Saturday, 27 March 2021

The Arthurian Legend Stamp Collection

In 1485 Sir Thomas Malory's epic account of King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere, the Knights of the Round Table and the Quest for the Holy Grail were published by William Caxton as Le Morte D'arthur.

To commemorate 500 years since the publication of Malory's stories, on 3rd September 1985 the British Post Office issued a set of 4 stamps designed by Yvonne Gilbert showing Arthur consulting Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere fleeing from Camelot, Sir Galahad and his Quest for the Grail and the sword Excalibur gifted from the Lady of the Lake. The stamps were available individually or in a presentation pack.

1985 Collection

However, the 1985 issue only told half the story; key elements such as Arthur's final battle with Mordred and the journey to Avalon were sadly missing. 

Now, for the first time since the appearance 1985, the Arthurian Legend has made a comeback and a set of 10 stamps first day of issue 16th March 2021.

There appears to be no particular reasons for this issue, the stamps do not appear to be linked to the release of a film or book, simply a celebration of the enduring Arthurian legend.

2021 Collection

The new issue features 10 stamps in the set designed by Jaime Jones with new illustrations of key moments in the Arthurian legend:

Merlin and the baby Arthur.
Merlin holds baby Arthur, the future king, whose origins remain shrouded in mystery, and in Merlin’s power, until Arthur is revealed to be Uther Pendragon’s rightful son and heir.

Arthur draws the sword from the stone.
Arthur’s birthright to the crown of England, according to later romance traditions, is confirmed when he pulls out the sword in view of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the whole court

Arthur takes Excalibur.
Arthur’s famed sword, Excalibur, is the gift of the Lady of the Lake, and a symbol of his tutelage by Merlin and his mission in the world.  Destined for greatness, Arthur excels in all human virtues.

Arthur marries Guinevere. Despite Merlin’s warnings, Arthur chooses Guinevere as his wife. Her dowry, Malory tells us, is the Round Table, which Arthur will use to build a fellowship of knights united around the values of loyalty and equality.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Arthur’s nephew and chief counsellor, Sir Gawain, here swings his axe to chop off the head of the Green Knight, whose deadly Christmas game of blows startles Arthur’s court and challenges its values.

Knights of the Round Table.
Around the Round Table, knights from Europe and all nations in the British Isles share the same values of loyalty and unite as equals to protect the weak and defend the realm.

Sir Lancelot defeats the dragon.
Emblematic since Arthur Rackham’s illustrations dating from the early 20th century, Lancelot’s slaying of the dragon shows God’s grace granted to Lancelot in the fight with the Devil/darkness, despite Lancelot’s own sins.

Sir Galahad and the Holy Grail.
Sir Galahad, the purest knight, is the epitome of perfection among Round Table knights, and the opposite of his father, Lancelot. 

Arthur battles Mordred.
Arthur and Mordred meet for the last time in battle, fulfilling their destiny: Arthur’s, to be mortally wounded by his own son, and Mordred’s, to commit the sin of patricide and treason.

The death of King Arthur.
Following the battle of Camlan the mortally wounded Arthur is ferried to Avalon on a barge by three queens. 

Royal Mail are offering the First Day Cover cancelled with the alternative Winchester postmark, which according to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D'arthur was the site of Camelot.

The presentation pack provides a "fact-packed" souvenir written by Professor Raluca Radulescu of Bangor University, a specialist in Arthurian romances including Sir Thomas Malory.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Review: Grail and Cosmos

Arthurian Explorations
Alby Stone

Today Alby Stone concentrates on writing fiction but many of us know him better from his fascinating and highly original non-fiction works such as the books published by Bob Trubshaw’s Heart of Albion Press: Ymir’s Flesh: North European Creation Mythology (1996); Straight Track, Crooked road: Leys, Spirit Paths (1998); and, Shamanism; Explore Shamanism (2003).

In later years he returned to his first love of writing fiction, and in late 2012 and early 2013 self-published a trilogy of novels: The Forgotten Stars; Secret Songs; and The Hand of Fire

I first stumbled across Stone’s work some thirty years ago as a regular contributor of articles for Bob Trubshaw’s earth mysteries magazines Mercian Mysteries and At the Edge, including such gems as: The Nine Sisters and the Axis Mundi; Penda the Pagan - Royal sacrifice and a Mercian king; The Cosmic Mill; Hellhounds, Werewolves and the Germanic Underworld.

Prior to the books mentioned above, he continued his association with Bob Trubshaw and produced several booklets for Heart of Albion Press back in the early 1990’s. Sadly these works are currently out of print with second hand copies sometimes attracting extortionate prices.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that three of these booklets with interrelated themes have been assembled together with an article from the now defunct periodical of the Pendragon Society as Grail and Cosmos: Arthurian Explorations (Independently published 2020, 162 pages), the common theme being King Arthur and the Grail:

  • A Splendid Pillar (1992)
  • The Bleeding Lance (1993)
  • The Questing Beast and Other Cosmic Dismemberments (1992)
  • A Head on a Platter (Pendragon Society, 1997)

In the introduction to A Splendid Pillar, Stone writes:

“The pre-Christian mythology of Celtic Britain has exerted a significant and widely acknowledged influence on the form and content of the medieval Arthurian romances……. The best example of this phenomenon is the Holy Grail itself, which can be traced back to the divine or magical vessels of Celtic myth: the cauldron in Branwen daughter of Llyr, which could resurrect the dead; the drinking horn of Gran Galed; ‘whatever drink might be wished for was in it’; the cauldron of Dyrnwch Gawr, which would not boil meat for a coward; the golden cup borne by the goddess who personifies Sovereignty in Irish tradition; the capacious cauldron of the Dagda; and so on.

“Yet, less than three decades after the Grail made its firs appearance in literature …… it had become transformed into a potent and inspirational symbol of Christianity, identified with the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood of Christ at the Crucifixion, associated with the Eucharist, and imagined as a touchstone of Christian faith and virtue.

“Even so, the Grail has retained all its heathen properties, more or less intact….”

This very much sets the tone for Grail and Cosmos. The Splendid Pillar is of course the axis mundi, a predominant of most traditional cosmological systems Stone tells us; conceptualised as the central point of the earth’s surface where the sky meets the underworld, the point to gain admittance to the Otherworlds; the realms of the gods or the spirits of the dead. Stone argues that in the Grail romances images of the axis mundi occur in two contexts; the Grail Castle and in adventures experienced on the way to the castle.

The Second Continuation of Chretien de Troyes' Perceval, for example, tells us that when trying to find the Grail Castle for the second time, Perceval arrives at the summit of Mount Delerous and sees a great pillar surrounded by fifteen crosses, He meets a girl here, the daughter of Merlin, who directs him on the correct path. Stone takes us through variant pillars in the tales of the Grail before concluding that this provides clear evidence that stories and characters of the pagan Celts has penetrated the medieval Grail romances. 

Yet, although these depictions are not directly relevant to the story, Stone asserts that they are introduced to guide or lead the quester to the Grail Castle, essentially providing information useful to the quest as in representations of the cosmic axis that facilitate travel to the Otherworld.

