Sunday, 10 December 2017

Dozmary Pool: Nothing but Waves and Wind

Top Ten Arthurian Locations: No 10

“On either side of the road the country stretched interminably into space. No trees, no lanes, no cluster of cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon. No human being could live in this wasted country.” - Mary Yelland's description of Bodmin Moor, from Daphne du Maurier's novel Jamaica Inn.

The Lady of the Lake
Following the battle of Camlann, King Arthur and his loyal knight Bedivere arrive at the shore of a pool of water. Grievously wounded Arthur awaits for a barge to arrive to ferry him to Avalon, he commands Bedivere to return his sword Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake.

But Bedivere could not bring himself to throw such a magical sword into the water and hid Excalibur under a tree. He returned to the king who asked him what he saw. Bedivere said he saw nothing but “waves and wind”. Knowing Bedivere was lying the king commanded him to return to the lake and do as he commanded. Again, Bedivere could not waste such a noble sword, and hid it once more.

Again Arthur asked him what he saw. Bedivere said he saw nothing but the “waters wap and waves wan.” King Arthur questioned how such a noble knight could betray him twice? Once more the king  ordered the knight to go the waters edge and throw the sword into the lake.

Finally Bedivere “threw the sword as far into the water as he might; and there came an arm and an hand above the water and met it, and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water. So Sir Bedivere came again to the King, and told him what he saw.

Bedivere took the King to the water's edge where a “barge arrived with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen, and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur.” Arthur was then taken into the vale of Avilion to heal of his grievous wounds.
- Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI, Chapter V.

The Moorland Pool
Many lakes have been cited as the place where King Arthur's sword Excalibur was thrown to the Lady of the Lake. Dozmary Pool high on the wild, remote and desolate Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, just 10 miles from the sea, is one such site; this is an atmospheric spot on the Cornish Moor, often described as isolated and eerie. In the dim light of evening as the sun goes down it is easy to imagine many things at Dozmary Pool.

Local tales claim that Excalibur rests at the bottom of this pool. According to the local lore, after breaking the sword drawn from the stone, it is here that Merlin and Arthur rowed out on the water and received a sword held above the water by a hand and arm clad in white. According to Malory, the Lady of the Lake appeared calling to them to row out and collect it. And mortally wounded, Arthur was to return the weapon to the water Goddess. The motif has clear Celtic undertones, as attested by the votive deposits found in many lakes across north-western Europe.

No one knows when Dozymary Pool became associated with the Arthurian legend; it is often omitted from Arthurian works such as Mike Ashley's Mammoth Book of King Arthur (Robinson, 2005) and more recently the Matthews' The Complete King Arthur (Inner Traditions, 2017) but features strongly in local Cornish books. Yet the nearest Camlann battle site is some 10 miles distant at Slaughter Bridge, Camelford, a further 5 miles west lies the famed Arthurian Tintagel Castle.

Dozmary Pool is a small lake, barely 500 yards across, a mile in circumference, once said to be bottomless, but is in fact only 4 feet deep. Other tales claim it is linked underground to Falmouth Harbour. The saucer like depression on the moor has its origins in the post-glacial period, providing an important record of vegetation since the last Ice Age; consequently in 1951 the pool and surrounding area was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI).

The pool outflows into Colliford Lake and as such one of the sources of the River Fowey. However, since the construction of the Colliford reservoir on Bodmin Moor, its importance as a water source has declined.

Ghosts and Smugglers
The pool is just over a mile from the famous Jaimaca Inn at Bolventor, midway between Launceston and Bodmin where the A30 crosses the Moor. The coaching Inn, built in 1750, was made famous by Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name featuring smugglers and wreckers who lured ships toward the rugged Cornish coast by lighting beacons on the shore.

Dozmary Pool, Bodmin Moor
Ships that strayed on to the rocks had their cargo looted by the wreckers, brought ashore and then stashed at the Inn. It is said that half the brandy smuggled into Britain was landed along the Cornish and Devon coasts. Smuggled rum from the Caribbean was no doubt also stored at the Inn, however it is said to be named after the local Trelawney family, who served as Governors of Jamaica during the 18th century. Today the Inn is home to the Smugglers Museum which features the story of the wreckers and smugglers over the past 300 years.

Dozmary Pool is also well known for the tale of Jan Tregeagle who was charged by the spirits for his misdemeanours and sentenced to bail out Dozmary with a leaking limpet shell. Tortured by the endless futility of the task, Treageagle escaped to Roche Rock before being set another task, weaving ropes from the sand of Gwenor Cove. At the end of his life, he was damned to the bottomless Dozmary Pool, where his soul is tormented to this day; it is said that Tregeagle's ghost can still be heard howling across the moor.

If you are travelling to Cornwall you must visit Dozmary, leave the A30 at Bolventor and park opposite Jamaica Inn for a short walk to the pool. Follow the lane opposite the Inn signed for Dozmary Pool and walk down the path for about a mile or so to the shore. It is possible to walk around the pool on the shore line and partially on tracks but some ground can be very marshy.

It's all just legend of course.

Yet in the late summer of 2017, a schoolgirl pulled a mysterious 4ft long sword from Dozmary Pool.

A medieval sword pulled from the very same lake that King Arthur's legendary sword Excalibur is said to have been thrown into; could the legend be true?

Unfortunately the sword is thought to be only about 20 or 30 years old and probably deposited during a modern pagan ritual.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

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Sunday, 3 December 2017

Arthur: A Legend in Landscape

“There is another wonder in the country called Builth. There is a heap of stones there, and one of these stones placed on the top of the pile has the footprint of a dog on it. When he hunted Twrch Trwyth, Cafal, the warrior Arthur’s hound, impressed his footprint on the stone....”

“There is another wonder in the country called Ergyng. There is a tomb there by a spring, called Llygad Amr; the name of the man who was buried in the tomb was Amr. He was the son of the warrior Arthur, and he killed him there and buried him."

MirabiliaThe Historia Brittonum §§67-75, dated 829/30AD (John Morris, Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals)

Mapping the Arthurian Legend
There is nothing else quite like it; the Arthurian legend is unique.

Perhaps the endless fascination lies with the fact that, with current evidence, we cannot say for certain whether or not Arthur actually existed; we cannot prove the argument one way or the other.

