Saturday, August 12, 2017


[Revised and new material from the last chapter of my new book THE BEAR KING:]

The Wrekin As Seen From Viroconium

The Welsh sources record two separate traditions for an Arthurian grave in the vicinity of the Afon Gamlan.  One is fairly early, the other one late.

In the Welsh 'Stanzas of the Graves', we are told 'anoeth bin u bedd arthur'.  This has been translated in various ways.  But some (myself included) have noticed that anoeth in this line may be an oblique reference to both the teulu  (house-hold warriors) of oeth and anoeth and Cair ('fort') Oeth and Anoeth. In Triad 52 we are told Arthur was a prisoner in Caer Oeth and Anoeth.

We know where a military force from Caer Oeth and Anoeth ended up: Gwanas, a mountainous region situated exactly between the Welsh Camlanns. They had gone there in order to rob the rich graves of, we must presume, their “anoetheu” or “wonders.”

A detailed investigation of the Gwanas region reveals an interesting candidate for the so-called 'beddau hir' or long graves of the place. The best account of this candidate is found on the COFLEIN site:

"A small square earthwork set upon a ridge summit has been identified as a possible Roman military tower. It is set on the crest of a south-facing ridge, commanding extensive views across the upland basin below Pen-y-Brynnfforchog and the course of the Roman road between Caer Gai and Brithdir.

A range of alternative interpretations can be ad-vanced, notably that this is a Roman or early Medieval square ditched barrow, such as are found at Druid beyond Bala (NPRN 404711), and Croes Faen near Tywyn (NPRN 310263). As such it would, with Tomen-y-Mur (NPRN 89420), be a rare surviving earthwork example, most sites being known only from cropmarks. This monument might be compared to the small practice work at Llyn Hiraethllyn (NPRN 89703), otherwise the smallest example of its type known in Wales.

It is a square platform about 5.0m across with a shallow ditch up to 2.8m across on the south-east, 1.1m wide on the north-east and south-west and not discernable on the north-west. The platform has low banks on the north-east and south-west sides. As a Roman work the earth-work has been associated with a road or track passing below the ridge to the south-east (NPRN 91903), suggested as part of the Roman road be-tween Caer Gai and Brithdir (Rigg & Toller 1983, 165; Britannia XXVIII (1997), 399), although this has been disputed as it is a modern feature (Browne 1986) and is depicted on the 1st edition OS 1" map of 1837 (sheet 59 north-east). A tower on this site would command extensive views of the tributary valley to the south-east, but not of the main Wnion valley on the north-west and the Brithdir military settlement (NPRN 95480) may be out of sight. The earthwork is intervisible with the 'Rhyd Sarn' works 11.5km to the north-east towards Bala Lake (NPRN 303162-3)."

The 'low banks' of this monument (if that is what it really is!) nicely answer for the 'long graves' of Gwanas.  

There are no other candidates for the beddau hir.  Of course, time and the combined ravages of Man and Nature may long since have destroyed any other such monuments in the region.

But what of Caer Oeth and Anoeth itself?  The site has not been identified.  

I think, though, that the clue is in the name.  Rachel Bronwich in her TRIADS suggests that the fortress was “of difficult access”, which is one possible meaning of the word oeth.  Anoeth would in this context merely have an amplified sense. But the important thing to remember here is that anoeth could be a wonderful, strange treasure or Otherworld object.  Or the word can refer to the process of obtaining such an object, this being a difficult task to accomplish. Such is made plain in the MABINOGION story “Culhwch and Olwen.”  Fiona Dehghani discusses anoetheu in her article “The Anoetheu Dialogue in Culhwch ac Olwen” (Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 26/27 (2006/2007), pp. 291-305). Other scholars have discussed the word at some length, including Rachel Bromwich in the notes to her TRIADS.

