Monday 9 August 2010

The Round Table Revealed?

The list of Arthurian battle sites from Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum have defied identification since being written in the 9th Century; indeed it was interesting watching the ambitious television documentary 'King Arthur's Round Table Revealed' in which a group of historians, led by Christopher Gidlow, claimed to have identified the site of Arthur's ninth battle at the 'City of the Legion' as Chester and that the Roman amphitheatre was the origin of the Round Table of Arthurian legend.

This all-too-short Arthurian week on the History Channel commenced on the 19th July with the revelation of King Arthur's Round Table, ending the week with further discussion on the Roman Legionary City in 'Britain's Lost Mega-Fortress' on Friday evening, sandwiching mid-week Francis Pryor's three part mini-series 'Britain AD: The Quest for Arthur', with the weekend showing further repeats of 'King Arthur's Round Table Revealed'.
Dark Age tv heaven – or was it?

As reported in my previous post, the History Channel program had been widely publicised in the press and online, [1, 2] with claims of 'King Arthur’s Round Table discovered in Chester'. Any Arthurian enthusiasts was immediately compelled to tune in to see what evidence lay behind Christopher Gidlow's claims that for a period of time Arthur held court at the fortified Chester Amphitheatre. Gidlow's latest book 'Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot' sets out to restore Arthur as an historical figure following his rejection from accounts of sub-Roman Britain by scholars of the last 30 years, fearful mere mention of his name would prevent them being considered serious historians. In his book Gidlow munches over much Arthurian material rather inconclusively and in the end fails to convince and I was beginning to expect much of the same from the documentary following the misleading press releases in which we read of quotations from Gidlow asserting that “in the 6th Century, a monk named Gildas, who wrote the earliest account of Arthur’s life,” when in fact Gildas fails to mention Arthur at all.

Only the day after these promotions had appeared, and a week before the screening of the television program, The Independent published the 'Top Ten Clues to the Real King Arthur' by Christopher Gidlow, [3] perhaps more on these another day, but at number six was Chester Amphitheatre: “one of Arthur’s celebrated '12 battles' against the Saxons was fought at the City of the Legion, the name given to Chester in the Dark Ages. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a Dark Age battle at nearby Heronbridge, and recent excavations show the amphitheatre was fortified in the period, with a shrine to a Christian martyr at its centre. Is it a coincidence Arthur’s Round Table was originally described as a very large structure, seating 1,600 of his warriors?”

The Round Table
Let's start with the Round Table. According to the Daily Mail, Gidlow said “The first accounts of the Round Table show that it was nothing like a dining table but was a venue for upwards of 1,000 people at a time....Chester was the site of Arthur’s court and his legendary Round Table.”

The very first mention is the account of Robert Wace who introduced the concept of the 'Round Table' to the Arthurian cycle in his Roman de Brut (1155 AD) the first version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History" in French:

"Because of these noble lords in his hall, each of whom held himself to be the best [knight], and none of whom would hold himself the least praiseworthy, Arthur fashioned the Round Table, which the Bretons tell about in many stories. This Round Table was ordained by Arthur so that when his fair fellowship sat to dine, their chairs would all be of the same height, their service equal, and no one should be before or after his peer. Thus no man could boast that he was exalted above his peer, for all were alike, and there was none outside."
The program was promoted as though it had unveiled some new discovery at Chester that revealed the Roman Amphitheatre to be the round table capable of seating 1,600, when in fact, the first evidence of Chester Amphitheatre was uncovered in 1737 with the discovery of a slate relief depicting a gladiator. The Roman amphitheatre, the largest so far uncovered in Britain, capable of seating substantially more at 8,000 people, was discovered in 1929. Major excavations took place across much of the northern half of the site between 1957 and 1969 by F H Thompson with excavations continuing this century in separate ventures under Keith Matthews, Chester City Council 2000-03, English Heritage archaeologist Tony Wilmot with Dan Garner,Chester City Council, senior archaeologist for the Chester Amphitheatre Project, 2004-06, which revealed two successive stone-built amphitheatres with wooden seating.

It was established that the amphitheatre lay to the south-east of 'Deva Victrix' Roman fortress, home for many of its days to Legio XX Valeria Victrix, although originally constructed by Legio II Adiutrix during their brief stay at Chester during late 70's AD. The amphitheatre was established by c.100 AD but seems to have fallen out of use by the middle of that century when Legio XX were assigned to the construction of Hadrian's Wall, but upon their return towards the end of the 3rd Century, and not later than c.274 AD, it had been brought back into use. Today the southern half of the amphitheatre remains covered by Dee House and the County Court.