But the legend certainly exists; Geoffrey Ashe (Arthurian Britain) lists over 150, whereas Neil Fairbairn (Kingdoms of Arthur) lists almost 200 places in Britain and Brittany associated with the Arthurian legend; second only to local lore associated with the Devil. And that does not include the peculiar tradition of Arthurian theme stained glass windows in many Christian churches.

It is fair to say that many Arthurian locations can only to traced back to the Arthurian revival of the Victorian Age and the birth of modern tourism. However, many are older and can be traced back to the 12th century with the literary explosion in the Middle Ages following Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.

Locations used for filming Guy Ritchie's 'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword'.

Some can be traced back even further, to the 9th century when places associated with Arthurian folklore were recorded in the Mirabila such as the mark of Arthur's hound and the tomb of his son Amr. And yet many places from the earliest stratum of the legend cannot be located with any certainty, such as the Arthurian battle list, §56 from the 9th century Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius).

Ancient battle sites are notoriously difficult to locate, not least the attack on Catraeth around the year 600 recorded in a series of elegies for the men of the Dark Age northern kingdom Y Gododdin in the Book of Aneirin. The earliest form of the poem, if authentic, may contain the first mention of Arthur. Catraeth has long been assumed to be Catterick in Yorkshire but this is far from certain. Indeed, the bard Taliesin refers to Urien Rheged as 'Lord of Catraeth', yet the precise location of Rheged continues to baffle historians.

It is from the earliest stratum of the legend that we find place names in Cornwall and Wales. Indeed, Arthurian associations can be found in ancient hillforts, prehistoric megalithic monuments, natural landscape phenomena and man-made constructions such as earthworks and castles. We find Arthur often associated with locations with a Roman past. Leslie Grinsell (Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain) claims the large number of prehistoric sites associated with Arthur in Wales is due to the lack of Roman sites in the country. Others claim these sites, such as the many 'Arthur's Quoits', to an Arthur of the Bronze Age. Others see this as the process of simply mythologising the landscape; Welsh is a very descriptive language and every hill, every lake, every valley in that land has a tale to tell.

Many of the Arthurian names of prehistoric sites do not appear until records from the 16th century. However, we know Arthurian location were in existence many centuries before this and the nomenclature was without doubt in use for many years before being written down. Certainly Geoffrey of Monmouth indelibly altered the Arthurian map, as he did the Arthurian legend, yet landscape features associated with Arthurian folklore were known before Geoffrey's great work. In the early 12th century the Canons of Laon were shown Arthurian sites as they crossed Dartmoor; as stated above, sites associated with Arthur's hound and Arthur's son were recorded in the 9th century; and the 10th century poem the 'Graves of the Warriors of Britain' records many Arthurian associations in the lanscape of Wales.

But the most evasive question is why Arthur? 

After the ubiquitous place names associated with the 'Devil' in England and Wales, oddly, Arthurian names and traditions are the most prevalent in the landscape. In naming any landscape feature that was perhaps poorly understood it was named after the Devil, or King Arthur. No doubt many Devil place names came about during the Reformation and many Arthurian sites were so named with the advent of the modern tourism that began in the Victorian Age.

King Arthur has been deeply etched on the psyche of the Brittonic people for at least the last 1,500 years, and this fascination shows no sign of wavering; the attraction is timeless.

The next ten posts will feature a selection of the top ten Arthurian locations to visit. It is accepted that this will be a very subjective exercise with selection based on personal preference.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

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Friday, 24 November 2017

The Fire of the Sons of Constantine

Little Doward Hillfort
The ancient fortress at Little Doward occupies a substantial hill, peaking at 724ft at the north west corner of the ramparts, an outlier to the Great Doward and Lord's Wood massif on the north bank of the River Wye, some 2 miles from Monmouth in Herefordshire. The single rampart hillfort was constructed in the Iron Age but the history of the Doward's goes back many years beforehand.

In Post-Roman days this area was known as Erging (or Ercing) centred on the Roman town of Ariconium. Later the English called the region Archenfield. Today, the area of western Herefordshire sits in the shadow of the Black Mountains hosting a number of Arthurian sites such as the prehistoric Arthur's Stone and the tomb of Arthur's son, Amr.

Little Doward Hillfort (British History online)
Several limestone caves in the area have yielded prehistoric remains, such as giant elk, hyena, mammoths, woolly rhino, cave bear and lion, including tools from the Palaeolithic period which ended around 10,000 years ago. Finds suggest the caves have been used through the Bronze Age to the Romano-British Iron Age. 19th century claims that a Roman coin hoard dating to 267 AD was unearthed here are unfounded, with no apparent evidence of a Roman presence at the hillfort. Mounds across the summit have been interpreted as artificial rabbit warrens constructed in the post-medieval period. Traces of iron mining date to the same period. At the foot of the cliff on a platform directly below the south eastern corner of the hill fort is King Arthur's Hall, or Cave.

King Arthur's Cave
Situated at the foot of a low cliff at the north-western end of Lord's Wood on the hill of Great Doward at Whitchurch near the River Wye, King Arthur's Cave is one of the most well known of the limestone caves located at the Doward, near Symonds Yat in the Forest of Dean. King Arthur's Cave was occupied by man during the upper Palaeolithic making the cave the oldest location associated with the legendary King.

King Arthur's Cave
The Arthurian association with this cave is unlike others which claim the King lies sleeping with his knights deep within beyond a secret doorway that can not be found in normal circumstances. The Little Doward cave legend claims that King Arthur hid all his treasures here, then Merlin cast a spell over the cave so that it couldn't be found. The cave is also said to be the site of a legendary underground passage; perhaps Arthur lies sleeping beyond that?

To find the caves take the Symonds Yat West exit from the A40 and follow the signs for the Doward, parking at a lay-by just before reaching the camp site and follow the track down into the woods, past the old quarry.

During the 19th century Richard Blakemore carried out extensive landscaping of Little Doward, apparently cutting away the top of the rampart to make a walkway, and substantially altering the entrance to King Arthur's Cave.

It is not known when the name of “King Arthur” name became attached to locations in the Wye valley, however from the 19th century “King Arthur's Cave” had become equated with the name “King Arthur's Hall”. On an 1805 map of Herefordshire “King Arthur's Hall” is shown between Little and Great Doward, roughly the location of King Arthur's Cave. However, in 1871, Rev William Symonds described King Arthur's Hall as the summit of Little Doward hillfort with the cave on the western slope.

