Monday, 12 October 2020

King Arthur: A Life in Landscape

Following in the Footsteps of King Arthur
by Andrew Beattie 
published by Pen & Sword History, 2020

"The story of King Arthur is one of the best known in English history: he was the boy who was schooled by Merlin and who claimed his right to lead the Britons against the Saxons by drawing a sword from a stone; later, he was the warrior who congregated with his knights around a Round Table and who was given a magical sword, Excalibur, by the Lady of the Lake. These stories have been told and re-told hundreds of times - and over the centuries the actual figure of Arthur has retreated into obscurity, with many scholars suggesting that he was a mythical figure who never actually existed. Arthur has been the subject of thousands of books; yet this one tells his story in a way that is wholly new - through the places where the events surrounding his life supposedly unfolded. 

From Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, Arthur's reputed place of birth, to Slaughterbridge in the same county, one of the contenders for the location of his final battle against the Saxons, and from Cadbury Castle in Somerset, one of the numerous claimants to be the site of Arthur's fort of Camelot, to Glastonbury, where in 1191 his grave was reputedly discovered by local monks, the trail through some of England's most historic places throws a whole new light on this most compelling of legends." [from the Back Cover]

Andrew Beattie is an established author who writes cultural-historical titles including books on the series “Cities of the Imagination” and “Landscapes of the Imagination” stretching from Cairo to the Scottish Highlands. This is his second book for Pen & Sword; the first being “Following in the Footsteps of the Princes in the Tower” (2019). He also writes plays for children with his play “Arthur: Boy-King of Britain” performed by schools and youth groups in the UK, the USA and Australia. The author’s experience behind the pen makes this a joy to read unlike some pseudo-historical reconstructions of King Arthur’s empire by self-published authors.

The book is structured in to three parts; firstly the author examines the legend of King Arthur from its origins in the period AD 500-800, through the French chroniclers and Thomas Malory, to the 20th century. Refreshingly Beattie offers no fanciful reconstructions of who Arthur might have been and concentrates on the development of the legend through the ages.

Part Two is split into three chapters and forms the main body of the book, dealing firstly with the conception and birth of Arthur. This chapter centres on Tintagel, identified as the place of Arthur’s conception through Merlin’s magic by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The author looks at the castle constructed by Richard of Cornwall in the 13th century which he claims was purposefully made to look much older. Beattie then looks at the village of Tintagel and King Arthur’s Great Halls of Chivalry.

The second chapter titled the Quest for Camelot examines the potential sites for Arthur’s court at Winchester, Caerleon, Caerwent and Cadbury Castle. Beattie starts with the earliest accounts of Arthur’s base at Celliwig as recorded in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen on to Camelot in early Arthurian literature and its first appearance in the works of Chretien de Troyes. In writing of Arthur’s court at Winchester as defined by Thomas Malory, Beattie looks in detail at the Winchester Round Table, still to be seen today hanging on the wall of the Great Hall. In examining the south Wales sites of Caerleon and Caerwent the author eyes the Roman remains as being influential on later Arthurian writers from Malory onwards. Beattie closes this chapter by taking us to the ancient Somerset hillfort known as South Cadbury Castle, first identified as Camelot in the 16th century by John Leland, antiquary to King Henry VIII. 

Excavations by the Camelot Research Committee from 1966-70 led by Professor Leslie Alcock revealed the defensive structure was refortified in the late 5th or early 6th century; the classic Arthurian period. Since the 16th century an area on the plateau was known as “Arthur’s Palace”; here Alcock found evidence of a large Dark Age hall. Alcock was convinced Arthur was a historical figure, a belief that can be seen in his 1971 book “Arthur’s Britain”. In later life he distanced himself from this viewpoint and claimed there was no evidence for Arthur’s existence. Interest in the hillfort at Cadbury has waned with Alcock’s change of heart but it is still worth a visit today, if not for its Arthurian associations then for its impressive setting and huge ramparts.

Predictably the final chapter of Part Two deals with Camlann and Avalon and is appropriately titled The End of Arthur. Beattie starts his ending with looking at Arthur’s final battle according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey located this battle in Cornwall and the author takes us to Camelford and Slaughterbridge. Geoffrey had brought Arthur to life at Tintagel and has the king depart from his mortal existence only a few miles away; it seems his tale had turned full circle and ended back at the geographical beginning. There is little doubt that the large inscribed stone lying on the bank of the River Camel has influenced this view, indeed it is known as “Arthur’s Stone” and said to mark the site of the king’s grave.

After moving on to Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor, said to be where Arthur’s sword Excalibur was returned to the Lady of the Lake after the final battle at Camlann, we come to Glastonbury. Beattie spends some pages on the claimed site of Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury Abbey, discovered by the monks in 1191. Of course it is not possible to write of Glastonbury without mentioning the legend of Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail.

Finally, Part Three is a 25-page gazetteer of Arthurian sites. 

It must be admitted that Beattie’s book concentrates on Arthurian sites in the south of England, certainly the key sites he discusses are all south of the M4 motorway, well except Caerleon and Caerwent which are just a cock-stride north of it, which will certainly not please advocates of a Northern Arthur.

However, the sites listed in this book are well worth a visit, read it before you go or take a copy with you, it will certainly enhance your experience.

* * *

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Arthur: The King of Greece

A Certain Very Ancient Book Part IV

"Who was King Arthur? That question has puzzled researchers for hundreds of years, yet still, no consensus has been reached. However, whether it is concluded that he was a Celtic king or a Roman officer, or something in-between, there is one conclusion that virtually all investigators agree on: he was some kind of war leader who fought against the Saxons in Britain. This is a fair conclusion, but it misses - or ignores - something crucial. In the legends of Arthur, he engages in a monumental campaign into Europe and wages war against the Roman Empire. Few researchers even attempt to offer an explanation for this, most simply dismissing it as fiction. The few theories that have been offered to explain the historical origin of this part of the legend are invariably unconvincing and do not address the scale of Arthur's campaign in the legend. 

“In this book, the historical event behind this legend is revealed. Arthur's enemies are identified as real historical figures. Most importantly, the identity of the man who conquered Europe is discovered and it is shown exactly how he came to be known as King Arthur." 

King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe
Caleb Howells
Amberley Publishing, 2019.

From the publisher’s blurb on the inside front flap (above) we can expect a different approach in Caleb Howells’s book; instead of a reconstruction of King Arthur conquering Europe based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Historia Regum Britanniae, or more correctly De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons), the author aims to identify a real historical event that inspired the legend of King Arthur's Gallic conquest. 

Geoffrey cliamed that he had translated an old British book presented to him by Walter Archdeacon of Oxford into Latin. Geoffrey’s work, completed before 1139 AD, charts the exploits of the British kings from Brutus the Trojan to to the death of Cadwaladr in the 7th century. But the centrepiece of the De gestis Britonum is without doubt the rise and fall of King Arthur. From a character of supernatural legend fighting giants, witches and monsters, Geoffrey transformed Arthur into a figure of history, a national hero, a successful military leader who conquered much of Europe.

Many authors have produced reconstructions of Arthur’s European exploits such as King Arthur’s European Realm by Paul Sire (Mcfarland & Co., 2014). Recently in Arthur and the Kings of Britain (Amberley, 2018) Miles Russell proposed that Geoffrey skilfully weaved together early traditions with material pulled from post-Roman sources in order to create a national epic. In so doing, Russells argues, Geoffrey created a composite character gathered from the exploits of the ancient kings of Britain. Strip away the traditions of these ancient kings and there is nothing left for Geoffrey’s Arthur as a historical figure he claims.

I anticipated Howells’s book to continue along Russell’s line as it promised to reveal a real historical event that inspired the legend of King Arthur’s European conquest. And like Russell, he also sees King Arthur as a composite character, the legend inspired by more than the adventures of one man. 

Howells starts by revealing the identity of King Arthur. This he does by determining the date for the battle of Badon, the most historical event connected with King Arthur, first mentioned by Gildas in the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, a rant against the morals of the Britons wriiten in the 6th century. Providing no dates, in an ambiguous passage Gildas claims that Badon took place in the year of his birth, which since 44 years have passed. Conventionally, Gildas is considered to have penned the De Excidio around the mid-6th century, dating Badon to within ten years of 500 AD. The Venerable Bede, who closely followed Gildas for this era in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD, seems to suggest that it referred to an event 44 years before Badon , i.e. the Saxon Advent, around 449 AD (see: The derivation of the date of the Badon entry in the Annales Cambriae from Bede and Gildas by Howard Wiseman).

