Wednesday 16 June 2010

Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot

Revealing King Arthur

Christopher Gidlow

Arthur: mythical hero, legendary king.

But was he, as the legends claimed, an actual Dark-Age Briton?

Might new discoveries and the latest theories finally reveal the real King Arthur?

Christopher Gidlow's second Arthurian book Revealing King Arthur has just been published (May 2010) by the History Press. Gidlow's earlier work The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend (The History Press, 2004) discussed how a Dark Age historical figure became the substance of legend in the later sources such as the Mabinogi, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Saints' Lives.

Howard Wiseman's review (January 2006) states that a shortcoming of The Reign of Arthur is that Gidlow does not directly address the recent arguments of Nick Higham in King Arthur: Myth Making and History (2002), in particular the claim that the description of Arthur in the 9th Century Historia Brittonum was not to be taken as in any way historical. Revealing King Arthur is Gidlow's attempt at redressing that issue.

From the inside front flap: “This book investigates how archaeologists have interpreted the evidence from Glastonbury and Tintagel to the supposed sites of Arthur's Camelot and his famous battles. For 800 years the controversy over Arthur's existence has ebbed and flowed. Rusty swords, imposing ruins, the Round Table, even Arthur's body itself were offered as proof that he had once reigned over Britain. The quest was revived by the scientific archaeologists of the 1960s. Just as Greek legends had led to the discovery of Troy, so might the romances lead to Camelot. This optimism did not last. Sceptics poured scorn on the obscure manuscripts and strong imagination on which the questers relied.”


1.The Isle of Avalon
2.Ancient Books
3.Tintagel and the 'Arthur Stone'
4.The Ruler of Dumnonia
6.The Fall of Camelot
7.Kings of the Britons
8.Britain has Governors
9.The Saxon Invasions
10.Knights of the Round Table
11.Arthur's Twelve Battles
12.The City of the Legion
13.Inventing Arthur
14.Lost in the Woods
15.The Siege of Badon Hill
16.The Strife of Camlan
17.The Return of Arthur

Appendix -The Year of the Siege of Badon Hill

Gidlow discusses how archaeologists’ interpretation of their discoveries is influenced by the academic fashion of the time; sites which in the 1960s were used in the argument for King Arthur’s existence are now seen as irrelevant to the discussion of a completely mythical character. But by comparing the primary sources with the archaeological evidence he argues that the traditional image of Arthur leading the Britons in war against the Saxons around the year 500 AD is very plausible.

Gidlow tells how the discovery in 1998 at Tintagel of a mysterious slate was the headline he had waited for all his life. Inscribed with the name 'Artognou' the slate immediately became known as the 'Arthur Stone' promoted by English Heritage as the name 'Arthnou' possibly because it had more letters in common with the name Arthur. Consequently the early press releases at the time picked up on the connection prompting discussion in the national newspapers of the historical and literary merits of the myth of King Arthur. The Arthurian legend is big business in Tintagel but the name on the slate has nothing to do with Arthur and its association with the legend is typical of many armchair historical detectives who latch onto any similar sounding name with the three letters 'Art' and claim to have identified the real Arthur. Gidlow states that the archaeologists were keen to distance themselves from any connection with Arthur but concedes, rather disappointingly, that the name is not the same. On the archaeologists' refusal to participate in speculating on the Arthurian connection at Tintagel, he says “in the face of accumulating evidence from Tintagel supporting the traditional narratives 'one hardly dares to make such a suggestion for fear of what may be made of it in some circles' (quoting Oliver Padel in Hutton 2003: 56).”

And therein lies much of the theme of Revealing King Arthur in which Gidlow takes a swipe at scholarship of the last thirty years which has declared that the enigmatic Arthur should be banished from our history books altogether. Prime target is David Dumville, referred to as “Arthur's assassin” who in writing 'Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend' (History 1977) scared the pants off most scholars of Dark Age Britain who have been afraid to mention Arthur ever since. You feel compelled to agree with Gidlow that most modern scholars do seem to be in awe of the man, held in reverence as the authority on Dark Age British history. Along with Dumville, Nick Higham, King Arthur: Mythmaking and History (2002) and Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur (2007) are considered “anti-Arthurians” by the author and receive considerable attention throughout the book. Higham yes, but I would hardly term Green anti-Arthurian. Whereas Green does not advocate an historical Arthur he champions the existence of a mythological Arthur of early Welsh poetry, in which he is accompanied on his adventures by figures from Celtic mythology.

