Wednesday, 21 December 2022

Culhwch and the Quest

Carn Cafall: Arthur’s Stone
Situated 1529 feet up on the southern edge of a windswept hill between Rhayader and the Elan Valley reservoirs in Mid Wales are three, possibly once five, prehistoric cairns which furnished its name. This is Carn Gafallt, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), where, according to The Mirabilia, a collection of toponymic tales appended to the 9th century Historia Brittonum, Arthur’s dog Cafall left his paw print in pursuit of the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth. This was no ordinary stone, as men would come and take the stone away but the next day it would be found back on its pile.  The core of these tales in The Mirabilia are concentrated in south-east Wales and the English border where the author claims to have witnessed several himself.

Prehistoric cairns on Carn Gafallt

In the mid-19th century Lady Charlotte Guest, translator of the Mabinogion, sent a colleague up the hill to find the stone with the dog’s paw print. He apparently found a stone on top of one of the ancient cairns which he considered matched the description in “Nennius” (Historia Brittonum) but whether it was Carn Cabal or not Lady Guest is non-committal and leaves it to others to determine:

"Carn Cavall, or, as it is generally pronounced, Corn Cavall, is a lofty and rugged mountain, in the upper part of the district anciently called Buellt, now written Builth, in Breconshire. Scattered over this mountain are several cairns of various dimensions, some of which are of very considerable magnitude, being at least a hundred and fifty feet in circumference. On one of these carns may still be seen a stone, so nearly corresponding with the description in Nennius, as to furnish strong presumption that it is the identical as to furnish strong presumption that it is the identical object referred to. It is near two feet in length, and not quite a foot wide, and such as a man might, without any great exertion, carry away in his hands. On the one side is an oval indentation, rounded at the bottom, nearly four inches long by three wide, about two inches deep, and altogether presenting such an appearance as might, without any great strain of imagination, be thought to resemble the print of a dog's foot . . ."1

An illustration of the stone was included in Lady Guest’s 1849 edition of the Mabinogion. However, when Oliver Padel climbed the hill a hundred and fifty years later he could not locate the stone on the occasion of his visit on 20th February 1993. Padel quipped that “no doubt it had been removed less than a day previously, and was still on its way back”.2 

There is another ‘Arthur’s Stone’ or ‘Maen Arthur’ (sometimes called ‘Carreg Arthur’) some fifteen miles to the west of Carn Gafallt at Rhos y Gafallt in north Ceredigion. Brynley Roberts suspects there may have been another legend here of a removed stone which persistently returned to its place. As with Carn Gafallt the stone appears to be missing today. The local woodland has been named after the stone, Coed Maen Arthur, in the Ystwyth valley near Pont-rhyd-y-groes. From here a waymarked walk leads to Castell Grogwynion, one of the largest hill forts in Wales.

In this vicinity we also find an earthwork named ‘Llys Arthur’ (Arthur’s Court) an old Roman site at the head of the Castell valley. However, the association of this site with Arthur cannot be dated prior to the 18th century (like so much of the birth of Arthurian tourism) when it arrives for the first time on Lewis Morris’s 1748 map of the Mannor of Perverth.

Not far from Maen Arthur and Llys Arthur is the site where Arthur’s companions Cai and Bedwyr plucked the beard of the giant Dillus Farfog in the tale Culhwch and Olwen, the earliest of the Mabinogion tales and the first Arthurian narrative text.

Giants' Country
One of the tasks sets by Ysbaddaden Chief Giant was to obtain a leash for one of the dogs in the hunting of the Twrch Twyrth. Ysbaddaden says, “There is no leash in the world that can hold Drudwen the whelp of Graid son of Eri except a leash made from the beard of that man. But it must be pulled from his beard with wooden tweezers while he is alive, since it will become brittle in death.”

In the tale we find Cai and Bewyr, Arthur’s companions from the earliest stratum of the legend, at Pumlumon (Plynlimon) in the Cambrian Mountains, barely 20 miles north-west of Carn Gafallt and the Elan Valley. The tale would appear to be localised at Ysbyty Cynfyn, north of Pont-rhyd-y-groes where we find Maen Arthur and Llys Arthur as noted above. On the A4120 road from Devil's Bridge to Ponterwyd we find Erwbarfe (erw = an old land measure, acre + barfa = a number of small peaks), Chris Grooms suggests that Welsh 'barfau' = beards, may be a reference to the tale of Dillus.3 

Pumlumon Fawr from Llyn Llygad Rheidol

While Cai and Bedwyr were sitting on top of Pumlumon on Carn Gwylathyr they saw smoke to the south were Dillus Farfog is roasting a wild boar. After taking his fill of meat Dillus fell asleep. When Cai was certain that Dillus was asleep, he dug a huge pit under his feet, and struck him with an immense blow and squeezed him into the pit. They then completely plucked his beard with the wooden tweezers. And then they killed the giant outright.

After plucking the beard they took the leash to Arthur in Celli Wig in Cornwall, and then Arthur sang an englyn in which he implied that Cai would not have beaten Dillus in a fair fight. This led to a rift between Arthur and Cai, “and, thereafter, Cai would not concern himself with Arthur if he was in need”

Pumlumon (Five Peaks) is the highest point of the Cambrian mountains in mid-Wales, from which the rivers Severn, Wye and Rheidol all rise. The name Garn Gwylathyr is otherwise unknown. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans4 suggest a possible identification with the cairn on the top of Drum Peithnant (Y Garn). Chris Grooms suggests the elusive Garn Gwylathyr is probably to be identified with Y Garn near the slopes near the source of the river Wye (Gwy + llethr = slope).5

However, the Boar hunt as detailed in Culhwch and Olwen does not get as far north as Pumlumon, or indeed Carn Gafallt where Arthur’s hound left his paw print, and takes place across South Wales. The boar hunts, featuring Arthur’s dog Cafall, are just two in a series of impossible tasks set by the chief giant but form the bulk of the story. Culhwch and Olwen is the longest of the surviving Welsh prose tales. 

‘Culhwch and Olwen’ probably first appeared in written form in the late-10th or early-11th century. The text survives as an incomplete version in an early 14th-century manuscript known as the White Book of Rhydderch and a complete text is found in the slightly later manuscript called the Red Book of Hergest (c.1375–1425).  Lady Charlotte Guest produced the first translation of the story into modern English which was included in her translation of The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh tales containing much pre-Christian Celtic mythology. 

Culhwch and Olwen is the most archaic text in the Mabinogion collection and often referred to as ‘the Oldest Arthurian tale’ for good reason as it is argued that certain features indicate an oral existence of parts of the tale which was written in South Wales, probably the St Davids area, c.1090.6

Culhwch's quest is the well-known tale-type celebrated as 'Six Go Through the World' or more popularly as 'The Giant's Daughter'. According to Bromich  & Evans7 the core of the story, can be traced to the Greek tale of the Argonauts and a Celtic parallel 'The Wooing of Emer'. 