When the Grail is paraded through the hall of the Fisher King it is accompanied by various objects; tables, knives and platters, a candelabra, and a strange white lance that drips blood from its tip. In introducing the enigmatic weapon to the Grail romances Chretien described this as simply The Bleeding Lance

Stone sees the origins of the lance as strictly pagan although the Continuators’ of Chretien’s unfinished tale associated it with Christian imagery as the lance of Longinus, the weapon that pierced Christ’s side as he hung on the cross. The Celtic scholar RS Loomis is quoted by Stone as saying this was ‘natural but absurd’ and proposed alternatively that it was actually the spear of the Irish divinity Lugh. Loomis based his argument on the fact that the knight’s visit to the Grail castle strongly resembles Conn’s visit to Lugh’s palace in The Phantom’s Frenzy (Baile in Scail). Loomis supports his theory with reference to two other Irish texts that mention a fiery spear belonging to Lugh that is immersed in a cauldron of blood to keep it sedated and prevent it harming those who came near it.

After taking us through several comparisons, Stone reminds us of a tale of King Arthur in the 13th century Perlesvaus, or Le Haut Livre du Graal (The High History of the Grail), in which he is attacked by the Black Knight with a flaming lance that can only be quenched by the king’s blood. Arthur kills the Black Knight and his corpse is dismembered then carried away piece by piece.

This leads us fittingly to the third tale in Stone’s anthology, The Questing Beast and Other Cosmic Dismemberments which discusses in detail the two dismemberments in Perlesvaus: The Questing Beast and the Black Knight. Stone sees both incidents as based on archaic myth.

The Questing Beast is an obscure creature, smaller than a fox, whiter than fresh fallen snow. Perceval witnesses a bizarre event when he comes to a clearing in the Lonely Forest with a red cross at the centre, where there is a white-clad knight holding a golden vessel at one end while opposite is a maiden also clad in white garments and bearing a gold vessel.

The snow-white beast runs into the clearing terrified by a ‘litter of twelve in her belly yelping like a pack of dogs’. She goes to the white-clad knight then the maiden before turning to Perceval who is warned by the knight not to interfere with the beast’s destiny. The beast goes to the red cross and gives birth to twelve dogs which then immediately start to tear her apart. They leave the clearing and the white knight and white maiden gather up the flesh and blood of the beast in their gold vessels, then worship the red cross before leaving.

The other episode of dismemberment in Perlesvaus is the Black Night that we met above. Stone only sees two items in common with the two events: they both feature dismemberment in a forest clearing, followed by removal of the victims remains. However, the Black Knight episode and the fiery lance appear to be from older Celtic tradition.

Stone sees the presence of the white-clad knight as representative of the Irish god Lugh and the maiden in white as a goddess representing the Sovereignty of Ireland as they are depicted in the tale of The Phantom’s Frenzy, while the Black Knight’s lance suggests he also may be a manifestation of Lugh himself. From here Stone goes into some detail about sacrifice and Indo-European cosmogonic myth.

Finally, we come to the curious episode of A Head on a Platter as told in the 13th century Welsh romance known as Peredur, an offshoot from Chretien’s original Story of the Grail. In Chretien’s unfinished tale he describes the Grail, the centre piece of a ritualistic ceremony, as simply ‘a graal’, a common Old French word for a wide serving dish. In Peredur, which does not mention the Grail by name, it is a large platter (dysgl), in a shorter procession sequence, carrying a man’s head swimming in blood. 

Stone sees the bloody platter of Peredur in context with the lance that drips blood from its tip in the Grail procession. He argues that the lance is descended from the fiery spears of Irish myth that must be quenched in cauldrons of blood. These magical weapons are associated with lightning and made from fire. In turn he sees King Arthur’s sword that we know as Excalibur through the Romances as derived from Irish ‘caladboig’ (lightning sword) with its roots firmly based in Indo-European tradition.

This short book (150 pages) is essential reading for anyone interested in the sources of the Grail stories.

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Monday, 1 February 2021

Brighid’s return from the Otherworld

Today 1st February is Lá Fhéile Bríde, Brighid’s Day. It is of course also the traditional Gaelic festival of Imbolc or Imbolg, marking the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and the first day of spring.

The festival was Christianised and adapted as the feast of St Brigid yet many rituals still associated with the Saint’s Day clearly betray their pagan Celtic origins. 

Brighid is said to return from the Otherworld on 31st January, the eve of Brighid’s Day; after sunset she will emerge to walk the land bestowing protection, fertility and health on people and animals. But it is not only Brighid who returns after dark. 

It is also the night the Good People will emerge from the hills as the veil between the two worlds is breached. In some areas of Ireland a sheaf of corn or an oat cake were left outside on Brighid’s Eve to thank the Good People for the harvest and to ensure forthcoming good luck. 

On the dawn of Imbolc light from the rising sun enters several Neolithic mounds (passage tombs) including the Mound of the Hostages at Tara and strikes a slab at the back if the tomb as if opening a doorway to the world of the ancestors.

Brighid is said to be the only saint to return annually and her appearance on the eve of the fire festival, Imbolc, is testament to her roots going back to the ancient Celtic goddess.

There are many folk traditions associated with her return on Brighid’s Eve in Ireland, one well known custom is the Brideog procession in which a straw doll is paraded from house to house.

Brideog procession by Niamh Ní Ruairc (Wytchwood Creations) 

Another tradition is that a piece of cloth, known as the Brát Bhride (Brigid’s cloak), that is put outside at sunset on 31st January. The Brát Bhride which consisted of a ribbon, a garment, or a piece of linen, was typically placed on a nearby bush, or a window sill or tied to the handle of the front door. The colour of the Brát Bhride varied on the area, often it was a piece of red ribbon tied outside the door.

The brát is left over night and at sunrise, damp with the dew, is said to have been touched by Brighid during the night who would bestow it with healing properties which remained in the cloth, becoming more powerful over time.  The brat must be lifted before sunrise and in some areas washing it was forbidden. The brát would be laid on people to heal various ailments, curing infertility in women and easing childbirth. It is also said that wearing the brát would prevent young children from being carried off by the Good People. 

This tradition of a cloth being bestowed by the Goddess as she sweeps the land on her annual return from the Otherworld on the eve of her festival day may have a basis in the claim that it was Brighid who wove the first cloth in Ireland and worked into it white healing threads which were said to have kept their healing power for centuries. 

Seán Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint, Columba Press, 2005.
Brian Wright, Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint, The History Press 2009. 

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Sunday, 31 January 2021

The Fate of the Ninth Legion

The question of what happened to Rome’s Ninth Legion is one of the great mysteries of history. The sudden disappearance from all records at the start of the 2nd Century AD has brought about a multitude of theories about the fate of the Ninth.

The History
The Ninth legion, Legio IX, was among the oldest units in the imperial Roman army, first attested from evidence found at the Italian stronghold of Asculum in southern Italy 89 BC.

In 59 BC it was one of the four original legions led by Julius Caesar for his famous Gallic invasion. Caesar finally disband the battle weary veterans of the Ninth in 46-45 BC.

Octavian led the Ninth and six other legions into northern Spain in 29 BC to subjugate the tribes of the region. The ten year campaign resulted in the Ninth receiving its honorific title, Legio IX Hispana.

