A REINTERPRETATION OF THE EVIDENCE
The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence
Copyright © August Hunt September 1, 2015
Cover Photo: Members of the North British-based re-enactment group Comitatus, showing cavalry with a bearer of the draco standard. Courtesy Graham Sumner.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
August Hunt has a lifelong passion for the Arthurian stories and has been studying them since his youth. He has lectured extensively on King Arthur at colleges and for re-enactment organizations. His articles on British Dark Age topics are also featured on various award-winning websites.
Drawing on his considerable knowledge of folklore, heroic legend and myth, as well as place-name studies, history and archaeology, August is providing new and challenging material which illuminates many of the previously shadowy areas of the Arthurian tradition.
August holds a degree in Celtic and Germanic Studies, and is a member of the International Arthurian Society. When he is not engaged in research and writing, he enjoys designing and building stone circles and other monuments that reproduce the celestial alignments of their ancient European counterparts.
His other Arthurian books include:
The Mysteries of Avalon: A Primer on Arthurian Druidism
THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY:
A REINTERPRETATION OF THE EVIDENCE
TO MY BROTHER, GALEN
For All of the Adventures
TABLE OF CONTENTS
MAP OF BATTLE SITES 12
THE KING WHO ONCE WAS 13
BEFORE ARTHUR: AMBROSIUS,
CUNEDDA AND VORTIGERN 24
ARTHUR’S ANCESTRY: RESTORING A
THE BATTLES OF ARTHUR 80
ARTHUR’S OTHER BATTLES:
MYTHOLOGICAL OR MISTAKEN 142
THE NORTHERN KINGDOMS 154
THE POWER CENTERS OF ARTHUR 180
THE GRAVE OF ARTHUR 195
THE KING WHO WILL BE AGAIN 200
APPENDIX I: CADBURYS AND BADBURYS 207
APPENDIX II: BIRDOSWALD RATHER
THAN STANWIX AS ARTHUR’S CAPITAL 221
APPENDIX III: CAMLAN AND THE GRAVE 227
OF OSFRAN’S SON
“It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides.”
Sir Winston Churchill, on the legend of King Arthur
For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,
And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew;
And some had visions out of golden youth,
And some beheld the faces of old ghosts Look in upon the battle; and in the mist
Was many a noble deed, many a base,
And chance and craft and strength in single fights
And ever and anon with host to host
Shocks, and the splintering spear; the hard mail hewn,
Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash
Of battleaxes on shattered helms, and shrieks
After the Christ, of those who falling down
Looked up for heaven, and only saw the mist;
And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights,
Oaths, insult, filth, and monstrous blasphemies,
Sweat, writhings, anguish, labouring of the lungs
In that close mist, and cryings for the light,
Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.
‘The Passing of Arthur’ from Idylls of the King, Alfred Lord Tennyson
I owe a great debt of gratitude to Dr. Richard Coates of the University of the West of England, Dr. Andrew Breeze of The University of Navarre and Dr. Isaac Graham of the National University of Ireland, Galway, for their acumen in treating of many word problems, tricky and obscure, and to Robert Vermaat, whose critical attention to many of my ideas often served to separate reasonable argument from mere fanciful construction. Finally, I would like to extend my heartfelt appreciation to photographer Ann Bowker, who literally climbed over hill and dale to get the photos that became such an integral part of this book, and to John Matthews, who not only supplied the excellent Foreword, but who offered much sage advice on revision of the manuscript. My heartfelt appreciation also goes out to the following correspondents, whose kindness, patience and dedication helped me put the pieces of the Arthurian puzzle together: Elizabeth O’Brien, UCD Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute; Andrew Hawke, National Dictionary of Wales; Peter Wihl, Carmarthenshire place-name expert; Dafydd Hawkins, Powys place-name expert; Kevin Coyle, University of Ottawa; Paul Cavill, The English Place-Name Society; Chris Chandler of English Heritage; Andrew Deathe, Salisbury Museum; Hywel Wyn Owen, University of Wales, Bangor; Richard Coates, University of the West of England; Padraig O Riain, University College, Cork; Sigmund Eisner, University of Arizona, Emeritus; Gareth Bevans, National Library of Wales; Hoyt Greeson, Department of English, Laurentian University; Paul Acker, Saint Louis University; Gregory S. Uchrin, Catholic University of America; Jean-Yves le Moing; Christian Rogel, Director of the Bibliotheque du Finistere, Quimper; Helen McBurnie, Cramlington Parish Secretary; Neil Moffat, Reference and Local Studies Department, Dumfries and Galloway Libraries, Information and Archives, Dumfries and Galloway