Rejecting the conventional dates of Arthur’s two battles in the Welsh Annals (Annalaes Cambriae) Howells argues for a later date for Badon, sometime between 547 and 559, and pushes Arthur’s final battle at Camlann back to 570. He expands his argument on the dating of Gildas in Appendix 1. Although Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Arthur’s last conflict occurred in 542 Howells argues for a 33 year discrepancy in dating owing to a confusion between the dates of the Incarnation and the Passion of Jesus. He further explains this dating anomaly in Appendix 2. Howells has good reason for bringing the dates of these key Arthurian events forward.

Then having established a mid-late 6th century period for King Arthur’s floruit the author places the key Arthurian locations of Gelliwig and Kernyw in Gwent, South Wales. Having determined the date range and location it should then be a simple matter to find a dynasty in the genealogical tables with the right sounding name that fits, and hey presto we have identified the real King Arthur.

The Harleian 3859 manuscript provides a list of the kings of Gwent and neighbouring realm of Glywysing (modern Glamorgan). The first named king for Glywysing is Teudubric (Tewdrig) followed by Atroys (Athrwys). Other sources name Meurig between Teudubric and Atroys. After scanning various Saints’ Life’s, Llancarfan charters and the Book of Llandaff, Howells establishes that Meurig’s birth should correctly be dated to around 476-480 and Athrwys around 502. This, Howells asserts, makes Athwrys “an exact contemporary of the legendary King Arthur” that fought at Badon and fell at Camlann, which fit nicely with his revised dating of course. 

He then argues that the name “Arthur” could have become “Atroy” over a period of time. Thus, having revised the chronology and relocated Arthur’s realm the author is able to identify Athrwys as the legendary King Arthur.

Astute followers of Arthuriana will know that this is not the first time King Arthur has been identified as Athrwys ap Meurig ruler of Glwyssing and Gwent. Indeed, this identification was first made in the 18th century and endorsed more recently by Baram Blackett and Alan Wilson (1980) and then Chris Barber and David Pykitt (1993). There is certainly no exclusivity to ownership of this identification and no reason why authors cannot agree on a certain character as a contender for the real King Arthur.

Having established the identity of a 6th century King Arthur the author then moves on to his family and spends most of the next chapter attempting to convince the reader that the father of Athrwys, Meurig ap Tewdrig, was the legendary Uthyr Pendragon. Howells reminds us that he is searching for a historical event that inspired the story of Arthur’s invasion of Gaul and later march on Rome; yet there is no record of any 6th century invasion of Europe by a British king fighting Roman forces. Indeed, as Polydore Vergil pointed out long ago in the 16th century in his denouncement of Geoffrey’s King Arthur, how could the same British king fight both Saxons and Romans? 

The next two chapters analyse Books 4 and 5 of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s De gestis Britonum, covering the period from Caesar’s invasion to the death of Magnus Maximus. Howells details the number of errors in Geoffrey’s book, explaining that this is necessary to show that the information contained in Geoffrey’s pages is more accurate than not. Miles Russell has shown that the historical events covered in these two key chapters had a significant impact on shaping Geoffrey’s legend of King Arthur

In his quest he dismisses two popular theories; the Roman officer from the 2nd century Lucius Artorius Castus and the British king Riothamus from the 5th century. He argues that these were not major incursions and therefore cannot provide the historical origin for King Arthur’s Gallic conquest as found in Geoffrey of Monmouth. It seems we must look elsewhere.

Howells determines that this invasion of Gaul must have taken place after 284 when the Empire split in two but before 476 when the western Roman Empire came to an end. He concludes that the real events of the late 4th century when a British ruler invaded Gaul and can certainly account for King Arthur’s campaign into Europe as described by Geoffrey; Frollo fled from Arthur’s men just as the Emperor Gratian fled from the usurper Magnus Maximus’ forces in 383 AD.

Of course a 4th century King Arthur cannot have been Athrwys ap Meurig, the 6th century ruler of Glwyssing and Gwent, already identified by Howells as the man behind the later Dark Age Arthurian legend. Howells reasons that the stories of this earlier figure who had a successful Gallic campaign must have been grafted onto the later Arthur to form Geoffrey’s composite character, the man who fought both Romans and Saxons. 

As we have seen previously, Miles Russell sees Magnus Maximus’s invasion of Gaul as the inspiration behind part of the Arthurian Legend in which he sees Arthur as a composite character, his adventures made up from the exploits of several early British kings. Howells is looking in the same direction.

The Dream of Maxen
The tale of Magnus Maximus is fascinating; he was an important figure in the history of the Roman Empire and his actions impacted on the end of Roman rule in Britain. He left his mark in Welsh legend featuring in the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig (The Dream of the Emperor Maximus) and, as we have seen, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s magnum opus named as “Maximianus”.

Said to be of Hispanic descent Maximus is frequently found listed as an ancestor figure in several Welsh poems and royal genealogies of South Wales. A number of local rulers in various regions in Britain also traced their origins to Maximus, no doubt to legitimize their claims to regional authority. 

The Roman histories record Maximus’s first visiting Britain with Count Theodosius to put down the Great Barbarian Conspiracy of 367-368. He then served as a general under Theodosius in Africa c. 373 and then on the Danube three years later. In 380 he returned to Britain as the supreme military commander of the Roman forces and seems to have been responsible for successfully repelling an invasion of Scots and Picts in 381. 

In 383 Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by the troops of the British garrison. He crossed to Gaul and made his capital at Augusta Treverorum (Trier) on the west bank of the Rhine. He brought the Western Emperor Gratian to battle near Paris. Gratian fled after many of his troops pledged allegiance to Maximus and was killed at Lyons on 25 August by Maximus’s general Andragathius. 

Soon enough Maximus advanced on Italy to displace Valentinian II, bringing him into direct conflict with Theodosius, the Emperor in the East who was now marching into the Balkans. Maximus sent his forces under the command of Andragathius to head him off and stop him entering Italy. They first clashed at the river Save at Siscia and then Poetovio where Maximus’s troops were annihilated. Andragathius withdrew and was last seen on a boat and is assumed to have committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea.

Maximus fled from the unstoppable Theodosius but was later captured and executed in the city of Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic in August of 388. His wife and two daughters were spared but his son Victor was executed by Valentinian's general Arbogast later that year. 

Superbus Tyrannus
When Maximus left Britain in 383 to pursue his ambitions of empire he took the best Roman soldiers with him, highly trained legionnaires who never returned to Britain. Gildas clearly held Maximus responsible for stripping Britain of her military muscle:

"Britain is left deprived of all her soldiery and armed bands, of her cruel governors, and of the flower of her youth, who went with Maximus, but never again returned" - (Gildas, On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, 6th century)

The 9th century Historia Brittonum remembers Maximus as the final Roman emperor to rule in Britain; he was certainly associated with the final days of Rome in the British Isles. His final defeat resulted in Constantinople becoming the centre of the Roman empire which never fully regained control of Britain and Gaul in the west.

Yet, it would appear that Maximus reorganised Britain’s defences and left the island in a strong position when he advanced into Gaul. It is claimed that Maximus put his son Anwn Dynod (Antonius Donatus Gregorius) in control of the military in South Wales to combat the threat from Irish raiders. A similar role is said to have been bestowed upon Cunedda who was put in military control of Gwynedd in North Wales. It was around this time that the Deisi tribe were settled in Wales to defend the south-western coast from Irish raiders. With the addition of Saxons settled on the eastern shore, Maximus probably felt that he had left the coastal defences of Britain reasonably secure.

For this reason Guy Halsall [Worlds of Arthur, OUP, 2013] suggests that Maximus would qualify as the Superbus Tyrannus that Gildas writes of, the man who invited the Saxons into Britain, initially to fight for Britain but who soon battled against it; “like wolves into the sheepfold”. Halsall suggests that after withdrawing the legions Maximus shored up the defences of Britain by employing mercenaries on strategic points around the coast.

The genealogical tables (that must be used with caution) suggest that following the death of Maximus in 388, his dynasty appears to have retained control of South Wales. Several local rulers claimed descent from Maximus: Custennin, Peblig, Anwn Dynod, Gratianna and Severa (depending on which Genealogical table you read). It is claimed that his sons appear to have been held in high regard by the Britons, and were installed to oversee these defences while the legions of Maximus marched through Europe.

One son in particular, Anwn Dynod, seems to have remained in Britain when his father left and became a powerful man in South-West Wales during the late 4th century. Anwn’s full Roman name was Antonius Donatus Gregorius, hence he is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Anwn, King of Greece.