The Ninth legion was then sent to the Roman frontier in Pannonia in the early part of the first century AD. In 21 AD the Ninth was relocated to North Africa by the emperor Tiberius to combat a revolt led by Tacfarinas, a Berber. Following the successful defeat of Tacfarinas the legion was recalled to Pannonia where they remained until 43AD when it then formed part of Emperor Claudius’ invasion force that sailed for Britannia.

After battling hostile Celtic tribes for several years the Ninth was then stationed at Lindum Colonia, modern day Lincoln, in 55 AD.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe, their territory centred on modern day Norfolk, assembled a huge force and led a revolt against the Romans in Britain. Her campaign began in 61 AD with an assault on the Roman colony at Camulodonum, now Colchester.

At this point, the Ninth marched south to relieve the besieged Camulodunum but Boudicca's army attacked the legion before it reached the city; she annihilated the Ninth destroying the foot soldiers with just the cavalry escaping. 

Boudicca had come very close to defeating the Romans but her revolt was eventually crushed by the well disciplined fighting machine of the Legions. The Ninth was reinforced and relocated to Eboracum, modern day York. The Legion's northern base was to defend Rome's northern frontier.

Under the command of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Ninth marched into the unconquered north, modern-day Scotland, with the aim to consolidate Roman rule as far as the river Forth.

In 82 AD, as part of Agricola’s plan to defeat the Caledonians and secure the Forth-Clyde frontier, Agricola divided his force into three separate divisions, the Ninth formed part of the smaller force. The Caledonians duly attacked the smaller force ill-prepared in a turf and timber camp, subsequently the Ninth suffered massive losses. Agricola came to the aid of the Ninth with his other forces.

This is the last literary mention of Legio IX Hispana; following its serving with Agricola, all mention of the Legion in the literary sources vanishes without trace. 

The Mystery
The disappearance of the Ninth has long baffled historians and is one of the most enduring legends of Roman Britain; how could 5,000 of Rome's finest soldiers be lost in the Caledonian mist and disappear from the record without trace?

The legend of the Ninth stirred the public imagination in modern times by Rosemary Sutcliff in her 1954 bestselling novel "The Eagle of the Ninth" which detailed the story of Marcus Aquila, a young Roman officer, who ventures north of Hadrian's Wall to reveal the truth about his father, lost with the Ninth, and the whereabouts of the Legion's battle standard, the Eagle.

In 2011 the theme of Sutcliff's book was turned into a film, titled simply "The Eagle". 

The unknown fate of the legion has been the subject of considerable research and speculation. Historians argue that the Ninth did not disappear in Britain at all, claiming that both book and film are wrong, asserting that the legion was transferred to the Middle East, where, sometime before AD 160, they were wiped out in a war against the Persians.

In 1864 an inscribed stone tablet was discovered which records the last attested activity of the Ninth in Britain during the rebuilding of the legionary fortress at York (Eboracum) in 108 AD.

Now on display at York Museum the tablet reads:  'The Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus, son of the deified Nerva, Conqueror of Germany, Conqueror of Dacia, pontifex maximus, in his twelfth year of tribunician power, six times acclaimed emperor, five times consul, father of his country, built this gate by the agency of the 9th Legion Hispana.'

Furthermore, recent research has shown that an element of the Ninth was stationed at Nijmegen in Germania Inferior for a brief period after 121 AD. 

The York tablet and the Nijmegen inscription suggest that the legion was not destroyed in Scotland. However, an inscription dated from the time of Marcus Aurelius records all extant legions during his reign (161-180 AD) and significantly, Ninth Hispana is missing indicating that the Legion was lost before his reign. And yet, there still is the problem of the lack of evidence for the Ninth Legion ever leaving Britain.

The Book
Simon Elliot is the latest historian to tackle the enigma of the Ninth in his book "Roman Britain's Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispana?" due publication on 28 February 2021 (Pen & Sword Military)

Dr Elliot’s book explores the theory that the Legion was massacred in Caledonia and suggests their defeat could have prompted the construction of Hadrian's Wall, as well as the sending of reinforcements from Rome to replace the lost men of the Ninth Legion. 

He then investigates three alternative theories with regard to the fate of the Ninth: the legion was wiped out by rebels in Roman London; they were transferred to the Rhine; or that they were dismissed after failing to suppress an uprising in what is modern-day Palestine.                                                           

From the publisher:

"Legio IX Hispana had a long and active history, later founding York from where it guarded the northern frontiers in Britain. But the last evidence for its existence in Britain comes from AD 108\. The mystery of their disappearance has inspired debate and imagination for decades. The most popular theory, immortalized in Rosemary Sutcliffe's novel _The Eagle of the Ninth_, is that the legion was sent to fight the Caledonians in Scotland and wiped out there. But more recent archaeology (including evidence that London was burnt to the ground and dozens of decapitated heads) suggests a crisis, not on the border but in the heart of the province, previously thought to have been peaceful at this time. What if IX Hispana took part in a rebellion, leading to their punishment, disbandment and _damnatio memoriae_ (official erasure from the records)? This proposed ‘Hadrianic War' would then be the real context for Hadrian's ‘visit' in 122 with a whole legion, VI Victrix, which replaced the ‘vanished' IX as the garrison at York. Other theories are that it was lost on the Rhine or Danube, or in the East. Simon Elliott considers the evidence for these four theories, and other possibilities."

Dr Simon Elliott is an historian, archaeologist and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent where he studied for his PhD in Archaeology on the subject of the Roman military in Britain. He also has an MA in War Studies from KCL and an MA in Archaeology from UCL. For a day job he runs his own PR company, and is a former defence and aerospace journalist at titles including Jane's Defence Weekly and Flight International. He frequently gives talks on Roman themes and is co-Director at a Roman villa excavation. He is also a Trustee of the Council for British Archaeology. His website can be viewed at:

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Thursday, 31 December 2020

Camlan Plotted

Plotting Camlan: Letters from the Dead

An.93. Gueith camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt.
[The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell]

Armageddon Found
The journey to Camlan has been a long road, a quest that has covered all corners of the country. I set out on this path with no preconceived notions as to the location of Camlan. I knew, of course, that there are sites in Wales that bear that name today. Yet, any connections between these locations and the battle of Camlan has been dismissed as the earliest record of them does not appear until the 16th century. [Scott Lloyd, The Arthurian Place Names of Wales, UMP, 2017]

This is an absurd suggestion; the first written record of Stonehenge does not appear until the 12th century yet we know it has been in existence since the early third millennium BC. The date of a place name's first documentation is not justification for dismissing its potential ancientness.

The name Camlan is made up of two elements; “Cam” meaning crooked and “Lan” meaning which can be derived from “Glan” river bank, or possibly “Llan” a sacred enclosure. Armed with this etymology historical detectives have scoured the country to find a suitable location for, by all accounts, the battle that caused the end of days for the Arthurian realm, the collapse of the Round Table, and the death of Arthur.

Most are seeking a site in which the British would have encountered barbarians, be they Saxons. Picts or Scotti. But in Welsh tradition the battle is never associated with Saxons and Modred was certainly not the villain, this was introduced by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century.

Historians tend to favour Camboglanna Roman fort by Hadrian’s Wall as the site of Camlan based solely on the etymology of the name; “crooked bank” which is appropriate for the site but hardly unique.

