[The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell]1
The Battle of Camlann
It is argued that the earliest reference to the battle of Camlann is found in the 10th century Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), recording the conflict in the year An.93, usually interpreted as around 520 - 539 AD.
The entry is often considered to be a genuine historical reference to Arthur, leader of battles. A second entry in the Welsh Annals, 21 years previous, suggested dates range from 490- 510, refers to Arthur's victory at the Battle of Badon:
An.72. Bellum badonis inquo arthur portauit crucem domini nostri ihu xp'i . tribus diebus & tribus noctibus inhumeros suos & brittones uictores fuerunt.
[The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights upon his shoulders and the Britons were the victors]2
|The Camlann entry in the Annales Cambriae|
“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ["dux bellorum"]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor.”3
The author of the Historia states that Arthur was victorious in all his battles, presumably just the twelve as he does not include Camlann, which is found in the Welsh Annals appended to the Historia in Harlian manuscript 3859. The so-called Arthurian battle list has been said to be based on an old Welsh poem celebrating the victorious Arthur, such as Taliesin's poems in praise of Urien of Rheged. However, others argue that many of the battles in the list, such as the City of the Legions is a reference to the battle of Chester which occurred about a hundred years after Badon in 615 AD, could not have been fought by the same man and has been incorrectly attributed to Arthur to simply make the total up to the significant number of twelve.
That Badon was a real event is not disputed as the battle is recorded by the contemporary Gildas, and later by Bede. But the Badon entry in the Welsh Annals looks suspiciously similar to the section on the eighth battle at Guinnion in the Historia Brittonum in which Arthur carried an image of the Virgin on his shoulders. Camlann then is often argued for as the only genuine historical reference to Arthur. The entry begins with the word “Guieth”, Welsh for “battle”, when the Badon entry begins with the Latin word “Bellum”. This signifies a Welsh source for the Camlann entry; however, the use of the word “guieth” is not unique to this entry; indeed, there are several uses of the word in the Welsh Annals which all may reflect a Welsh source.
It is often argued by academics favouring a northern Arthur that the site of the battle of Camlann was at Camboglanna, a Roman fort on the western sector of Hadrian's Wall, usually identified as Birdoswald. No doubt the Post-Roman re-occupation of the fort adds to the Arthurian association, yet the fort at Birdoswald has now been correctly identified as Banna, not Camboglanna which was actually the Roman fort of Castlesteads, situated above the river known as the Cam Beck, which may actually provide a better explanation for the name, although sadly nothing remains above ground today of the Roman fort there.
Long ago Leslie Alcock argued that the name Camlann is derived from the Brittonic *Cambo-glanna (“crooked bank (of a river)”), as found in the name of the Roman fort of Camboglanna, (“crooked glen”).4
Alcock argues that the Romano-British name of “Camboglanna” would have evolved into “Camglann” in Old Welsh, whereas the entry in the Welsh Annals appears as “Camlann” (minus the “g”) as it would have appeared in Middle Welsh. This has been interpreted as indicative of a later, rather than contemporary, insertion into the 10th century Annals.5
This has then raised doubts on the authenticity of the Camlann entry in the Welsh Annals; if it is indeed an insertion by a later hand it may not be a genuine reference at all, although Arthur is always associated with Camlann in Welsh tradition. Unless a reference was known to exist in another Middle Welsh source the entry could indeed appear to be spurious. The Camlann entry in the Welsh Annals is said to be unique and not referenced in any earlier source; this is not correct, as there is an earlier text which may have provided the source the Welsh Annals.
The 13th century Black Book of Carmarthen contains a list of the graves of the heroes of Britain, known as 'The Stanzas of the Graves' (Englynion y Beddau). The series of englynion, or short stanzas, in Middle Welsh, is thought to be considerably older than its earliest manuscript, possibly dating to the 9th century on linguistic evidence. The Stanzas of the Graves is often neglected in the search for a source for the battle of Camlann, but the 12th stanza records:
The grave of Osfran's son at Camlan,
after much battle;
the grave of Bedwyr on the slope of Tryfan.6
If only we knew who Osfran's son was and where he was buried we could locate Camlann.
Cause of the Battle
The Welsh Annals provide no clue as to the location of Camlann or indeed the cause of the battle, yet Welsh tradition remembers the battle as a futile event that resulted in much slaughter on both sides.