Culhwch and Olwen - Red Book of Hergest

The Quest
In the tale Arthur’s is required to help his first cousin Culhwch marry Olwen the daughter of the chief giant Ysbaddaden. Culhwch’s step-mother has set a condition on him that Olwen is the only girl he can wed. The giant knows that he is fated to die once his daughter marries and will therefore do all he can to prevent it, he therefore sets a series of “anoethau”, difficult or impossible tasks, for the would-be-groom to complete. 

These tasks are focused on the preparation of the wedding feast and grooming the giant. A series of boar hunts is the main focus of the tale, taking up nearly half of the forty tasks, in which firstly Culhwch has to obtain the tusk of the boar Ysgithyrwyn in order to shave Ysbaddaden and then to acquire the razor, comb and shears lodged between the ears of the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth to dress the hair of the giant. 

Bromwich & Evans see the tale as forming three distinct parts:

1. The first begins with the birth of Culhwch and the quest imposed upon him by his wicked stepmother which brings him to Arthur’s court.

2. Secondly, Culhwch and his companion’s reception at the fortress of the chief giant, who then lists the anoethau or difficult tasks imposed on them by the giant.

3, The third part is constructed from the accomplishment of ten of these tasks – which mirrors traditions of certain archetypal feats which traditionally performed by Arthur and his men.8

Each of the first two sections ends with a long list; the first the so-called Arthurian Court List containing over two hundred names of men and women invoked by Culhwch as guarantors of the privileged gift that he demands from Arthur when he is accepted as his kinsman, an act symbolized by the cutting of Culhwch’s hair by Arthur. Culhwch then demands that Arthur obtains for him Olwen the chief giant’s daughter.

The second part is the list of forty anoethau imposed by the chief giant of which the boar hunts take over nearly half and without doubt the hunting of the Twrch Twryth is the climax of the story.

Of the forty tasks set by the chief giant we are only told of ten that are completed, otherwise if the story detailed how each task was completed it would have been a very long tale indeed. It is apparent that the author of the tale utilized existing folk-tales for those tasks that we are told are achieved: the freeing of prisoners; the taking of the giant's sword; taking feeding vessels (cauldrons); the taking of the giant's beard; and the boar hunts.9

In summarising the tale Doris Edel sees Culhwch and Olwen as consisting “of a series of originally independent Arthurian adventures, the majority of which stem from native epic-heroic tradition. This Arthurian material, with some later accretions, is brought together within the framework of the story of Olwen's wooing by Culhwch - this framework being formed by a combination of the step-mother theme with the theme of the quest for the bride. The fusion of the Arthurian episodes with the story of the wooing has only been partly realized, which is attested by the fact that Culhwch, the suitor, is not once mentioned during the accomplishment of the tasks set by Olwen's father.”10

Culhwch is only successful with the assistance of Arthur and a selection of his followers with super-powers. Indeed, the 'followers' more-or-less take over the tasks eclipsing Culhwch's part in the quest: after assisting him in finding the giant's fortress and declaring his love for Olwen, he is not heard of again until the end of the story. As the chief giant points out, the result is entirely down to Arthur and his men.

"......  the tale as a whole is strongly dominated by the figure of Arthur and Culhwch disappears completely from the scene until the final episode.”11 


Notes & References
1. Lady Charlotte Guest, translator, The Mabinogion, Dent, 1906, (Reprinted 1910), pp.332.
2. Oliver Padel, The Nature of Arthur, in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, No 27 1994, p.3 fn 8.
The Mirabilia claims “….. and men come and carry the stone in their hands for the space of a day and a night, and on the morrow it is found upon its pile”.
3. Chris Grooms, The Giants of Wales: Cewri Cymru, Edwin Mellen Press, 1993, p.167-8.
4. Rachel Bromwich & D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, UWP, 1992, p.148.
5. Grooms, op.cit.
6. Will Parker, Culhwch and Olwen
7. Rachel Bromwich & D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, UWP, 1992, Introduction.
8. Ibid.
9. 
- Brynley Roberts, Culhwch Ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints Lives, in Arthur of the Welsh, UWP, 1991 (Reprint 1999), p.76.
10. Doris Edel, The Arthur of 'Culhwch and Olwen' as a figure of epic-heroic tradition. Reading Medieval Studies, IX. 1983, pp. 3-15.
11. Ibid.


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Monday, 21 November 2022

The Date of the Mirabilia

“Certainly there is much about the early Arthurian tradition that might fit a god or supernatural hero. ……... This Arthur seems to belong in a world of ‘magical realism’, set apart from the abodes of man.”1 

It is generally accepted that the case for a “historical” Arthur begins with the battle list contained in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons, dated AD 829/30), the earliest surviving copy found in the Harleian manuscript 3859 dated AD c.1100. A single chapter provides the earliest narrative of Arthur in which he appears as ‘dux bellorum’, commander of the armies of the kings of Britain. The Harleian manuscript is the earliest and most complete text, possibly a direct copy of the original. The archetype may well have been the “certain very ancient book in the British language” presented to Geoffrey of Monmouth by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, which provided much of the source material for his 12th century 'The History of the Kings of Britain' (Latin: De gestis Britonum, or Historia Regum Britanniae).2

The Historia Brittonum was commonly referred to as “Nennius” following the preface in several manuscripts attributing the work to a cleric of this name who claimed to be “disciple of Saint Elved” (Elvodugus) commonly identified with Elfodd bishop of Bangor AD 755. But the assertion of Nennian authorship has largely been rejected ever since David Dumville claimed the preface to be a secondary addition, however, some scholars still argue for retention of Nennius’s authorship. 

Contained within the same manuscript and appended to the first sixty-six chapters of the Historia Brittonum is a collection of British genealogies, the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), a list of the Cities of Britain (Civitates Brittaniae) and an untitled list of topographic marvels called the 'Wonders of Britain' (Mirabilia Britanniae). 

From the earliest references a figure called Arthur, we assume the same character as featured in the battle list, became attached to marvellous landscape features. Two such items are recorded in this list of ‘marvels’ or ‘wonders’ appended to the Historia Brittonum as chapters 67-76. The first marvel is the story of Carn Cabal (Cafall) a stone bearing the footprint of Arthur’s dog made when hunting the giant boar Twrch Trwyth:

1. “There is another wonderful thing in the region which is called Buelt. There is in that place a heap of stones, and one stone superposed on the pile with the footprint of a dog on it. When he hunted the boar Troynt, Cabal, who was the dog of Arthur the soldier, impressed his footprint on the stone and Arthur afterwards collected a pile of stones under the stone, whereon was the footprint of his dog, and it is called Carn Cabal. And men come and carry the stone in their hands for the space of a day and a night, and on the morrow it is found upon its pile”3 

Carn Cabal (illustration from Guest's Mabinogion)

The second records the ever changing size of the tomb of Arthur's son Amr (Anir): 

2. “There is another wonder in the country called Ergyng (Ercing). There is a tomb there by a spring, called Llygad Amr (Licat 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. Men come to measure the tomb, and it is sometimes six feet long, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. At whatever measure you measure it on one occasion, you never find it again of the same measure, and I have tried it myself.”4

From this evidence as presented in the same manuscript it would appear that there were two Arthurs; a battle leader (the dux bellorum) of the post-Roman period, and a mythological figure associated with landscape features as seen in The Mirabilia. Clearly, the Arthur of The Mirabilia is at odds with the Arthur of the Nennian battle list; however, if the battle list in the Historia Brittonum was not a historical record but a legendary account then the two Arthurs become compatible.