The King of Greece
However, it appears it was not Maximus himself that inspired Geoffrey’s tale; Howells identifies his general (Magister equitum) Andragathius as the "first Arthur" and son of Maximus, named as "Anthun" in the genealogies, who became known as king of Greece. Howells states:

“…..the fact that Anthun was recorded as the king of Greece could conceivably be explained if he was Andragathius. This latter individual is known to have fought in the Balkans, with Greece the most prominent part of the area…… it is conceivable that records of of Andragathius fighting in Greece, which, in turn, developed into the propaganda that he had conquered that area.” [p.224] 

In support of this claim Howells frequently refers to the gatekeepers tale in Culhwch and Olwen as evidence that Arthur (Andragaithus) was actually ruler of Greece:

“Then Glewlwyd went into the Hall. And Arthur said to him, "Hast thou news from the gate?" 

"Half of my life is past, and half of thine. I was heretofore in Kaer Se and Asse, in Sach and Salach, in Lotor and Fotor; and I have been heretofore in India the Great and India the Lesser; and I was in the battle of Dau Ynyr, when the twelve hostages were brought from Llychlyn. And I have also been in Europe, and in Africa, and in the islands of Corsica, and in Caer Brythwch, and Brythach, and Verthach; and I was present when formerly thou didst slay the family of Clis the son of Merin, and when thou didst slay Mil Du the son of Ducum, and when thou didst conquer Greece in the East. And I have been in Caer Oeth and Annoeth, and in Caer Nevenhyr; nine supreme sovereigns, handsome men, saw we there, but never did I behold a man of equal dignity with him who is now at the door of the portal." [Culhwch and Olwen, from the Mabinogion byLady Charlotte Guest]

Howells argues that the gatekeepers recital in Culhwch lists the lands conquered by Magnus Maximux, Emperor in the West, or more correctly, his general, Andragathius. He argues that the Balkans qualifies for Greece and maintains that if India is really meant then is is "likely to be a misrendering of some location within the British Isles".

The Roman Balkans in the 4th century

Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr (Grey Bold Mighty Grasp) also appears as Arthur’s gatekeeper in other Arthurian works in a similar role; compare with Pa gur yv y porthaur? (What man is the gatekeeper?) found in the mid-13th century Black Book of Carmarthen, but said to date from the 10th century.

However, Rachel Bromich and D Simon Evans (Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the oldest Arthurian tale, UWP, 1992) cite earlier precedents to Glewlwyd’s “rhetorical and bombastic” speech that he delivers as he introduces Culhwch to Arthur’s court and show that it is closely paralleled in a poem from the Book of Taliesin which lists the conquest of Alexander and employs a similar use of exotic names for unknown and faraway places. An earlier example is to be found in a similar speech by Curoi mac Diari in the Old Irish tale known as Bricriu’s Feast (Fled Bricrend).  Here Curoi lists his foreign travels and like Glewlwyd, he has visited Europe, Africa and Greece, as well as Asia, Scithia and the Columns of Hercules. This of course does not make Curoi a Roman general who conquered these lands, but the purpose is “to create a feeling of wonder by citing a list of strange and unfamiliar names which served to to enhance the speaker’s boastful recital of his exploits in far-off unknown places”. 

That Curoi’s speech was the inspiration behind the gatekeeper’s recital in Culhwch and Olwen is fairly certain as he and four other heroes from the Ulster cycle appear in the list of characters that are invoked to assist Culhwch in wining the hand of Olwen, demonstrating that the Irish tale was known and influential to the author.

From what has been shown above, scholars of Celtic studies concur that Glewlwyd’s recital cannot in anyway be considered a historical list of conquests. India was regarded as a land of magic and enchantment in the Middle Ages, as were Greece and Llychan (Norway). [Bromwich and Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, p.59. Idris Foster in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, p.38]

Andragathius lost both of his battles against Theodosius in the Balkans so it is certainly unlikely he would have been remembered as king of Greece. In fact Andragathius never reached Greece, so how could he be their king? Indeed, as we have seen above, the identification of Arthur (Andragathius) as the king of Greece is based on a complete misunderstanding of the Gatekeepers recital in Culhwch and Olwen. 

The Emperor’s New Clothes
Howells claims that the activities of Andragathius bear a close correspondence with the Continental activities of Geoffrey’s King Arthur. He explains how Andragathius became confused with Arthur owing to the name Anthun appearing in the genealogical tables.

In addition to the sons of Maximus as listed above, other sons are recorded in the earliest surviving Welsh genealogies; Constantine, Owain and Dunod. Descendants of Owain and Dunod are recorded ruling in south-east Wales. Howells draws the readers attention to Dunawt (Dunod) being synonymous with Anthun in an identical sequence in Jesus College MS 20 and Harleian MS 3589 [p.211]. 

He argues that the name Arthur became confused with Anthun who was in fact Andragaithus, the man who inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale of the conquest of Gaul. He argues that if Anthun, the first Arthur, was not Andragathius how else would he have acquired the title of King of Greece? And summarises that there does not appear to be an alternative explanation; the reasoning is Dunod is therefore Anthun who is Andragathius who is the 4th century Arthur.

This is hardly convincing; I really can’t see the connection with Andragathius and the South Wales dynasties. I also can’t see Andragathius as the King of Greece. It certainly appears to be based on possibilities and conjecture – not fact. There is no evidence presented here to convince the reader of the author’s argument. But then this all seems very familiar. Indeed, I was sure I had come across this theory before and I wasn’t convinced then either. 

The story of two Arthurs, one from the 4th century and one from the 6th, which forms the kernel of Howells book, was first covered by Baram Blackett and Alan Wilson who appear to be the source for Andragathius being the son of Magnus Maximus and the first (?) King Arthur.

Blackett and Wilson put forward this theory, and much more, in The Holy Kingdom with Adrian Gilbert in 1998. They proposed that the Arthurian legend as we know it was based on two characters; Arthun, (Arthur I), son of Magnus Maximus, and Athrwys ap Meurig (Arthur II), king of Gwent.

Magnus Maximus may well have been the inspiration behind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story of King Arthur’s conquest of Gaul but there is absolutely no evidence for an individual who was known as King Arthur in the 4th century.

* * *

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Arthur and the Kings of Britain

A Certain Very Ancient Book Part III

“In the mean time, the Trinobantes, almost the most powerful state of those parts, from which the young man, Mandubratius embracing the protection of Caesar had come to the continent of Gaul to [meet] him (whose father, Imanuentius, had possessed the sovereignty in that state, and had been killed by Cassivellaunus; he himself had escaped death by flight), send embassadors to Caesar, and promise that they will surrender themselves to him and perform his commands; they entreat him to protect Mandubratius from the violence of Cassivellaunus, and send to their state some one to preside over it, and possess the government. Caesar demands forty hostages from them, and corn for his army, and sends Mandubratius to them. They speedily performed the things demanded, and sent hostages to the number appointed, and the corn.” [The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, Book 5, Chapter 20]

Julius Caesar carried out his first expedition to Britain in late August 55 BC. It was not a large invasion force that did not venture beyond east Kent and in less than a month had returned to Gaul before the storms of the autumn set in. He returned in the summer of 54 BC with a much larger force that required 800 ships to ferry them across the Channel. 

Caesar's expeditions to Britain 55- 54 BC

Caesar’s two expeditions to Britain were part of his Gallic campaign to subdue the Celtic tribes of Gaul (a territory equating to modern France and Belgium) from 58 BC to 50 BC culminating in the decisive battle of Alésia, France, in 52 BC. Caesar’s commentary is recorded in De Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars). Yet, from his actions, its seems clear his intention was not a permanent occupation of Britain at this time.

Caesar claimed the purpose of the British expeditions was because the Belgic tribes across the Gallic Sea (The Channel) had assisted the Gauls in the Armorican rebellions of 57 and 56 BC. However, according to De Bello Gallico in his second expedition Caesar appears to have had a singular objective; to re-instate Mandubracius (Mandubratius) to the Trinobantes (Trinovantes).

Mandubracius, prince of the Trinovantes, an Iron Age tribe north of the Thames, equating to roughly modern Essex, had fled to Gaul the previous winter pleading for protection after Cassivellaunus, tribal chief of the neighbouring Catuvellauni tribe, that occupied territory north of the Thames roughly corresponding to modern day of Bedfordshire, part of Hertfordshire and southern Cambridgeshire, had killed his father, named Imanuentius by Caesar.

For two thousand years the site of Caesar’s landing place on his second expedition, somewhere in Kent in July 54 BC, was unknown. Now recent archaeological work by a team from University of Leicester led by Andrew Fitzpatrick ahead of the construction of the new East Kent Access road in south-east Thanet has revealed a large ditch at Ebbsfleet, near Richborough. At the bottom of the 5m wide and 2m deep ditch, enclosing an area at least 500m long north–south, was pottery dated to the 1st century BC and a Roman pilum,(javelin blade). 