Significantly, Welsh sources never remember the Battle of Camlann as a major event in the wars against advancing barbarians during the post-Roman years in Britain. On the contrary, Camlann is remembered as being caused by in-fighting between the Britons; perhaps confirmed by the 6th century account of Gildas who recorded in section 26 of his complaint against the clergy and the kings of Britain (De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae), that following the victory at Badon foreign wars ceased, but civil troubles continued.
The tale of Culhwch and Olwen includes a short line that suggests that the battle was planned, perhaps with the deliberate intention of bringing down Arthur. In Culhwch we find that “Gwyn the Irascible, overseer of Cornwall and Devon” was one of the nine who plotted the battle of Camlan.7
This scheming of Camlan is confirmed in the later tale of the Dream of Rhonabwy (Breudwyt Rhonabwy). In his dream, Rhonabwy is riding across the the Plain of Argyngroeg, towards Rhyd y Groes on the Severn, when he meets a rider. The horseman identifies himself as 'Iddawc the son of Mynyo', also known as ‘Iddawc Cordd Prydain’, meaning the ‘Agitator of Britain’, so named, he explains, because of his role as provocateur in the battle of Camlan. Idawc tells Ronabwy that he was sent as a messenger by Arthur to his cousin Medraut in order to secure peace between him and Arthur at Camlan. Iddawc tells how Arthur’s effort failed because he did not pass on Arthur’s fair words, but instead he passed on insults to Medraut, thus provoking the battle. Three nights before the end of the battle Iddawc left them, and went to the Llech Las in North Britain to do penance for seven years.8
The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) record the battle as the worst of “The Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain” because of a quarrel between Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar and her sister Gwenhwyfach.
Camlann is recorded in five of the Triads of the Island of Britain, as detailed by Rachel Bromwich:
 Three Faithless Warbands of the Island of Britain; the warband of Alan Fyrgan who deserted him during the night and let him go to Camlan, where he was slain.
 Three Men of Shame of the Island of Britain; the third and worst was Medrawd who took the Island while Arthur was on the continent in conflict with the emperor. This late Triad, which Bromwich dates to around 1400, clearly follows Geoffrey of Monmouth's fictional Arthurian history and can be rejected as being of any use in the search for Camlann.
 Three Sinister Hard Slaps of the Island of Britain; the second was when Gwehwyfach struck Gwenhwyfar, and because of this the Battle of Camlan took place.
 Three Unfortunate Counsels of the Island of Britain; the third, the threefold division by Arthur of his men with Medrawd at Camlan.
 Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain; the third was the worst, that was Camlan, which was brought about because of Gwenhwyfar's contention with Gwenhwyfach.9
Bromwich adds that the Triads contribute substantially to the body of evidence which shows that knowledge of the battle was prominent in early Arthurian tradition and was well known to the Gogynfeirdd, the Poets of the Princes, who flourished from the 12th to the second half of the 14th century.
Then there are those that argue for a mythological explanation for Camlann. Because of the battles persistent association with Gwenhyfar, Thomas (Caitlin) Green, among others, argues for an Otherworldly conflict rather than a historical basis. Green stresses that Gwenhyfar is one of Arthur's possessions that he brings back from the Otherworld along with his knife, shield and sword (as argued by Patrick Ford10). Indeed in an early account of Gwenhyfar's abduction by the king of the summerland, Arthur rescues her from Avalon (Annwn). Caradoc of Llancarfan's account of the abduction of Gwenhyfar, as contained in the Vita Gildae, betrays traces of an Otherworld adventure, belonging, with the likes of the poem Spoils of Annwn, a Celtic supernatural excursion. This echoes the earliest abduction stories such as the possibility of influence from the Greek Persephone myth.
|'King Arthur's Stone' Slaughterbridge, Cornwall|
The Survivors of Camlann
The British antiquarian view tended to follow Geoffrey of Monmouth in locating the battle on the river Camel in Cornwall. The attraction no doubt being the 6th century inscribed stone said to mark the spot where King Arthur and Medraut fell at Slaughterbridge between Camelford and Tintagel. The stone, often referred to as 'King Arthur's Stone', bearing both ogham and Latin inscriptions ('Latinus son of Macarus lies here') is now accepted as a memorial to an unknown local Celtic leader with no connection whatsoever with Arthur.
The early Welsh poets clearly remembered Camlann as a particularly bloody affair with few survivors, yet always connected with Gwenhwyfar. As with the earliest accounts, the battle is clearly an episode in Welsh history, fought on Welsh soil, and the recorded survivors are also from Wales.