Thomas Green has suggested that some of the entries in the Arthurian battle list have a mythological characteristic to them, arguing that a good case can be made for seeing Cat Coit Celidon (‘Battle of Coed Celyddon, the Caledonian Forest’) as the entirely mythical 'Battle of the Trees' recorded in the poem 'Kat Godeu' from the Book of Taliesin. Similarly, Green suggests the attack on the fort of Guinnon has all the appearance of an Otherworldly battle of the sort recorded of Arthur in the 8th-century (or earlier) Preiddeu Annwn. And the tenth, the ‘battle on the bank of a river which is called Tribruit’ is suspiciously similar to the Arthurian battle Traeth Tryfrwyd recounted in the poem Pa Gur? (What Man is the Gatekeeper?) in which Arthur is fighting werewolves (dogheads) and Garwlwyd who is also found in the Triads as Gwrgi Garwlwyd ('Man-dog Rough-grey') who killed one of the Cymry every day, and two on Saturday to avoid killing on Sunday. The fact that a battle from a mythical Welsh poem fought against supernatural creatures on the shore of the Tryfrwyd also appears in a so-called 'historical record' of the Historia Brittonum speaks volumes as to the author's sources and must cast serious doubt on the authenticity of the Arthurian battle list contained at Chapter 56.

There has been much debate as the dating of Pa Gur? Current opinion favours a 10th-century composition, although arguments have been forwarded for a 9th or even 8th-century origin. However, the poem clearly reflects an early mythological Arthur, fighting witches and supernatural monsters of a similar vein to the Arthur of The Mirabilia and Culhwch and Olwen. Patrick Sims-Williams suggests the poem may have been written near the south-east Welsh border, incidentally where the core of The Mirabilia are concentrated. If Sims-Williams is correct in locating the author of Pa Gur here it confirms a body of Arthurian lore was extant in this region from an early date, prior to the composition of the battle list in Historian Brittonum chapter 56.

Celtic scholar John Rhys,5 amongst others of the period, saw the primary figure as mythological from the pre-Christian Celtic world, and the leader of the sub-Roman period as a secondary development. Few Arthurian scholars would agree with Rhys today as the pendulum swings back favourably towards belief in a historical Arthur.

In a recent series of articles we have looked as evidence for a pre-Nennian Arthur, that an Arthur extant prior to the battle list of the Historia Brittonum which recorded Arthur the dux bellorum as victorious in twelve battles culminating in the battle of Badon. We find evidence for the existence of an Arthur by four individuals all so named ‘Arthur’ in the period AD 550-650.  All these individuals had links with Irish royal families in western areas of Britain but none could be considered 'THE ARTHUR' of Badon from the Historia. However, it must be noted that that the 9th century Historia Brittonum and 10th century Annales Cambriae are the first texts to associate the battle of Badon with Arthur; contemporary sources such as Gildas (later followed by Bede) failed to link the victory with Arthur.  

It is commonly believed that these four men of Gaelic descent must have been named after the memory of some military superhero from previous generations. The contemporary Welsh would not use the name ‘Arthur’ as if it carried some taboo, but this clearly did not apply to the Irish immigrants. Were these four men named after the battle leader at Badon or a surviving tradition of a mythological figure with origins in the pre-Christian world of the Celts, as envisaged by John Rhys?

To determine if Rhys was correct in arguing for a mythological primary figure we must consider which came first; the battle leader or the figure of the supernatural world? In doing so we are pitching Arthur the dux bellorum of the Historia against the Arthur of supernatural wonders of The Mirabilia.

Nicholas Higham poses the question, “If a ‘mythological’ Arthur was already the subject of storytelling in Wales when the Historia was written in 829–30, then might this be the ultimate source of the ‘historical’ figure who first appears therein? In that case Arthur’s emergence into history could be secondary to the figure of pagan mythology.”6

The case for a mythological Arthur rests on a body of Medieval Welsh literature where we find this same figure of Arthur leading a band of warriors raiding the Otherworld and stealing magic cauldrons, fighting giants, witches and hunting supernatural monsters. This Arthur was able to pass at will between the realms of myth and man; clearly this is clearly beyond the capabilities of a historical figure.

The essence of this mythological Arthur is found in the tale Culhwch and Olwen, poems such as Pa Gur? and Preiddeu Annwn, and of course The Mirabilia. Although these works are contained in later manuscripts their origins have been dated to the 9th and 10th centuries. It is significant that these early tales and poems include references to Arthur the ‘soldier’ (Latin = ‘miles’); yet this figure is a far cry from the King Arthur of Britain who becomes conqueror of Europe as portrayed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. In the vast majority of pre-Galfridian (before Geoffrey) texts, Arthur is involved in predominantly supernatural adventures. For this reason alone it is essential that Geoffrey’s impact on the Arthurian legend is fully appreciated and not underestimated.

The Wonders of Britain
The list of topographic marvels known as the Wonders of Britain (Mirabilia Britanniae) has been generally accepted as part of the original content of the Historia, but it is separated from the first sixty- six chapters in the earliest complete text (the Harleian MS 3859) by British genealogies, the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), and the list of the Cities of Britain (Civitates Brittaniae).

The Historia has come down to us in several versions in over fifty manuscripts including, Harleian 3859, Chartres 98, Vatican Recension, Sawley Recension and even an Irish version, but unfortunately the archetype is no longer in existence. The Mirabilia does not appear in the Vatican recension but it is otherwise a near ubiquitous element of the Historia in its later recensions. Higham considers that The Mirabilia is unlikely to be of the same hand as the Historia with both the Civitates and The Mirabilia being very different in both style and purpose to the first sixty- six chapters of the Historia. Higham argues that The Mirabilia is therefore better treated as a separate text which was assimilated to the Historia.7

In most current versions of the Historia, The Mirabilia can be found as chapters 67-75, consisting of twenty marvels, immediately following chapter 66. The first mirabile listed is found at Loch Lomond in Scotland,8 however, without doubt the primary group are located in south- east Wales, the Severn valley, Ceredigion and the southern March (2–7, 9–14). Found in the midst of these is a miraculous ash tree found beside the river Wye said to bear apples (8). A further four have been appended (15–18) which are found in Anglesey with the final two relating to Ireland completing the list. 