Arthur is released from the prison of Caer Oeth and Anoeth by one Goreu son of Custennin, who plays an important role in “Culhwch and Olwen.” I believe this point has been overlooked.  There is even a point near the end of the tale in which Culhwch and Goreu return to the castle of Ysbaddaden the Giant with the anoetheu.  Goreu slays the giant and Culhwch takes the fort, marring the giant’s daughter, Olwen. There is no mention of the anoetheu (here the objects of the difficult tasks the giant had laid upon Culhwch) leaving the place.

It seems fairly obvious to me, therefore, that Ysbaddaden’s castle is Caer Oeth and Anoeth.  This is the only fort of anoetheu that we know of, and the only one directly involving Arthur and his men. It is true that Arthur and his warriors raid various Otherworld castles in the poem “The Spoils of Annwm”, but these actions are not defined as anoetheu and we are not told of a castle where stolen Otherworld objects are stored.

Can we determine where Caer Oeth and Anoeth is located?  I believe we can.  If the fort is, in fact, that of Ysbaddaden, I successfully identified the site years ago (see  It is none other than The Wrekin hillfort in Shropshire.

Wrekin is a form of the Romano-British name Viroconium (see Rivet and Smith’s THE PLACE-NAMES OF ROMAN BRITAIN for an extensive discussion of the various forms).  The Romans built the city of Viroconium after they had destroyed the hillfort of the Cornovii.

Why is it significant that Arthur features in a story involving The Wrekin, is said to have been a prisoner there and that his grave is “anoeth?”  Because, in all likelihood, he was buried in the Roman cemetery of Viroconium next to his brother, Cunorix son of Maquicoline/Cunedda. It is possible that The Wrekin, otherwise known to the Welsh as Cair Guricon/Gwrygon, was given the poetic name of Oeth and Anoeth as a cipher designed specifically to prevent the English and Normans from discovering the whereabouts of Arthur's final resting place.  

The modern champions of the notion that Arthur was buried in northwest Wales are Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd, whose book PENDRAGON: THE DEFINITIVE ACCOUNT OF THE ORIGINS OF KING ARTHUR, was released in 2003 by Lyons press.

Blake and Lloyd place their trust in a very late medieval source, the VERA HISTORIA MORTE DE ARTHURI, a work dated in extant MSS. to c. 1300, although perhaps to originals dating be-tween 1199 and 1203. According to Blake and Lloyd, the VERA HISTORIA probably was written in Gwynedd. I will not contest this point, as it may well be correct.

The importance of the VERA HISTORIA lies in its placement of Arthur’s interment – and thus of Avalon – in Gwynedd. Although Blake and Lloyd are familiar with the Gwynedd tradition which places Arthur’s grave at Carnedd Arthur near Cwm-y-llan or Cym Llan (an error for Cwm Llem, the Valley of the river Llem), they choose to ignore this bit of folklore and instead settle on Tre
Beddau near Llanfair, well to the east on the Conwy River, as the actual burial place of the king. They deduce this from the fact that the VERA HISTORIA states that the grave is near a church of St. Mary (in Welsh, Llanfair), and that archaeologists have recently uncovered a Dark Age or 6th century cemetery at Tre Beddau.

[Note: Cwm Llan is a very clumsy attempt at rendering Camlan, and is obviously spurious tradition.]

Unfortunately, the authors of PENDRAGON also choose to ignore the description of the burial place of Arthur as preserved in the VERA HISTORIA. In their own words, the burial of Arthur after Camlan is told as follows:

“ …the VERA HISTORIA describes the funeral of Arthur as taking place at a chapel dedicated to the Virgin, the entrance to which was so narrow that the mourners had to enter by first forcing their shoulder into the gap and then dragging the rest of their body through the opening. While the funeral took place inside the chapel, a large storm blew up and a mist descended, so thick that is was impossible to see the body of Arthur – which had been left outside, as it would not fit into the chapel. Following the storm the mourners came out to find that the body had gone and the tomb prepared for Arthur was sealed shut, ‘such that it rather seemed to be one single stone’.”

Now, this passage quite obviously DOES NOT portray a 6th century Christian cemetery. Rather, it is a fitting description of a ‘chapel’ com-parable to the “Green Chapel’ of SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. In other words, the said ‘chapel’ is a Neolithic chambered tomb, whose passage is so tight as to barely allow the entrance of the mourners.