If the discovery of the Roman Amphitheatre is nothing new and the Round Table in its earliest account was indeed originally a dining table then what of the claims that Chester was the City of the Legion and the site of Arthur's ninth battle?

The City of the Legion?
Gidlow claimed the “clincher” was the discovery of the shrine at Chester which identified it as the City of the Legion; “Gildas......referred both to the City of the Legions and to a martyr’s shrine within it.' he added. 'That is the clincher. The discovery of the shrine within the amphitheatre means that Chester was the site of Arthur’s court...”

In Roman Britain there were three permanent legionary bases in Roman Britain: Caerleon, Chester and York, the latter being the base of the Dux Britanniuarum, commander of the land army of the north, a title sounding tantalising similar to the account given in Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum c.829 AD (often referred to as 'Nennius') of Arthur's battles:

“Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle [Dux Bellorum]...” [4]

The Historia continues: “......The ninth battle was fought in the city of the Legion”. [5]

A possible rhyme scheme has been suggested in the Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, identified by the sites such as Celyddon, Guinnion, Legion and Badon, leading to claims of a lost Dark Age war poem implying it recounts historical events. It is apparent that Gidlow accepts Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum as a genuinely historical account. Few serious historians would agree with him.

York would appear to be a strong candidate for the City of the Legion, fortress of the northern army with some 5,000 legionaries established a fort on the banks of the Ouse. The fort, and the town that grew up about it was called Eboracum, or "place of the yew trees". Founded in 71 AD, the fortress at Eboracum first housed Legio IX Hispana and later Legio VI Victrix. It was the base of the Dux Britanniuarum a position created probably by either Diocletian or Constantine I to command the Roman frontier along Hadrian's Wall and the armies of the North. In 208 AD Emperor Septimus Severus set up Imperial Court at Eboracum from where he ruled the Empire for three years while campaigning in Scotland. By the time Severus died in the year 211 AD, the civil settlement of Eboracum, on the south-west bank of the river Ouse opposite the military fortress, had been granted the status of a Colonia, the highest legal status a Roman town could attain and usually founded to house soldiers who had completed their military service in the Legions, and become one of the most important cities of Roman Britain, becoming the capital of the province of Britannia Inferior. In 306 AD, a second Emperor, Constantius I, died at Eboracum. His son Constantine ‘the Great’ was proclaimed Emperor by the Roman army there, and so began one of the most distinguished careers of the Roman empire, he being the first to tolerate Christian worship.

Eboracum: The Roman fortress on the opposite bank of the river Ouse to the Colonia.

It has long been suspected that a large amphitheatre awaits discovery beneath the streets of York. The remains of 80 men who could have been gladiators were discovered during excavations at Driffield Terrace, Holgate in 2004 and 2005. The gladiator suggestion is only one theory based on their physical size and the discovery of decapitated remains, with one having a bite mark consistent with that of a large carnivore, perhaps from a lion. Eboracum sounds a strong candidate for a city of the Legion, but has one major problem; it was simply not known as Legionum Urbis in the sources; e.g. in the list of cities contained within the Historia Brittonum, York is named as VII - 'Cair Ebruac'.

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the two places known by the name 'city of the Legions', Legionum Urbis, with variants of the Old Welsh Cair Legion, were Caerleon, in South Wales and Chester on the bank of the river Dee, the other. Consistent with this is the Historia Brittonum list of cities, which includes two that qualify as 'City of the Legion': XI - Cair lion and XXII - Cair ligion; most translations give Caerleon-upon-Usk (Isca) and Chester respectively. The river Usk would seem to be the differentiating factor between Chester and Caerleon as the city of the Legion – but this is not always the case.

Gildas only reference to the 'city of the Legion' (Legionum Urbis) appears in De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) c.540 AD, in which he states:

"... for he lit for us the brilliant lamps of holy martyrs. Their graves and the places where they suffered now have the greatest effect in instilling the blaze of divine charity in the minds of beholders, were it not that our citizens, thanks to our sins, have been deprived of many of them by the unhappy partition with the barbarians. I refer to St. Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Julius, citizens of Caerleon, and the others of both sexes who, in different places, displayed the highest spirit in the battle-line of Christ.” [6]

Bede, writing in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation c.731 AD, gives the following account in Book I.7:

“The blessed Alban suffered death on the twenty second day of June, near the city of Verulam. … the same time suffered Aaron and Julius, citizens of Chester, and many more of both sexes in several places; who, when they had endured sundry torments, and their limbs had been torn after an unheard of manner, yielded their souls up, to enjoy in the heavenly city a reward for the sufferings which they had passed through.”