Around the year 1700 the skeleton of a very large man, accompanied by a brass-headed spear, was discovered in the cave. The gigantic bones were presented to a surgeon in Bristol by the name of Pye, who took them with him on a sea voyage to Jamaica, but they were lost when the ship sank. Some link this discovery to the naming of the cave with Arthur.

Caer Guorthegirn 
Frederick John Snell considered the old hill fort at Little Doward to be a potential site for Arthur's eighth battle at Guinnion. However, not many commentators would agree with him today, preferring the Roman fort of Vinovium at Binchester, constructed to guard the crossing of the River Wear by Dere Street, the main Roman artery linking Hadrian's Wall to the city of the Legions at York.

In Arthurian times, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), Vortigern, the high king of Britain infamous for inviting the Saxon's into the country, died by burning in his stronghold. Sure enough Caer Guorthegirn (Fortress of Vortigern) has been identified as Little Doward. However, other stories locate Vortigern's death at other locations across the country, such as Old Carlisle, Cumbria, Salisbury (Stonehenge) and Craig Gwrtheyrn, Llandysul, Dyfed.

The Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons, aka Nennius) describes Caer Guorthegirn as one of the 28 cities of Britain, being located in the region of Gueneri, or Guenessi, usually considered to be in Gwent:

“Then the king assigned him that city, with all the western provinces of Britain; and departing with his wise men to the sinistral district, he arrived in the region named Gueneri, where he built a city which, according to his name, was called Cair Guorthegirn.”

The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) recorded in the Red Book of Hergest, (Llyfr Coch Hergest, c.1425), recall Vortigern as one of the Three Dishonoured Men of the Island of Britain:

“.... the second is Gwrtheyrn [Vortigern] the Thin, who first gave land to the Saxons in this Island, and was the first to enter into an alliance with them. He.......... exiled the two brothers Emrys Wledig and Uthur Penndragon from this Island to Armorica, and deceitfully took the crown and the kingdom into his own possession. And in the end Uthur and Emrys burned Gwrtheyrn in Castell Gwerthrynyawn beside the Wye......”

Vortigern besieged in the tower
This late Triad may well have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth who uses the name 'Cloartius' as a scribal error for ‘Doartius’, i.e. 'cl' for 'd', from the Latin name for Little Doward hill.

Geoffrey's story says that, impressed after Merlin delivered his prophecies (HRB, BOOK VII), Vortigern asks about his own fate. Merlin advises the king to flee the fire of the sons of Constantine, the two brothers, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, who have set sail from the Armorican shore heading for Britain to seek revenge for their father who Vortigern betrayed and then invited the Saxons into the island. On landing at Totnes, Merlin continues, they will subdue the Saxons; but first they will burn Vortigern besieged in his tower.

And so it happened; on arrival in Britain the Sons of Constantine (Ambrosius and Uther) marched into Cambria, to the town of Genoreu, where Vortigern had fled for refuge. Geoffrey says that town was in the country of Hergin (Ercing), upon the river Gania (Wye), in the mountain called Cloarius:

“Immediately, therefore, they set their engines to work, and laboured to beat down the walls. But at last, when all other attempts failed, they had recourse to fire, which meeting with proper fuel, ceased not to rage, till it had burned down the tower and Vortigern in it.” (HRB, BOOK VIII)

Whereas Geoffrey used the name 'Cloartius' as an incorrect form of the Latin 'Doartius' which is found in most manuscripts with reference to the Doward, in the Brut, the Welsh version of Geoffrey's Historia, we find the hill of the site of Vortigern's fortress called Mynyd Denarth, or Deu Arth, which may have led to the connection of the cave with Arthur.

Vortigern's Grave
The location of the Herefordshire village Ganarew (Genoreu - from old Welsh: Genau rhiw translates as ‘Pass of the hill, or situated between two hills’) only separated from the Doward by the A40 road would affirm the location beside the Wye as the correct site of Vortigern's final stand at Caer Guorthegirn. This is barely a couple of miles from Geoffrey's native town of Monmouth; no doubt he knew the hillfort and may have even visited the site.

Church of St Swithin, Ganerew - the site of Vortigern's grave?
A local tradition claims Vortigern's charred remains where buried under Ganarew church situated in the col overlooking Little Doward. The current church at Ganarew, dedicated to St. Swithin, is said to have been built over the foundations of a much older church. In the 12th century it was known as ‘the Chapel of St Thomas at Gueneru’, yet the earliest known dedication appears to have been to St Gwynnog in the 6th century.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Mary Andere, Arthurian Links in Herefordshire, Logaston Press, 1995.
Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of the Kings of Britain, ed & trans. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics, 1977.
Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, University of Wales Press; 3rd edition, 2006.
Nennius: History of the Britons, ed. John Morris (Arthurian Period Sources, Volume 8), Phillimore, 1979.
F J Snell, King Arthur's Country, Dent, 1926.
The Cities of Vortigern – Robert Vermaat's Vortigern Studies.
The Welsh Triads from The Red Book of Hergest, Mary Jones, Celtic Literature Collective.

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Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Life and Death of Richard Whiting

1461 – Richard Whiting born at at Wrington, Somerset.

1483 - Whiting graduated  with an MA at the University of Cambridge.

1500 – Whiting ordained as deacon.

1501 – Whiting ordained as priest.

1525 - following the death of Richard Beere, Abbot of Glastonbury, Whiting is elected Abbot by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

1534 - Whiting signs his assent to the Act of Supremacy. The King's commissioner Richard Layton is sent to examine Whiting and the Abbey. Layton reports all in good order, but suspends the abbot's jurisdiction over the town of Glastonbury.

1535 - Suppression of Religious Houses Act brought about the dissolution of the lesser

1536 - The First Suppression Act (1536) and the Second Suppression Act (1539)  results in the disbandment of over 800 religious houses in England and Wales in the period 1536-1541 in which the Crown confiscated their assets during the legal process known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

1539 - by January, Glastonbury was the only monastery left in Somerset. On 19th September, Royal Commissioners Richard Layton, Thomas Moyle, and Richard Pollard arrive at Glastonbury without warning. The Commissioners discover a book condemning Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. They also claim to discover evidence that Whiting concealed a number of precious objects. Abbot Whiting is sent to the Tower of London for further questioning.

The commissioners write to Thomas Cromwell claiming that they had now come to the knowledge of "divers (many) and sundry treasons committed by the Abbot of Glastonbury". Pollard  escorts Whiting back to Somerset, reaching Wells on 14th November.