The Roman pilum from Ebbsfleet

Although the enclosure is today about one kilometre from the sea, 2,000 years ago it would have been much nearer the seashore at Pegwell Bay. At this time Thanet was an island, cut off from mainland Kent by the Wantsum Channel. This raises the possibility that the ditch may be evidence of one of Caesar’s camps, maybe where some of the expedition party first dug in? Suggestively, the enclosure is very similar in size and shape to the Roman defensive features found at Alésia.

At the northern end of the excavation site evidence of an Iron Age village was found which appears to have been abandoned around this time, perhaps in reaction to the Roman landing, or perhaps a totally unrelated event.

At the second expedition, using Mandubracius’s local knowledge, Caesar’s army swiftly moved through Kent, across the Thames, avoiding the stakes set by Cassivellaunus, and into the territory of the Trinovantes and the oppidum of Camulodunum ("stronghold of Camulos"), modern Colchester, before the confrontation with Cassivellaunus, said to have taken place at Wheathampstead (Hertfordshire). The huge prehistoric ditch known as Devil’s Dyke appears to be one side of the massive earthworks defences enclosing the stronghold of the Catuvellauni. A smaller ditch, known as The Slad, is thought to form the eastern side of the enclosure. Sir Mortimer Wheeler claimed the Devil’s Dyke is where Julius Caesar defeated Cassivellaunus in 54 BC.

“While these things are going forward in those places, Cassivellaunus sends messengers into Kent, which, we have observed above, is on the sea, over which districts four several kings reigned, Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus and Segonax, and commands them to collect all their forces, and unexpectedly assail and storm the naval camp. When they had come to the camp, our men, after making a sally, slaying many of their men, and also capturing a distinguished leader named Lugotorix, brought back their own men in safety. Cassivellaunus, when this battle was reported to him as so many losses had been sustained, and his territories laid waste, being alarmed most of all by the desertion of the states, sends embassadors to Caesar [to treat] about a surrender through the mediation of Commius the Atrebatian. Caesar, since he had determined to pass the winter on the continent, on account of the sudden revolts of Gaul, and as much of the summer did not remain, and he perceived that even that could be easily protracted, demands hostages, and prescribes what tribute Britain should pay each year to the Roman people; he forbids and commands Cassivellaunus that he wage not war against Mandubratius or the Trinobantes.” [The Gallic Wars, Book 5, Chapter 20]

In addition to re-instating Mandubracius to the Trinovantes, Caesar’s actions led to a dramatic change in trade patterns. Studies have shown that Italian wine amphorae came into Britain through the southern coast of the Durotriges into central southern Britain. Yet after Caesar’s second expedition in 54 BC, trade was directed through the territories of the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes. It has been argued that this change to a well established trading pattern must have been a direct result of Caesar’s intervention; his commentary of the events in east Britain concealing a complex series of trade agreements with the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes. [John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain, Sutton, 1987]

As one might expect in an account of the history of the kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth includes Caesar’s expeditions to Britain 55-54 BC in his Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1136. 

Geoffrey claims to have used the Roman Histories as his source; no doubt he is using Bede and the Historia Brittonum; however these all too brief accounts are vastly elaborated by Geoffrey, yet as with most of his Historia he displays a kernel of fact and fills in the gaps with fantastic detail that can only have been his own creation.

King Lud

Geoffrey’s account of Caesar’s expedition to Britain begins with the king he calls "Heli" [Book III.53]. Welsh sources, including versions of Geoffrey’s Historia known as Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), renders “Heli” as “Beli ap Mawr”. Beli is a father figure and appears in several genealogies at the head of royal lines. He is typically equated with Belenos (or Belinus = ‘The Shining One’) a deity of the Celtic Belgic tribes on both sides of the Gallic Sea.

According to Geoffrey, Heli ruled the kingdom for forty years and had three sons: Lud, Cassibelanus and Nennius. After Heli the kingship passed to Lud, who is credited with rebuilding the walls of the city of Trinovantum on the Thames, originally founded by Brutus the Trojan as Troia Nova (New Troy). After Lud’s renovation it became known as Kaerlud, and finally London. Geoffrey tells us that when Lud died his body was buried at Ludsgate.

Ludgate Hill – Gustave Doré (1872)

Lud had two sons, Androgeus and Tenvantius, but because of their young age they could not rule and the kingship passed to Cassibelanus (Cassivellaunus). This became a permanent arrangement as Cassibelanus became known as a generous king, but on recognising their due inheritance he granted the greater part of the realm to his nephews, installing Androgeus as Duke of Trinovantum and Kent with Tenvantius as Duke of Cornwall, although Cassibelanus remained as High King of the entire island.

With Cassibelanus firmly installed as the supreme King of the Britons, Geoffrey now moves on to Caesar’s two expeditions to Britain [Book IV.54]. Cassibelanus is triumphant in fending off Caesar’s first expedition (55 BC) but his brother Nennius is mortally wounded in hand to hand combat with Caesar. Fifteen days after the battle Nennius died of the wound and was buried next to the north gate of Trinovantum with Caesar’s sword “Yellow Death”, that he had obtained during the fight, at his side.

Two years later Caesar turned his sights back to Britain [Book IV.59]. Hearing of the Emperor’s intentions Cassibelanus fortified the cities and installed stakes below the water line of the Thames. Sure enough, as the ships sailed up the Thames toward Trinovantum disaster struck as they hit the stakes [Book IV.60]. The survivors scrambled to the shore to face the forces of Cassibelanus who out numbered them by three to one and the Britons attained the victory.

Iron Age territories 1st Century BC

Following his second victory over the Romans Cassibelanus arranged a huge feast, offering a total of forty thousand cows and a hundred thousand sheep [Book IV.61]. During the celebrations two youths, one, Cuelinus, the nephew of Duke Androgeus and the other, Hirelglas, the nephew of Cassibelanus, were tied in a wrestling match. As an argument escalated between the two over who had gained the victory, Cuelinus snatched a sword and cut off the head of Hirelglas.

Cassibelanus demanded that Androgeus bring his nephew to his court for sentence, but he refused and said he would hold his own court at Trinovantum as was the custom. Unable to agree terms, Cassibelanus ravaged Androgeus’ lands and laid them waste. Unable to withstand Cassibelanus’ rage, Androgeus decided to seek aid from Caesar across the Channel and wrote that if he restored his lands to him Caesar would be master of Britain. Caesar responded to Androgeus’ plea provided he was sent hostages. Androgeus accepted and sent his own son and thirty hostages. According to Geoffrey, Caesar set sail as soon as possible and landed at Richborough [Book IV.62].

Cassibelanus had laid siege to Trinovantum and pillaging outlying villages when he received news that Caesar had returned. He abandoned the siege and hurried toward the coast. As he came to a valley by Canterbury he saw the Roman army setting up their camp. Androgeus had led them there so they could set up a secret attack on the city. The armies went into battle formation, but Androgeus took five thousand men into a nearby wood to ambush Cassiebelanus. Unable to resist Androgeus’ forces after being decimated by the Romans, Cassibelanus abandoned the battlefield and headed for a nearby hill. Unable to storm the hill owing to the strong defences of the Britons, Caesar decided to besiege Cassibelanus who had little choice but to make terms.

The Roman War Machine

Caesar made peace with Cassibelanus who agreed to pay an annual tribute of three thousand pounds of silver. Seven years later Cassibelanus died and was buried at York. He was succeeded by Tenvantius, Duke of Cornwall, as Androgeus had gone to Rome with Caesar. Tenvantius’ son Cymbeline succeeded him to the throne; he was a mighty warrior whom Augustus Caesar had reared himself. Cymbeline had two sons, Guiderius and the younger Arviragus. When Guiderius took the throne after Cymbeline, so Geoffrey’s story goes, he refused to pay the tribute to Rome which led to the invasion by the Emperor Claudius [Book IV.63].

After Guiderius was slain in battle with the Romans, Arviragus agreed a treaty with Claudius which would see him give his daughter’s hand if the Britons were to acknowledge the suzerainty of Rome. The offer was accepted by the nobility of the Britons. Then Claudius, with the help of Arviragus, subdued the Orkneys and all the outlying islands, then sent for his daughter Genvissa and they were duly wed [Book IV.68].

- Source: The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated and edited by Michael A Faletra, Broadview Editions, 2008.

Significantly, Caesar’s first contact with the Britons is remembered in Welsh tradition which includes details not found in the account of Geoffrey of Monmouth. 

The events of over 2,000 years ago can be found in the Welsh Triads (Welsh: Trioedd Ynys Prydein = Triads of the Island of Britain) which survive in medieval manuscripts from the 13th century; the oldest series of Triads (Peniarth 16) which Rachel Bromwich [editor and translator; Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 4th Edition, 2014] has numbered as 1 – 46 (Bromwich has collected 96 Triads in total from all manuscripts). The early series of Triads, Bromwich argues, are free of influence from Geoffrey of Monmouth, who irrevocably changed the Arthurian legend with his 12th century work History of the Kings of Britain.

