Thursday, May 10, 2018

Arthur and Beranburh/Barbury: A Critical Reexamination of the Possible Significance of the Bear's Fort in Wiltshire

Barbury Castle, Wiltshire

In a recent blog post, I discussed the apparent "bracketing" of the Arthurian battles between the succession of Hengist's son to the kingship of Kent and a reference to the reign of Ida of Bernicia.  This bracketing formed part of my earlier argument for the identification of Arthur with Cerdic of the Gewissei/Ceredig son of Cunedda.

From time to time in the past I'd also speculated about a possible connection between Arthur and Barbury Castle, the "Bear's fort", in Wiltshire.  Nothing much ever came of this speculation, however - but only perhaps because I did not push it far enough.  I will attempt to redress this deficiency here.

The truth is, we can extend the corresponding bracketing that is found in the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE.  Ida is mentioned in the year entry 547, and that was the "back bracket" I had earlier employed to define the floruit of Arthur.  However, his death is mentioned in 560.  In the Parker Chronicle MS. of the ASC, Cerdic again appears in a genealogical list appended to the battle entry for Old Sarum in Wiltshire.  Here Cynric (Cunorix son of Cunedda) puts the Britons to flight.

The year entry for Beranburh/Barbury occurs in 556 - that is before the entry for the death of Ida.

Now, let us imagine that Nennius (or whoever compiled the HISTORIA BRITTONUM) had insert his Arthurian material between the rise of Hengist's successor and end of Ida's reign.  If so, then both Arthur, whose name was surely related to Welsh arth, 'bear', and a Bear's fort would be found bracketed by the same annalistic events. In fact, one could go so far as to say that the writer of the HB knew the bear at Barbury was none other than Arthur!  Or, at the very least, he chose to identify a war-leader named Arthur with this particular bear.

Bearing all this in mind (pun strictly intended!), let us take a close look at the historical sequence in the ASC.  Once we have analyzed that, I wish to go over the dating of the Battle of Badon as it is derived from the testimony of Gildas and the Welsh Annals.

Let us start with the early battles in Wiltshire.  I've already mentioned the defeat of the British by Cynric at Old Sarum.  Four years later a battle is fought at Barbury Castle further north.  However, this battle is, significantly, not said to be a victory.  We are merely told there was a battle there.  In 560, Ceawlin succeeds Cynric (see my earlier work for the reversal of the genealogical links for the Gewissei in the ASC).  After Barbury Castle there are no more battles against the Britons until 571 - 15 years later. And the theater of action has changed: the Gewissei are now coming up the Thames Valley.  In 577, the war theater changes again - this time to the west and north of Wiltshire (including the capturing of Bath).  In 584, there is a battle in Oxfordshire, well to the NE of Wiltshire. We do not return to Wiltshire until 592, when a great slaughter occurs at Adam's Grave near Alton Priors resulting in the expulsion of Ceawlin.  In the next year, Ceawlin perishes. 

From the Battle of Beranburh to that of Adam's Grave, 36 years had passed.  Adam's Grave is roughly 15 kilometers south of Barbury Castle.

The question I would put forth is simply this:  who was in Wiltshire for all this time keeping the Gewissei and the English out?  And is it a coincidence that only several kilometers NE of Barbury Castle along the ancient Ridge Wayt is the Liddington Badbury fort?

As I've remarked before, I do not have a problem with one of the Badbury forts being Badon - as long as we recognize that philologically Badon = Bath.  In other words, we would have to accept the possibility that Badon (British form of English Bathum) was wrongly substituted for a Baddan-.

As for the name of Barbury, it is indisputably English.  The Gewissei who fought there were Irish or Hiberno-British.  The enemy of the Gewissei at this fort were Britons.  So we can be certain that the name of the place is an anachronism.  The English only later came to refer to the fort as belonging to 'The Bear'.  We have no idea what it's original British name might have been.  A personal English name Bera is not recorded in English, according to Ekwall (see his entry for Barham, Kent, in THE CONCISE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH PLACE-NAMES).  

Going on the account of battles in the ASC, there appears to have been some kind of very strong British resistance centered in Wiltshire, an area where we not only find a Bear's fort, and a Badbury, but a place called Durocornovium (near Nythe Farm,Wanborough).  Some attempt has been made to prove that this is a "ghost site", and that the name as we have it is a corruption of the Roman name for Cirencester, i.e. Corinium (Dobunnorum).  I do not find this last argument at all convincing.  In the words of Rivet and Smith (THE PLACE-NAMES OF ROMAN BRITAIN), "the nearest major Iron Age settlement [to Durocornovium] is at Liddington Castle, 3 and a half miles to the south."   R&S render the name 'fort of the Cornovii people.' 

