can’t be here, I’ll have to bring some of their thoughts to bear instead. One of those is Nick Higham, who, regardless of his negative views on a historical Arthur, should be listened to. Some quotes that follow are from a paper by him entitled ‘Debating The Insular Dark Ages’, 2004. I will also pay heed to his theories from ‘The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century’ (1994). In this in-depth work, he concludes that the battle of Mons Badonicus was the Britons’ last victory against the ‘Saxons‘ but not the decisive one, and the ‘Saxons’ were the ones who won the ‘war‘.

I realise this all has to be tempered by the archaeological evidence, which, whilst seemingly supporting a ‘peace’ or slow down of expansion, cannot, as archaeologist Keith Matthews (aka Bad Archaeology blogger) has mentioned through Arthurnet, be dated accurately enough or interpreted clearly enough. He also pointed out recently that we may be relying too much on burial practices and that evidence of other kinds, being greatly helped by metalwork reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, show the creation of new ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sites during the period 475-550. However, if Gildas says there had been an extended ‘external’ (relative) peace for possibly 40-odd years, who are we to disagree … unless we’ve misinterpreted him, which some, including Keith and Nick Higham, think we have, as well as Ken Dark, although in a completely different way, not to mention archaeologist Francis Pryor.

I will use the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘Saxon’ and ‘Anglian’ to mean not only those of Germanic stock but any Britons who might have supported them (either willingly or unwillingly!) or taken up the culture, which is how many scholars now see the situation at the time. What, in my opinion, they should probably be called are ‘Anglo-Briton (or British) ’ or ‘Saxo-Britons (or British)’ etc.  After all, most of the generation we’re talking about were not only born in Britain but probably had British blood within them. Indeed, some of them may have had 100% British blood coursing through their veins. We call those of Hibernian (Irish) descent ‘Cambro-Irish’ (whilst I tend to call them Hiberno-Britannians), so why doesn’t this apply to those of Germanic stock? Probably because it helps keep them as the bad guys?!

WE WON … DIDN’T WE?!

So, the Battle of Mount Badon (dated anywhere between 483 and 518 – or 430 to 440 by Higham) is a massive defeat for the ‘Saxons’; other victories in other regions happen for some time afterwards and seal the deal.  If Ælle was their Bretwalda, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC) tells uswho they faced (meaning Badon would have to be of the earlier dates – if the ASC dates are right, which they’re probably not!) and he died at the battle – or one of the other battles – that would make things worse for the enemy. For Ælle to be in such an ‘overlord’ position – if that’s what a Bretwalda was, as there’s no agreement – it must have meant he could personally bring the greatest military force to bear, as well as having many groups either as tribute payers to him or allied through fear. So if he was defeated at Badon then, perhaps, the greatest threat was removed, along with many enemy warriors and a break-up of any coalition. (More on this later).

Higham:

“Barbarian kingdoms or ‘over-kingships’ often came into existence very suddenly, following military victory, and might disintegrate just as dramatically, as a consequence of defeat or changing political circumstances. The familiar examples of the rise and fall of individual dynasts in the late-sixth and seventh centuries, which Bede provides, should be sufficient to warn us off the simple, developmental approach.”

However, the question I posed on Arthurnet still stood: ‘what was stopping the second generation ‘Saxons’ from wanting revenge over the deaths of their fathers’ if so many of them had been slaughtered?’ As the late and great Sir Frank Stenton tells us:

“Much that is characteristic in the oldest Germanic literature turns on the relationship between the companions and the lord. The sanctity of the bond between lord and man, the duty of defending and avenging the lord, the disgracing of surviving him, give rise to situations in which English listeners were always interested until new literary fashions of Romance origin had displaced the ancient stories. There was no doubt that this literature represented real life. It was the personal reputation of the king which attracted retainers to his court, and it was the king’s military household around which all of the fighting centred. The inclusion of foreign warriors among the king’s companions and the presence of hostages from other countries in his court went far to cement the great dramatic confederations of early times. The migration to Britain produce no change in the relation of the king to his retinue. There is no essential difference between the king’s companions of the heathen age and the nobles who attest the earliest English royal charters.” (‘Anglo-Saxon England’, Stenton, 1989, p302)

Here’s a society that should (supposedly) fight to the death should their lord fall and avenge his death. This is not to mention the general tradition of the blood feud. So what was stopping them? I’ll explore the possibilities below.

If we also keep in mind that the 6th century cleric/monk Gildas (St. Gildas) tells us in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) that the Britons were often at civil war, then something must have been very wrong in the east, or something extremely right in the western ‘borderlands’, to not be able to take advantage of that too. Could be a bit of both, could be a completely different reason such as Higham’s theory on the ‘Saxons’ being in charge of eastern Britain and holding the eastern part of Britannia Prima to tribute payment.