In accepting that a great deal of the Historia Brittonum's account of the fifth century “includes much that is clearly legendary, not to say mythological material”, Gidlow states that unfortunately it is attached to Ambrosius – NOT Arthur; “there is nothing in Historia Brittonum to make a modern reader think that Arthur is mythical and everything to make him suppose that Ambrosius is”.

The mythical section that Gidlow refers to is the tale of Emrys, also known as Ambrose, and the account of the dragons of Dinas Emrys. This Ambrose is the fatherless child who possesses the gift of prophecy and goes on to become Geoffrey of Monmouth's Merlin. He is clearly NOT the same Ambrosius who Gildas declared rallied the beleagured Britons in the fight against the Saxons and whose quarrel with Vitalinus resulted in the battle of Guoloph (Wallop) as recorded at the end of the Historia Brittonum.

Unfortunately for Gidlow, unequivocal mythical content of the Historia Brittonum is very clearly attached to Arthur; appended to some manuscript variants is the Mirabilia, or 'Wonders of Britain' listing a series of phenomena in the landscape, which according to Dumville were probably included in the earliest version. The Mirabilia contains two examples of Arthuriana amongst these wonders; firstly, is the mention of Carn Cafal, a heap of stones bearing the footprint of the warrior Arthur's dog when he hunted the Twrch Trwyth, the supernatural boar hunt recorded in what is considered possibly the oldest Arthurian tale, Culwch and Olwen. Secondly, the variable sized tomb of Amr, said to be the son of the warrior Arthur, near a spring, called Llygad Amr (Licat Anir), in the country called Ergyng (Ercing). Ambrosius is notably absent from the Mirabilia.

Gidlow is aware of the mythical content of the Mirabilia (pp.33 – 34) and returns to the site of the tomb of Amr later in the book (pp. 188 -189), which he proposes is 'Arthur Stone' , the site of a Neolithic long barrow, which he calls one of the very earliest Arthurian sites and the site of one of Arthur's battles where he killed his own son. However, here Gidlow confuses the cromlech of 'Arthur Stone' near Dorstone with the site of Amr's tomb, thought to be either the site of a lost neolithic barrow destroyed in 1896 at Wormelow Tump or nearby Gamber Head; the eye of the Gamber. The author seems unaware, or deliberately avoids, the large number of prehistoric sites with an Arthurian connection.

He states that the Arthur Stone is one of the few Arthurian sites presented to the public as such; of the 155 Arthurian sites covered in Fairbairn's survey, (A Traveller's Guide to Kingdom's of Arthur, 1983), Gidlows says the vast majority have not been investigated for their sub-Roman archaeology and have no on-site interpretation of their Arthurian associations. Wales, the region with the most, he continues, has no mention of Arthur at all on the CADW website and the English Heritage website only has four. Has Gidlow stumbled upon an Arthurian conspiracy theory?

This is an odd book which does little to support the case for an historical Arthur; for example the discussion of the renowned enigma of the Arthurian battle sites is unsurprisingly inconclusive making it difficult to envisage how the author intended to use that debate for an historical Arthur without firm evidence. Needless to say the sites of the Arthurian Battle list have been discussed by many scholars many times before and located, unconvincingly, all over the country. This is typical of the argument put forward throughout the book which provides nothing new and ultimately fails to reveal the existence of Arthur as an historical character.

See: King Arthur's Round Table Revealed

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Tuesday 1 June 2010

The Staffordshire Hoard Battle Site 2

Part II

Continued from Part I: The Spoils of War

The Warrior Elite
The practice of Kings and Lords employing professional warrior bands, an elite class free from the laws which governed ordinary members of society, was recorded among Germanic people long before the days of the Vikings. The German tribe known as Catti from the upper Wesser homeland, were renown for their fighting skills and successfully resisted incorporation into the Roman Empire, allying with Arminius' Germanic tribal coalition that annihilated Varus' legions in 9 AD in the Teutoburg Forest. The Roman historian Tacitus writing in the 1st Century AD describes how the Catti warriors were given elite status amongst the tribe:

“..... a custom, practised indeed in other nations of Germany.......... prevails amongst the Cattans by universal consent.......... All the most brave likewise wear an iron ring (a mark of great dishonour this in that nation) and retain it as a chain; till by killing an enemy they become released. Many of the Cattans delight always to bear this terrible aspect; and, when grown white through age, become awful and conspicuous by such marks, both to the enemy and their own countrymen. By them in all engagements the first assault is made: of them the front of the battle is always composed, as men who in their looks are singular and tremendous. For even during peace they abate nothing in the grimness and horror of their countenance. They have no house to inhabit, no land to cultivate, nor any domestic charge or care. With whomsoever they come to sojourn, by him they are maintained”.
- Tacitus, Germania.