At Wells, we are told, a trial of some sort takes place, and Whiting is found guilty of treason. Next day, Saturday, 15th November, Whiting is taken to Glastonbury with two of his monks, Dom John Thorne and Dom Roger James. On the outskirts of the town, the frail old Abbot is fastened to a sheep hurdle and dragged by horses to the top of The Tor overlooking the Abbey. The three men are hanged, drawn and quartered. Abbot Whiting's head is fixed over the Abbey gate and his limbs exposed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgewater.

1895 – 13th May, Richard Whiting beatified by Pope Leo XIII.

At 10 am on Wednesday, 15th November 2017 there will be a short remembrance of Glastonbury’s Last Abbot, Blessed Richard Whiting in St. Patrick’s Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, where there will be a brief talk on the life and work of Abbot Whiting at the abbey. Normal entrance fees apply.

Recent research suggests that Richard Whiting, and his companions John Thorne and Roger James, were actually murdered on Friday 14th November 1539.

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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Arthur and Snowdon

The Road to Camlann – Part V

“We marched, a hundred of us,
By moonlight, on our way,
To climb the steeps of Wyddfa,
And see the break of day:
We looked upon the heavens,
From many lonely hill;
We looked upon the mountain llyns,
And staff in hand stood still!”1

Moonlight Vigil
It was a late evening in July when we walked up Snowdon. Ascending by the Ranger Path in twilight, joined the Snowdon Mountain Railway line at Bwlch Glas and followed the track to the summit. As the sun descended over Llŷn and glowed into Cwm Clogwyn we walked up Snowdon, the setting sun on our backs, red skies behind us. We spent the few sun-less hours on Yr Wyddfa, sipping Rumbullion from a flask and telling tales of giants, dragons and King Arthur, while waiting for the  break of day.

One step from Heaven
In our search for the site of Arthur's final battle at Camlann we find ourselves overnight on the summit of Snowdon, at 3,560 ft (1,085m) the highest mountain in Wales, and the highest point in the British Isles outside of Scotland. The peak is busy during the day, in the summer months it is often crowded and you can queue to stand on the summit plinth and take in the extensive views. It was childhood holidays in Snowdonia that got me hooked on the Arthurian legend many, many years ago. It seems every lake, every hill has a story to tell; in this country Arthur is an eternal part of the landscape.

Glaslyn below Yr Wyddfa (Edward Watson)
We sat with our backs to the Hafod Eryri visitor centre, opened in 2009 replacing the previous eyesore; everyone seems to have a strong opinion on the building and its placement at the summit of Wales highest peak. Etched along the wall by the entrance is "Copa'r Wyddfa: yr ydych chwi, yma, Yn nes at y nefoedd / The summit of Snowdon: You are, here, nearer to Heaven". Love it or hate it, there have been buildings on the summit since the early 19th century offering shelter for climbers and refreshments for tourists, but it wasn't until the advent of the railway in 1896 that tourism really took off with the introduction of accommodation buildings to the summit. There are six main walking routes up Snowdon and of course you can take the train from Llanberis to the summit station and today walk along steps to the plinth on the cairn without even stepping on the natural surface of the mountain.

The name Snowdon is derived from the Old English “Snaudune” meaning literally “snow hill”. However, the Welsh use the name “Eryri” to refer to the Snowdonia region, as opposed to the Snowdon massif itself. Eryri has been interpreted as meaning the “abode of eagles”. Hundreds of years ago eagles were certainly observed building their aerie on the rocks of Snowdon, which is said to have led to the Welsh term “Craigian-eryri,” the “Crags of the Eagles”; accordingly, some claim the highest point was known as “The Eagle's Nest”. However, some Welsh scholars claim that Eryri simply means “highland”.

A Place of Presence
Yet, the Welsh name for the summit, first recorded in the 12th century, is “Yr Wyddfa” meaning “the burial mound” or “tumulus”. I have also heard it described as “place of presence” which seems very apt. The burial mound is said to refer to the legend of Rhita Gawr, (variously Ritho or Ricca) the giant killed by Arthur who had a cairn built over the corpse; thus, “Gwyddfa Rhudda” (Rhita's Cairn). Rhys Goch Eryri (d.1420), a native of Beddgelert, included the following couplet in a poem: “On the ridge, cold and vast, there the giant Ricca lies.It has also been known as “Yr Wyddfa Fawr” (the great tomb) and “Carnedd y Cawr” (the cairn of the giant), however, over time the name of Rhudda was lost and the summit cairn became known simply as “Yr Wyddfa”. The giant's cairn was demolished in the mid-19th century to make way for the summit buildings to accommodate the advent of tourism.

19th century summit cairn
The story of Ritho (Rhitta Gawr) is first recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae = HRB), as occurring on on Mount Aravius:

“[Arthur] told them he had found none of so great strength, since he killed the giant Ritho, who had challenged him to fight, upon the mountain Aravius. This giant had made himself furs of the beards of kings he had killed, and had sent word to Arthur to carefully cut his beard and send it to him; and then, out of respect to his pre-eminence over other kings, his beard should have the honour of the principal place. But if he refused to do it, he challenged him to a duel, with this offer, that the conqueror should have the furs, and also the beard of the vanquished for a trophy of his victory. In his conflict, therefore, Arthur proved victorious, and took the beard and spoils of the giant...”[HRB, Book X.III]

Geoffrey's Mount Aravius is thought to be his attempt at a Latin form of 'Eryri'. In the Prophecies Of Merlin, contained in Book VII of Geoffrey's History, he again refers to Aravius, and on this occasion refers to an eagle's nest:

“The lion's whelps shall be transformed into sea-fishes; and an eagle shall build her nest upon Mount Aravius. Venedotia shall grow red with the blood of mothers, and the house of Corineus kill six brethren.” [HRB,Book VII.3]

The sentence immediately following Mount Aravius refers to Venedotia (Gwynedd) and giants. According to Geoffrey, Corineus arrived in Britain with Aeneas and the descendants of the Trojans. Corineus settled in Cornwall, which was then inhabited by giants. Corineus fights the last of these, giants, Goëmagot (Gogmagog) and throws him into the sea. The place, Geoffrey tells us, is called Lam Goëmagot, that is, Goëmagot's Leap, identified as the Giant's Leap, or Plymouth Hawe.

In his survey of Cornwall (1602) Carew reported the outline images of two giants, cut into the turf exposing the white limestone, at Plymouth Hoe. The figures were said to be Goemagot and Corineus (some say Gog and Magog), however they were lost sometime after 1671.