Remarkably these Triads must have survived as oral traditions before being written down over a thousand years later in the Welsh manuscripts, remembering Cassivellaunus (Cassibelanus) as Caswallawn son of Beli as the man who fought the Romans. For example, Triad 36 records three invasions:

Three Oppressions that came to this Island, and not one of them went back:
One of them (was) the people of the Cor(y)aniaid, who came here in the time of Caswallawn son of Beli: and not one of them went back. And they came from Arabia.
The second Oppression: the Gwyddyl Ffichti. And not one of them went back.
The third Oppression: the Saxons, with Horsa and Hengist as their leaders.
[Bromwich, TYP, 2014]

The Coraniaid also appear in the Welsh tale of Lludd and Llefelys as one of three plagues that come to Britain during the reign of Lludd and may be confused with Caesar’s Romans? 

The Triads hold a tradition that following Caesar’s second expedition to Britain Caswallawn pursued Caesar to Rome. Triad 35, Three Levies that departed from this Island, tells how Caswallawn took 21,000 men with him, one of the three silver hosts of the island.  

Triad 51,Three Men of Shame, names “Afarwy” as the son of Lludd son of Beli who first summoned Julius Caesar and the men of Rome to Britain, causing the payment of three thousand pounds as tribute every year because of the quarrel with Caswallawn his uncle. This is clearly the man named as Mandubracius by Caesar and Androgeus by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Triad also lists Medrawd as the third and worst of the Men of Shame who Arthur left in charge of the island when he himself crossed the sea in response to the Emperor of Rome’s demands for tribute. Bromwich identifies this Triad as the only one from the Red Book collection that is drawn from the narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth. [Bromwich TYP] 

In Triad 67, Caswallawn is named as one of the Three Noble (Golden) Shoemakers of the Island of Britain when he went to Rome to seek Fflur. Caswallawn is named as one of the Three Lovers of the Island of Britain in Triad 71 for Fflur. Bromwich suggest this episode relates to a lost tale of Caswallawn and Fflur that was known to Welsh poets of the mid-12th century.  [Bromwich TYP]

There is clearly some contention beyond Caesar and Caswallawn over Fflur in Welsh tradition; did Caesar take her back to Rome as a hostage to ensure the British chieftain complied with the terms of his treaty? Triad 67 has been interpreted as Caswallawn travelling to Rome disguised as a cobbler to seek out Fflur. As we have seen above, Caesar’s account of his expedition to Britain fails to mention Fflur, or indeed Cawallawn following him. 

In Triad 71 Fflur is mentioned as daughter of "Mugnach the Dwarf". Ifor Williams suggested the word “coraniaid”, as in Triad 36 and the tale of Lludd and Llefelys, may be linked to “cor” a dwarf, and compares with the Breton “Korriganed” or fairies. However, Bromwich suggests the word may be a confusion with “caesarids”, i.e “Romans” which raises various possibilities to Fflur’s relationship to the Romans and why Caesar may have taken her back to Rome. [Bromwich, TYP] 

Geoffrey must have used a different source than that recorded in Welsh tradition as he fails to mention Fflur and does not mention the fourth son of Beli Mawr, Llefelys. As the tale of Llud and Llefelys does not appear in the Historia he clearly was not aware of the tale, or it did not exist when he wrote, but it is included in later Welsh versions of his Historia known as Brut Y Breninhedd (Chronicle of the Kings). However, the tale of Llud and Llefelys bears witness to a much older tradition as it alludes to the burial of the red and white dragons at Dinas Emrys which is to be found in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (Nennius).

In the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Caswallawn is named as the man who usurps the throne while Bran is fighting in Ireland. Although this episode bears no correlation to Caesar’s expeditions to Britain it does show Caswallawn as regarded as the over-king of Britain.

It has been necessary to show both accounts of the Roman expeditions to Britain 54-55 BC (above) as these episodes demonstrates Geoffrey’s manipulation of the source material; notably Caesar records two expeditions, neither being a defeat for the Romans. Yet, Geoffrey, following the Historia Brittonum (Nennius), records three battles, twice victories for the Britons preceding a final defeat. These events have also been interpreted as being influential on Geoffrey’s construction of the final episode of the Arthurian legend.

In complete contrast to previous studies of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), which endeavour to use the text to identify the real King Arthur, historian and archaeologist Miles Russell has carried out a new examination of Geoffrey’s book and presents the case that it is much more than just a piece of unreliable historical fiction but in reality preserves the ancient foundation myths of Britain. In his latest book Russell traces individual elements in Geoffrey’s work back to the 1st century BC and the Britons first contact with Rome and its impact on his account of the Arthurian legend.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. His publications concentrate on the prehistoric and Roman periods such as Bloodline: The Celtic Kings of Roman Britain (Amberley, 2010) and (with Stuart Laycock) UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia (The History Press, 2011). He is one of the few archaeologists to have excavated at Stonehenge; in 2008, along with Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, he participated in the first excavation to take place inside the stone circle for some forty years.

In Arthur and the Kings of Britain (Amberley, 2018) Miles Russell claims that Geoffrey skilfully weaved these early traditions together with material pulled from post-Roman sources in order to create a national epic. In so doing, Russell argues, Geoffrey also created King Arthur as a composite character gathered from the exploits of the ancient kings of Britain. Russell’s book is a refreshing change from the typical reconstructions of King Arthur’s European exploits based on Geoffrey’s pseudo-historical chronicle.  

Russell tells us that the key to unlocking Geoffrey’s Historia is the story of Julius Caesar’s two expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC and the military response of King Cassivellaunus (Cassibellanus); events that can be verified from external sources. Russell argues that a close reading of Geoffrey’s Historia reveals that he describes two invasions, not three, the second one being recorded twice with the first expedition by Caesar in 55 BC actually described second. Geoffrey clearly confuses Trinovantum, the New Troy (London), with the territory of the Trinovantes.

Significantly, in Geoffrey’s account of the third invasion, Cassibellanus is waging a campaign of terror on Androgeus (Mandubracius) following the death of Hirelglas as we have seen above. Cassibellanus’s actions force Androgeus to make a deal with Caesar to stop his tyrant uncle.

Geoffrey claimed to be using the Roman Histories but he was clearly not using Caesar’s account as recorded in de Bello Gallico but is elaborating on the version in the Historia Brittonum (Nennius), which also describes three battles against Caesar, the first two being victories for the Britons and the third ending in defeat. 

Russell goes on to assert that King Arthur is a composite of characters, his adventures mirrored in the exploits of the early British kings. He claims that the figure of Arthur is ultimately modelled on the 5th century warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus, a historical figure recorded by Gildas in his 6th century sermon. Gildas clearly held Ambrosius in high regard, remembering him as a gentleman and the last of the Romans who’s parents wore the purple, an indication they were high ranking Roman officials. 

The Devil's Dyke earthwork at Wheathamstead

According to Gildas, Ambrosius rallied the Britons following the Anglo Saxon rebellion in the mid-5th century. He led the beleaguered Britons to a series of victories culminating in the victory at Badon Hill. But Gildas never mentioned King Arthur.

The Britons fightback of twelve victories under Ambrosius was later transposed to Arthur, Dux Bellorum, in the Historia Brittonum (Nennius) where it is recorded as the Arthurian battle list. Thus, Ambrosius provides the bones for the Arthurian legend, the post-Roman war leader who beat back the Saxons.

With Ambrosius’s battles providing the backbone, Russell argues that Geoffrey then pulls the base elements of the Arthurian legend, his conception at Tintagel, his parentage, his wife Guinevere (Ganhumara), association with Merlin, conqueror of Europe, his final battle and the betrayal by his nephew, all from the exploits of earlier British kings. 

Russell gives examples of how Geoffrey moves back and forth in the chronology and repeats the feats of others to construct a narrative of the kings of Britain. Such as the British king named Arvirargus (Togodumnus), who allies with with the Roman emperor Claudius to subdue the Orkneys. On his return Arvirargus takes the Roman lady Gewissa (great beauty) as his wife. In the Historia, Geoffrey clearly uses this model for his the story of Arthur who allies with Hoel to conquer Ireland and on his return home he takes Ganhumara/Guinevere (great beauty) as his wife.

