Thursday, 22 October 2015

Arthur, Badon and the Cross

Ever since Constantine's vision of the Heavenly sign led him to victory early Christian armies have fought under the protection of the Cross.

The Cross goes Forth
On the night of 27th October 312 AD Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337, is said to have received his famous 'Vision of the Cross'. Constantine's biographer Eusebius of Caesarea records that following the vision Constantine's soldiers daubed the sign of the Chi-Rho, one of the earliest forms of christogram, on their shields. The next day Constantine was victorious against his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine's mother Helena was inspired to undertake a journey to the Holy Land in 326-28 in which, according to legend, she is said to have discovered the True Cross, parts of which she brought back to Constantinople.

The Constantine connection with York perhaps explains the regional interest in this cult in Northumbria from the 7th century; over more than 1,500 stone preaching crosses survive, most of which are located in the north, as evidence of a cult of the Cross in Anglo Saxon England. The cult of St Helena was centred on York, the place of Constantine's elevation following the death of his father 'Constantine Chlorus' in 306. Church dedications to Helena are ubiquitous in the north with over half found in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.1

Ruthwell Cross
(Wikimedia Commons)
The cult of the Cross is emphasised by the actions of the Northumbrian King Oswald who, perhaps imitating Constantine's vision, erected a wooden cross prior to his victory over Cadwallon at Hefenfelth (Heavenfield), near Hexham, in 633 AD.

A crumpled, folded cross found among the Staffordshire Hoard has a series of holes along the bottom indicating it was probably mounted on a pole or staff as a processional cross. As the cross was found among a hoard of predominately martial artefacts, the spoils of a war, it is likely to have been a cross carried into battle. The Hoard consists of over 3,500 items, providing over 5kg of gold, dated to the 7th or 8th century Mercia.

Further evidence of this northern cult can bee seen in the Ruthwell Cross, in Dumfries and Galloway, once part of Northumbria, a spectacular 7th century Anglian high cross. The cross has verses from the Old English poem 'The Dream of the Rood' carved into it in Old English runes and Latin which were probably added at later date.

During the Crusades there had been a tradition that the True Cross was carried into battle as a talisman or perhaps a supernatural weapon; it was used at the battle of Ramleh in 1103 and in almost every major engagement in the decades thereafter. A relic from the True Cross had been carried at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187 by the bishop of Acre. The Christian Crusader army of Guy de Lusignan, king of Jerusalem, was annihilated at Hattin by the Muslim forces of Saladin. The Cross was last seen tied upside down to a lance and heading for Damascus. The loss of the True Cross and the city of Jerusalem prompted the call for the Third Crusade two years later.

The 10th century Cambro-Latin text the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), a collection of historical notes compiled in the 10th century, lists several medieval conflicts but makes just one mention of this Christian icon being carried into battle. The entry for year 516 records a battle at Badon where Arthur carried the cross of Jesus and the British were the victors:

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

This entry in the Welsh Annals is clearly related to the well known passage in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) detailing the legendary King Arthur's twelve battles. At the eighth battle at the castle Guinnion Arthur is said to have carried an image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders.

No doubt inspired by the Crusades, some 13th century manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum include glosses and marginalia in an attempt to explain the carrying of the Holy icon into battle which claim that the relic of the Virgin was preserved at Wedale after the legendary King Arthur brought it back to Britain after a journey to Jerusalem with a relic of the True Cross through which he achieved his victories.2

The Battle of Badon
That the battle of Badon was a historical event is not disputed; it is mentioned by the contemporary writer Gildas and a century or so later by Bede, by all accounts considered a reliable historian. More correctly the battle was the siege of Badon hill (obsessio Badonicus montis) according to Gildas, who wrote De Excidio Britanniae ("On the Ruin of Britain") around the middle of the 6th century. This was without doubt a major British victory which appears to have halted the Saxon advance for several generations. Indeed, archaeological evidence has been interpreted as seeing some Germanic invaders return to the continent.

Gildas records a running conflict between the Britons and the Saxons, that victory went sometimes to the home nation, sometimes to the invaders, culminating in the battle of Badon. The leader of the Britons in this campaign was Ambrosius Aurelianus, but Gildas does not specifically mention the British leader at Mount Badon. Bede, following Gildas as ever for this period, does not mention the leader at Badon either. However, he is named for the first time, in the later Historia Brittonum, as Arthur:

“The twelfth battle was on the mountain of Badon, in which there fell in one day nine hundred and sixty men from one charge [of] Arthur; and no-one slew them except him alone, and in all battles he was the victor.”