Council; Peter Drummond, Scottish Place-Name Society; Mark Douglas, Principal Officer for Heritage and Design, Planning and Economic Development, Scottish Borders Council; Nicola Hunt, Projects Officer of the Borders Forest Trust; Helen Darling, Part-Time Local Studies Librarian, Library Headquarters, St. Mary’s Hill, Selkirk; Jennifer Parkson, Map Library, Assistant for the National Library of Scotland; Henry Gough Cooper, Scottish Place-Name Society; Neil Bettridge, Archivist, Derbyshire County Council’s Record Office; John Reid, Scottish Place-Name Society; Beatrix Faerber, CELT Project Manager; Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, Assistant Archivist, Department of Manuscripts and Records, The National Library of Wales; Brynley F. Roberts, Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, University of Wales; Patrick Sims-Williams, University of Wales; Bruce Jackson, Lancashire County Archivist; Humphrey Welfare, Planning and Development Director, North, English Heritage; Richard Annis, Durham University’s Project manager of Archaeological Services; Tim Padley, Keeper of Archaeology, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle; Georgina Plowright, Curator English Heritage Hadrian’s Wall Museums; Stephen White, Carlisle Library; Robert Collins, Newcastle Upon Tyne Museum of Antiquities; Kevan W. White of roman-britain.org; Gill Stroud, Sites and Monument Records Officer, Derbyshire County Council; Ken Smith, Cultural Heritage Manager for the Peak District National Park Authority; John Moreland, Reader at the University of Sheffield, Department of Archaeology’ Sue Palmer, Assistant Museums Manager of the Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, Oliver J. Padel, Cambridge University.
THE BATTLE SITES OF ARTHUR, ALONG WITH POWER CENTER AND TRADITIONAL BURIAL PLACE
THE KING WHO ONCE WAS
What little we know of an ‘historical’ Arthur is contained in two early medieval works: the Historia Brittonum* or History of the Britons, ascribed to the Welsh monk Nennius, and the anonymous Annales Cambriae or Welsh Annals. These two sources supply us with the names of thirteen Arthurian battle sites. Twelve of these battles were supposedly fought against the invading Saxons, while one may have involved a conflict with another British chieftain named Medraut, the Mordred of later Arthurian romance.
The first twelve of these battles are all found in the HB immediately after mention of Aesc son of Hengist’s rise to the kingship in Kent, an event dated to 488 CE in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and just prior to a section dealing with the Saxon kingdom of Bernicia and its king, Ida. Bernicia, coupled with Deira, comprised what became known as Northumbria, i.e. that portion of Britain that extends from the Humber River in the south to the Firth of Forth in the north. Ida began to rule, according to the ASC, circa 547 CE.
Camlann, the thirteenth battle, is found only in the AC, where it is dated to 537 CE. Thus the thirteen battles of Arthur are chronologically fixed within the period of 488 to 547 CE or from the latter part of the 5th century to the middle of the 6th. While several alternate chronologies have been proposed for the ASC and certain entries of the AC, for the sake of clarity the traditional dates will be allowed to stand.
The list of Arthurian battle sites, in the order that they occur in the HB and the AC, are as follows:
1) ostium fluminis quod dicitur Glein, mouth of the river Glein
2), 3), 4) & 5) flumen quod dicitur Dubglas, et est in regione Linnuis, river Dubglas in the Linnuis region 6) flumen quod vocatur Bassas, river Bassas
7) silva Celidonis, id est Cat Coit Celidon, Celidon Wood, Battle of Celidon Wood
8) castello Guinnion, castle of Guinnion
9) urbe Legionis, City of the Legion
10) litore fluminis quod vocatur Tribruit, river-shore Tribruit
11) monte qui dicitur Agned, mount Agned or monte qui nominator Breguoin, mount Breguoin
12) Badonis (AC), monte Badonis (HB), mount Badon (cf. Badonici montis of Gildas, who first mentioned Badon in his 6th century work, De Excidio Brittonum, The Ruin of Britain)
13) Camlann (AC), Camlan
In the HB, Arthur is called a dux bellorum or ‘leader of battles’, and is said to have fought alongside British kings against the pagan barbarians. It is from this bare listing of battle sites that the great body of Arthurian literature – the so-called ‘Matter of Britain’ – has grown. The consensus view among Arthurian scholars today is that the subsequent poems, stories, pseudo-histories and romances focusing on Arthur and his court are so heavily fictionalized, so overlaid with mythic, legendary and folkloristic elements, as to be worthless for the study of Arthur as a true Dark Age personage.
There are even those who dispense with the HB and AC Arthurian accounts as well, claiming that there is no way for us to substantiate the genuineness of either.