For many years Camboglanna was identified with Birdoswald Roman fort on the Wall with the added appeal of a chieftain’s Dark Age hall that was suddenly abandoned in the early 6th century, the traditional date of the battle. However, it is now accepted that Camboglanna is to be correctly identified as Castlesteads Roman fort, the twelfth fort on Hadrian's Wall, some seven miles west from Birdoswald.  

Camboglanna was constructed 350 metres south of the Wall, being unique as the only fort built between the Wall and the rear Vallum to the south. An inscription dated to the 6th century is the only evidence for sub-Roman activity at the site. Overlooking the Cambeck Valley, Camboglanna guarded an important approach to the Wall. However, the site was drastically levelled in 1791 when the gardens of Castlesteads House were laid over it leaving no visible remains today.

This site immediately sounds tempting for the location of Arthur’s last battle but there is no record of any Dark Age battle here. Castlesteads went out of use when the Romans abandoned the fort in the 4th century. There are no Arthurian traditions here, no lore, no Dark Age battle to connect it with Arthur. 

We must reject it as a candidate for the site of the battle of Camlan. Furthermore, it is argued that the name of the fort should have evolved into “Camglann” by the 6th century but the entry in the Welsh Annals shows it as “Camlan” as it would have become by the 10th century when the Annals were written down and it immediately becomes questionable if it was indeed a contemporary entry.

Then we must also consider the fact that the entry in the Welsh Annals nicely fills the void of Arthur’s career, left open in the "Battle List" in the Historia Brittonum which list all of his victories. The Welsh Annals links from the peak of Arthur’s career at Badon to his death at Camlan and thus draws his biography to a conclusion. All considered, the historicity of the Camlan entry in the Welsh Annals certainly looks questionable.

If the Camlan entry in the Welsh Annals is suspect then we should look at the Welsh traditional accounts of the battle prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth, or certainly those accounts free of his influence.

I started the quest for Camlan by examining the Dream of Rhonabwy although a 12th century text it is recognised as portraying traditional Welsh detail similar to that found in the early 11th century tale of Culhwch and Olwen. 

In the tale Rhonabwy dreamt he was journeying with his companions across the plain of Argyngroeg and his intent was towards Rhyd y Groes on the Severn. As they travelled they came across a rider who said he was Iddawc the son of Mynyo but better known through his nickname Iddawc Cordd Prydain.

Iddawc tells Rhonabwy that was one of the messengers between Arthur and Mordred (Medraut / Medrawd in Welsh) at the battle and twisted their messages to each other to bring about the strife of Camlan. At least seven years has now passed since Camlan as Iddawc went to Y Llech Las to do penance, where he remained for seven years until he gained pardon. Yet, here Arthur’s forces are gathering for the battle of Badon, which has not yet happened and time appears to running backwards

We then came to the three men who escaped Camlan according to a triad embedded in Culhwch and Olwen; Morfran son of Tegid; Sanddef Pryd Angel and Cynwyl Sant the last to leave Arthur.

Yet, by the 17th century Arthur’s curious association with the Celtic saints had increased the number of survivors from Camlann to seven, Sandde and Morfran are consistent from Culwch and Olwen, but Cynwal Sant has changed to St Cynfelyn, with the addition of three other saints, St Cedwyn, St Pedrog  and St Derfel with Geneid the Tall unidentified, although it has been suggested he was Hefeydd Hir, one of the seven chieftains left in Britain when Brân departed on his disastrous journey to Ireland in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr from the Mabinogi.

The association with the saints continued in a late manuscript known as Bonedd y Saint (Descent of the Saints), which records the genealogical tracts of the early British Saints, and shows Cawrdaf listed as the father of Mordred, in turn the father of Dyfnog (§.51), a 6th century saint. 

Another genealogical tract lists Cawrdaf as the father of Iddawc, Agitator of Britain (§.88), the man who caused Camlan, the self-confessed traitor in Rhonabwy's Dream. Although we should be cautious in holding a high degree of confidence in these late genealogical listings, this does raise the intriguing proposition that Iddawc was the brother of Mordred.  

However, Mordred is notably conspicuous by his absence from Arthur’s warband in early Welsh poems such as Preiddu Annwn, Pa Gur, and significantly from Culhwch and Olwen in which the “court list” calls up nearly three hundred characters from Arthurian lore and beyond. Significantly, after appearing in the 10th century Welsh Annals, in the entry for Camlan, Mordred is largely absent from Welsh literature until Geoffrey uses him as Arthur’s arch nemesis.

Mordred and Gwenhwyfar are also absent from the earliest version of the Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) contained in the manuscript Peniarth 16. However, as later version of the Triads developed, recorded in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest (14th century), they both became implicitly involved with Camlan and according to the accounts contained within these later Triads the cause of the battle always involved Gwenhwyfar

In contrast, there are ample allusions to the Battle of Camlan in Welsh sources prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s early 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, indicating the existence of a lost story of Camlan in Welsh tradition, yet none of these accounts elaborate on the cause of the battle or infer that it was caused by Mordred and Gwenhwyfar. Indeed, apart from the entry in the Welsh Annals, neither Mordred or Gwenhwyfar appear in Welsh literature securely dated before Geoffrey’s story; thus their later involvement with Camlan is possibly due directly the result of Geoffrey’s influence.

Finally, we come to the earliest mention of Camlan as found in the 9th or 10th century Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau) from the Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin) containing topographic details of the graves of legendary Welsh heroic characters in stark contrast to the simple entry in the Welsh Annals:

The grave of Osfran’s son is at Camlan
After many a slaughter;
The grave of Bedwyr is on Tryfan hill 

Patrick Sims-Williams speculated that there seems to be an association between Osfran and Morfran without developing the concept further. I pondered the idea if Osfran was the Nightcrow paired with Morfran the Seacrow? Whatever, Osfran is the key to Camlan.  

I have plotted these characters associated with the Welsh traditional account of Camlan on the map and now looked for some sort of pattern. They appear to be laid out in a best-fit outer group and then an inner group.

Finally I joined the locations of Morfran at Llyn Tegid, with Osfran at Tywyn and found they intersected two of the three Camlan sites in Wales. I was convinced there was something in this association between the site of Arthur’s last battle and these mythological crows.

Unfortunately, it must be admitted, that none of these sites bears any early Arthurian traditions; Welsh poets remember the battle as a particularly bloody affair – is it really likely they would forget the location of such a catastrophic event?

When historical detectives have searched the British Isles and beyond for the site of Arthur’s last battle with similar sounding names in vain, we find that a place called Camlan, spelt exactly as recorded in early Welsh sources, at precisely and strategically in the border area of the old kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys. This site is quite appealing as it suggests civil strife between the two kingdoms as suggested by Gildas when writing in the 6th century he states that external wars have ceased.

We find Camlan situated by the River Dyfi (Dovey) beyond the pass of Bwlch Oerddws on the A470 between the village of Dinas Mawddwy and Dolgellau, a strategic route between north and south Wales. A memorial stone to mark the site of the battlefield was erected in 1994. This is accessed by a footpath at the rear of the Meirion Mill car park where the neighbouring field is called Maes-y-Camlan. 