In efforts to trace Arthur's battles, the majority of Arthurians prefer a southern location for the battle of Badon. Geoffrey of Monmouth locates the Battle of Badon Hill at the Roman town of Bath. Today Little Solsbury Hill just outside the modern city of Bath is a favoured location, a view perhaps prejudiced by those seeking an element of truth in Geoffrey's fables.

Badbury Rings, Dorset, is another chief candidate. Visible today are the earthworks of the Iron Age hillfort, which was followed by a Roman posting station. Liddington Castle, Wiltshire, is another, the "Castle" refers to the earthen ramparts another Iron Age hillfort. It seems any ancient hill fort is a possibility.

Badbury Rings
Whatever the location, the battle of Mons Badonicus is the only one of all Arthur's twelve battles listed in the Historia Brittonum that can be positively verified from external sources and seen as a historical event as it is named by the near-contemporary 'historian' Gildas.

Gildas writes that the victory at Badon was the same year of his birth:

“From that time on now the citizens, now the enemy, were victorious ... right up until the year of the siege of Badon Hill, almost the last, not the least, slaughter of the villains, and this the forty-fourth year begins (as I know) with one month already elapsed, which is also [that] of my birth.”

Debate continues as the interpretation of the passage in Gildas on the dating of Badon. It may mean that the battle took place forty-four years and one month after Ambrosius, or that Gildas was writing forty-four years after the battle.  However, it is known that Gildas was writing before the death of Maelgwn (Maglocunus) of Gwynedd, as he launches into a personal tirade against this 'dragon of the island', who he accuses of embarking on a violent rule since the very beginning of his youth when he killed the king, his uncle, and his band of soldiers, with sword, spear, and fire. According the Welsh Annals, Maelgwn died in 547 AD.

In Bede (HE, Book I.16) the similarity to Gildas' passage is obvious:

“They had at that time for their leader, Ambrosius Aurelius, a modest man, who alone, by chance, of the Roman nation had survivcd the storm, in which his parents, who were of the royal race, had perished. Under him the Britons revived, and offering battle to the victors, by the help of God, came off victorious. From that day, sometimes the natives, and sometimes their enemies, prevailed, till the year of the siege of Baddesdownhill, when they made no small slaughter of those invaders, about forty-four years after their arrival in England.”

To Bede the lapsed forty-four years signified the coming of the English, Adventus Saxonum, i.e. forty-four years before Badon. Howard Wiseman suggests the date of the battle recorded in the Welsh Annals is derived from Gildas and Bede and not from an independent source.3

The Welsh Annals
Comparison of the Arthurian battle-list in the Historia Brittonum and the Welsh Annals entry for the Battle of Badon reveals a remarkably similar account to the battle at castle Guinnion. The Arthurian battle list contained within chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum makes no mention of Arthur carrying the Cross at Badon, but includes at the centre of the passage:

“The eighth battle [was] in the castle of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of Saint Mary the perpetual virgin on his shoulders, and on that day the pagans were put to fl ight and a great slaughter was upon them through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of Saint Mary his holy virgin mother.”

Caitlin (Thomas) Green has concluded that the Badon entry in the Welsh Annals cannot be regarded as an independent witness to Arthur’s historicity; as such the Annals account either derives from the Historia Brittonum or its source.4 Indeed, the Badon entry in the Annals indicates a high level of borrowing from the Historia.

Annales Cambriae
The Welsh Annals is a Cambro-Latin text compiled in the 10th century, surviving in a Latin manuscript of c.1100, recording events from c.447 to c.954. Studies have shown the text is related to surviving versions of the Irish annals, sharing early entries such as the deaths of Saints Patrick (457), Brigit (521), and Columba (595). The Welsh Annals consist of three primary stratum:
  • 453 to 613 is based on a set of Irish annals,
  • 613 to 777 is based on a north British chronicle,
  • from the late 9th century compiled in St David’s, south Wales.5
The Welsh Annals conclude with the death of Rhodri, son of Hywel, a prince of South Wales, in 954 and were probably compiled shortly after. Some of the earlier entries are apparently derived from 8th century sets of Irish Annals. However, neither of the Arthurian entries,  Bellum Badonis or Guieth Camlann, appear in the Irish annals.

Other entries appear to be clear repetitions of erroneous statements found in the Historia Brittonum, such as the ascription of the baptism of the Northumbrian king Edwin to Rhun, the son of Urien, repeated in the Welsh Annals at year 626 AD, when the more reliable historian Bede states the holy sacrament was administered by bishop Paulinus (HE, Book II.14).

