The Kingdom of Modred
THE ENEMY OF ARTHUR THE BEAR KING
In my book THE BEAR KING: ARTHUR AND THE IRISH IN WALES AND SOUTHERN ENGLAND, I made my case for Arthur being the famous Cerdic of Wessex. Cerdic, in turn, is none other than Ceredig, son of the Cunedda who came from Ireland (not Scotland near the head of the Firth of Forth) and settled in western Wales. Some of Cunedda’s sons served as mercenaries or perhaps federates (in the old Roman sense) under the High King of Wales at Viroconium, modern Wroxeter. Cerdic was one such. The Gewissei, ‘the Sure or Certain Ones,’ owe their name to an English misinterpretation of Cerdic (found written also as Certic; cf. Latin certi, from certus, ‘sure, certain, reliable, trusty’).
The present title aims to be an exploration of the identity and nature of Arthur’s adversary. My first clue as to who this might be came when I found a likely location for Camlann, the Bear King’s last and fatal battle, on the coast of Hampshire. While I tentatively suggested that Camlann might be a Welsh attempt at the Cymenesora found listed as a battle site in the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE, I tended to prefer – and still do – a shore on Portsmouth Harbour, whose earlier British name Camas could mean the same thing as Camlann, viz. ‘crooked shore.’ Cymenesora, based mainly on some charters, is usually placed somewhere in the vicinity of Selsey Bill (see Chapter Seventeen below).
Such a placement of Camlann not only fit the respective chronologies of the English and Welsh sources, but also the geography of Cerdic’s battles as these are found listed in the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE.
Traditionally, the Medrawd who also died at Camlann has been viewed as Arthur’s opponent. Based solely on the entry for the battle in the WELSH ANNALS, we have no way of knowing if this is correct. It is not until we explore the name Medrawd itself and compare it with another famous name of the period that we can determine what the actual relationship was between him and Arthur.
In 1996, I communicated with renowned Celticist Professor Oliver Padel of Cambridge. I asked him if Medrawd, found as Modred in Cornish, could represent the Roman name Moderatus. To my surprise, he said that he personally was satisfied that I had arrived at the right etymology for the name. It was some time after this discovery that I happened to think of the description given to the legendary Dark Age war-leader Ambrosius Aurelianus in Gildas’s ON THE RUIN AND CONQUEST OF BRITAIN.
Ambrosius in that source is called “vir modestus”, a modest man. Why might this be significant in the context of Medrawd/Modred/Moderatus? Because in Latin the words modestus and moderatus have essentially the same meaning. And, in fact, both derive from the same root, modus. To my knowledge no one had sought to make a connection between Ambrosius and Modred. The reason for this is obvious: the two men are believed to have lived at different times and, indeed, to have belonged to different generations.
So, was it merely a coincidence that Ambrosius was called a modest man, something that made him sound suspiciously like Moderatus?
Well, this created an entirely new avenue for research. Ambrosius has been a major problem for historians for some time. I’d written rather extensively on his being a fanciful “import” to Britain, based on a look-alike personal name attached to Amesbury in Wiltshire. Place-name experts are adamant that the Ambr preserved in OE Ambresbyrig (= Amesbury) is not an English form of Ambrosius. Yet the Welsh certainly took it to be just that.
Ambrosius Aurelianus was a 4th century Roman Governor of Gaul and father of St. Ambrose. There is no evidence whatsoever that he ever set foot in Britain. Therefore, when we see the name Ambrosius in the pages of Gildas or in subsequent sources like the HISTORY OF BRITAIN attributed to the monk Nennius, we must automatically ask ourselves either a) was the whole story of Ambrosius merely a propogandist fiction or b) might the name Ambrosius be masking another truly British name that was subsequently forgotten?
If no more than a propogandist fiction, we can make no more headway on discerning the role of Moderatus at Camlann.
On the other hand, if Ambrosius is an error for a British name found preserved in the English Ambr of Amesbury, a quite wonderful thing happens.
Only a couple of years ago, Arthurian scholar Nikolai Tolstoy in his THE MYSTERIES OF STONEHENGE proposed that Ambr owes its origin to a British form of the Gaulish personal name Ambiorix. There exist some minor linguistic problems with this notion, of course. To get around these objections, I myself proposed *Ambirix. The linguists admitted that this form was theoretically possible.