According to Geoffrey's account Arthur invaded Gaul and marched on Rome. There is no record of Arthur fighting the Romans before Geoffrey. This, Russell claims, he modelled on Constantine (later ‘Constantine the Great’) who was proclaimed emperor by his men at York in AD 306. After campaigning in the north of England Constantine pulled his forces from Britain and advanced on Rome, resulting in the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD in which the western emperor Maxentius fell. Russell argues that much of Constantine’s campaign, from York to Rome, is later mirrored in Geoffrey’s tale of Arthur's invasion of Gaul.

Russell also sees the role of the usurper Magnus Maximus used in a similar way in Geoffrey’s Arthurian chronicle. In 383 AD, Magnus was proclaimed emperor by the legions in Britannia. Magnus took an army to Gaul where he fought and killed the emperor Gratian. In the Historia Geoffrey has Arthur lead an army to Gaul in response to the Roman’s demand for tribute. Geoffrey has Arthur defeat the emperor Lucius Hiberius. Russell sees Arthur’s exploits in Gaul mirrored in the accounts of Magnus; where else could the story have come from he argues?

Then we come to the conclusion of the story with Arthur’s final battle, which, according to Russell, is based on the 1st century BC warrior king Cassivellaunus who refused to pay tribute to Rome as we have seen above. The Romans attacked his kingdom but as he was near to defeating the Roman army, Cassivellaunus was betrayed by his nephew Mandubracius (Androgeus). 

Significantly in pre-Galfridian texts Mordred is never recorded as a traitor and the Welsh poets remember him as a valiant warrior; Russell asserts that Geoffrey modelled the treacherous nephew story on Mandubracius (Androgeus).

The issue of tribute features throughout the Britons conflict with Rome. In the Historia, Geoffrey writes that Arthur, refusing to pay tribute to Rome leaves for Gaul. On the verge of attacking Rome, he is betrayed by his treacherous nephew Mordred who has taken Guinevere (Ganhumara) and usurped the kingdom. Mordred appeals to Cheldric for assistance; in response 800 ships land at Richborough loaded with Cheldric’s Saxon troops. It is noted above that Caesar is recorded landing with 800 ships.

The gateway to The Devil's Dyke

Arthur turns back from his intended assault on Rome and returns to Britain. His army lands at Richborough and takes many casualties during the landing. As we have seen, Julius Caesar landed somewhere near here for his second invasion, the exact site is not known. 

Arthur pursues Mordred to Salisbury Plain before the final battle in Cornwall. Caesar pursues Cassivellaunus with the assistance of Mandubracius (Androgeus) to the oppidum of the Trinovantes; this had to be Camulodonum (Colchester) which Russell claims provided the inspiration for Arthur’s final battle (Camblam).

It must be admitted that there are many similarities in the two stories; but is it too incredible to be true? 

One final point betrays Geoffrey’s inspiration; in the Historia Regum Britanniae, Cassibellanus from the 1st century BC suddenly appears from nowhere to be present at the battle at Camblam (Camlann) in the 6th century AD. This is an odd inclusion, but it demonstrates where Geoffrey’s mind was when he wrote this episode of his tale and provides credence to Russell’s argument.

Russell’s deconstruction of Geoffrey’s model of King Arthur provides the best solution yet proposed to explain the Arthurian sources of the Historia Regum Britanniae. Russell asserts that Geoffrey’s King Arthur is a composite character based on the deeds of the early kings, Cassivellaunus, Arvirargus, Constantine, Magnus and Ambrosius, and once you strip away their stories there is nothing left for a real Arthur.

* * * 

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Arthur: Conqueror of Europe

A Certain Very Ancient Book Part II

King Arthur’s European Realm by Paul Sire (Mcfarland & Co., 2014) claims to present new evidence from Geoffrey of Monmouth's primary sources used in writing his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136). The sources used by Geoffrey in constructing the first Arthurian biography has been a matter of debate for centuries; he claimed he used "a certain very ancient book in the British tongue" presented to him by Walter Arch-deacon of Oxford, that he translated into Latin. Geoffrey certainly used Gildas, Bede and the Historia Brittonum (Nennius); anything not verifiable through those documents is generally considered to have been Geoffrey’s own invention. In Sire’s book then we can expect to find the revelation of some new documentary evidence for Arthur’s existence.

In the Preface, the author sets the four main objectives of his book:

1. To prove that King Arthur was a real historical figure by uncovering documentary evidence,
2. To show that Geoffrey of Monmouth, and other Arthurian authors, used valid historical sources,
3. To disclose those valid sources that confirm the veracity of the "legend" and the real names of most of its characters,
4. To explain how the current confusion and skepticism about the authenticity of the story has risen.

These are four bold expectations that have not been satisfied by many an author to date. Here we hope for something new.

Sire argues that two facts belie the skeptics arguments; Geoffrey rightly identified Tintagel as an important Arthurian-age site after the passage of five centuries had erased all trace of it; the Arthurian sculpture on the Modena cathedral proves Geoffrey did not invent his story and actually took it from Walter's ancient book.

He claims that his book identifies Geoffrey's, and other author's, sources and explains why they knew Arthur so well. A close analysis of historical events, ignored by other researchers, Sire claims he will demonstrate that Geoffrey's account is reliable. He reasons that the true Arthurian story was correctly interpreted by Geoffrey Ashe who identified Arthur as Riothamus, the 5th century British king who led his troops into Gaul then vanished among the Burgundians.

Riothamus in Gaul
Sire maintains that the real Arthur emerges unequivocally by combining these accounts with those of John Morris (The Age of Arthur, 1973) who argued that Arthur was an emperor; King Arthur, he claims, was a real person and by providing documentary evidence aims to finally settle the issue. Today historians view The Age of Arthur as a tangled, confused history of Dark Age Britain that is misleading to say the least.

In addition to Morris, the author relies heavily on Edward Gibbon’s now outdated account of The Fall of the Roman Empire (first published in the 18th century) and is clearly influenced by the controversial From Scythia to Camelot by Littleton and Malcor (1994, revised 2000).

Sire states that to uncover Arthur we must look beyond the classic sites of Arthurian lore, the “insular fringe” as he calls it, and look to the original Celtic world in the east; Provence, Italy, and Armenia. The book claims to span two thousand years but at its core is the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

The Western Empire officially fell in 476 AD when an army of confederate tribes, who Gibbons says consisted of "Heruli, Scyrri, Alani, Turcilingi, and Rugians" entered Ravenna and deposed the child emperor Romulus Augustulus. This army, collectively known as “Scirians” was led by Odovacer. The Scirii ("the pure bloods"?) were a Germanic tribe from somewhere north of the Black Sea and lower Danube.

Sire tells us that when the Romans encountered a group of northern Irishmen at the end of the 4th century they called them “Scotti” because they recognised them as the same people. These Scots, he claims, where originally from the Balkans, quoting Gildas who states that the Scots came from “circione”, that is they were NOT Irish BUT Scirians. This passage in Gildas is normally interpreted as saying the Scots came from the north west and the Picts from the north.

Although his exact ethnic origins are not known, he may have been of Germanic or Gothic descent, Sire tells us that Odavacer, the man who became the King of Italy, was from Angers in western France, the same place identified as the location of the Lancelot stories. He goes on to state that in the genealogies of Lancelot, as provided by the authors of Arthurian Romance, his grandmother was from Leinster, "which in the bard's language is rendered as Lance". You know where this is leading.

"L'ot", Sire claims, is really "Odo" or "Otto" and "Lake" comes from water; thus he reconstructs the real name of Lancelot as "Odo-vacer" (wasser - water) of Leinster. He then claims that Odovacer was responsible for the institution of the Round Table, quoting Gibbon, he "declined an honour which was still accepted by the emperors of the East; but the curule chair was successfully filled by eleven [11 + Odovacer = 12 knights] of the most illustrious senators...."

Sire asserts that the name Odovacer was translated by the Arthurian authors into Occitian as "Lot of the Lake", as a tendency for secrecy which explains why their story has been hidden for so long.

Sire tells us that Odoavcer was Arthur's ally, who as Riothamus, accompanied him in the conquest of Rome. After their confrontation with the Goths on the Loire, Riothamus and Odovacer headed east and, with the assistance of the Burgundians, became leaders of the Alemanni. They carved out a new territory called “Raetia” comprising Switzerland, part of Austria and Bavaria. From here Riothamus and Odovacer (Arthur and Lancelot) “defeated the Romans”, as Monmouth writes, and took Rome.

Sire tells us that Raetia provides a vital clue in identifying who Riothamus was. Arthur, he says, having been born at Tintagel was a Dumnonian and king of Scot Dal Riata. His name was Domang-Art, that is Lord Arthur of the Dumnonians, known as Riatham and King Arthur on the continent. The Life of St Columba refers to him as “Reti” (Raetia).