Some scholars go even further in refusing to accept as historically viable in entirety the HB or AC themselves. Indeed, to many the HB is no more than a hodge-podge of historical traditions which in all likelihood has little bearing on the actual events that transpired in Dark Age Britain.
A complication concerns the inability to clearly identify the place-names supplied in the battle list. The tendency has existed for some time to ‘make the places fit the theory’, rather than the opposite. Thus Arthur has been situated just about everywhere in Britain. Artificial geographical patterns have been sought for the battles in order to pinpoint Arthur’s power centre and shed dubious light on his origins. Sound philological principles have all too often gone by the wayside when treating of Arthurian place-names. It is precisely the inability to satisfactorily pin down Arthur’s battles that has led some scholars to give up the quest and join with those who insist on his non-historicity. For without firm battle site identifications, nothing of the historical Arthur can be known.
* Abbreviations: HB (Historia Brittonum), AC (Annales Cambriae) and ASC (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) in future references.
To counter the argument that refuses to acknowledge the validity of the battle list, the two Arthurian entries in the AC have frequently been cited. These entries are typical, dry, bare-boned annalistic accounts of battles. Arthur, Medraut and the battle sites of Mt. Badon and Camlan are mentioned in the context of many other proper and place-names, all of which are demonstrably historical in nature. According to this line of reasoning, we need not doubt the veracity of the two entries.
516 an. Bellum Badonis, in quo Arthur portavit crucem Domini nostri Jesu Christi tribus diebus et tribus noctibus in humeros suos et Brittones victores fuerunt.
“The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.”
537 an. Gueith Camlann in quo Arthur et Medraut corruerunt, et mortalitas in Brittannia et Hibernia fuit.
“The Battle of Camlan, in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.”
Mt. Badon and Camlan are both, however, subject to the same kind of geographical shuffling as the other battle sites. Cases have been made for northern and southern Badons and Camlans. Few have been particularly convincing. Also, what may be legendary accretions similar to those present in the HB’s description of Arthur’s battle at Castellum Guinnion are to be found in the AC entry on Badon.
Octavum fuit bellum in castello Guinnion, in quo Arthur portavit imaginem sanctae Mariae perpetuae virginis super humeros suos, et pagani versi sunt in fugam in illo die, et caedes magna fuit super illos per virtutem Domini nostril Jesu Christi et per virtutem sanctae Mariae virginis benetreis ejus.
“The eighth battle was in Castle Guinnion, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his [shield], and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter of them, through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother.”
Such embellishments have convinced many that the Badon entry in the AC should be disqualified as a record of a true Arthurian battle. In this case, it can be plausibly argued that the AC Badon entry has been contaminated by the HB’s account of Arthur’s battle at Castle Guinnion. This is not to say that Badon itself is denied status as an historical event; only that the placement of Arthur at Gildas’s Badon should be interpreted as an instance of hero-making and nothing more.
Gildas himself neglected to include in his work the name of the British commander at Badon:
26. … usque ad annum obsessionis Badonici montis, novissimaeque ferme de furciferis non minimae stragis…
“This lasted right up till the year of the siege of Mount Badon, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least.”
Admittedly, in recent years there has been a sort of cautious reaction to the views set forth by proponents of a non-historical Arthur. While respecting the limitations imposed by the nature of the earliest Arthurian sources, limitations that the critical analysis of texts has largely defined, a handful of scholars have made significant headway in dealing with what they believe to be a fundamental over-statement of the problem of Arthur’s historicity. These scholars do not object to the actual process of critical analysis, but to some of the conclusions that have been drawn from the results of such analysis. The said conclusions, when treated of logically, can be revealed as arbitrarily formed and thus are reflections of expert opinion or even prejudice or bias, and not objective fact.
The ‘Arthur Problem’, put in the simplest terms, is this: is there sufficient reason for seeing the Arthur of the HB and AC as a plausible historical entity? Those who choose to see Arthur as a non-historical personage may strenuously object to this question. They would doubtless prefer that the problem be stated differently, e.g. is there sufficient evidence for seeing the Arthur of the sources as a historical entity?
Unfortunately, demanding evidence of the kind that would satisfy the proponents of the non-historical view automatically removes Arthur from the realm of historical study. Happening upon complimentary textual evidence from a source or sources deemed authentic and dependable seems a remote possibility. Archaeology, despite the ever-increasing light it sheds on Britain’s Dark Age past, has so far failed to yield anything substantive on Arthur. By refusing to allow for the possibility that Arthur may conceivably be historical, scholars engage in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the fulfillment of which can only be that Arthur will continue to be found ineligible for historical status. Along with maintaining such perpetual ineligibility is a steadfast refusal on the part of scholars to allow interested parties to engage in research that might be deemed related even tangentially to Arthur as a possible historical phenomenon.