North of Dolgellau, an outlier to the two sites near Dinas Mawddwy, the Afon Gamlan rises on the east slope of Y Lethr, the highest point on the Rhinogs and flows easterly through Cwm Camlan to discharge into the Afon Mawddach just south of the village of Ganllwyd, surrounded by the King's Forest Coed y Brenin. The A470 road passes through the village here and broadly follows the same direction of the old Roman road known as Sarn Helen which used to ford the Eden just before it joins with the Mawddach and Gamlan. The exact route of the Roman road is unclear but is known to pass the Roman fort of Tomen-y-Mur by the now redundant nuclear power station of Trawsfynydd further north along the A470.

The A470 is a lonely road where it passes through Coed y Brenin, the oldest and most extensive forest in Wales. It is easy to see the ford of a Roman road in a deep forest as an attractive site for an ambush. 

Intriguingly, we find the death omen of the “washer at the ford”, often a hag washing bloody garments at the ford of a river; if a warrior saw her washing his armour in the stream, it meant he was to die that day. In Celtic mythology she is known as Badb, an aspect of the Morrigan, known as the Battle Crow. 

In conclusion, I have not found the site of a historical battle but I seem to have stumbled upon the mythological origins of the Strife of Camlann as revealed by the three crows.

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Sunday, 27 December 2020

Osfran’s Son

Plotting Camlan:Letters from the Dead

The Cave of the Lads of Eyri
Long ago, the story goes, a local shepherd was collecting his sheep on mount Snowdon when one fell down to a shelf on Y Lliwedd. When he scrambled down the precipice to rescue the stray he stumbled across the narrow entrance of a cave. There was light within: he looked in and beheld a host of warriors without number all asleep, resting on their arms and equipped for battle. As he was squeezing in the shepherd struck his head against a bell hanging in the entrance. It rang so that every corner of the immense cave rang again, and all the warriors woke uttering a terrible shout, which so frightened the shepherd that he fled and never more enjoyed a day’s health. The cave has never been found since. 

The story of the "Cave of the Young Men of Snowdon” (Ogof Llanciau Eryri) belongs to the mythic genre of the sleeping king in the mountain. The classic tale of a king who once ruled over a golden age is said to have withdrawn with his knights into a mountain cave where he waits, sleeping but not dead, one day to return. It is often associated with King Arthur and several mountains in Britain claim the King is sleeping within. 

Tryfan overlooking Llyn Ogwen

How did these young men end up in this cave? When King Arthur returned to Britain after his campaign in Europe, he found the throne had been usurped by his nephew Mordred. Arthur pursued Mordred’s forces through the mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia) until they came to Tregalan just above Cwm Llan below Snowdon.

The two armies engaged at the pass now known as Bwlch y Saethau, the Pass of Arrows, between Yr Wyddfa and Y Lliwedd. Mordred’s archers let fly a rain of arrows at Arthur’s men, one of which mortally wounded Arthur who was then buried under a pile of stones, known as Carnedd Arthur on the summit of Yr Wyddfa.

After burying Arthur his men went up the ridge of Y Lliwedd, and then descended the precipice overlooking Llyn Llydaw into a cave in the face of the cliff. They sealed the entrance up behind them, sleeping in their armour awaiting the King’s return.

After the battle Bedwyr is said to have thrown Arthur’s sword into Llyn Ogwen (some say Llyn Llydaw immediately below the cliff face of Y Lliwedd), but he must have been wounded in the final battle and never made it back to the cave as he was buried on the slopes of Tryfan in the Ogwen Valley.

So much for local legend; it is impossible to date the survival of these oral tales but Bedwyr’s burial place is recorded in an ancient Welsh poem which has been dated to the 9th or 10th century, but may preserve an even older tradition. This same text provides the oldest mention of the battle of Camlan:

The grave of Osfran’s son is at Camlan
After many a slaughter;
The grave of Bedwyr is on Tryfan hill

The Graves of the Warriors
The earliest mention of Camlan is found in The Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau). It is a Middle Welsh poem dated to the 9th or 10th century, a collection of 73 englynion found in the 13th century manuscript known as the Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin). Additional stanzas appear in the later manuscripts Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) and the White Book of Rhyderrch (Llfyr Gwyn Rhydderch), yet the Black Book stanzas are considered the core text.

This text contains the first mention of Camlan in Welsh tradition, earlier than the 10th century entry in the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae). However, whereas the Welsh Annals, in their simple chronicle format, are conventionally regarded as “historical”, The Stanzas of the Graves contains topographic details of the graves of legendary Welsh heroic characters. Many of the characters are obscure, long forgotten heroes; Oliver J Padel sees the poem as memories of landmarks believed to be their graves.

However, some characters are known from the Mabinogi and early Welsh Arthurian literature such as Cai and Bedwyr who appear in tales such as Culhwch and Olwen. Needless to say, many of the graves cannot be located today.

The Stanzas of the Graves contains mentions of several Arthurian characters, but the most well known stanza is St.44 which records the fact that the grave of Arthur is unknown. This stanza is often cited in the legend of Arthur’s survival and future return. This legend was certainly extant in the early 12th century when the Canons of Laon visited Cornwall (1113) and a near riot broke out when the local people took offence to the suggestion that Arthur was dead. Even Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136) tells us that following the battle of Camlan the mortally wounded Arthur was taken to Avalon to be healed of his wounds. Geoffrey did not say Arthur was dead.

As we have seen, The Stanzas of the Graves tells us that Arthur’s trusty companion Bedwyr is buried on the slopes of Tryfan, This is without doubt the 3,000 ft high mountain in the Ogwen Valley in Snowdonia. As this is contained in the same stanza as the reference to Camlan it surely locates the traditional site of Arthur’s last battle in Wales also. 

So here we have a reference to Arthur’s last battle attached to the same stanza as Bedwyr’s grave on Tryfan in Snowdonia. Significantly, later Arthurian literature, such as Malory, also attaches Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere) to Camlan, indeed he is the knight who returns Arthur’s sword to the Lady of the Lake. As The Stanzas of the Graves tends to group associated lore together, Osfran’s grave will not be far away. Find Osfran and surely we can locate Camlan.

The Saint and the Stone
Osfran is a rare name in Welsh. Even worse, we are not even given the name of his son. Patrick Sims-Williams suggested the first element has an Anglo Saxon ring to it, such as in Oswald. 

Arthurian sleuths have played about with the name and come up with various concoctions, conveniently linking the name to topographic features to suit their argument for a particular location for the battle of Camlan. This is the biggest problem with today’s crop of modern authors who claim to have identified Arthur and solved the riddle of his battles in the north, south or west, and ultimately damages the credibility of the quest. Manipulating names to suit a self-generated theory is not good scholarship. Arthur is Arthur, not some similar name, or a warrior’s battle name meaning “The Bear”. Similarly Camlan is Camlan (note the spelling in Welsh Tradition), not something similar.

Mentions of the name Osfran are few and far between but we find another in the Canu I Gadfan (Song to Cadfan) a long praise poem to St Cadfan by Llywelyn Fard I. The poem links traditions and praise of Cadfan to Morfran, the first abbot and the church at Tywyn “near the edge of the blue sea”, in the ancient Cantref of Meirionnydd, which lay between the waterways of the Mawddach and the Dyfi.