However, the name may refer to a topographical feature.  My guess would be the situation of Upper Wanborough, which lies between Nythe Farm and Liddington Castle. From

"Geographically the parish is divided roughly in half, the southern section lying on the chalk downs. The shape of the parish conforms to a pattern found along the scarp slope of the Chalk both westwards into Wiltshire and eastwards into Berkshire, each parish having chalk uplands as well as greensands and clays for meadow and pasture. (fn. 7) Upper Wanborough, around the church, is on an Upper Greensand spur commanding a view north over Lower Wanborough and south over Liddington. The northern half of the parish towards the shallow valley of the River Cole is successively Gault, Lower Greensand, and Kimmeridge Clay. (fn. 8) The chalk scarp rises behind the village, reaching 800 ft. at Foxhill on the parish boundary. Most of the Chalk lies between 600 ft. and 700 ft. Two coombs pierce the eastern boundary between the Ridge Way and the Icknield Way, the larger containing two chalk pits. Below the scarp the land falls gently away to the river, to below 300 ft., and is drained by the Cole, its tributary stream the Lidd [for which Liddington was named], and several smaller streams, providing abundant meadow land and marsh. There is little wood in the parish, although there is evidence of illegal felling during the 16th century. (fn. 9) Stone was quarried at Berrycombe in the 16th century (fn. 10) and marl was taken from Inlands at least from the end of the 13th century. (fn. 11)"

A spur of land or a section jutting out between two coombs could be construed as a "horn of land" and so Cornovium may have been used here in the same sense as it was for Cornwall (Cernyw).  

The interesting thing about the place-name is that Arthur in Welsh tradition is pretty much always associated with Cornwall.

For the sake of argument, then, let us assume for a moment that Arthur belonged at the Bear's Fort/Barbury Castle, and that he stemmed the tide of English and Gewissei invasion for over three decades.  If this is so, how do we deal with the serious, and indeed, fatal problem of chronology?

The consensus is that Gildas was born c. 500 A.D. (although P.C. Bartram says c. 490).  The date of Badon, which he claims happened on the day of his birth, is thought to be c. 500 +/- 10-20 years.  There really is no way to more firmly calculate the date.  Even the Badon date of the Welsh Annals  has been disputed, primarily on the basis of a difference in the interpretation of calculated Easter Tables and the like.  Generally, a date spread of 510-20 is preferred.

Needless to say, this date range cannot be reconciled with a Liddington Castle/Badbury/"Badon" battle that may have been fought sometime shortly after that of Barbury in 556.  Unless, of course, we can make a case for the Gildas passage having been garbled/mangled or even deliberately tampered with. There is the tendency to rely on Gildas's account, since he was a contemporary.  But Gildas's work is not without its very significant shortcomings.  One of these is the inclusion of Ambrosius Aurelianus as a British war-leader.  I have been able to show that this tradition is in error: A.A. a a reflection of the Gaulish governor of that name, perhaps conflated with his son, St. Ambrose.  Neither were ever in Britain fighting the Saxons.

Let us suppose this happened: the original passage stated that the Battle of Badon had happened on Gildas's 44th birthday - not on the day he was born 44 years and one month ago.  If Gildas were born in 510-20, 44 years would put the Battle of Badon somewhere between the years 554 and 564.  Remember that the Barbury battle took place in 556.

Had this error occurred early enough in MSS. of Gildas, the word of the saint would have been considered incontrovertible and sources such as the Welsh Annals would automatically merely reckon from his date of birth rather than from his 44th birthday.  And hence the date of the Battle of Badon was temporally dislocated, making it impossible to pinpoint it geographically or determine its military context.

We would still have to figure out what to do with Arthur's battles.  Probably they are to be identified much as I did in THE BEAR KING - with one big difference.   Arthur and Cerdic with his Gewissei would be adversaries at those battle-sites, and we would be confronted with the problem of both sides proclaiming victory during the various engagements. Otherwise, we would have to be satisfied with viewing the Arthurian battles of the HB as a purely imaginative construct and that would greatly diminish the reputation of whoever had ruled for so long and for so well at the Bear's Fort. 

We would also have grave difficulty explaining why subsequent Arthurs all belonged to Irish-descended dynasties in Britain.*  Cerdic himself was of at least partial Irish descent (through Cunedda).  He was, so it would seem, fighting for the High King of Wales against that king's British enemies to the southwest and had allied himself with the English.  If Arthur were his enemy, why would the Irish give the name to their royal sons?  This issue remains a major stumbling block when it comes to proposing a Wiltshire Arthur.  Still, the schema I have outlined above does fit amazingly well with the documentary evidence provided by the HB and the ASC - if we accept the proviso of a considerable chronological shift.


In past blogs, I demonstrated convincingly that Uther, the only personage ever said to be the famous Arthur's father, was none other than St. Illtud (b. c. 470 according to P.C. Bartram).  I decided against Illtud as the actual father of Arthur for several reasons, but chiefly because I opted for a candidate for Arthur who didn't fit into the Dobunni (or Hwicce) model.

Illtud was said to be from Brittany, but given his (and Arthur's) close family ties with Ergyng in SE Wales, the  place of origin may actually be the Vale of Leadon (the etymology of which is closely related to that of Welsh Llydaw).  However, I also discussed the very real possibility that Llydaw was here a mistake for the Ui Liathain tribe from Ireland.  As the Ui Liathain were said to be in conflict with Cunedda and his sons, we could thus retain Arthur son of Illtud as the Arthur for whom other Irish-descended dynasties in Britain named their royal sons.  In particular, the Deissi who settled in Dyfed - where we later find an Arthur son of Pedr - appear to have been in SW and southern Wales along with the Ui Liathain.

We might propose that just as the High King of Wales was employing Cerdic and the Ciannachta as federates or mercenaries in the south of England, so the old Dobunni kingdom (or Hwicce) was employing Arthur. For Arthur was not a king or prince of the latter tribal territory.  As the HB makes clear, he was 'a leader of battles'.  In other words, he was a general of troops, much as Illtud was prior to his becoming (or being made into) a saint.

Liddington Castle, Wiltshire - Site of the Battle of Badon?

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