He goes on to tell us the key to understanding the Arthurian legend is that another group of Tuatha settled in Scottish Dal Ri-ata, the name he says means “Kingdom of the Atta” from which he produces “Ri-Atha-mus” the name of the king of the Britons.

Sire’s answer to the skeptics view that no reliable document has ever been found with Arthur’s name on it is that the king appears in the Dalriadan and Strathclyde genealogies as Domang-Art or Gall, in addition to being named as Riothamus various times in France. He adds that he was probably also the bishop of Chur named Ursicin, before claiming he has uncovered definite proof of Arthur’s existence of his name on the only extant document from Odovacer’s reign in which a grant of land in Sicily is made to a man called Pierius which mentions a “Count and Vice-Lord Ardori” referenced in an early 19th century work - not a primary source as one might expect for such a bold claim.

He goes on to argue that other names in Odovacer’s deed can be linked to Arthur which proves that they must have really been Arthur’s men. Following Odovacer’s downfall the island of Caldey was given to Pierius by Arthur as a place of exile.

Sire’s special pleading is that Geoffrey’s “story is correct, only in a very confusing way” and “you can see the truth among the jumbled facts if you really try”.

I wish I could say the same for Sire’s essay; he presents no evidence to support the connections he sees between Riothamus and Odovacer (Arthur and Lancelot) across the European continent - because there are none. This is a very complex and confusing web that Sire weaves indeed; you find you are reading and then re-reading passages to take it all in. But at the end, it is just too incredulous to take seriously.

In Sire’s account, as in so many reconstructed Arthurian histories, geographies are re-mapped, kingdoms relocated and various names (Riothamus; Domang-Art; Ursicin) are substituted for the real Arthur and this why we don’t recognise him in the genealogies.

Yet in all these alternative histories the authors have not managed to positively identify the man named ARTHUR.

* * *

Sunday, 16 August 2020

A Certain Very Ancient Book - Part I

“[The History of the Kings of Britain] that vast compendium of random folklore reshaped into a semblance of history.…….. Even at the end of the 19th century works which took Geoffrey’s account of Arthur seriously were still emerging. It was Geoffrey who elevated Arthur into the Emperor of half of Europe….. developing Nennius’s theme of of the warrior-hero into unheard-of proportions, until the Arthurian armies marched on Rome itself.” [Richard Barber, The Figure of Arthur, DS Brewer, 1972, p.124]

Geoffrey of Monmouth and King Arthur
Surviving in over 200 manuscripts Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) was nothing less than a Medieval best seller. Presumably Geoffrey was from Monmouth as his name suggests, just west of the River Wye on the Welsh Marches, as he had local knowledge of the area and placed King Arthur’s court at Caerleon, no doubt impressed by its Roman remains. However, Geoffrey (c.1090 – 1155) spent most of his career in Oxford, where, he claims, he was presented with a “certain very ancient book in the British tongue” by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, which he translated into Latin as the Historia, although scholars now suggest it was originally titled De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons).

Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon

Geoffrey is remembered as the author of three works; Prophetiae Merlini, Historia Regum Britanniae (De gestis Britonum) and Vitae Merlini.  In circulation before the death of Henry I in 1935 the Prophetiae was issued a few years before his magnum opus the Historia in which it was incorporated at Book VII. Geoffrey had certainly completed his main work on the Kings of Britain before 1139 when Henry of Huntingdon discovered a copy of the manuscript at the Norman Abbey of Bec.  The Life of Merlin saw his return to the prophet but this later version (c.1150) is based on the tradition of the Celtic wildman of the northern forest that features in the Welsh Myrddin poems and seems quite at odds to the wizard-like character of his earlier stories.

Geoffrey’s history starts with Brutus the Trojan, a descendant of Aeneas, who is exiled from his homeland and arrives at an unknown island, exterminates the race of giants inhabiting it, and names the place “Britannia” after himself. Geoffrey’s account continues with the Roman arrival in Britain, through to Vortigern and the advent of the Saxons to King Arthur and the fall of the last British king Cadwallader before the supremacy of the Saxons. Thus, the Historia turns full circle, from the exile of Brutus to the exile of Cadwallader.

According to Geoffrey, Arthur’s career begins with three of the battles as attributed to him in the Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius); the locations of these twelve battles has defied positive identification yet Geoffrey locates these three at York, Lincoln and Bath. The last was clearly Badon Hill which resulted in total conquest of the Saxons, preserving the emphasis that Gildas had placed on the battle.

According to Geoffrey, Arthur then defeated the Scots and the Picts before enjoying something of a golden age. He marries Ganhumara (Guinevere; different forms of the name appear in different manuscripts) before conquering Ireland, Orkney, Iceland and Norway. He then sets off for Gaul leaving his nephew Mordred and Guinevere in charge of the kingdom. Following successes in Gaul, Arthur was intent on marching on Rome but received notice of Mordred’s affair with Guinevere and usurpation of the throne. Arthur turns back for the confrontation with his nephew. After landing in Kent and then chasing Mordred to Salisbury Plain the final battle takes place on the River Camblan in Cornwall.

As Geoffrey’s history commenced with the arrival of Brutus, the name “Brut” came to be used to mean 'chronicle of the Britons' in the tradition of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Within a few years, Geoffrey Gaimar had composed a now-lost French Galfridian history of the Britons. The Brut tradition was continued by the Norman poet Robert Wace (1155) and in less than 50 years the first version appeared in Middle English composed by the English priest Layamon.

With the King’s biography taking up about a fifth of his work it is essentially the centre-piece of Geoffrey’s Historia and the foundation from which all subsequent Arthurian literature sprang. But by the last quarter of the 12th century the Arthurian chronicle had turned to fiction with Chretien's Story of the Grail, a tale of Arthur’s knights with the King relegated to the side-lines.

The Arthurian canon may been created by Geoffrey but it was embellished by the writers of later Arthurian Romance, with iconic themes such as the Round Table (Wace), Camelot (Chretien) and the Sword in the Stone (Robert de Boron); King Arthur had rapidly evolved into a literary figure, or perhaps he always was.

Monnow Bridge in Monmouth, the only remaining fortified river bridge in Britain
Invented History
From a character of supernatural legend fighting giants, witches and monsters, Geoffrey transformed Arthur into a figure of history, a successful military leader who conquered much of Europe. His effect on the Arthurian legend was immense and cannot be over stated.

Geoffrey’s readership was immensely popular as demonstrated by the number of surviving manuscripts. However, in his own times he was taken to task for inventing much of Historia; a few years after publication William of Newburgh proclaimed that “… everything this man wrote was made up”. 

Another of Geoffrey’s critics was Gerald of Wales, who’s own part in the reporting of the discovery of King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury was rather suspect, wrote that when Saint John’s Gospel was placed on a man possessed by demons they would leave immediately, but when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book was placed on him the demons would return.

There is a complete lack of evidence for many of Geoffrey’s key characters such as Brutus or Belinus, similarly there is no evidence for a British invasion of Gaul or confrontation with Rome. Perhaps William and Gerald were correct in their assessments of Geoffrey’s work.

Geoffrey Ashe has argued that a historical figure called Riothamus, who went by way of ocean to Gaul, may well have been used by Geoffrey as the model behind Arthur’s invasion of Gaul. However, positive identification of Riothamus has proved problematic; after being routed by the Goths he was last seen heading toward the Burgundians, yet many reconstructions of Arthurian history have him return across the Channel in time to lead the Britons to victory at Badon. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Geoffrey knew of Riothamus.

Today Geoffrey’s work is not regarded as a historical account of the Britons and most scholars today consider Geoffrey’s book as “invented history”. Geoffrey claimed he had access to a certain book in the ancient tongue. He certainly knew Gildas, Bede and the Historia Brittonum, yet most historians doubt the existence of any such book.

The question of the veracity of Geoffrey’s Arthurian epic has raged for almost 900 years and still goes on today with modern authors using the Historia to reconstruct Arthurian histories. Two recent works published in the last few years take quite different views of Geoffrey’s Historia; Arthur and the Kings of Britain by Miles Russel and King Arthur’s European Realm by Paul Sire. We will examine these accounts in the next two posts.

* * *

Sunday, 2 August 2020

The Death of William Rufus: Accident or Assassination?

On 2nd August 1100 King William II was killed while hunting in the New Forest.

William, also know as "Rufus" owing to ruddy complexion and red hair, was the third son of William the Conqueror. The eldest son Robert Curthose inherited William’s lands in Normandy, the second son Richard died in 1075 while hunting in the New Forest. The youngest son Henry was left no lands but was the only one of William’s four sons born in England.