Ricca also appears in the tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, the oldest tale in the Mabinogion, which has giant killing and beard collecting as an underlying theme throughout. Gormant son of Ricca is twice invoked in the tale by Culhwch. Jones and Jones3 assert that Gormant is brother to Arthur on his mother's side, his father the chief elder of Cornwall. Bromwich and Evans4 suggest that the name Gormant can be equated with the Cornish Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall and husband of Arthur's mother Igerne.

Here There be Dragons
Looking east from the summit you cannot help but look down the lakes below in Cwm Dyli; Llyn Llydaw, crossed by the Miner's Track, and the blue waters of Glaslyn. Stained by the presence of copper ore from the old Snowdon mines Glaslyn was formerly known as Llyn Ffynnon Las (the lake of the green well), the pool has a rather sinister reputation as the bottomless abode of demons that no bird will fly over. This is the home of the Afanc, a water monster dragged from a pool on the Conwy known as Llyn yr Afanc, across the mountains of Dolwyddelan by two oxen. In the early 18th century a shepherd who claimed to have seen the monster described it as “toadlike with tails and wings”.5

Cradling these two lakes is the backdrop of Y Lliwedd with its East and West peaks, the waters of Glaslyn seemingly held back by the ridge of Y Gribin leading up to to Bwlch y Saethau (The Pass of the Arrows). The path up to Y Lliwedd is named after Sir Edward Watkin, officially opened by Gladstone in 1892, and said to be the hardest path up Snowdon because it starts at the lowest point of all the main routes. The Watkin Path starts at Pont Bethania in Nant Gwynant, at 190 feet above sea level requiring another 3370 feet of ascent to the summit in just three and a half miles, over a thousand feet more than other routes stating from Pen-y-Pass.

Further a long the valley of Nant Gwynant by Llyn Dinas, overlooking the southern end of Cwm Llan and the initial stretches of the Watkin Path is the historic site of Dinas Emrys The site has been known as Dinas Emrys since the 9th century Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius) and marks the birth of the Merlin legend.

According to the storyteller, after being advised by his wise men to retire to the remote boundaries of the kingdom to build a fortress, Vortigern arrived at North Wales and having surveyed the mountains of Heremus (the eagle rocks; Eryri). Every night the materials gathered to build the tower vanished, a second and a third time. The wise men informed him that he must find a fatherless child, put him to death, and sprinkle his blood the ground on which the tower is to be build.

They find a boy at Ælecti in the district of Glevensing (Monmouthshire) who prophesied to them that the reason the citadel could not be built was because in an underground pool was a vase containing two serpents, one white and the other red, which represented the races of the English and the Welsh. The boy reveals himself as Ambrose, son of a Roman consul. Ambrose, or Emrys in Welsh, is later named by Geoffrey of Monmouth as "Merlinus Ambrosius", who becomes the prophet of Arthurian legend.

Today little remains of the Iron Age hillfort that occupied the hilltop although traces of occupation into the 5th century have been found there. Still visible today are the remains of some stone ramparts and the base of a Keep said to have been erected by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llewelyn the Last, d.1282), guarding the pass below. The Keep at Dinas Emrys must have had an imposing presence in its day and probably resembled that of Dolwyddelan Castle constructed in the early 13th century by Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, to guard two main routes into Wales. Dolwyddelan remained an important stronghold for his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, until its capture by the English in 1283.

Dinas Emrys - Vortigern's Tower (L) and Dolwyddelan Castle Keep (R)
A pool within the hillfort enclosure may have some connection to the tale of Vortigern and the dragons; excavations during the 1950s identified a platform above the pool as described in the Historia Britonum. How the dragons came to be buried at Dinas Emrys can be found in the traditional Welsh tale of "Lludd and Llefelys". Dinas Ffaraon (Fortress of Pharaoh) is named as the place where King Lludd of Britain trapped and buried the two dragons which were ravaging the land. The tale explains that the site was later named "Dinas Emreis". An allusion to the episode is also found in the Triad, “Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain”.

The Watkin Path leads up through Cwm Llan, the home of the Tylwyth Teg, to the legendary site of the old city of Tregalan below Bwlch y Saethau. Local legend claims that when King Arthur vanquished his enemy at Tregalan he drove them over the pass into Cwm Dyli. When Arthur reached the top of the ridge the enemy let fly a barrage of arrows fatally wounding the king. Arthur was buried where he fell, just below the Snowdon summit, where a cairn was built over the grave; Carnedd Arthur at Bwlch Ciliau was said to mark the spot and was still visible in 1850,6 but little more than a scattering of rocks can be seen here today.

The faithful companion Bedwyr is said to have thrown Arthur's sword into the cold waters of Llyn Llydaw, returning it to the Goddess of the Lake. According to the Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau), after Camlann, Bedwyr was buried on the slopes of Tryfan, which lies a stone's throw from Snowdon across the Llanberis Pass (A4086).

Arthur's men who survived, said to number seven, descended down the cliff face of  Y Lliwedd and into a cave, the entrance sealed behind them. The cave is known as Ogof Llanciau Eryri, or Cave of the Young Men of Snowdonia. Legend claims that Arthur's knights, fully armoured and armed, sleep there, waiting for Arthur's return in the hour of the country's greatest need.

Once a shepherd is said to have strayed into the cave and accidentally struck his head on a bell hanging at the entrance which awoke the knights, but he managed to reassure the knights that they were not yet needed, and they returned to their sleep. The shepherd never recovered from the shock and to this day the cave entrance has never been found since. However, old climbers stories tell of a shallow cave half way up Slanting Gully under the precipitous north face of Y Lliwedd beyond which they claim the knights sleep.

Glaslyn outflow with Llyn Llydaw below (Edward Watson)
A late Triad, 'Three Treacherous Meetings on the Isle of Britain', included in Y Myvyrian Archaiology (1807) compiled by Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) states the Third was the meeting of Medrawd and Iddawg Cord Prydein with their men of Nanhwynan, where they entered into a conspiracy against Arthur.

In the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, Iddawg Cord Prydein informs Rhonabwy that his nickname is the 'agitator of Britain', because he was one of the messengers between Arthur and Medrawd at the battle of Camlann, and because of his desire for battle he delivered harsh messages between the two men from which the battle ensued. Nanhwynan  is the old name for Nant Gwynant at the bottom of Cwm Llan.7


Break of Day
The stars faded from the sky, then the north-eastern horizon glowed with a brilliant bright amber band. Then there she was, the first glint of the sun, a new day was born, for just the briefest moment there was hope of a world without ills. Tales told, we left the summit and crossed Bwlch Main above Cwm Tregalan, crossed Llechog and descended to Rhyd Ddu with red skies behind us.