Locations of The Mirabilia (after Higham, 2018)

In writing his chronicle of the The History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth drew on many sources. It is evident from his use of certain mirabilia that he used a copy of the Historia Brittonum or the original thereof. Geoffrey has Arthur in Scotland following his victory over the Scots and Picts, in which he blockaded his enemies for a fortnight at Loch Lomond, where his companion Hoel is amazed by the sixty rivers, islands, crags, and eagles’ nests of the loch. This is a direct lift of features attributed to Loch Lomond in the Historia Brittonum. Hoel is then told about two other wonders by Arthur, which also derive directly from the Historia Brittonum. It is likely Geoffrey used these wonders simply to show some knowledge of Scotland.9 

The Historia goes South
The author of The Mirabilia seems to have drawn from existing groups of marvels in compiling his list, drawing the first four marvels, the Anglesey and the Irish items, probably from separate sources. Yet, the central group, marvels 5 to 14, are noticeably different in their presentation; each are are short individual narratives on their own merit, rather than a simple annotated list. This suggests that the author was personally acquainted with this group of marvels from south-Wales and the Marches. For example, in reference to measuring Amr ‘s tomb he claims “I have tried it myself”.10 

This bias suggests that the text originated from this area and the author likely from this area himself. Whereas it is clear that the first sixty-six chapters of the Historia Brittonum are a product of North Wales for Merfyn Frych, king of Gwynedd. Indeed, Higham sees The Mirabilia, as appended to the Harleian manuscript, as a work complete in itself and copied from a south Welsh archetype written no earlier than the mid- 950s - over a century later than the Historia.11 

Higham argues that although the genealogies attached to the Historia, as noted above, seem to derive from a north- Welsh genealogical collection, this was then “fleshed out and adapted to the needs of Dyfed’s court” in the 950s. Likewise, the Annales Cambriae were compiled in their extant form in the south, no earlier than 954. On that basis, he argues, the Harleian is best understood as a text copied from a manuscript written at St David’s in or after the mid-10th century. Higham suggests that both the Civitates and The Mirabilia are likely to have been attached to the Historia there and should be treated as independent texts written in southern Wales. He argues that it is very likely that the archetype of the Historia was limited to the first sixty- six chapters.

This is nothing new, it was suggested by Joseph Stevenson back in the early 19th century, who wrote in a the Preface to his translation of the Harleian Historia Brittonum, “The genealogies of the Saxon monarchs, and the Treatise de mirabilibus Britanniæ, formed, as we may believe, no part of the original work; but being of remote antiquity, and found in the greater number of the manuscripts, they have been inserted in the present edition.”12 

Higham concludes that, “It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the Civitates and The Mirabilia are very unlikely to have been written by the Historia’s author. If it had not come south earlier, then the Historia may have reached Dyfed with Merfyn’s great- grandson, Hywel Dda, when he became king c.904”13 

There is no reason why we should interpret Higham’s argument as dating The Mirabilia to the mid-10th century, however, we can accept the case he presents for the date The Mirabilia became attached to the Historia. As Higham points out, it is very likely that The Mirabilia was in existence in south Wales as a separate, independent text long before being appended to to the Harleian manuscript. As we have seen above Stevenson regarded The Mirabilia as “being of remote antiquity.”

In truth we do not know when The Mirabilia was first written down, however as Rachel Bromwich states, the tradition of Carn Cafall and the hunting of the Twrch Twyrth was certainly already ancient by the 9th century.14

The two Arthurian marvels are both in origin folkloric explanations of topographical features. However, Brynley Roberts suggests the specific Arthurian elements appear to be later accretions, providing evidence that “by the 9th century Arthur had become a popular hero inasmuch that folklore motifs were being attached to his name and that he was a figure of sufficient fame to attract local legends into his orbit.” 15

Roberts adds that this was a feature of the later development of the Arthurian legend and examples of Arthurian topography are widespread, however, these two Arthurian marvels (Carn Cabal & Amr’s tomb) are the earliest examples which can be securely dated. Indeed, these two Arthurian marvels bear all the hallmarks of being a direct product of their author who had first hand knowledge of the topographic folklore of south-east Wales and along the English border long before their attachment to the Historia Brittonum.16

Individually these two marvels may not provide substantial evidence for Arthurian origins but when  combined together with other evidence, such as the hunt for the Twrch Twyrth, they achieve greater significance in the study of the provenance of the Arthurian legend.


Notes & References
1. Nicholas Higham, King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Yale University Press, 2018, pp. 149-50.
2. Geoffrey of Monmouth claims to have translated the “certain ancient book in the British language” into Latin for his History of the Kings of Britain. No doubt much of his source material was taken from the Historia Brittonum, however, the extant versions of the HB are all in Latin, not the British tongue. Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, had obtained this “ancient book” from Wales (Bern MS).
3. John Morris, ed & trans, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, (Arthurian Period Sources, 8), Phillimore, 1980
4. Ibid.
5. John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1891.
6. Higham, 2018, p7.
7. Higham, 2018, pp. 179–80
8. Morris, 1980; in his translation of the Historia Brittonum, incorrectly translates stagnum Lumonoy as “Loch Leven” when it should read as “Loch Lomond”.
9. Ben Guy, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Welsh Sources, in A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Brill, pp.31–66.
10. Brynley F. Roberts, Culhwch Ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, In Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts, Editors, The Arthur Of The Welsh: The Arthurian Legend In Medieval Welsh Literature, University Of Wales Press, 1991 (Second Edition, 2008), p.89-90.
11. Higham, 2018, p.226
12. Joseph Stevenson, Nennii: Historia Britonum, Preface, p.xviii, 1838.
13. Higham, 2018, p.180
14. Rachel Bromwich & D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen: An edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale UWP 1992, Introduction, p.lxvi.
15. Roberts, 1991, p.92.
16. Ibid.


Edited 8/12/22

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Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Richard Whiting: The Last Abbot of Glastonbury (complete PDF)

A series of articles that appeared on this blogsite from 2011 to 2017 featuring the fate of the Last Abbot of Glastonbury assembled here as one complete essay to download, print, share.


Monday, 31 October 2022

How Fionn gained Wisdom

A Halloween Tale
Probably one of the most popular tales from the Fenian Cycle is the story of how the great Gaelic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill gained wisdom. Later stories tell of the Salmon of Knowledge in which the young Fionn gained his wisdom by accidentally tasting part of a magical salmon. However, an older version from the 8th century tells a different story:

“Fionn and his men the Fianna were was cooking a pig at Badhamair on the bank of the Siúir river, Cúldubh the son of Ua Birgge came from the sí fort on Femen and snatches it from them. For three nights Cúldubh did this but on the third occasion Fionn chased him to the sí fort on Femen. Fionn kills him with a spear throw as he entered the sí fort, so that he died over there. As Fionn stretched his hand towards him, an Otherworld woman inside, with a wet vessel in her hand after distributing drink just beforehand, tries to shut the door. As she closed the door on the sí fort, and Fionn inserted his finger between the door and the post. Then he put his finger into his mouth. When he took it out again he began to utter an incantation; mystic knowledge illuminated him.”

Other variants of this old tale claim that it was Fionn’s thumb that the door to the Otherworld closed on and he then put it in his mouth. Either way, it is clear that the digit, thumb or finger was the only part of Fionn’s body that entered the Otherworld and therefore the carrier of knowledge. 

Dáithí Ó hÓgáin sees the idea of Fionn entering the Otherworld, a visit to world of the dead at Halloween, as the background to the tale, surviving only obliquely in the older tradition.


Slievenamon
In this tale the Otherworld being called Cúldubh (literally “black-haired”) comes out of the cairn (sí fort or sidhe) on Slievenamon, the "mountain of the women". This mountain seems very apt for the tale.