The acquisition of war booty was the direct result of the war band's successful raiding on neighbouring kingdoms and a reflection of their martial prowess, providing a visible indication of their prior military victories and a means by which the King could reward his followers and add to his own material wealth. Engaging in war with neighbouring kingdoms appears to have been a high risk activity which could be used to directly increase material wealth. [7]

The Battle of Catraeth

In addition to raising wealth and obtaining valuable war gear, cattle were an important form of war booty to Irish and British kingdoms as attested by Dark Age poetry. In the Book of Taliesin, Urien of Rheged is referred to as the “cattle reaver”, and in another poem as “the chief of warriors, procurer of vast booty”, and the objective of one of his raids on the rival kingdom of Manaw Gododdin was to bring back to Rheged further wealth:

“and from their food

everybody goes eagerly to battle,

his horse under him

with Manaw's battle in his sights
for more spoils and plenty of booty besides a hundred and sixty calves and cows,
all of one colour

milch cows and oxen
and many a thing of beauty as well” [8]

Urien's enemy in several of Taliesin's poems are the Manaw Gododdin, a north British kingdom occupying the territory in the region of present day Lothian. The rivalry of the two kingdoms culminates in the Battle of Catraeth, (modern Catterick?) c. 595 - 600 AD, recorded in the poem Y Gododdin of Aneirin, which tells the story of the vanquished, a disastrous event from which only three from three hundred of the war party who set out from Din Eidin (Edinburgh), are said to have survived.

Many historians consider the attack on Catraeth to be against the northern Angles of Bernicia. [9] However, it seems quite clear from the poetry of Taliesin that Urien of Rheged was the ruler at Catraeth and therefore the Gododdin's adversary. It has been proposed that Urien's triumph is recorded from the perspective of the victors in The Battle of Gwen Ystrad (Gweith Gwen Ystrat), a battle at the entrance to a ford in the Gwen valley, the site of which remains unidentified. The opening lines of Gwen Ystrat refer to Urien as a “....battle victorious, cattle rich sovereign”. [10]

Y Gododdin refers to war booty as a product of battle and underlines the taking of booty and pillaging was not by any means unique to Vikings or Anglo Saxons, indeed it seems to have been prevalent between rival Brittonic kingdoms. There are numerous examples in Y Gododdin including the following lines:

133 - Harshly they attacked, they collected booty 435 - Cadfannan, with great praise, acquired booty” [11]

The Welsh poem Moliant Cadwallon (In Praise of Cadwallon), although only surviving in a 17th Century manuscript is regarded as preserving a genuine 7th century poem, possibly contemporary with the earliest version of Y Gododdin, recording the practice of taking cattle in the same battle:

“And Fierce Gwallawc caused

The great mortality of Catraeth, greatly renowned:

Overseas foreigners, loyal followers, and rightful lords;

seeking cattle as a portion of great wealth in battle”.

The emergence of Mercia is somewhat of an historical mystery; the Midlands Kingdom seemingly appeared from nowhere with little previous history and according to historians became the dominant 'Anglo Saxon' Kingdom for 200 years, up until the Battle of Ellandun in 825 AD when they were defeated by Wessex. However, Mercian supremacy must have been in part due to Cadwallon ap Cadfan, King of Gwynedd, (he of the Moliant Cadwallon) who led a powerful Welsh-Merican alliance, possibly employing Penda initially as an Anglo-Saxon mercenary, against Northumbria defeating and killing Edwin at Gweith Meigen, 633 AD, before finally being defeated and killed by Oswald at Cantscaul in 635 AD. The pagan Penda, referred as a 'Southumbrian' on occasion by Bede, then emerged as sole ruler of Mercia, and adopted an aggressive expansionist campaign for the Midlands kingdom.