“We saw the Steven Stars arise
Northward, and with their glow
Smile down upon the paler Seven
Within the llyn below.
We dare not halt,we did not stay -
One short half-hour of night,
And then the Break of Day would rise
On Wyddfa's utmost height.”8

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1. John Ceiriog Hughes, Toriad y Dydd – Break of Day, in Robert Jones, The Complete Guide to Snowdon.
2. John Rhys, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, 1901.
3. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, The Mabinogion, Everyman, 1993.
4. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen; The Oldest Arthurian Tale, UWP, 1992.
5. Robert Jones, The Complete Guide to Snowdon: Yr Wyddfa, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1992
6. John Rhys, op.cit.
7. Around 1200, probably soon after Llywelyn ab forwerth (Prince Llywelyn the Great) gained control of Dinas Emrys and the township of Nanhwynan (now Nantgwynant), he granted the whole township as a grange to the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy. Now the site of Hafod Rhisgl farm by Llyn Gwynant – see: Margaret Dunn, Wenallt, Nant Gwynant, Gwynedd, Excavation Report, 2005.
8. John Ceiriog Hughes, op.cit.

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Tuesday, 24 October 2017

The Priest and the Astrolabe

Astrolabe found in shipwreck
Marine archaeologists excavating a shipwreck off the coast of Oman have recovered the oldest known example of a type of maritime navigational tool. The archaeologists believed the object, originally discovered in 2014, to be an astrolabe, but they could not find any navigational markings on it.

The astrolabe was a very ancient astronomical instrument used to determine the latitude of a ship at sea by measuring the noon altitude of the Sun to determine their location during their voyages. The device has been used by mariners for around two thousand years.

Now, a later analysis has uncovered its hidden details. Laser scanning work carried out by scientists at the University of Warwick revealed etches around the edge of the disc, each separated by five degrees, which allowed the mariners to measure the height of the sun above the horizon.

The astrolabe was recovered from the Portuguese ship Esmeralda, which sank during a storm in the Indian Ocean in 1503. The ship was part of the fleet led by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first person to sail directly from Europe to India. The recovered astrolabe is believed to date from between 1495 and 1500.1

The University of Warwick used laser scans to uncover etches on the astrolabe, 
which helped navigators work out the height of the sun – source BBC.
The astrolabe was a sophisticated precision instrument, with which a skilled navigator was able to determine the date, time (during clear skies), the position of stars, the passage of the zodiac, latitude on the earth's surface, tides and basic surveying.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343 – 1400) wrote a medieval instruction manual on the astrolabe entitled 'A Treatise on the Astrolabe'. Chaucer's work is considered the "oldest work in English written upon an elaborate scientific instrument".

Chaucer wrote approvingly of Nicholas of Lynn's work, and made much use of it. The 16th century literary historian John Bale claimed Lynn became a Carmelite friar then moved to Oxford, where he studied at university and developed a significant reputation for his scientific work. In 1386 Nicholas published a Kalendarium of astronomical tables for the years 1387–1462. 

The Astrolabe and the Discovery of the North
Early maps of the northern polar regions were based on information from the lost book Inventio Fortunata, of about 1363. Indeed, the 1507-08 map of Johann Ruysch explicitly claims such.

It seems likely this data had also influenced the early map of Claudius Clavus of 1431. Ruysch's map shows a ring of 18 islands surrounding the North Pole, nearby a marginal note claims the data came from the Inventio Fortunata.

Clavus's statement in the 'Vienna Texts' states that Norway had eighteen ice-bound islands, which suggests he also knew of this book. Gerard Mercator showed a version of these islands in his 1569 map.

Mercator's 1606 map of the northern polar region 
Mercator's map contained the following caption over the polar area, which again seemed to be based on the account in the Inventio:

"In the matter of the representation, we have taken it from the 'Travels' of Jacob Cnoyen of Buske who quotes certain historical facts of Arthur the Briton, but who gathered the most and the best information from a priest who served the king of Norway in the year of Grace 1364.....He related that in 1360 an English minor friar of Oxford who was a mathematician reached these isles and ..... measured the whole by means of an astrolable somewhat in the form hereunder which we have reproduced from Jacob Cnoyen."

The only knowledge we have today of the lost Inventio comes indirectly through another lost book, the 'Itinerary of all Asia, Africa and the North' by Jacob Cnoyen, probably written in the 14th century. Cnoyen's work contained a summary of part of the Inventio and extracts from another lost book, the Gestae Arthuri. Cnoyen seems to have gleaned his information from an intermediary source and may not have actually read the Inventio himself.

This intermediary was an unknown roving priest who claimed to have acquired an astrolabe directly from the unnamed author of the Inventio during face-to-face conversations.

Mercator also quoted parts of Cnoyen's work, now also lost, in a letter of 1577 to the Elizabethan mage John Dee. Mercator had wrote in response to questions from Dee concerning the source material for the "Septentrional Islands" on his map of the northern polar regions in 1569. Fortunately Dee had made a transcript of Mercator's letter after the original was lost. Dee's transcript is now slightly fire damaged but sufficient remains legible for the most part.

Dee's text included a description of eighteen to twenty islands, the "Septentrional Islands" adjacent the North Pole, separated from each other by nineteen "In-drawing channels" which would suck any ships in against the rocks.

Dee purpose was to assert British sovereignty over the north-western Atlantic during the Age of Discovery when he wrote:

"That all these Northern Isles and Septrentrional Parts are lawfully appropriated to the Crown of this Brytish Impire: and the terrible adventure and great loss of the Brytish people and other of King Arthur his subjects perishing about the first discovery thereof."

Dee's assertion is based on the account in the Gestae Arthuri which claims that the army of King Arthur conquered these Northern Islands. Dee also drew on the accounts of the Welsh Prince Madoc and Brendan the Navigator as evidence for British dominion over the New World.

According to Dee's translation of Cnoyen's summation of the Gesta Arthuri, found in Brytanici Imperii Limites (Limits of the British Empire, 1578), in 530 AD Arthur's great army had over-wintered in the northern islands of Scotland. The following May, part of this army crossed over into Iceland. Almost 4,000 men entered the in-drawing seas and never returned. Then four ships returned from the North and warned Arthur of the in-drawing seas. Arthur did not proceed any further, but colonised all of the islands between Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland.