The mountain of Slievenamon rises 2,365 ft out of a plain  known in Old Irish as Mag Femin, or the Plain of Femen. The mountain is steeped in folklore associated with Fionn mac Cumhaill. The remains of prehistoric burial cairns, seen as portals to the Otherworld, are strewn across the summit. One of these ancient burial cairns, with a natural rocky outcrop on its east side, has the appearance of a doorway. This may be where Fionn is said to have trapped his finger in pursuit of Cúldubh.

There is evidence of a ceremonial avenue leading up to the cairn from the east. Another burial cairn and a ruined megalithic tomb are sited on the mountain's north-east shoulder. These burial cairns are known as Síd ar Femin (Sí ar Feimhin, the "fairy mound over Femen") and were seen as the abodes of gods and entrances to the Otherworld.

The Salmon of Knowledge
By the 12th century the old story above seems to have been largely forgotten and replaced by the tale of the Salmon of Knowledge.

A poet named Finnéices (“éices” meaning “seer”, possibly an ancestor of Fionn), commonly called Finnegas, had been on the Bóinn (River Boyne) for seven years seeking the salmon of Féc’s Pool, for it had been prophesied to him that he would eat this fish then nothing would remain unknown to him after that. The young Fionn, known here by the name "Demne", when seven years old was being tutored by this old man to learn the art of poetry.

The salmon itself may have received its wisdom by eating the nuts of hazel trees which had dropped into the Bóinn. The hazel tree is particularly associated with magic and folklore and its nuts were believed to hold concentrated wisdom.

The old man finally caught the salmon he had been waiting for and told Demne to clean and cook it,  warning the young lad that he must not taste it, as he knew that the first one to taste the fish would gain its special knowledge. As Demne was cooking the fish, he burnt his thumb and immediately put it in his mouth to ease the pain. When he took the salmon to Finnegas, the old poet immediately noticed a difference in his young pupil’s face and asked if he had eaten anything of the salmon? Speaking the truth Fionn said that he had not eaten the salmon, but had burnt his thumb and put it to his mouth. Finnegas knew then that Demne had absorbed eternal Knowledge and was to become a great man and he then named him “Fionn” from that point on.


Reference:
Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, Fionn MacCumhaill: Images of the Gaelic Hero, Gill & Company, Dublin, 1988. 


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Friday, 14 October 2022

Where was King Harold Buried?

The Death of the King
On a hilltop 7 miles from Hastings in the early morning of 14 October 1066, two great armies prepared to fight for the throne of England.

The last Anglo Saxon king of England Harold Godwinson, who had been crowned King Harold II just nine months earlier, faced the army of Duke William of Normandy, who believed he was the rightful heir to the throne. By the end of the day thousands lay dead on the battlefield, including Harold, and his two brothers Gyrth and Leofwine, and by Christmas the victorious William would be crowned King of England in London.

Harold and his army had just won a hard-fought battle at Stamford Bridge, near York, where he had defeated another claimant to the English throne, Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, on 25 September. This was a decisive victory for the Anglo Saxon army which effectively brought to an end the Viking period in England.

When Harold heard of William’s landing on the south coast he immediately marched his battle-weary army from Stamford Bridge to meet them in the battle for the crown of England near Hastings in East Sussex.

Tradition claims Harold fell after taking an arrow in his eye as depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry.


However, an early source describes Harold being hacked to death by Norman knights:

"The first, cleaving his breast through the shield with his point, drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood; the second smote off his head below the protection of the helmet and the third pierced the inwards of his belly with his lance; the fourth hewed off his thigh and bore away the severed limb."

At dusk, after some nine hours of ferocious fighting, the battle was finally over, with the death of their king the Anglo Saxon Army disintegrated, the outcome would change the course of English history.

In 1070 Pope Alexander II ordered the Normans to do penance for killing so many people during their conquest of England. The following year William founded an abbey on the site of the battle, which, according to an early tradition, its high altar was placed on the exact spot where Harold’s body had been found. This became known as Battle Abbey.

Where Was King Harold Buried? 
The whereabouts of the remains of King Harold after the battle have become something of a mystery. We would expect to find him buried in Westminster Abbey alongside other Anglo Saxon kings such as his predecessor Edward the Confessor. But we have no grave for Harold.

One story claims the body of the King was found on the battlefield with his two brothers nearby but Harold had been stripped of all his regalia and could not be positively identified. Edith the Fair, his mistress or second wife, came to identify his dismembered body by from 'marks known only to her'.  Yet where his body went from there remains a mystery; there are claims that Edith had responsibility for the burial.

A chronicler says that Harold’s mother Gytha offered William her son’s weight in gold in order to recover the body and give it a Christian burial. But William refused and Harold’s remains were brought to the Duke’s camp and given to a certain William Malet, said to be related to both William and Harold. However, there is no account of what William Malet did with Harold’s remains if he did indeed have responsibility for them after the battle.

The story goes that Duke William did not want Harold’s burial spot to become a shrine for discontented Anglo Saxons and had his remains buried at a secret location. The contemporary writer William of Jumièges claimed that Duke William had the body buried under a cairn on the shore. Other stories claim that William gave Harold a Viking burial, in otherwords he was cremated.

The Waltham Chronicle records two monks who took part in the search for Harold’s mutilated corpse. Waltham Abbey in Essex is a favoured spot for Harold’s burial to where his body was transported in secrecy at the order of Duke William. Edith had a demesne not far from Waltham Abbey and his family owned the local manor, unsurprisingly sources from the 1100s refer to Harold's burial at Waltham Abbey. However, as was fashionable in these times for high status individuals, it is possible that Harold had a 'heart burial' in which his heart was buried at Waltham and a separate location to the rest of their body.

Waltham Abbey Church 

There has been an Anglo Saxon church on the site at Waltham since the 7th century. Harold had received the church as part of the estate of the Anglo-Danish Thegn called Tovi the Proud, which had passed to King Edward the Confessor on Tovi’s death. The 12th century Waltham Chronicle contains the Legend of the Holy Cross which records how, in 1016, a large black marble cross had been found on a hill in Somerset on another of Tovi’s estates and taken to Waltham by an ox-cart. The Holy Cross became an item of veneration and pilgrimage.

Harold rebuilt and lavishly endowed the church, which was re-founded and dedicated in 1060. A tradition claims that Harold’s relationship with Waltham began when as a child he had been miraculously cured of paralysis by the Holy Cross of Waltham.

Harold stopped at Waltham Abbey on his dash south to Hastings following the battle at Stamford Bridge to pray before the Holy Cross but it is claimed that on this occasion the cross bowed down to Harold - an ill omen. His Anglo Saxon army used “the Holy Cross” as their battle cry at Hastings.

It seems any grave memorial to Harold at Waltham was lost and the Holy Cross with it during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the last of the religious houses to close in 1540. The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross is all that remains today and serves as the parish church of the town of Waltham Abbey.

Harold's 'grave stone' at Waltham Abbey

In the 1960’s grave stones, which we see today, were placed on the former site of the High Altar of Waltham Abbey as a memorial to Harold. The inscriptions reads: 

"Harold King of England. Obit 1066" and "This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried 1066".