The tale of Culhwch and Olwen survives in only two manuscripts. The earliest version survives as a fragmented version in the early 14th century White Book of Rhydderch, while a complete version can be found in the later Red Book of Hergest (c.1400). Scholars argue that linguistic evidence indicates the tale took its current form by at least the 11th century, making it the earliest Arthurian tale, a century before Geoffrey of Monmouth produced his Arthurian pseudo-history.
Culhwch and Olwen records three survivors of Arthur's battle at Camlann:
“... Morfran son of Tegid (no man placed his weapon in him at Camlan, so exceeding ugly was he; all thought he was a devil helping. There was hair on him like the hair of a stag), and Sandde Angel-face (no one placed his spear in him at Camlan, so exceeding fair was he; all thought he was an angel helping), and Cynwyl the Saint (one of the three men that escaped from Camlan. He was the last to part from Arthur, on Hengroe0n his horse).....”
Culhwch is given forty difficult tasks (anoethau) to complete by Ysbaddaden chief-giant if he wants to win the hand of his daughter, Olwen. One such task is “The cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman, the overseer of Odgar son of Aedd king of Ireland, to boil meat for thy wedding guests.”
Culhwch's ordeal may be alluded to in a 9th century poem attributed to Taliesin known, as The Spoils of Annwn (Prieddu Annwn), which features a raid on the Otherworld to retrieve the cauldron of the chief of Annwn. At the end of each verse the poem repeats that “none, save seven, returned.”
A similar account is recalled in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr. When the battle erupts the Irish start to use a magic cauldron to revive their dead. The battle ends in mass slaughter for both sides, with only five pregnant women surviving to repopulate Ireland and, in addition to Branwen, only seven survivors remained of the army of the Island of the Mighty to return to Britain. Clearly there is much synergy between the two tales, where, in the Tale of Branwen and Culhwch and Olwen, Ireland has become a euphemism for the Otherworld. It is tempting to see this as three accounts of the same tale, perhaps the original Arthurian tale.
Indeed, a later account found in 17th century manuscript suggested that, just like the Tale of Branwen and the Spoils of Annwn, there were in fact seven survivors of Camlann:
“Here are the names of the men who escaped from the battle of Camlan: Sandde Angel's form because of his beauty, Morfran son of Tegid because of his ugliness, St Cynfelyn from the speed of his horse, St Cedwyn from the world's blessing, St Pedrog from the strength of his spear, Derfel the Strong for his strength, Geneid the Tall from his speed. The year of Christ when the battle of Camlan took place was 542.”
The Location of Camlann
We saw above how The Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau) associate the grave of Osfran's son with the site of Camlann. Osfran is only known from one other work, a 12th century poem to St Cadfan by Llywelyn the Bard. Cadfan, a 6th century Breton nobleman, is said to have sailed to Tywyn, Merionethshire, with twelve other saints. He is claimed to have founded a church at Llangadfan in northern Powys before moving on to Bardsey, around 516. If Osfran's son was contemporary with Cadfan he would have been the right age to have fought at Camlan.
|The A470 at Bwlch Oerddrws in winter|
Just a little north of Dolgellau we find the Afon Gamlan, a river rising on the south side of the Rhinogydd mountain range that runs down from Cwm Camlan into the Eden and then joins the Mawddach at Ganllwyd, north of Dolgellau. The old Roman Road known as Sarn Helen would have crossed the Gamlan in this desolate valley.
In conclusion, all the evidence points to the site of the battle of Camlan(n), and its subsequent survivors, being located in mid-Wales.
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. The Welsh Annals, The Annales Cambriae, James Ingram, translator, Everyman Press, 1912. The primary text of this translation is from the Harleian manuscript, the earliest copy of the Annales Cambriae which has survived.
3. The History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum), Chapter 56 translated by Alan Lupack, The Camelot Project
4. Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, Penguin, 1979, p.67.
5. John T Koch, Celtic Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
6. John K Bollard, Anthony Griffiths, Englynion y Beddau: The Stanzas of the Graves, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2015.
7. Culhwch and Olwen, in The Mabinogion, translated and edited by Gwynn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman Press, 1967.
8. The Dream of Rhonabwy, in The Mabinogion, translated and edited by Gwynn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman Press, 1967.
9. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Third Edition, UWP, 1996.
10. Patrick K. Ford, ‘On the Significance of some Arthurian Names in Welsh’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 30, 1983.
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