In 1364 eight people claiming to be descendants of those who had penetrated the Northern Regions in the first ships, arrived at the King’s court in Norway. The delegation included two priests, one of whom possessed an astrolabe, and claimed to be descended in the fifth generation from a Bruxellensis.2

What are we to make of this odd account of the discovery of the North? 

Clearly early depictions of the northern polar regions was based on mythical accounts that existed only in lost books. Most of the information we have about the contents of the Inventio comes indirectly from the priest with the astrolabe who reported to the Norwegian king as relayed by Jacob Cnoyen. The priest, based on time and date, has been identified as the Norwegian Ivar Bardarson or Nicholas of Lynn.

In response to a request from Richard Hakluyt in 1580, Mercator said he had borrowed the Gestae  Arthuri from a friend in Antwerp. Mercator restored it and returned it, but when he required it again his friend had forgotten from whom he had lent it. We cannot rule out the likelihood that the Gestae, if it ever existed at all, was influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1138, in which Arthur had become an emperor and conqueror of Northern Europe, including Iceland and Norway.

Indeed, the account of Arthur's deeds as reportedly found in the Gestae Arthuri may well be derived of Norse tales of Eirik the Red's 10th century adventures in the North Atlantic.3

However, we can be certain that the astrolabe is real enough.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1. Astrolabe: Shipwreck find 'earliest navigation tool' - Rebecca Morelle, BBC News, Science &
2. James Robert Enterline, Erikson, Eskimos, and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
3. Thomas Green, John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic, in The Heroic Age
A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 15 (October 2012).

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Sunday, 15 October 2017

Cerdic, Charford and Camlann

The Road to Camlann Part IV

The Battle of Cerdicesford
Charford in the north-west corner of Hampshire has attracted some attention from scholars of Arthuriana in the search for the site of the battle of Camlann. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records a series of battles fought by Cerdic and his son Cynric in the foundation of the kingdom of the West Saxons. In 519 AD Cerdic and Cynric fought the Britons at 'Cerdicesford' (Certiceford) and from that day on ruled the West Saxons.

The hamlets of North and South Charford in the New Forest occupy a strategic position near the Hampshire Avon. It is possible this 6th century battle resulted in the demarcation of the early border of Cerdic's realm. Of all the sites of Cerdic's battles the identification of North Charford is fairly certain as it is recorded as 'Cerdeford' in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Yet, Cerdic is recognised as a British name, in the genealogies the ancestor of the kings of Wessex; subsequent monarchs all had some level of descent claimed in the Chronicle from Cerdic. He has been identified as Cerdic, son of Cunedda, founder of Ceredigion; Cerdic, Vortigern's interpreter; Sir Caradoc Briefbras (Short-Arm) a Knight of the Round Table and ancestor to the Kings of Gwent; in Welsh legend his father is named as Llyr Marini, the Celtic Sea-God; and Cheldric in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain'.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle identifies Cerdic's father as Elesa, his grandfather as Esla, son of Gwis, descended from Woden, the god of the Anglo-Saxons. Elesa has been identified with the Romano-Briton Elasius, the “chief of the region” the man who met Germanus of Auxerre.

Sir John Rhys1 noted long ago the similarity of Cerdic's Saxon forebears Elesa, Elsa, as recorded in the Chronicle, with the Welsh king Eliseg, and his father Elis, inscribed on the pillar at Valle Crucis near Llangollen in Wales. Similarity of one name may not be significant but the duplication of both names suggests a connection. Furthermore, Cerdic's son Cynric has been identified as Cunorix, the name on a tombstone turned up at Viroconium (Wroxeter). We immediately question why the first king of Wessex should be recorded in 9th century Powys?

Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman2 flirt with the idea that the battle of Certiceford was Arthur's final campaign. Phillips and Keatman see an alliance between Cunormorus in Dumnonia in the south-west of Britain and Cerdic in the east. They suggest that Arthur attempts to drive a wedge between the two kingdoms and ventures into Wessex to engage with Cerdic at Certiceford.

Phillips and Keatman are clearly influenced by Medieval Arthurian sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth has Mordred ally with the Saxons and engage in battle at nearby Winchester before moving the battle on to Camelford in Cornwall, and Malory places the battle of Camlann on Salisbury Plain which is barely 20 miles north of Charford (Certicesford). However, although Phillips and Keatman see this as Arthur's final campaign,  they have him return to his homeland, weak and wounded, to fight Camlann in north-west Wales.

John Rudmin and Joseph Rudmin3 identify CERDIC AS the legendary KING ARTHUR and the battle of Badon, the moment when he and Cynric established the kingdom of the West Saxons, at Banbury in Oxfordshire. Evidently, such theories are based on little evidence and much assumption; we cannot even be certain that Arthur's battles were fought against the Anglo Saxons; Cerdic is as enigmatic as Arthur himself.

Whereas Aelle and the early foundation of Sussex, the land of the South Saxons, may have lasted twenty years, from the mid-470s to the battle of Badon, c.495, we could argue that the dates of Cerdic's floruit mirrors the period after Badon leading up to Camlann; Gildas' golden age when external wars had ceased, the 21 years listed between the two battles in the Welsh Annals.

The Origins of Wessex
The most important historical source produced in Wessex itself is the Anglo Saxon Chronicle compiled in the late 9th century under the instigation of King Alfred. The West Saxon entries begin with the landing of Cerdic and Cynric in 495 at the unidentified Cerdicesora (Cerdic's shore). But not all sources agree that Cynric was his son, for in the earliest recorded version of the West Saxon genealogy Cynric is given as the son of Creoda, son of Cerdic.

However, the Chronicle is not the simple record of West Saxon history which it might at first sight appear. We know it was compiled by more than one individual and seems to have undergone large-scale manuscript copying and circulation. Indeed most historians regard the account of Cerdic as forming the basis for the legendary foundation story of Wessex, yet they are reluctant to abandon the only written account of the birth of the kingdom of the West Saxon kings; regardless, to many it is referred to as “The Cerdic Legend”.