Today this church at Tywyn is some three quarters of a mile from the sea, but was originally on a rising mound by the coast, only becoming land locked when the marshes were drained in the 18th century. The church at Tywyn is in indeed ancient; here we find the oldest known stone inscribed with the Welsh language.

St Cadfan's Church, Tywyn

St Cadfan's Church is situated in Tywyn in the county of Gwynedd, formerly Merionethshire, Wales. The church is noted for its Romanesque architecture and for housing the Cadfan Stone, one of four early medieval inscribed stones associated with the church:

Tywyn 1 (now lost) was first noted in 1698, when it stood in the churchyard, to the south-east of the Church. Its Roman inscription is thought to be 5th century in date. 

Tywyn 2, thought to be 9th century in date, presently stands upright in the north aisle of the church. It bears the earliest known inscriptions in Welsh.

Tywyn 3, a 7th to 9th century cross-inscribed pillar-stone, thought to have been found buried at Bryn Paderau (Pater Noster Hill) some 500m south-south-east of the church, at the point where it first comes into view. Modern Ordnance Survey mapping depicts the road connecting the two sites as 'Ffordd Cadfan'. The stone is thought to have possibly been a boundary marker associated with church land and was built into the tower (below the belfry window) in 1884. 

Tywyn 4, is currently located inside the church building, at its west end. It was first noted in 1986 after the demolition of Ynysmaengwyn mansion where it had been built into one of the outhouses. Originally a sundial dating to the 8th or 9th century, it is thought to have been originally associated with the church. 

Located some 150m to the west-north-west of the church is Ffynnon Gadfan (St Cadfan's Well) which in the 16th century was said to lie within the original churchyard which appears to have once been a larger curvilinear enclosure. The well reputedly cured rheumatism, scrofula and cutaneous disorders.  

The first documentary reference to St Cadfan’s Church was in 963 AD, when it is thought to have been the mother church of the region. 

A 12th century poet, Llywelyn Fardd, reportedly described the church as a whitewashed building with a ditch surrounding it, beyond which was a 'clas' or lay community, dependent on the church. The poet also emphasised the refuge and territorial protection conveyed by St Cadfan (and hence, by association, the church). The church was a place of pilgrimage at that time, where relics were kept and miracles reportedly occurred.

St Cadfan, also the patron of Llangadfan in Montgomeryshire, is credited with the foundation of the monastic settlement on Bardsey island where he is recorded as first abbot. He was traditionally the son of Eneas the Breton and crossed from Brittany (some say Llanilltud Fawr) to Wales with a party of other monks, many of these were said to be his relatives. It is claimed he established the first ‘clas’ in Wales at Tywyn in the early 6th century, traditional date AD 516. Fourteen of his companions are said to have founded churches in the area.

When Llywelyn composed his ode to Cadfan in the 12th century a man named Morfran was abbot at Tywyn. Morfran appears to have been lay-abbot of the clas at Tywyn and also steward of Cynfal castle (Castell Cynfael) 2 miles north east of Tywyn. The motte was built in 1147 by Cadwaladr ap Gruffudd ap Cynan with commanding views across the Dysynni valley. The castle was captured later that year by Cadwaladr’s nephews, Hywel and Cynan. Morfran’s efforts in defending the castle would appear to have been the inspiration for the Canu Cadfan.

In the poem Llywelyn goes on to praise the prowess of Osfran as a warrior:

“Like loud Osfran piercing the enemy’s shield,
A generous, magnificent shield prevailing over counterclaims;
And its giver-abbot dispenses favour:
To us he distributes from his church a multitude,
He arranges battle with the Lord’s consent
Morfran flowing with gifts, pride of a days entertainment.”

If Morfran’s defence of Castell Cynfael was the bard’s inspiration for Canu Cadfran, then the abbot seems to be compared to the warrior Osfran. If Osfran’s son fought and died at Camlan in 537, according to the Welsh Annals, then Osfran himself must have been a well known warrior in this area in the early 6th century, which would make him contemporary with St Cadfan’s arrival at Tywyn.

The Night Crow
However, I find the association of Osfran with Morfran intriguing. As you will remember from earlier posts in this series, Morfran was also the name of one of the three who escaped from Camlan according to a Triad embedded in the tale of How Culhwch won Olwen; “Morvran the son of Tegid, Sandde Bryd Angel and Kynwyl Sant”.

As the second element of both names, “fran” means crow (Morfran = sea-crow), could these two names be related in some way in the earliest story of Camlan? 

Now here's a daft thought: “Brân” can be a mutation of “Fran” meaning crow or raven, coupled with “Nos” meaning “night” would give Nosbran, corrupted to [N]osfran. As will be immediately obvious I am no etymologist, and please forgive my very limited knowledge of the Welsh language, but I am intrigued by the possibility that Osfran could have been the “night-crow” associated with Morfran the “sea-crow”? Did they have a role reminiscent of the two ravens of Norse mythology Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory)?

The Stanzas of the Graves cannot be considered a historical entry in any way as this is a catalogue of topographic folklore, detailing the graves of the warriors of Britain. Although it must be admitted that some warriors names and locations are obscure and may indeed be that ancient that their tales are lost to us. However, we find information of a similar ilk in the Mirabilia, appended to the Harlian manuscript of the Historia Brittonum where Arthur the soldier has become entangled with topographic folklore.

The question is burning a hole in the page: Was Camlan historical or mythical?

Whereas the veracity of the Arthurian battle list in the Historia Brittonum can be readily challenged with the Badon entry in the Welsh Annals incorrectly ascribed to Arthur and looking every inch like it follows the battle at Guinnion, many see the Camlan entry in the Welsh Annals as independent evidence for a historical Arthur with Camboglanna on Hadrian’s Wall favoured as the battle site on etymological grounds alone.

Yet, in Welsh tradition the battle has a distinctively Otherworldy tone to it. But clearly the account of Arthur’s last battle has been lost to us. We see glimpses of Camlan in early Welsh tradition such as the tale of Culhwch and Olwen and The Stanzas of the Graves, which seem to be a million miles away from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account.

Thomas Jones, ed., The Black Book of Carmarthen ‘Stanzas of the Graves’ Proceedings of the British Academy 53 (1967): pp.97–137.
OJ Padel, Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature, University of Wales Press, Second Edition, 2013, pp.37-38.
Patrick Sims-Williams, The early Welsh Arthurian poems, in: Bromwich, Rachel, A. O. H. Jarman, and Brynley F. Roberts (eds.), The Arthur of the Welsh, 1991, pp.33–71.

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Thursday, 24 December 2020

King Arthur’s Shield

In Castello Guinnion
We find the earliest mention of Arthur’s shield in the early 9th-century Cambro-Latin text Historia Brittonum. Several manuscript versions exist of this text with slight variants of the so-called Arthurian battle list, a short chapter that details the twelve battles of Arthur who here is referred to as the Dux Bellorum (leader of battles), not a king. The Historia Brittonum is often cited as historical evidence for Arthur yet modern historians tend to dismiss its historical value. However, a deconstruction of the Arthurian battle list is beyond the scope of this article; suffice to say that debate continues as to whether it was the work of the author was part of a carefully constructed synthetic history for the political purposes of the house of Gwynedd, or, at the other end of the spectrum, the battle may be the remnant of an Old Welsh poem as witnessed by the rhyming structure of battle site names; Dubglas with Bassas; Cat Coit Celidon with Castell Guinnion; Cair Legion with Bregion. 