Another, the Welsh Annals entry for 630 AD, details when “on the Kalends of January the battle of Meigen; and there Edwin was killed with his two sons” seems to derived from the Historia Brittonum which states the two sons of Edwin fell with him in battle at Meicen.

Bede (HE, Book II.20) records Edwin being slain on the 12th October at the battle on the plain called Haethfeld (Hatfield Chase near Doncaster, Yorkshire). Welsh sources describe Meigen as an ancient district surrounding Long Mountain, Cefn Digoll, near Welshpool in Montgomeryshire.

The fetching of Myngan from Meigen to Llansilin is listed as one of the 'Three Missions that were obtained from Powys' in the Triads of the Island of Britain. The poem Moliant Cadwallon (In Praise of Cadwallon) lists a sequences of fourteen victories by Cadwallon over the English and includes the line, 'The camp of Cadwallon on the Severn and from the far side to Dygen, almost  the burning Meigen'.6 Dygen Freiddyn is the old name for Breidden Hill in Montgomeryshire, collectively a group of hills forming a northern extension of the Long Mountain. Clearly nowhere near south Yorkshire.

On the Shoulders of Giants
The transmission of these erroneous entries from the Historia Brittonum in to the Welsh Annals tells us much about the compilation of the text. Nicholas Higham has gone as far as providing a word count for the two Arthurian entries in the Welsh Annals and compared this to the Historia passage, chapter 56, of Arthur's battles, from the Latin:

[516]: Bellum Badonis, in quo Arthur portavit crucern Domini nostri Jhesu Christi tribus deibus et tribus noctibus in humeros suos et Brittones victores fuerrunt.

[537]: Gueith Camlann, in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt.

Higham notes that the Historia also uses the Welsh word 'Gueith' for battle rather the Latin 'Bellum' at the very next chapter (HB 57: Gueith Lin Garan) and the phrase 'tribus deibus et tribus noctibus' follows soon after at chapter 63 (the siege of Lindisfarne). From of a total of thirty-one words in the Arthurian entries in the Welsh Annals just five are original to that text, and one of these a personal name and the other a place-name, the rest can be found in the Arthurian passage of the Historia Brittonum, or very close to it.7

As long ago as the 19th century it was noted that some of the early entries in the Welsh Annals show signs of translation from Welsh. Thomas Price suggested that 'humeros suos' (Latin: 'on his shoulders') resulted from the confusion of Old Welsh scuit 'shield' with scuid 'shoulder'.8 As Thomas Jones notes, it would certainly be easier to envisage the picture of Christ's Cross engraved on Arthur's shield, as with Constantine's soldiers at the battle of Milvian Bridge, rather than his shoulder.9

Indeed, on observing the apparent confusion of scuit with scuid John Koch notes ‘that error of transmission is hardly likely to have come about twice’ and suggests that the Annals entry is more easily understood as derived from Historia Brittonum’s account.10

The Badon entry is very unlike the other early entries in the Welsh Annals which are short and factual, and free from miraculous and fictional elements. Jones suggests the reference to Arthur carrying the cross into battle bears the appearance of religious legend and is not convincing in either historical record or legend.11

In conclusion we are left to ponder whether the Badon entry in the Welsh Annals was taken from the battle-list in the Historia Brittonum; or if the original entry in the Welsh Annals was a simple chronicle record similar to other early entries, such as, “AD 516 – The Battle of Badon,” leader undefined as in Gildas and Bede, with the possibility of the later addition of the Arthurian material inspired by the Christian content around the eighth battle at castle Guinnion?

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Antonina Harbus, Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend, DS Brewer, 2002.
2. Edmund Chambers, Arthur of Britain, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1927, reprinted 1966.
3. Howard Wiseman, The derivation of the date of the Badon entry in the Annales Cambriae from Bede and Gildas, Parergon 17, 2000.
4. Thomas Green, The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur, 1998.
5. Kathleen Hughes, The Welsh Latin Chronicles, Oxford University Press, 1974.
6. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, Third edition, University of Wales Press, 2006.
7. Nicholas Higham, King Arthur: Myth-making and History, Routledge, 2002.
8. Thomas Stephens, Literature of the Kymry, 1849, referenced in Thomas Jones, The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 1964.
9. Jones, op.cit.
10.  John Koch, General Editor and Antone Minard, Editor, The Celts: History, Life, and Culture,
ABC-CLIO, 2012
11. Jones, op.cit.

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