The young whelps of great Arthur
After Cadwallon's death, Penda continued the successful Welsh-Mercian alliance, with Cynddylan, Prince of Powys, amongst the Mercian supporters. The Marwnad Cynddylan (‘Death-song of Cynddylan’) recalls:

“...Cynddylan, the battle leader,

got seven hundred chosen soldiers in his retinue,

When the son of Pyd requested, he was so ready! ...”.

This allegiance is confirmed in the Welsh poems of the Canu Heledd:

“On the ground of Maes [C]ogwy, I saw

armies, battle affliction:
Cynddylan was an ally”.
The Welsh poems of Canu Heledd cover similar subject matter to Marwnad Cynddylan, in which Heledd, his sister, [12] mourns the the death of Cynddylan and her family and the loss of Pengwern, modern east Shropshire, following an attack by the English.

Welsh sources record the battle of Cogfry (or Cocboy) in which Penda, king of the Mercians, defeated Oswald, king of the Northumbrians. Bede refers to it as the Battle of Maserfelth, confirming that Oswald was killed by the pagan king of the Mercians on 5th August, 642 AD. The battle site has been identified as Oswestry in Shropshire since the 12th Century. The Canu Heledd would appear to confirm that Cynddylan was present at the battle as Penda's ally.

The Marwnad Cynddylan laments the Welsh Prince's death, it was likely composed in East Powys (now modern Shropshire) not long after Cynddylan's death in 655 AD, he was probably amongst the thirty nobles who perished along with Penda at The Battle of Winwaed, on 15th November 655 AD, [13] referred to as the slaughter of Campus Gaius in Welsh sources.

The three poems Y Gododdin, Moliant Cadwallon and Marwnad Cynddylan all portray the same tone of the Brittonic Heroic Age and are possibly of similar date, although it is notoriously difficult to be certain with works only extant in manuscripts written several hundred years after the event. The Marwnad Cynddylan survives in later writings copied from a 16th Century manuscript but is believed to be an accurate and reliable copy of a much earlier original, certainly the orthography is ancient and considered to pre-date the earliest known source manuscript, probably an older composition than the Canu Heledd. If that is the case, then it contains one of the earliest literary mentions of Arthur:

“I used to have brothers. It was better when they were

the young whelps of great Arthur, the mighty fortress.
Before Lichfield they fought,
There was gore under ravens and keen attack”

The implication from the poem is that Cynddylan and his brothers fought with such great valour that these warriors are referred to as “whelps of great Arthur, a mighty fortress”, which is similar to the line from Y Gododdin which states that the warrior Gwawddur ‘fed black ravens on the rampart of a fort, though he was no Arthur’. Arthur is not present at either battle but men of great valour are compared to him; the “mighty fortress” would appear to refer to Arthur as defender of the Nation. [14]

The Marwnad Cynddylan has been interpreted as recording an attack on Lichfield (Caer Lwytgoed) following a breakdown in the Mercian-Welsh alliance, then Cynddylan, allied with his brother Moriael (the sons of the Cyndrwynyn) attacked the Staffordshire settlement killing a bishop and taking extensive booty:

“Limed shields broke before the sons of the Cyndrwynyn.

I shall lament until I would be in the land of my resting place
for the slaying of Cynddylan, famed among chieftains.
Grandeur in battle! Extensive spoils
Morial bore off from in front of Lichfield
Fifteen hundred cattle from the front of battle;

four twenties of stallions and equal harness.
The chief bishop wretched in his four-cornered house (?),
the book-keeping monks did not protect.
Those who fell in the blood before the splendid warrior” [15]

Perhaps the Mercian backlash to the raid was the attack on Pengwern which resulted in the death of Cynddylan as recorded in the poetry of the Canu Heledd. In the English translation of Marwnad Cynddylan, Lichfield is given for Caer Lwydgoed, (variously spelled: Loytcoyt for example), the name said to derive from 'luit coit' from the Celtic for 'grey wood'. Caer Lwydgoed in modern Welsh therefore means the 'Fortification in the Grey Wood'. Lichfield was the ecclesiastical seat of Mercia, which Bede refers to as Lyccidfelth (or Licidfelth) when Chad became the first Bishop there in 669 AD.

In the 1880's Henry Bradley suggested that Bede's 'Lyccid' was an Anglicization of the early Welsh 'luit coit', which had evolved from the earlier Celtic form 'Lētocēton', the native name of the Roman settlement Letocetum at Wall, Staffordshire, an import posting station near the junction of the Roman roads Watling Street and Ryknield Way, just two miles from Lichfield.