Cerdic is cited in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as the founder of the West Saxon dynasty, reigning from 519 to 534:

495 – Cerdic and Cynric his son, arrived with five ships and fought the Welsh at Cerdices ora.
501 - This year Porta and his two sons, Beda and Mela, came into Britain, with two ships, at a place called Portsmouth and slew a noble young Briton
508 - This year Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king, whose name was Natanleod, and five thousand men with him. After this was the land named Netley, from him, as far as Cerdices ford.
514 – This year the West Saxons came to Britain in three ships at the place called Cerdices ora and Stuf and Wihtgar fought the Britons.
519 - This year Cerdic and Cynric undertook the government of the West-Saxons; the same year they fought with the Britons at a place now called Cerdices ford. From that day have reigned the
children of the West-Saxon kings.
527 - This year Cerdic and Cynric fought with the Britons in the place that is called Cerdic's leag. 530 - This year Cerdic and Cynric took the isle of Wight,and slew many men at Wihtgaraesbyrg.
534 - This year died Cerdic, the first king of the West-Saxons. Cynric his son succeeded to the government, and reigned afterwards twenty-six winters. And they gave to their two nephews, Stuff and Wihtgar, the whole of the Isle of Wight.

A few things are immediately obvious from this list: the 495 entry would appear to be duplicated 19 years later in 514. The duplication of a number of the Chronicle entries for Cerdic and Cynric 19 years apart has cast doubt on the validity of 495 as a date for the beginning of Cerdic and Cynric’s conquest of Wessex. The Cerdic and Cynric victories around the Hampshire Avon certainly suffers from a defective chronology, we should therefore view the other Cerdic entries with due suspicion; the arrival of the West Saxon's certainly bears much in common with the foundation legend of the Jutes in Kent.4

Portchester Roman walls
Similarly, the battle at Portsmouth in 501 in which a noble young Briton was killed has been related to the Arthurian poem the Battle of Llongborth found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, significant for its early mention of King Arthur. The Elegy for Geraint was written in praise of Geraint, a Dumnonian king, said to have fallen during the Saxon wars in the early 6th century. Llongborth has been interpreted as 'port of the warships' which equates well with Portsmouth, and yet, following this entry, we here no more of Port and his sons.

In studying the regnal dates given in the Chronicle and in the closely related West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List, David Dumville came to the conclusion that the 5th and 6th century dates were extremely unreliable and had been artificially extended to make it appear that the kingdom was founded at an earlier date than was actually the case. Dumville's calculation on the basis of the reign-lengths given in the Genealogical Regnal List was that Cerdic’s reign was originally seen as beginning in 538, six years after his arrival in 532.

Cerdic is somewhat an enigma himself; he arrives on the south coast of Hampshire with several ships and quickly establishes his territory. However, although Cerdic may have led a British-English alliance in expanding the territory of the West Saxons it seems unlikely he landed on the south coast of Hampshire at all. Barbara Yorke5 argues that the account of Cerdic and the origins of Wessex as noted in the Chronicle seems to be based on the foundation legend of the Jutes arrival in Kent. Indeed, Bede identifies the Hampshire coast as being occupied by Jutes:

“Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany - Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent, and of the Isle of Wight, and those also in the province of the West Saxons who are to this day called Jutes, seated opposite to the Isle of Wight.”6

Bede, using information supplied by Bishop Daniel, indicates that southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were independent provinces which did not become part of Wessex until much later, in fact not until after their conquest by King Cædwalla in 686–8; these people were indeed classed as Jutes and not Saxons; the south Hampshire coast therefore seems an unlikely geographic origin for the West Saxons.

Archaeology has not helped locate the origins and expansion of the West Saxons, as too often finds are made to fit a preconceived framework based on the evidence of the Chronicle. Further, it would appear that Wessex was established from the upper Thames Valley from the 6th century; analysis of the accounts of the origins of the kingdom suggest that Cerdic was establishing his position in the 530s, around the upper Thames valley. Little more can be said until the reign of Ceawlin, son of Cynric, when Wessex began to acquire significant territory. However, it wasn't until after the reign of Cædwalla when the term ‘West Saxon’ begins to appear, whereas Cerdic’s people seem to have been known as the “Gewissae” with Cerdic named in early sources as "dux gewissorum", that is, “duke of the Gewissae”. Indeed Bede writes of “Cædwalla, of the royal race of the Gewissae,” and asserts that the West Saxons of Winchester were Gewissae,7 a Saxon tribe descended from Gewis of Baeldaeg's Folk.

The identity of the Gewissae is debated among scholars, however, it is fairly certain that they were not a Saxon tribe at all but Britons, which is supported by the British name of their leader Cerdic and perhaps the connection with Powys as we have see on the Pillar of Eliseg. Significantly, the earliest references to the Gewissae is found in the upper Thames region around Dorchester on Thames. Barbara Yorke suggests the name may be derived from the Old English word for “reliable” or “sure”, as in the “trusted ones” which would be appropriate for a British militia. If this is correct then Gewissae would be a corruption of “Gleuissae”, derived from the Latin “Gleuenses” meaning “men of Gloucester” and “men of Gwent” respectively. From this, scholars agree that Cerdic, the “dux gewissorum”, led the Gewissae from Gwent to Gloucestershire, then into Hampshire where they became known as the West Saxons.8 For a British warlord to have ultimately been accepted as “West Saxon” by writers of the Chronicle indicates his forces relied heavily on Germanic mercenaries.

We should then reconsider Cerdic's first battles around the Hampshire Avon in the context, not of Saxon expansion, but as internecine warfare among the Britons following the 21 year peace of Badon fought against Aelle of the neighbouring South Saxons c.495. According to the Chronicle, Cerdic dies in 534; there is no mention of a battle, no Camlann; perhaps old age had caught up with the battle-weary dux gewissorum.

In conclusion it is certainly unlikely that Cerdic had any contact at all with Arthur and had no association with the battles of Badon or Camlann. More likely Cerdic, whoever he was, filled the void left following the demise of Arthur at the battle of Camlann.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson 

Notes & References:
1. John Rhys, Y Cymmrodor, Vol XXI, 1908.
2. Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, King Arthur: The True Story, Century, 1992.
3. John Rudmin and Joseph Rudmin, Arthur, Cerdic, and the Formation of Wessex
4. Barbara Yorke, The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the origins of Wessex, in Origins of the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms, edited by Steve Basset, Leicester University Press, 1989, pp.84-96.
5. Ibid.
6. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford University Press, 2008, Book I. XV
7. Ibid., Book 4. XV.
8. David Hughes, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, Heritage, 2007, p.229.

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