The Search Continues
In the 1950’s an idea developed that Harold’s body had been moved to Bosham Church at Chichester Harbour on the West Sussex coast. This of course may tie in with William of Jumièges’s claim that Duke William had the Anglo Saxon king buried on the shore.

During work at Bosham Church in 1954 an Anglo Saxon grave was discovered near the chancel close to a grave containing the remains of King Cnut’s 8-year old daughter who had drowned in the nearby river. The head and part of a leg were missing which seemed to match the description of Harold’s death by the Norman knights as above.

 Analysis of the bones in the Anglo Saxon grave at the time suggested someone older than Harold but it does remain a possibility when we consider legends that Harold did not die in the battle of Hastings but lived on to old age.

The 12th century Vita Haroldi, originally kept by Waltham Abbey, claims that Harold left the battlefield alive and went abroad to raise military support to retake the throne. Unsuccessful in raising an army he returned to England and ended his days living as a hermit before dying at St John’s Church in Chester. 

This theory of Harold’s survival was developed further and in 2014 amateur historian Peter Burke had a ground-penetrating geological radar survey carried out at Waltham Abbey to try and locate Harold’s grave. The theory, based on the Vita Haroldi, argues that the king recovered and lived for 40 years after the battle of Hastings before going back to Waltham to die. 

Stratascan, the team that discovered Richard III’s grave two years previously, said the scan was positive and identified an unmarked grave close to markings on an ancient wall in the grounds of Waltham Abbey Church as highlighted by Mr Burke. An application was submitted to English Heritage to exhume the grave believed to be the final resting place of King Harold but has so far been denied.

In 2017 two amateur historians followed Harold’s trail to St Michael's Church, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, claiming four surviving, intact high status Norman stone coffins in a vault under the church may hold Edith, King Harold and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. Edith is recorded in the Domesday Book as the owner of the Manor of Stortford.

This short piece barely scratches the surface; theories about the whereabouts of the body of Harold abound yet it seems the true story of what happened to the last Anglo Saxon king of England after the battle of Hastings will never be known for certain.


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Sunday, 2 October 2022

An Irish Arthur?

Arthurian References in the Irish Annals
In the previous post Evidence for a pre-Nennian Arthur we noted four men of the 6th-7th centuries all bearing the name ‘Arthur’ from Irish Royal families with British connections:

• The first historically attested Irish Arthur is found in the family of Áedán mac Gabráin, king of the Scottish Dál Riata from 573-608 AD. 

• Artuir ap Bicuir 'the Briton' of Strathclyde who killed an Ulster chieftain. The Irish Annals record the death of Mongán mac Fíachnai of Dal Fiatach in Strathclyde in 625,

• Artur, grandfather of Feradach, documented in 697,

• Arthur ap Pedr of Dyfed, grandson of Vortipor (“tyrant of the Demetae” as mentioned by Gildas). This Arthur is mentioned in the Harleian Genealogies and the Irish text The Expulsion of the Deisi.

It has been argued that these four men were named after a peerless warrior, a military superhero who had by that time attracted mythological properties that the native Britons were so in awe of they could not use the name. Clearly no such qualms applied to these Irish families who were seemingly unaware of this great soldier, mighty defender of the Britons and had complete disregard for any reverence of the name. 

Dál Riata 

Mongán mac Fíachnai
The most intriguing of these connections with these “Irish Arthurs” is Artuir ap Bicuir 'the Briton', who killed Mongán with a dragon stone from the sea.1

The Annals of Tigernach (T627.6) records Mongán’s death:

Mongán son of Fiachna Lurgan, stricken with a stone by Artur son of Bicoir Britone died. Whence Bec Boirche said:

Cold is the wind over Islay;
There are warriors in Cantyre,
They will commit a cruel deed therefor,
They will kill Mongán son of Fiachna
.2

This poem by Bec Boirche, a 7th century bard, suggests that Mongán was killed on Islay in a battle against warriors from Kintyre who fought with Artur against the Dal Fiatach of Ulster. Islay may have been a disputed territory at this time.

The account of the death of Mongán mac Fiachnai by a stone dealt by Artur, the son of a British king, is supported in other Irish Annals. An account of the same event is included in Chronicon Scotorum Annal CS625.3

An apparent historical figure Mongán is also a well-known figure in later Irish mythology; tales of Mongán appear in the early 12th century manuscript Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow). He has significant connections with the Otherworld and Manannán mac Lir, the sea god of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

In the tale Scél asa mberar combad hé Find mac Cumaill Mongán (A Story from which it is inferred that Mongán was Finn mac Cumaill) Mongán is also said to be a re-incarnation of Finn, as the title suggests, a character who shares many traits with a pre-Galfridian Arthur of the Britons.

Mongán also appears in Immram Brain the 7th or 8th century text in which Bran mac Febail embarks upon a quest to the Otherworld; The Voyage of Bran. After travelling over the sea for several days Bran and his crew come across Manannán mac Lir in his chariot riding over the sea towards them. Manannán tells them that this may seem like a body of water to them, to him it is an Otherworldly plain. Manannán also foretells the birth of his son as Mongán mac Fiachnai. 

There is more than one copy of Mongán’s conception, Compert Mongáin, in addition to that contained in Lebor na hUidre it is also found in Leabhar Buidhe Leacáin (The Yellow Book of Lecan). The tale of Mongán’s birth bears some remarkable similarities to the conception of Arthur of the Britons in later legend. Here the Irish sea god, Manannán mac Lir, claims that Mongán is his son and was conceived while his father Fíachnae mac Báetáin, king of Dal Fiatach, was away assisting Áedán mac Gabráin on his campaigns in Britain. While Fíachnae is away Manannán takes on his appearance and sleeps with his wife Caíntigern to produce Mongán. Mongán bears the patronymic ‘mac Fiachna’ despite his misattributed paternity. 

The story of King Arthur’s conception as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) has Arthur’s father Uther take on the appearance of Gorlios, Duke of Cornwall, by Merlin’s magic, so that he can enter the castle at Tintagel and sleep with the Duke’s wife Igerna. We can dismiss any possible borrowing from Geoffrey’s later work which was not very popular in Ireland with no Middle Irish translation known, although Latin manuscripts were in circulation. Arthurian literature did not flourish until the late medieval period in Ireland and this does not appear to be influenced by Geoffrey’s work, but more from continental Romance.4

The Arthurian Legend in Ireland
Supporting the apparent disregard for the Arthurian legend is evidenced by the treatment of the Arthuriana in the Lebor Bretnach (LB), the Irish translation of the Historia Brittonum (HB). As we have seen above, the Arthurian legend came late to Ireland; the date for the reception and translation of the HB was proposed as the second half of the 11th century by van Hamel editor of the Lebor Bretnach. Irish Historian Ann Dooley sees the date as slightly earlier, circa 1050.5

Elements of the Arthurian legend did not receive the most attention in the translation, the material apparently not of particular interest to the Irish literati, resulting in the Arthuriana being handled rather carelessly.6

In the Irish version, LB ch.43 the battle list, it simply refers to Arthur who fought with the Britons, omitting his military leader status as “dux bellorum” and the reference to the Kings of Britain. The battles are summarised carelessly except for the religious appeal of the symbolism in the eighth battle at the “fort of Guinneain” in which Arthur carried the image of the Virgin which seemed to attract the attention of the Irish translator.7

The “Miracula” section (Wonders or Marvels of Britain) chapters 44-46 treat the Arthurian material in a similar manner. The tenth marvel refers to the cairn for Arthur’s dog, Cafal without reference to the legendary boar hunt as found in the Latin text of the Historia Brittonum. The eleventh marvel in the Irish version recalls the tomb in the region of Ercing of varying size but without reference to Arthur or his son Amr at all.8

Artur, son of Bicuir the Briton
We find the earliest mention of the Britons of Strathclyde in Irish literature. Beinne Britt, or Beinne the Briton (we find various spellings), led a Strathclyde army at the Battle of Magh Mucruimhe (Cath Maige Mucrama), against the Irish in the middle of the 3rd century. Some Annals date this battle earlier, toward the end of the 2nd century. 