The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in a field at Barracks Lane, on the high ground between Hammerwich and Brownhills, literally just yards from the modern A5 road, which follows the route of Watling Street, near Lichfield, only 2.5 miles directly west of Wall (Letocetum), and here, in Welsh poetry, we find a reference to a raid on this area where extensive booty was taken.

The Marwnad Cynddylan appears to provide a battle at the correct location within the correct time span; it is therefore tempting to speculate on the possibility of the Staffordshire Hoard being Morial's spoils from the attack on Caer Lwydcoed: did a warrior leaving the battle scene, heading west along Watling Street back to Powys, leave the Roman Road and stash his booty, including a slain bishop's cross, on the hillside, with the intention to retrieve it later, but for whatever reason never returned.

Copyright © 2010 Edward Watson

See: More Staffordshire Hoard Artefacts Found in Same Filed in 2012


7. Stephen S Evans – Lords of Battle, The Bydell Press, 1997, pp. 125-134.
Evans states that Dark Age kingdoms had three methods of raising capital at the expense of their neighbours: war booty; cattle reaving; demanding payment of tribute.
8. Merion Pennar – Taliesin Poems, Llanerch, 1988, p.69.
9. Catraeth was the seat of the British kingdom of Rheged; Urien is recorded in Taliesin's poems as the 'Lord of Catraeth'. The Battle of Catraeth, recorded in Y Gododdin, is considered by the majority of historians to have been fought between the Brittonic forces of Rheged and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia, a view largely founded on finds of Germanic archaeology at Catterick. Although the Anglian presence at Catraeth is undeniable, John Koch, who has produced a reconstructed text of the poem, argues that Anglians did not appear in the earlier versions of Y Gododdin. See: John Koch - The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text & Context from Dark Age North Britain, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1997, pp. lxxi – lxxxiii.
10. Ibid. pp. xxvi-xxx. Koch argues for the two accounts (Y Gododdin and Gweith Gwen Ystrat) as referring to the same battle but told from the different sides, the vanquished and the victors. Koch's proposal has been not been universally accepted by any means – see Graham Isaac, "Gweith Gwen Ystrat and the Northern Heroic Age of the Sixth Century." Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 36, 1998, pp. 61-70, and offers the following translation of the same opening lines: “...the cattle raider, victorious in battle”, which is not widely different from Koch's translation, but Isaac argues for a much later, 11th Century composition. Either way, it is agreed that Urien took cattle as booty.
11. A O H Jarman - Aneirin: Y Gododdin: Britain’s Oldest Heroic Poem, Gomer Press, 1990.
12. Tradition holds that Heledd, sole family survivor of the Mercian attack on Pengwern, fled to South Wales and lived out her remaining days there. The church is the oldest standing building in Blaenau Gwent and although currently dedicated to St Illtyd, the parish lists of the 16th and 17th centuries record that the original dedication of the church was to St. Heledd or Hyledd, providing the the place-name Llanhyledd, anglicised as Llanhilleth. Nearby there is a well called Ffynnon Llanhyledd. The Englynion y Beddau (The Stanzas of the Graves) recalls “at Llanheledd is the grave of Owain”. This is said to be Owain the son of Urien, the 6th century king of Rheged.
13. Jenny Rowland - Early Welsh Saga Poetry: a Study and Edition of the Englynion, D S Brewer, 1990.
14. Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007, pp. 53-54.

The reference to Arthur in Marwnad Cynddylan has not been accepted by all scholars of Welsh poetry, and provide an alternative translation:

“Brodyr a’m bwyad

gwell ban fythyn
canawon artir fras, dinas dengyn
rhag Caer Lwytgoed nis digonsyn”

“I had brothers who have gone,

Better forever in fame,

The young whelps in the rich land of the mighty fortress.
Against Caer Lwytgoed they were too few...”

The meaning of the word`artir' is given as `upon the ground or territory (land) of'. However, this may simply be a copyist's error for the word 'artur', the two words are clearly very close. For the purpose of this study the precise meaning of the line is not that significant; our main interest in the Marwnad Cynddylan is the reference to Caer Lwytgoed which appears twice in the poem and is usually translated into English as Lichfield.
15. Marwnad Cynddylan translation by Keith Matthews.

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