Binchester (Vinovia) Roman Fort;
was this the site of Arthur's eighth battle at Castle Guinnion?

Here we are concerned with the iconography on Arthur’s shield; was it a Christian cross or a representation of the Virgin Mary from its inception in the Historia Brittonum:

“The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his shield and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother.” [Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, John Morris (Editor , Translator), Arthurian Period Sources Vol 8, Philimore, 1980]

The description of the eighth battle is by far the longest in the battle list, from 193 words in the passage, nearly a third, 60, are found in the record of the battle at castello guinnion; the centrality of the event in the passage clearly underlines its significance, yet  the location of the eighth battle is unknown beyond the Arthurian battle list. 

The description of the battle at Castle Guinnion has a legendary feel to it, similar to the reference to the battle of Badon in the same passage in the Historia Brittonum:

“The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's, and no one laid them low save he alone..” [Morris]

Debate goes on as to whether the battle of Badon should be attributed to Arthur, or not, as the contemporary historian Gildas fails to mention him as the leader fo the British at the siege of Badon Hill. The issue appears to resolve itself when we find an entry in the 10th century Welsh Annals (Annalaes Cambriae) claiming Arthur as the victor:

516 - The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors. [AC] 

The Badon entry in the Welsh Annals and the Guinnion passage in the Historia Brittonum are clearly very similar, indeed at first glance, we notice that the Badon entry looks suspiciously like it is derived directly from the eighth battle in the Arthurian battle list.

This has led to suggestions that they derive from a common source, or may indicate copying from the earlier manuscript to the later. Indeed, much discussion has been held over the years with regard to the old Welsh word scuit / scuid used in both entries and whether Arthur carried the religious icon, be it the Cross or the Virgin, on his 'shield' or 'shoulder'. Shoulder makes no sense; this must be a reference to the icon on his shield.

But no earlier source has been found; it is therefore likely the chronicler had knowledge of the account of Arthur's battle at Guinnion as contained within the Historia Brittonum and used it to put a Christian slant to the Badon entry when it was inserted into the Annals. It certainly seems unlikely that the same error for 'shield' or 'shoulder' would be committed twice and does suggest that the compiler of the Welsh Annals had the Historia Brittonum in front of him when he made the Badon entry.

The battle at castle Guinnion may well record a ‘Christian victory’ or a battle claimed as such in later years when the author of the Historia Brittonum wrote. Yet, it is doubtful that devotion to the Virgin Mother had reached Britain by Arthurian times, the first half of the 6th century. Marian devotion developed in the Eastern Empire, yet the oldest portrayal in the West is thought to be that of a mother and child from the catacomb of Priscilla (3d century). Western iconography of the Virgin borrowed heavily from Byzantium.

However, there is no evidence that Mariolatry reached Britain until later with the earliest Marian shrines not known until the early 8th century, such as Evesham (700 AD) and Tewkesbury (715 AD). Arthur had fought about two hundred years before this; Badon is generally accepted as having been fought around the turn of the 6th century, within 10 years of 500 AD, thereby accepting Arthur as the leader of the triumphant Britons at Badon fixes the date of his floruit.

According to Gildas the siege at Badon Hill was the culmination of the Britons fightback against the  Saxons. This is reflected in the Arthurian battle list in the Historia Brittonum which puts the battle of Badon at the end of the Arthurian campaign. The battle of castle Guinnion must therefore have taken place before 500 AD. It is unlikely that veneration of the Virgin was common in Britain as early as the late 5th century, but certainly more common by the time the Historia Brittonum was compiled in the 9th century as evidenced by the growth of Marian shrines. This suggests the passage was enhanced with the reference to the Virgin at the time of its composition. Further, early references to the shields of Dark Age Celtic warriors simply limewashed their shields which would shed dust on impact in battle.

The next mention of Arthur’s shield is found in the 11th century Welsh prose work, Culhwch and Olwen:

"excepting only my ship, my mantle, my sword Caledfwlch, my spear Rhongomyniad, my shield Wynebgwrthucher, my knife Carnwennan and my wife Gwenhwyvar."

Wynebgwrthucher (= face of evening) is not recorded in any other source and no description is provided of its decoration. But clearly later writers understood Arthur's shield to be decorated with an icon of the Virgin.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Arthur's shield bore an image of the Virgin; “upon which the picture of the blessed Mary, mother of God, was painted, in order to put him frequently in mind of her.” But strangely, Geoffrey names the shield as Prydwen (or Pridwen) meaning 'fair face'. However, in Culhwch and Olwen and the Preiddeu Annwfn (Spoils of Annwfn), an early Welsh poem from the Book of Taliesin, Prydwen was the name given to Arthur's ship. It wouldn’t be the first, or last, time Geoffrey confused native interpretations.

After Geoffrey, writing in the 12th century in his De Principis Instructione, Gerald of Wales failed to record the name of Arthur’s shield but claimed that the image of the Virgin was painted inside the shield and Arthur would kiss the feet going into battle:

“Indeed, more than all other churches of his realm he prized the Glastonbury church of Holy Mary, mother of God, and sponsored it with greater devotion by far than he did for the rest. When that man went forth for war, depicted on the inside part of his shield was the image of the Blessed Virgin, so that he would always have her before his eyes in battle, and whenever he found himself in a dangerous encounter he was accustomed to kiss her feet with the greatest devotion.” [Gerald of Wales, Liber de Principis Instructione, 1193]

Gerald is not considered the most reliable of witnesses, being somewhat of a medieval spin doctor. Of course after Geoffrey, the Continental Romancers took Arthur in to the world of Chivalry and the fellowship of the Round Table were adorned with shields displaying contemporary heraldic devices.

The Clawing Cat
Old French and Anglo-Norman sources mention a monstrous cat known as chapalu. The name means “bog cat” alluding to the creature’s association with water. The cat is recorded as fighting King Arthur; in the Vulgate Cycle the cat is nameless and Arthur is victorious but in L’estoire de Merlin the beast is referred to as the Devil Cat of the lake of Lausanne. In this version, Arthur kills the beast with his shield. Yet, in other French accounts the chapalu kills Arthur and then goes to Britain to claim the throne. It has been suggested that this is the scene depicted on the Otranto mosaic, seen below Arthur mounted on a goat, which sees Arthur being mauled by the chapalu and must have been in circulation as an oral tale before the cathedral floor was laid c.1165 AD.

The Otranto Mosaic

A similar account of conflict with a monstrous cat is recorded in the poem "Pa Gur yv y Porthaur" ("What man is the porter"), recording a dialogue between Arthur and the gate-keeper Glewlwyd, found in the 13th century Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (The Black Book of Carmarthen). The date of composition of this poem is considered to be much older than the manuscript and portrays Arthur and his retinue in a similar vein to that of Culhwch and Olwen in which they are in a fantasy world pitched against supernatural monsters. Yet the poem details many of Cei’s achievements, last included in the incomplete poem is Cei’s fight against the monstrous cat the Cath Palug. In Welsh this means the “clawing cat” but over time has become interpreted as the name of the beast. As the poem breaks off here we do not know the final outcome but we assume it was Cei who pierced the creature with his spear.