The Death of Rufus (William II), Alexander Davis Cooper, 1866

William Rufus came to the throne in 1087; his reign witnessed the rule of one of the most unpopular Kings of England, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle described him as “harsh and severe” and “hated by almost all his people”. He was constantly at odds with his elder brother Robert across the channel and at war with the Scots and Welsh. He increased the tax burden to fund his war machine. He was often at odds with the church; relations deteriorated to such a degree that the Archbishop of Canterbury went into exile.

William Rufus was staying at Winchester, and having rejected a plea for reconciliation with the Archbishop, declared he would go hunting the next day.

The day started with news that a monk had dreamed that William Rufus would die in a hunting incident that day. William scoffed at the prophecy and carried on with his plans to go hunting. The party ventured into the New Forest, a Royal hunting ground as designated by his father William the Conqueror.

William Rufus was with Walter Tyrrell, said to be an excellent marksman. An arrow shot by Tyrrell had missed his prey and rebounded of a tree and through the chest of the Rufus. It could simply have been a genuine hunting incident but immediate events cast doubt on this.

Tyrrell immediately fled to France. Stories claim he had a blacksmith shod his horse with shoes reversed so that he could not be tracked. It seems he needn’t have wasted his time as no one set after him in pursuit. Even so, Tyrrell is said to have never returned to England.

The lifeless body of the king was left in the forest with no reports of any attempts to save him. His younger brother Henry, also hunting in the forest that day in the same royal party, immediately set off to Winchester to secure the Treasury and was crowned King of England within three days. A forest charcoal burner eventually took William’s body to Winchester in a cart where he endured a simple burial.

Some historians have speculated that the death of William Rufus was no accident but an assassination on the orders of Henry; the Rufus had never married and having no offspring had no heir to the throne. However, Henry’s dash to secure the treasury and rapid coronation may have been simply to secure the throne of England and deter any aspirations of his elder brother Robert of Normandy who was on Crusade at the time.. It seems we will never know for certain.

Yet, theories abound of course; it has even been claimed that the Rufus had been killed by a French agent as the English king was planning to invade Normandy. Henry was installed on the English throne as he had no aspirations to do so.

In a woodland clearing off the A31 road between Cadnam and Stoney Cross in Hampshire, is a metre high iron memorial erected in 1841, replacing an earlier one erected in 1745. The adjacent oak tree is said to be a descendant of the original tree that the deadly arrow deflected off and pierced the King’s lung. Nearby is an inn called the Sir Walter Tyrrell.

The Rufus Stone

The memorial is inscribed on three sides:

"Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August, anno 1100."

"King William the Second, surnamed Rufus being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis, and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church of that city."

"That the spot where an event so memorable might not hereafter be forgotten, the enclosed stone was set up by John Lord Delaware who had seen the tree growing in this place. This stone having been much mutilated, and the inscriptions on each of its three sides defaced. This more durable memorial with the original inscriptions was erected in the year 1841, by WM Sturges Bourne, Warden."

However, historians asserts that this is not the place where William Rufus fell. In 1530 John Leland, the antiquary to King Henry VIII, claimed that the King died at a place recorded in Domesday called Thorougham (Truham). This village was lost during the formation of the New Forest by William the Conqueror around 1079; the site is likely to be at Park Farm, Beaulieu.

Henry I was King of England from 1100 until his death in 1135. On his death civil war broke out in England due to a succession crisis. His son William had died in the White Ship disaster of 1120, bringing Henry to name his daughter (and half sister to William) Matilda as his heir. Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois claimed the English crown and a period of conflict known as The Anarchy ensued. The war run to a stalemate, finally concluding in 1153 with agreement in the Treaty of Winchester that Matilda's eldest son Henry (Curtmantle) would succeed to the throne on the death of Stephen of Blois.

Stephen fell ill and died earlier than expected in in 1154 and Henry was crowned King Henry II of England the first Plantagenet king of England.

* * * 

Saturday, 11 July 2020

The Battle of Mount Badon

Ambrosius, Arthur and the Defence of Britain  
by Alistair Hall 
Raven Fell Limited, 2019. (Kindle Edition). 

Having a passionate interest in Arthur since childhood, some 50 years ago, author Alistair Hall set off on a historical detective trail with the aim of solving one of the greatest British historical puzzles; was King Arthur simply a legend or did he actually exist?

Alistair is convinced that Arthur was real and in his book The Battle of Mount Badon: Ambrosius, Arthur and the Defence of Britain he aims to prove it.

The front cover illustration appears to be Artorius (Clive Owen) from the awful 2004 film King Arthur directed by Antoine Fuqua, starring Owen and Keira Knightly.

We know this film was inspired by the theory, currently pushed by Linda Malcor and John Matthews the “historical advisors” to the film, that the origin of the Arthurian legend can be found in Lucius Artorius Castus a Roman officer stationed in Britain in the 2nd century apparently in command of a troop of Sarmatian cavalry, a theory rejected by most Arthurians as utter bollocks; which seems odd why the author would choose this as his book cover to entice us in?

Why the author would chose to associate his book with this film which gave a dreadful reinterpretation of Arthur as the Roman officer is not an encouraging start.

Alastair Hall tells us that in the year 2000 he began to believe that he had identified a number of locations for King Arthur’s battles. He held back for another 20 years before putting pen to paper.

Following a long discussion on the ending of Roman Britain, the centrepiece of the book is the history of Britain 430 to 470 in which Hall asserts his claim to have discovered the true identity of Arthur, but he also rewrites history and provides a new structure and chronology. But he concedes that in reality this book is about the outcome of more complex events that occurred a century before; the ending of Roman Britain.

The author's claim to prove the existence of Arthur is a bold one indeed, and his forensic research, as he calls it, suggests that the received history of the 5th century is incorrectly dated by as much as a generation since these events occurred in the North and followed the Roman evacuation. The majority of historians date the Battle of Mount Badon, accepted as a real event recorded by Gildas and Bede, to within ten years either side of 500 AD. In this book Hall moves the date of Badon back by a generation to fit his revised chronology.

He also tampers with the accepted geography to relocate the traditional landing site of Hengist and Horsa from Kent to 250 miles further north to the Humber, associating Vortimer’s last battle with Arthur’s first even though they are recorded as separate events in the Historia Brittonum. The other eleven battles of the Historia Brittonum, the Arthurian campaign, immediately follow occurring mainly, Hall argues, in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire culminating in the battle of Mount Badon at Bardon Hill in c.469.

Rising up from the Vale of the Trent, Bardon Hill dominates a region known as Charnwood Forest and the M1 road passes close by its summit, at 912 feet, the highest point on this motorway. Hall admits he was attracted to this hill as the site of Arthur's greatest battle simply because of the similarity of its name to Mount Badon. Sadly the heart of this hill has been ripped out and forms a massive quarry, the high quality granite used for many miles of road building. Yet, there is no more than a late legend to link Bardon Hill with the site of Arthur’s greatest victory.

Hall claims that through the centuries the story of the early Anglo-Saxon rebellion  and war has been misunderstood and misplaced. Bede recounted a tradition that the mythical progenitors of the Jutes,  Hengist and Horsa, landed in Kent but Hall claims that they were never that far south, but in fact on the east coast of England further north in Lincolnshire.

Hall identifies Arthur as Arthwys of the Pennines, son of Mor, and accordingly locates him in Elmet and as a result of his research claims that the historicity of the Dux Bellorum will no longer be in doubt.

Unfortunately the author has been influenced by tired old sources, Britannia: A History of Roman Britain by Sheppard Frere and Roman Britain and the English Settlements by R. G. Collingwood and J. N. L. Myers. Both now outdated.

And it's never a good sign when you see The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 by John Morris listed among the author's sources. Unfortunately the image of post-Roman Britain constructed by Morris has stuck with so many self-styled historical detectives who seek to identify Arthur’s battle sites fighting back the Anglo Saxon onslaught from the east. Modern studies of the English is moving away from the “slash and burn” rhetoric of Gildas, a model that influenced all later writers for centuries.

I didn't dislike this book but it brings nothing new to the Arthurian debate; the usual investigation into identifying the battle sites which typically commences with the ending of Roman Britain, an examination of the sources, with a typically adjusted chronology and relocated geography, on this ocassion centred around Lincoln, Doncaster and Derby, to suit the author's argument. Camboglanna is the site of the strife of Camlann, surprisingly outside the author's own locality. I was certainly not convinced by the author’s claims, he fails to present an assertive argument that Arthwys was Arthur; you need more than just a hunch that you’ve identified the real person.

After making such a grand entrance on the front cover, Artorius is not mentioned in the text at all.

At £25 for a copy, and only available from the publisher plus £3.50 delivery, this is not a cheap book. This will seriously limit the books distribution. Fortunately I downloaded a Kindle edition at a reduced price of £2.99 from Amazon.

[Read during lockdown 2020]

* * *