Location  of Strathclyde (Ystrad Clud) 

Cath Maige Mucrama
In the tale Cath Maige Mucrama. Lugaid MacCon of Cork was foster-brother to Eogan son of Aileel Aulom, king of Munster. He and Eogan quarrelled over the possession of a fairy minstrel. They assembled their forces and fought a battle at Cenn Abrat which ended in the defeat of Lugaid. Lugaid went to Alba (North Britain) where he took refuge with the king of that country. This king was grandson of the king of the Britons and son-in-law of the king of the Saxons. He took up Lugaid's cause, and the combined forces of the Britons and Albanachs (North Britons) set out to attack Art MacCon, the king of Ireland. When the two armies met, one of the British detachments was led by Beinne the Briton who is fairly well known in Irish heroic literature. 

From the Annals of the Four Masters:

M195.1 After Art, the son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, had been thirty years in the sovereignty of Ireland, he fell in the battle of Magh Mucruimhe, by Maccon and his foreigners. In the same battle, along with Art, fell also the sons of his sister, Sadhbh, daughter of Conn, namely, the seven sons of Oilioll Olum, who had come with him against Maccon, their brother. Eoghan Mor, Dubhmerchon, Mughcorb, Lughaidh, Eochaidh, Diochorb, and Tadhg, were their names; and Beinne Brit, King of Britain, was he who laid [violent] hands upon them. Beinne was slain by Lughaidh Lagha, in revenge of his relatives….9

In addition to the 9th century tale of Cath Maige Mucrama, Beinne Britt is also mentioned elsewhere in Irish literature: as we have seen he appears in the Irish Annals as the father of the man who killed Mongán, and in the tale of the Battle of Crinna. There is also a passage in the Coir Anmann, a compilation which gives popular etymologies for certain well-known names, that records the "Three Fothads" who were the offspring of Lugaid Maccon and Fuiche the daughter of Beinne Brit, king of Britain.10

However, as a king from the early medieval kingdom of Strathclyde (Ystrad Clud) he is noticeably absent from the early king lists, although it must be admitted the early years are not good, yet Gaelic storytellers claim him as an ancestor of MacCailín, the Gaelic style of the Duke of Argyll. Clearly a Strathclyde king who fought at Cath Maige Mucrama in the 2nd or 3rd century cannot be the same as the father of the man who killed Mongán in the 7th century; were there two kings called Beinne Britt, or was this a title rather than a personal name?

In the Agallamh na Senorach (AnS -Tales of the Elders of Ireland), an early 13th century compendium of Fenian tales, there is a tale of Artuir, son of Benne Brit, here a member of the Fian, the band of Finn, in a tale in which he stole three of Finn's hounds and took them across to Britain:

“Artuir, son of Benne of the Britons, was at that time a member of the Fian with a retinue of twenty-seven. Finn had arranged a hunt on Benn Etair and the hounds let loose. Finn sat at Carn in Feinneda (The cairn of the Fian-warrior) between Howth and the sea. Artuir was positioned on the coast, between the hunt and the sea to prevent the quarry swimming away. While he was at the edge of the water he saw three of Finn's hounds, Bran, Sceolaing and Adnuall and decided on a plan. He and his twenty-seven companions would cross the sea and take the three hounds with them to their own land. Executing the plan they landed at the estuary of the Sandy Shoal in the territory of the Britons. They then went to the Mountain of Lodan, son of Lir, and hunted there.

"After the hunt, the Fian found three of Finn's hounds were missing. He ordered three companies of the Fian to carry out a search but the hounds were not found. Finn washed his face then put his thumb under his Tooth of Wisdom so that the truth would appear to him.

"It was Artuir, son of the King of the Britons" he said. Nine men were chosen to go after them. They found Artuir sitting on his hunting mound, they captured him and killed all of his twenty-seven companions. They returned across the water to Finn with Artuir, the heads of the twenty-seven men, the three hounds Bran, Sceolaing and Adnuall, and two horses, a stallion and a mare, from these stock have come all the horses of the Fian. Artuir remained Finn's warrior till the day he died."11

Conclusion
The late arrival of the Arthurian legend in Ireland would explain why there was no reason why the use of the name should hold any prohibitions for the Irish immigrants of the 6th-7th centuries. The poor treatment of Arthuriana in the Irish version of the HB and the disregard for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work clearly demonstrates that Arthur of the Britons did not hold any great interest for the Irish storytellers. This only too well demonstrated by the tale in Agallamh na Senorach   in which Arthur is subservient to Finn. Thus, there is no reason why these Irish families would not have used the name; they were probably not aware of the Arthur of the Britons until they arrived in the British Isles. There is also the possibility that, on these rare occasions, when they came into contact with stories of this "Great Arthur" they used the name purposefully to demonstrate their military prowess over the local Britons.

Despite the various references to Beinne Brit in Irish Literature, he remains elusive in the British record and attempts to uncover him come to a dead end. We cannot even be certain if Beinne Brit’s son Artuir as mentioned in the AnS is meant to be THE ARTHUR. However, the enigmatic connection between Mongán and Arthur and Finn is suggestive of a tale that binds these three men together and suggests a knowledge of Arthur the Briton before the 9th century Historia Brittonum on both shores of the Irish Sea.


Notes & References
1. Joseph Falaky Nagy, “Arthur and the Irish”, in: Helen Fulton, ed., A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. pp.117–127.
2. The Annals of Tigernach (T627.6) - Translated by Gearóid Mac Niocaill Electronic edition compiled by Emer Purcell, Donnchadh Ó Corráin. CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College Cork, 2010. 
3. Chronicon Scotorum Annal CS625 - Translated by William M. Hennessy, Gearóid Mac Niocaill, CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork (2003) (2010).
4. Joshua Byron Smith, "The Reception of Geoffrey of Monmouth in Ireland", in Joshua Byron Smith and Georgia Henley editors, A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Brill, 2020, pp.475–476.
5. Ann Dooley, "Arthur of the Irish: A Viable Concept?", in Arthurian Literature XXI: Celtic Arthurian Material, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, DS Brewer, 2004.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Cath Maige Mucrama - Background information - References in the Annals of the Four Masters: Irish Sagas Online 
10. Clark Harris Slover, Early Literary Channels Between Britain and Ireland, Studies in English, 1926, No. 6, pp. 5-52.
11. Ann Dooley, op.cit. Appendix pp.26-28.