Higham:

“Gildas’s remarks elsewhere reflect his continuing concern as to the vulnerability of his countrymen to their neighbours, which seems inconsistent with a triumphant conclusion of the war, so renewed divine protection: for example, ‘it was always true of this people (as it is now) that it was weak in beating off the weapons of the enemy but strong in putting up with civil war and the burden of sin.’”

What a strange thing for GIldas to say if the Britons had power over the enemy and they were at peace with them! So, what was true of the past with the ‘Saxons’ seems true even in Gildas’s day; unless he’s referring to other enemies, such as the Hibernians/Scotti, but he hasn’t mentioned them in regards to recent history.

Could Gildas just be trying to make a point, whether it was a ‘true’ one or not? Or, was it just in his view that they couldn’t beat the enemy off, maybe because they couldn’t win every battle? It could also be that it was only recently things had become uncertain again, and not for the whole of those 43 years since Badon (if it was this period – see below). However, it could also be that they still fought … or, indeed, because the ‘Saxons’ held more power than we think. (More on this below).

Higham again:

“In the present, Britain was divided by ‘an unhappy divorce of [?caused by] the barbarians’, the term divortio apparently referring back to the metaphor of ‘a chosen bride’ for the island of Britain, which was, therefore, no longer the single patria and promised land of Gildas’s ‘latter-day Israel’. Control had been ceded to the Saxons even of access to such shrines as St Albans. The church was now ‘tributary’, her sons had ‘embraced dung’ and the nobility had lost its all.” [Higham’s brackets, not mine]

So, for Higham at least …

“The war between Britons and Saxons, therefore, seems to have ended in some sort of compromise, which conceded a very considerable sphere of influence within Britain to the incomers. This was highly unsatisfactory from Gildas’s perspective and he was both extremely hostile towards, and fearful of, the Saxons.”

Higham’s not the only one to come to the conclusion that the ‘peace’ wasn’t necessarily satisfactory for both/all sides. The much maligned John Morris (1975) came to the same conclusion as did Stenton (1943-1989). However, Higham seems alone in how far he takes this.

What Higham mentions is what I was trying to get at in one of my posts: they’ve won a decisive victory, and yet they still can’t go where they want!  Seems odd if the British ‘defeated’ the Saxons. Are there any alternative answers to Higham’s? Here are three I can think of:

1) the Britons had defeated ‘Saxons’ to the west/north/south of these ‘no go’ areas, but not these areas themselves.

2) The ‘Saxons’ had made some small gains in the intervening time, cutting off these areas.

3) The Britons had won back far more territory than we think, but not these areas.

(I’m sure there are more).

Of course, Ken Dark see things differently and Higham explains it as follows:

“His thesis, in brief, is to postulate not just survival but continuing cultural, political and military power for the sub-Roman elite, both in the far west (where this view is comparatively uncontroversial) but also in the east, where it has to be imagined alongside incoming settlements. He postulates the sub-Roman community to have been the dominant force in insular affairs right up to c.570. Then, over a sixty year period, but for no very obvious reason, Anglo-Saxon kingship begins to emerge, the English conversion began and, in this scenario, Anglo-Saxon leaders overthrew British power and set about establishing their own kingdoms [...] Dark’s principal argument for continuing British military and political power in the east rests on the very uneven distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and the proposition that large gaps in that distribution necessarily represent strong British polities which excluded Anglo-Saxon settlers by force.”

This theory does answer certain questions, although Higham himself disagrees with Dark’s conclusions, mainly because of what Gildas says. It’s a theory John Morris seemed to have been working with as he believed the majority of those in the east to still be under some kind of British rule. There may be another alternative reason, which I’ll look at in later blogs. Whatever the reason, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ expansion and kingdom foundation doesn’t appear to have started until after 550. If Badon was the earlier of the dates, at 483, then there was a peace for almost 70 years … unless Keith is right.

Just a note on the earlier dating of Badon. There is a theory that places the battle of Mount Badon, not just to a possible decade but to something far more specific: February, 483! This solution, by D. O. Croinin, is based on the 84 year ‘paschal cycle’. (The ‘lost’ irish 84-year easter table rediscovered, Peritia (6-7), 1987-1988, p. 238). Why is this date (if it’s correct) so different from the one given in the Annales Cambriae at 518? I’ll explore this in more detail in the coming blogs.

In the next blog I want to explore just what kind of Britannia Gildas saw, and how clouded that view might have been.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,

Mak

 

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