In the Welsh Triads (Trioedd Ynys Prydein), under the title of the Three Great Swineherds of the Isles of Britain, the third Swineherd, Coll son of Collfrewy, has a pregnant swine named Henwen who gives birth to a wolf cub, an eagle, and a kitten. The kitten is thrown into the Menai Strait by Coll but she swims across to the island of Mon (Anglesey) where she becomes known as the Cat of Palug, one of the Three Great Oppressions of Anglesey

The poem Pa Gur tells us how Cei goes to Anglessey specifically to fight lions and, as with Arthur, fights the Cat of Palug with his shield:

Cai the fair went to Mona,
to devistate Llewon.
His shield was ready
Against Cath Palug
When people welcomed him.
Who pierced the Cath Palug? 

In these accounts the monstrous cat (Cath Palug or the chapula) is killed with the shield, either Arthur’s or Cei’s. In some obscure accounts Arthur’s shield is described as made of glass in others it is described simply as “polished” without mention of the Virgin.

The Valley of Woe
It is claimed that a fragment of Arthur's shield was preserved in the church of St Mary of Wedale, at Stow, a Scottish village about 20 mile south of Edinburgh. [See for example: Battle 8 in King Arthur: The Mystery Unravelled by Chris Barber] However, once again the icon on Arthur’s shield is confused with the Cross.

The tradition of Arthurian relics held at Stow is recorded in the Sawley glosses, marginal additions, attached to a late version of the Historia Brittonum (Corpus Christi College Cambridge Manuscript 139 (CCCC 139). This version of the Historia was produced by several different hands from the monks of the Abbey of St Mary at Sawley, Yorkshire, dating from the late 12th or early 13th century. One of the glosses claims:

"Then Arthur went to Jerusalem. There he made a cross of the same measure as the health-bringing Cross. And there it was consecrated. And for three continuous days he fasted and kept vigil, praying in the presence of the Lord's Cross, so that the Lord gave victory by his sign over the pagans, so was it done. And he himself carried the image of Holy Mary, fragments of which were saved and greatly venerated at Wedale."

Here, as we have seen before, the Cross and image of the Virgin seem to be confused. The gloss clearly states that Arthur carried the image of Holy Mary, fragments of which were saved at Wedale. The three day vigil is reminiscent of Arthur’s battle at Badon as recorded in the Welsh Annals, which states that Arthur carried the cross for three days and three nights. Moreover, the website of the Parish Church of Stow St Mary of Wedale claims it was endowed with fragments of the True Cross, the symbol of Christianity, but associated with Christ more than the Virgin. [The website of the Parish Church of Stow St Mary of Wedale ]

Stow of Wedale is remembered as the site of a great battle, indeed a local tradition remembers it as one of Arthur's battles, with the name interpreted as The Dale of Woe. There may be something in this, as Stow is said to derive from the OE for Holy Place and Wedale from the OE for valley of the shrine. The first church here was apparently built around 600 AD, but claims that it was dedicated to the Virgin seem unlikely, as we have seen the oldest recorded shrines to Mary date to around a century later. 

And the story goes that after his victory, Arthur founded the first church, dedicated it to the Virgin Mary, and endowed it with fragments of the True Cross. The site of the original chapel is said to lie a mile south of Stow near St Mary's Well. 

Oddly enough, another marginal addition to the same manuscript states that '"Arthur" translated into Latin means "horrible bear"...' from the Welsh ‘arth’ = ‘bear’ and ‘uthr’ = ‘horrible’ and refers to Arthur as “the breaker of the jaws of lions”. So here the search for Arthur’s shield brings us once more to a strange association with fighting lions.

Edmund Chambers summarises; “No doubt the gloss referring to the journey to Jerusalem was inspired by the Crusades, some 13th century manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum include glosses and marginalia in an attempt to explain the carrying of the Holy icon into battle which claim that the relic of the Virgin was preserved at Wedale after the legendary King Arthur brought it back to Britain after a journey to Jerusalem with a relic of the True Cross through which he achieved his victories.” [Edmund Chambers, Arthur of Britain, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1927, reprinted 1966]

Thus, Chambers interprets the Sawley gloss as meaning that Arthur brought back from Jerusalem a relic of the Virgin AND a relic of the True Cross.

The Change of Arms
However, there is a late text that describes Arthur’s shield in detail and explains why Arthur adopted a new Christian coat-of-arms which replaced the Red Dragon. This episode has been termed "King Arthur’s Chapel Ride".

In the Perlesvaus (The High Book of the Grail), written around 1202 AD probably by a monk at Glastonbury Abbey, we find a strange account of King Arthur’s visit to St Augustine's chapel in the White Forest. One night Arthur’s squire dreams that he visits the chapel and sees a dead body on a bier squared by four gold candlesticks. The squire takes one of the candlesticks but is stabbed as he leaves by one of the Black Knights that guards the chapel. He cries out is his sleep which wakes Arthur and he finds the Black Knight’s knife in the squire’s side and then also the candlestick. Arthur presents the candlestick to the newly founded church of St. Paul in London.

Later Arthur visits the chapel and finds a hermit lying in rest. He overhears angels and devils vying for ownership of the hermit’s soul. He then witnesses a strange mass in which the Virgin and Child appear.

A very similar account appears in John of Glastonbury's 14th century Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey) but the tale, unsurprisingly, is placed within a Glastonbury context. In the Cronica, King Arthur is staying at a nunnery on Wearyall Hill and the chapel is that of St. Mary Magdalene at nearby Beckery.

In John’s account Arthur’s squire has a similar dream to that in the Perlesvaus, then Arthur visits the chapel at Beckery and again witnesses a strange mass with the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Following mass the Virgin presents Arthur with a crystal cross (now lost) which was said to be processed at the Abbey during Lent. The candlestick and knife were both presented to Westminster Abbey.

The Cronica claims that this event caused Arthur to change the arms on his shield to a Christian icon of a crystal cross on a green background with an image of the Virgin and Child in the top left hand corner substantiating the account given in the 9th century account in the Historia Brittonum of the 8th battle at Castle Guinnion. 

In studying the two episodes Alfred Nitze concluded that John did not use Perlesvaus as his source, but thought both accounts derived independently from a lost Latin text at Glastonbury, which would have been therefore the Latin source to which the author of Perlesvaus alluded to in a colophon at the end of his work:

“The Latin from whence this history was drawn into Romance was taken in the Isle of Avalon, in a holy house of religion that standeth at the head of the Moors Adventurous, there where King Arthur and Queen Guenievre lie”

However, John Carley’s edition of the Cronica has shown that John made much more imaginative use of his source material than Nitze was willing to concede and it is fairly certain that John borrowed heavily from the Perlesvaus in the episode of King Arthur’s Chapel Ride with some poetic creativity. [The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An edition and translation, James P Carley]

So finally, in John’s Cronica, some five hundred years after the event was first recorded, we find a clear description of the device on Arthur’s shield; it bears both a cross and an image of the Virgin. This explains the entry for Arthur’s 8th battle at Guinnion in the Historia Brittonum, an image of the Virgin, and the entry in the Welsh Annals for the battle at Badon, a cross.

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