It may ultimately prove true that the only value in further analysis of Arthur’s battle sites might be an elucidation of the 9th century’s perspective on and attitude towards a reputed 5th-6th century British war-leader. Granted, there is some indication that the battle list as found in the HB is not an artificial construction undertaken by the monk Nennius, but instead preserves the content, rather than strictly the form, of a much earlier heroic poem originally composed in Arthur’s honor. If this widely held view is correct, then the battle list may reflect something other than a late traditional portrait of Arthur. It may be much more of a contemporary record of campaigns than the 9th century source in which it is embedded might otherwise suggest.
Still, if findings that arise from additional probing into the probable locations of Arthurian battle sites accomplish nothing other than to bring more into focus how the 9th century Britons interpreted their own remote past, then we will still have greatly advanced our knowledge of the period.
The burden of proof is just as much on the shoulders of those who dismiss Arthur as non-historical as it is on those who conditionally accept him as historical. Such an acknowledgment forces us to accept the possibility that Arthur existed without having to entertain the probability. If it can be demonstrated, based upon our knowledge of his battles, that an Arthur in the time period under consideration is a plausible phenomenon, then we can open a doorway into new areas of intellectual endeavor whose express purpose is to provide the impetus for the eventual discovery of evidence needed to historicize this British war-leader.
If there were to be an implied philosophy underlying this book, it would be that scholars of Arthuriana or Dark Age Britain ought not to view with disdain objective exploration of the potential historicity of Arthur. For as it may well turn out, the sources we do possess for the military career of this Dark Age figure may prove to have validity after all. While the means of providing such validity are currently not available to us, to state as fact that Arthur is not a historical entity or that we are not justified in seeing him as being even plausibly historical, is to risk making one of the biggest blunders imaginable in the annals of academic investigation.
It is the business of Arthurian and Dark Age scholars to consider possibilities. By possibilities is not meant, of course, wild theories that have no hope of ever being substantiated. Instead, possibilities in this context can best be defined as plausible historic scenarios that, while they may not be testable at the moment, may prove to be so in the future. Such scenarios must, needless to say, fit into the general, though wonderfully complex and interdependent tapestry created for us by universally accepted disciplines of study.
As more and more data comes in from these disciplines, and the resulting picture of the past is altered or refined accordingly, those scenarios that fail to conform in a manner deemed appropriate can be dispensed with. Eventually, with the aid of increasingly sophisticated scientific tools, our knowledge of Dark Age British history will be much greater than it is now. Most plausible scenarios will have been discarded. An historical Arthur might well be one of these casualties. Only a few scenarios – perhaps, if we are extraordinarily fortunate, just one – will remain solvent.
But until then, summarily deleting Arthur from the pages of our history books is not an ethical or reasonable solution to the ‘Arthur Problem’. It would be wiser and less shortsighted to include him, albeit with the necessary caveats. Any further evidence that supported Arthur’s historicity could thus be uncovered earlier, rather than later.
The present book, therefore, operates under the premise that precisely because Arthur may be historical, it would be intellectually prudent to apply more effort to the study of the only textual evidence we do have regarding this Dark Age British war-leader, i.e. the battles listed in the HB and AC. On the other hand, to ignore the battles themselves as possible historical events would be to intentionally turn a blind eye to evidence that has not yet been thoroughly evaluated. Potentially, a comprehensive examination of the battle sites, if undertaken with no agenda, nationalistic or otherwise, might harvest some new information on Arthur. And any new information, whether it ends up contributing arguments for or against a historical personage, is the proper goal of true scholarship.
The method employed by the author will be to utilize sound philological and geographical principles in the context of the Arthurian battles in order to arrive at several new site identifications. Included in this analysis, by necessity, will be a brief consideration of those past and present identifications deemed to be of a more respectable nature. But first will come some speculation regarding the period just before Arthur, with special emphasis on the figures of Ambrosius, Cunedda and Vortigern. Arthur’s origins will then be explored, utilizing the earliest versions of ancient Welsh genealogies, as well as the etymology of the name Arthur and its historical attestations in both Roman and Dark Age Britain. The remainder of the book will explore the Dark Age British kingdoms in the North and the power centres and grave of Arthur. These various investigations will produce a theoretical reconstruction of the life and death of ‘King Arthur’.
The reader should understand that many proper and place-name authorities have been consulted in the preparation of this book, either via personal correspondence or through their published works or both, and I have listed these generous and often patient contributors on my Acknowledgments page and in the Bibliography. Any conclusions I have drawn by relying on scholarly elucidation are solely my own and do not in any way reflect the opinions of the scholars themselves.