At first glance Bede appears to be clearly following Gildas here, or at least using the same source document. [7] However, translations usually give Chester in Bede's account and Caerleon in Gildas. Why should the place of the martyrdom of Aaron and Julius be translated differently from these Latin documents - is this simply translator preference? [8] This is something we will need to return to later.

A considerable Roman legionary fortress, most of the remains of Isca Augusta lie beneath the village of Caerleon on the northern outskirts of Newport in south-east Wales. The name Isca meaning "water" in the Brythonic being a direct reference to the River Usk. The suffix was an honorific title taken from Legio II Augusta, based there from about 75 to 300 AD. The name Caerleon, being derived from the Welsh for "fortress of the legion,” - Cair Lion.

A significant archaeological site, Caerleon has some of the finest remains of Roman barrack buildings in Europe complete with amphitheatre standing just outside the walled area, built around 90 AD, later being partially reconstructed on two occasions; once in the early 2nd century, and secondly about a hundred years later. The arena is oval in shape, with eight entrances and could once seat six thousand spectators, a whole legion. Before the excavations of 1926 - 28, carried out under the guidance of Sir Mortimer Wheeler; the Amphitheatre was an oval-shaped mound with a hollow in the middle, known locally as King Arthur's Round Table.

Caerleon amphitheatre

As we have seen above, according to the Arthurian battle list in the Historia Brittonum, Arthur fought his ninth engagement at he city of the Legion. Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Caerleon one of the most important cities in Arthurian Britain in his Historia Regum Britanniæ, identifying it as his court – but he never called it Camelot, that notion, like the Round Table, was introduced to the Arthurian mythos by a continental writer, in this instance a certain Chrétien de Troyes.

Although Geoffrey of Monmouth has Caerleon as Arthur's court, he does not have him fight any battles there, in fact there do not seem to have been any significant Dark Age battles fought there at all. But we do find record of a major Dark Age battle fought at Chester which we will look at next.

Copyright © 2013 Edward Watson

Onto Part II: The Battle of Chester


1. King Arthur's Round Table 'found' - except it's not a table, but a Roman amphitheatre in Chester. The Mail online - 11 July 2010
2. Historians locate King Arthur's Round Table – and believe it could have seated 1,000 people. The Daily Telegraph - 11 July 2010
3. Top 10 clues to the real King Arthur by Christopher Gidlow. The Independent - 12 July 2010
4. Nennius, British History and the Welsh Annals - ed. & trans. John Morris, Arthurian Period Sources Vol 8, Phillimore, 1980.
5. Ibid.
6. Gildas: The Ruin of Britain – trans. Michael Winterbottom Arthurian Period Sources Vol 7, Phillimore, 1978, I. 10.
7. A C Sutherland, The Imagery of Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae, in Gildas: New Approaches, Boydell, 1984. In I. 9-11 Gildas appears to be influenced by the Historia Ecclesiastica of Eusebius, which follows a series of martyrdoms of the Eastern Empire but substitutes Aaron, Julius and the account of Alban. Eusebius of Caesariensis, c.260-c.360 AD, is considered one of the more renowned Church Fathers and this text is one of the most important ecclesiastic history produced in ancient times. Tyrannius Rufinus, c.345-411 AD, translated the Historia Ecclesiastica of Eusebius of Caesarea into Latin and continued the work from the reign of Constantine I to the death of Theodosius I in 395 AD, being published in 403 AD and accessible to Gildas. Eusebius produced a work on the martyrs of Palestine in the time of Diocletian after 311 AD, but the martyrology has not survived as a whole, but it has been preserved almost completely in parts which have yet to be collected.
8. One of the most freely available versions of Gildas - De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is J A Giles translation from Six Old English Chronicles, 1891, which gives Carlisle for 'legionum urbis'“…..Such were St. Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Julius, citizens of Carlisle, and the rest, of both sexes, who in different places stood their ground in the Christian contest.”
In the Giles translation of the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) he places the Arthurian battle list at Chapter 50 whereas it appears at Chapter 56 in the manuscript: “The ninth was at the City of Legion,[74] which is called Cair Lion.” In his note to this passage he identifies the site as Exeter. Giles appears to confuse the Latin name for Exeter, 'Isca Dumnoniorum,' with the Roman legionary fortress at Caerleon-upon-Usk, 'Isca Augusta'; both rivers Exe and Usk respectively, derived from the Celtic river name 'Isca' meaning simply 'water.' Perhaps Giles had knowledge of a local tradition that the City of the Legion was near the river Isca which may have influenced his identification.

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