If Ambirix yielded Ambr, probably through British intermediary spellings, then the favored etymology of the personal name may relate directly to the Stonehenge monument near Amesbury. For Ambirix might be ‘King of the [Round] Enclosure.’
Accepting for a moment that Amesbury was anciently the Fort of Ambirix, are we to assume that this was Moderatus’s British name? Or was it a sort of title for whoever happened to be ruling from Amesbury? Or was it simply the name of the founder of Amesbury? Or was the King of the [Round] Enclosure an epithet for the god once worshipped at Stonehenge?
Not all of these ideas are mutually exclusive. For instance, a sacred king ruling from Amesbury might well be referred to with the god’s epithet. If he were viewed as a personification of the god, this would be quite a natural development. Obviously, we must bear in mind that southern England was highly Romanized and Christianity would have been in full-swing at least up until the last withdrawal of the legions in the early fifth century.
The Welsh name for England – Lloeg(y)r – would support the contention that the South had remained Romanized. While various Celtic derivations have been sought for this word, it seems to me pretty clearly to be from the Latin genitive plural laicorum (m.)/laicarum (f.)/laicorum (n.), from laicus, “of or belonging to the people or laity, not priestly, not consecrated.” If people living in the region concerned were laity, then they were Christian. Not priests, but also not pagans.
Granted, paganism could have returned to Amesbury or we could be dealing with nothing more than observation of a long-cherished local tradition, more or less stripped of its pre-Christian meaning. Of course, Christianity did not so much exterminate paganism in Britain as it embraced it and transformed it. We have some good examples of Celtic saints who started off their evangelizing careers as local pagan deities.
Our earliest datable reference to Ambrosius is in the 9th century THE HISTORY OF BRITAIN. There we are told Ambrosius fought a certain Vitalinus at the Wallop Brook (or Danebury Ring hard by? - see Chapter Nine below) in Hampshire. The Wallop Brook is a very short distance south of Amesbury. As I’ve elsewhere pointed out, the problem here is that Vitalinus is the name of Vortigern’s grandfather. A Vitalis was Vortigern’s father. The grandfather would have lived around the time of the Continental Ambrosius Aurelianus.
Vortigern (= Irish Fortchern) was half-British and half-Irish. Vitalinus is a Latin substitute for his father’s name, Fedelmid. Vitalis looks simply like a doublet. If Fedelmid did fight at the Wallop Brook, that would be rather remarkable. For it would prove that the Irish were active in the same region well before the Irish or part-Irish Ceredig son of Cunedda/Cerdic of the Gewissei showed up on the scene.
Note, also, however, the Fittledon (early forms Viteletone, Fitletone, Fitelton) just north of Amesbury. This is supposedly from an OE personal name Fitela, but the place-name could have suggested to the author of THE HISTORY OF BRITAIN that Vitalis/Vitalinus had fought in the vicinity. Or, just as feasibly, Fitela could be an OE attempt at Fidelmid or Vitalis.
We might now look at this as a kind of logical problem. For if ‘Ambrosius’ – in realty, the King of the Round Enclosure from Amesbury – was fighting in the 4th or 5th centuries, and again in the 6th century, we are not talking about the same man. Instead, what we have is a garbled record of rulers based at Amesbury fighting Saxons and their Irish or Hiberno-British allies for at least a couple of generations.
Moderatus would simply be the King of the Round Enclosure who happened to be fighting against Cerdic and who perished along with his enemy at Camlann in the 6th century.
But it would appear the resistance of the Amesbury kingdom did not end with the demise of Modred. We will see below that this powerful line of rulers managed to stave off the invaders for another half a century.
WHERE NEXT FOR ARTHURIAN STUDIES?
Once one has completed all possible research and put forward the best theory of which one can conceive, what remains to be done?