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Saturday, 10 September 2022

Evidence for a pre-Nennian Arthur

 The Historicity of the Arthurian Battle List - Part II

"[The use of the name Arthur] …… reflects a desire to capture whatever mythological kudos and religious potency already surrounded the name with British/Welsh families avoiding its use primarily because of its newly-acquired mythological connections which might have been considered un-Christian"11

Whence the name Arthur?
In Part I of the Historicity of the Arthurian Battle List we explored the possible origins of the Arthurian battle list as contained within the 9th century History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum – aka 'Nennius') raising more questions than answers. However, although the History of the Britons is our first securely dated documentary evidence for Arthur, it is clear that the figure of Arthur was known well before the 9th century and was not invented by its author. So who was this Arthur who inspired the record of twelve successful battles against the Saxons, culminating in the Battle of Badon? In hope of finding any answer to this we need to examine evidence for Arthur prior to the 9th century.

Our first call is four figures who appear in the mid-6th and the early 7th centuries all named Arthur who are often cited as evidence for the existence of a historical Arthur, named in the memory of a great military leader.

All these occurrences of the name as recorded in Gaelic sources are connected to Irish settlers belonging to high-status Irish royal families who founded the kingdoms of Dyfed (Demetae) in south-west Wales, and Dalriada in southern Scotland: 

    • The first historically attested Irish Arthur is found in the family of Áedán mac Gabráin, king of the Scottish Dál Riata from 573-608 AD. Adomnán's Vita Columbae (The Life of Columba) records how Áedán's sons Arthur and Eochaid Finn died in battle against the Miati some time before 597. This is confirmed by the Annals of Tigernach.; 

    • Artuir ap Bicuir 'the Briton' of Strathclyde(?) who killed an Ulster chieftain. The Irish Annals record the death of Mongán mac Fíachnai of Dal Fiatach in Strathclyde in 625. This is the Mongán of legend of legend whose real father was said to be Mananna mac Lir, the Irish Sea god; it is claimed that Mongán was conceived while his father Fíachnae mac Báetáin, king of Dal Fiatach, was away helping Áedán mac Gabráin on his British campaigns when his wife Caíntigern slept with Manannán mac Lir to produce Mongán. Mongán often bears the patronymic mac Fiachna, despite his true paternity. The record of Mongán’s death in the Annals of Tigernach has him killed by a stone thrown by one Artuir ap Bicuir, described as a Briton.

    • an Irish Artur, grandfather of Feradach, documented in 697; 

    • Arthur ap Pedr of Dyfed, grandson of Vortipor (“tyrant of the Demetae” as mentioned by Gildas). This Arthur is mentioned in the Harleian Genealogies and the Irish text The Expulsion of the Deisi.


Arthur’ was a very rare name both before and after this time and to have four appear in the genealogical record all within a generation or so of each other is a very unusual occurrence; notably, the name does not appear again in Welsh genealogies for several hundred years. All appear to have belonged to high-status Irish royal families with British connections. As the Arthur of the 9th century History of the Britons is clearly a British text with a British hero, not Irish, we require an explanation to how the fame of Arthur spread among the Irish as well as the Britons?11

These 6th-7th century Arthur’s are often presented in the argument for a historical Arthur that claims they must have all been named after a renowned British warrior probably from the generation previous.12 However, Ken Dark concludes:

"The account of Arthur in the Historia Brittonum can be seen as wholly fictional, representing our earliest glimpse of the Arthurian legend. But this legend may well have developed in the previous centuries from a genuinely historical figure, active either in the 'Irish' areas of Britain or in Ireland, in the sixth century. This figure, the ' Irish Arthur', as he might be termed, may have been a military hero among Irish elites with British connections in the later sixth and seventh centuries, and possibly also among the Britons. Perhaps we should look to Dyfed, even to Arthur son Pedr/Retheoir in particular, for this 'protypicaI Arthur'.13

Contra Dark, Caitlin Green asserts that clearly none of these ‘Irish’ Arthurs can plausibly be considered as the ‘original’ Arthur of the History of the Britons;  in accepting that Green is correct then how then do we explain the appearance these four men in the historical record all within a few generations of each other?14

Significantly, from what we know of their biographies, none of them has any connection with the events of the 5th century war of the Saxon federates and the battle of Badon. Green, quoting the authority of Rachel Bromwich, argues that to find four men all named after the historical Arthur… ‘would be a type of commemoration for which Celtic tradition offers no parallel.’ Green asserts that the only plausible explanation is that these men were not being named in memory of some historical figure from a previous generation or so, but after a character already renown in legend and myth that these Irish families came into contact with during their interactions with the Britons.15

The name ‘Arthur’ was likely commended to these Irish chieftains as that of a ‘peerless warrior’, a military ‘superhero’ as found in battle poems such as Y Gododdin and Marwnad Cynddylan, during their contact with the Britons. Green reasons that this would provide an explanation for some people with Irish connections at this time having used the name regardless of any native British superstitions against its use as suggested by Oliver Padel.16

Padel argues that “the absence of this name from British contexts is due to Arthur being regarded ‘with exceptional awe’ as a legendary hero of folklore, whilst the Irish ‘when they came into contact with the folklore as a result of their settlements in western Britain, need not have felt such reverence or reluctance'17

A detailed study of the Welsh genealogical tracts by Peter Bartrum’s found that not one single person of British descent in Wales (rather than Irish, such as Arthur map Pedr) bore the name ‘Arthur’ in the genealogies until the late 16th century at the earliest. Bartrum is therefore in agreement with Padel that the name may have been avoided by the Britons as it had some sort of awe and superstition attached to it.18 

Thus, Bartrum and Padel offer a feasible explanation for the peculiar avoidance of the name by the Britons who by the mid-6th century held ‘Arthur’ in sufficient awe and superstition that no one would use the name. However, the use of a legendary superhero’s name did not prove prohibitive to Irish-immigrants who may have adopted the name to boost their own military reputation. We find a similar situation among the Irish where the name of the mythical figure Cú Chulainn was likewise avoided by the Irish, suggesting that Arthur was regarded in a similar light.19



Notes & References
11. Nicholas Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History, Routledge, 2002, p.76.
12. See for example: John Morris, The Age of Arthur:  A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.
13. Ken Dark, A Famous Arthur in the Sixth Century? Reconsidering the Origins of the Arthurian Legend, Reading Medieval Studies, 26, pp.77-95 (2000).
14. Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007, pp.48-49.
15. Green, Ibid.
16. Oliver Padel, The Nature of Arthur, CMCS 27, 1994.
17. Padel, Ibid.
18. Peter Bartrum, ‘Arthuriana in the Genealogical MSS’, The National Library of Wales Journal, 1965, quoted in Green (2007:48).
19. Patrick Sims-Williams, ‘Cú Chulainn in Wales: Welsh Sources for Irish Onomastics’, Celtica 21 (1990), quoted in Green (2007:49).


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