Furthermore, we are talking about TWO con-joined passage tombs – one that is the chapel of the Virgin, and the other which mysteriously receives the body of King Arthur. In all of Gwynedd, there is only one such ancient monument: that of the double chamber tomb of Dyffryn Ardudwy not far west of the Afon Gamlan.

One of the two chambers of Dyffryn Ardudwy is actually known as Coetan Arthur or Arthur’s Quoit. The “Virgin” is here a Christian embellishment on what would have been a pagan goddess associated with the Otherworld site.

The grave of Arthur discussed in the VERA HISTORIA is thus a product of folklore only. It can thus be dismissed as an actual grave of Arthur.

Granted, we cannot so easily dismiss the Camlans/Gamlans in northwestern Wales. Since writing this, Dr. Jessica Hughes of CADW has sent me information via snail-mail that adds important details to the description of the Dyffryn Ardudwy chambered tombs. To quote Dr. Hughes:

“The Chambered tomb at Dyffryn Ardudwy has been known as Coetan Arthur in the past, indeed antiquarian reports of the site refer to Dyffryn as ‘Coetan Arthur’. However, the name appears to refer to the whole of the monument as opposed to a particular chamber. Interestingly (and maybe somewhat confusingly), one mile to the east of Dyffryn lies another chambered tomb known as ‘Cors-y-Gedal’. This was also known in the past as ‘Coetan Arthur’… Regarding whether there is a church of St. Mary in proximity to Dyffryn Ardudwy, I have found a church 4 miles north of Dyffryn in the village of Llanfair. “

The enclosed Detail Report on this Church of St. Mary states that Llanfair was dedicated to Mary “by at least the 12c when Gerald of Wales and Archbishop Baldwin stayed there in 1188…”

Here is the COFLEIN listing for the second chambered cairn:

“A rather tapering rectilinear cairn, c.31m NESW by 14.5m, showing at its eastern end a number of orthostats, partly supporting a tipped cap-stone, c.3.6m by 3.0m & 0.45m thick: a spin-dlewhorl, thought to be IA, is said to have come from under the capstone.”

Both of these chambered tombs are directly west of the Afon Gamlan.

IV. The Real Grave of Arthur

My own opinion is that Arthur is not buried near the Afon Gamlan. 

I suspect he was interred in one of two places: either at his capital in Ceredigion (the hillfort above Llanddewi Aberarth?) or at Viroconium.  This last is the most likely candidate given his association in Welsh tradition with Caer Oeth and Anoeth or The Wrekin. Cunorix son of Cunedda was buried at Viroconium, and if the records are any indication Ceredig was far more famous than his brother. 

I suppose that if Camlan were the kind of disas-ter that tradition claims, a hasty battlefield burial could have occurred.  Still, that would be odd, for no one wants their great leader to be left on enemy territory or even in a disputed border region the enemy may exhume and desecrate the body. Rather, he would have been carried off and laid to rest in a place of honor. 

Pastscape briefly discusses the whereabouts of the Roman cemetery at Viroconium under its discussion of the Cunorix Stone:

“Roman cemetery identified from finds of inscribed tombstones and excavations. The cemetery may be the principal cemetery for the Roman town of Virconium Cornovirum and probably occupied both sides of the road. The tombstone of Cunorix was ploughed up here in 1967. He was Irish and possible leader of group of mercenaries. The tombstone is dated to around 470 AD.

SJ 5711 0925. Site of Roman burial ground.

This appears to have been the site of the princi-pal cemetery of the Roman town. It probably occupied both sides of the road, but it is only on the east side that any important discoveries have been made. Inscribed tombstones were first dis-covered here by workmen in 1752, and others have been found subsequently.

Excavations were begun on the Cemetery site in 1923, but with somewhat disappointing results, very few and ill-preserved interments being found.

The exact location of the Roman Burial Ground could not be determined and there is no trace on the ground.”

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