For Arthurian scholars, there are a limited number of stones that can be turned over. In the academic world, there is resistance to acknowledging the existence of any evidence at all that might support the idea that Arthur was, in some sense, historical. And this stance is completely understandable – even if, at times, acutely frustrating and discouraging. The few relevant early sources that either pertain to Arthur directly or to his floruit are scant, and these few documents have had their veracity seriously challenged by scrupulous analysis. Archaeology, as demonstrated long ago by highly qualified experts like Leslie Alcock, can only show us so much. It cannot reveal Arthur to us – unless we find a grave stone with his name on it from the right period. And even then questions would arise as to whether the particular Arthur memorialized on the stone was the Arthur or merely an Arthur.
The problem of the scarcity of evidence is compounded by a plethora of invalid or nonsensical theories about who and what Arthur was and where he belonged. The “monstrous regiment of Arthurs” is primarily a product of wishful thinking and self-aggrandizement. New Age/neopagan or more traditional spiritual beliefs, nationalistic or ethnic biases, rebellious natures, stubborn conceit, pure willfulness, troll-like antagonism and all manner of flawed reasoning and personal foibles have contributed to untenable Arthurian theories supported by invalid arguments based on false premises. For, as Montaigne said, “Nothing is so firmly believed as what is least known.”
In short, some stones should not be turned over. There is simply nothing underneath them, save perhaps imagination and folly.
But could there still be some stones left over that are worth searching for? Beyond a doubt. Where to look for them? Alas, I have no clue.
I’ve done my best to work with what I could gain access to. And I’ve also tried desperately hard to remain honest with myself. Along the way I’ve stood on the shoulders of many a giant – profoundly learned (and often wise) men who have earned sterling reputations in their respective fields of study. These intellectual giants have often helped convert regular stones into stepping stones – and have sometimes helped me step across from one stone to the other. I can’t claim that I haven’t more than once fallen into the waters of ignorance, dampened my feet in ego or splashed myself with embarrassment. For the most part, though, the giants caught me when I slipped or had a stone unexpectedly tip beneath me. They propped me up and provided me with much needed balance.
When in my book THE BEAR KING I set out to identify Arthur as Cerdic of the Gewissei, I did so only because the evidence – such as it was – propelled me inexorably in that direction. In truth, I did not want to make such an identification. Why not?
Because, like everyone else who fell in love with Arthurian romance at a young age, I wanted Arthur to be the shining hero who had saved Britain from the Saxon hordes and who then went on to be the king of the most chivalrous knights the world had ever seen. Instead, the historical entity turned out to be something very different. He was, admittedly, somewhat of a disappointment to me and I wrote at length a sort of apology for him. If I were right, he was an Irish or Hiberno-British mercenary chieftain fighting for the High King of Wales in alliance with Saxons and/or Jutes against other Britons. Such a portrait was a far cry from the King of Camelot.
Yet, sometimes, finding something that one does not wish to find – and consciously desires to reject – is exactly that which must be retained. Sure, all legitimate efforts must be made to disprove it. That is, after all, the scientific method. But if in the end one can only refute a theory by an act rooted in self-delusion or emotional immaturity, or a need to protect an academic reputation, then that refutation must be considered unjustified.
The same kind of process played out in this work on Modred, only on a smaller scale. I had long thought there may be some connection between Moderatus and the Ambrosius ‘vir modestus.’ But until I had pinned down the location of Camlann on the shore of Hampshire, this equivalency of persons had no apparent applicable value. It was only when the two seemingly unrelated bits of information dovetailed so perfectly and I had more fully explored the various layers of the Dinas Emrys/Amesbury story that I came to realize the real hero I was always seeking may have been Arthur’s enemy.
As with Arthur/Cerdic the mercenary captain, I had not set out intentionally to either further erode Modred’s character or to repair it. Certainly, no one in his right mind would choose to promote an “evil” Arthur and a “good” Mordred. This kind of radical revision of a beloved legend does not hold the promise of commercial success. It is not the road to fame and will never win over the hearts and minds of Arthurian enthusiasts.
So why do it? Why bother at all?
Well, I can only think of one reason: because it might accurately reflect a historical reality. Oddly enough, it may in part be the sheer negative visceral response to such a theory that might, eventually, impart a stronger reason for subscribing to it. The plausibility index can increase when distastefulness, outrage and ridicule wane and are replaced by appreciation and understanding.
Cherished fictions die hard. It is often difficult to replace them with another version of the story that is not pretty or pleasing. As the adage goes, “The truth can be a bitter pill to swallow.”