Monday, 16 January 2017

Unravelling King Arthur

2016 saw the publication of two Arthurian books both claiming to have identified the legendary King Arthur: The Lost Tomb of King Arthur by Graham Phillips (Bear & Co, 2016); King Arthur: Unravelling the Mystery by Chris Barber (Pen & Sword, 2016). Both works claim to be the summation of a life times study of the Arthurian legend by the authors.

There are many differences in these two accounts; what is the avid reader of Arthuriana to make of all these conflicting theories? Here I focus on just three significant deviations: the character identified as Arthur; the location of Camlann; the location of Arthur's tomb.

Tracking the Bear
Much of Graham Phillips's latest book, The Lost Tomb of King Arthur, recaps on the self-acclaimed historical detective's earlier book 'King Arthur: The True Story' written with Martin Keatman (Century, 1992) in which he identified Owain Ddantgwyn as the man himself, with the Roman city at Wroxeter his Camelot.

In King Arthur: The True Story Phillips identifies Arthur (The Bear) as the battle-title of Owain Ddantgwyn based on the 'Denunciation of the Five Princes' contained in Chapters 28-36 of De Excidio Britanniae (The Ruin Of Britain) a 6th century text by Gildas. Phillip's theory has not received wide acceptance by any means as Ddantgwyn appears as a minor king of Rhos in the Gwynedd genealogies, not Powys.

In his latest work Phillips maintains the identification with Owain Ddantgwyn but provides additional conjecture on the battle of Camlann and the location of Arthur's tomb. His argument for the location of Camlann is based on the native British tale 'The Dream of Rhonabwy' (Breudwyt Rhonabwy) found in the Red Book of Hergest and included in  Lady Charlotte Guest's Mabinogion collection. Phillips claims that Rhonabwy's Dream reveals the location of the Battle of Camlann.

When Rhonabwy falls alseep on the yellow ox-skin he finds himself at Maes Argyngroeg (the plain near Welshpool, today named 'Gungrog') riding towards Rhyd-y-groes on the Hafren (the river Severn) and meets a rider named 'Iddog Cordd Prydain’, meaning the ‘Agitator of Britain’, for his role as messenger at the battle of Camlann. In the dream, Camlann happened in the past; Iddawg explains that he did seven years penance at Y Lech Las in Prydain (The Grey Rock in Pictland) for sending hostile messages between Arthur and Medraut (the Welsh name for the Cornish Mordred).

Rhonabwy's Dream actually details the build up to the battle of Badon, not Camlann, where a huge host is gathering at the crossing of the river Severn. The sequence of the Dream is indeed the reverse to the traditional chronology with Camlann occurring before Badon; time appears to be running backwards (see: Edgar Slotkin, “The Fabula, Story, and Text of Breuddwyd Rhonabwy”, CMCS 18, Winter, 1989).

In King Arthur: The True Story, Phillips and Keatman wrote of the Iron Age earthworks known as 'The Berth', near Baschurch in Shropshire as a potential burial place of King Arthur. Now he returns to The Berth with details of archaeological surveys carried out at the site since publication of that book in 1992 and locates a probable warriors grave; hence the title of the book.

Wroxeter Roman city (Viroconium) - Phillips's Camelot
The Wrekin in the distance (Dinlle Wrecon in Canu Heledd)
The main theme of Phillips's latest book is the apparent identification of King Arthur's lost tomb as in the title. Phillips argues he has identified the Churches of Bassa (Eglwyssau Bassa) as the Iron Age earthwork known as The Berth in Shropshire from the Welsh cycle of poems known as Canu Heledd, is the the resting place of the kings of Powys and Owain Ddantgwyn (his King Arthur).

Attracted to the site by claims that in 1925 archaeologist Lilly Chitty came across a local legend that claimed a prince was buried at The Berth with his men nearby. However, archaeological investigation at The Berth has been very limited. Phillips now provides further information following surveys of the site with ground penetrating radar in 1995 and 2011.

The Berth consists of two circular earthworks connected by a gravel causeway, linked by a further causeway to the hill at Birchgrove to the south. In Arthur's time the two earthworks would have been surrounded by a large lake which today survives as the much reduced Berth Pool. In 1906 a large bronze cauldron dating to the 1st century AD was found at the pool, suggestive of votive offerings in the lake. Scans through the waters of Berth Pool revealed indications of numerous metal objects below the mud at the bottom. Phillips was hopeful he might recover Arthur's famous sword Excalibur but conditions were too poor to allow a thorough investigation of the lake bed.

One significant groundscan revealed a strong resistance, possibly the iron boss of a shield. Phillips wonders could this be the grave of a warrior with shield; is this the lost tomb of Arthur? Phillips concedes that this is probably a Powysian king, such as Cynddylan, the main subject of Canu Heledd. If this grave belongs to a king of Powys, where then is the grave of Owain Ddantgwyn, King Arthur?

On his website Phillips adds what should have been included as an appendix to his book. He states that in some versions of the legend of King Arthur he is taken to an island, but others record that he was brought back to shore for burial in a chapel. The groundscans at The Berth revealed the potential sites of several chapels, hence,  the plural name the Churches of Bassa (Eglwyssau Bassa).

At Birchgrove, at the end of  The Berth's southern causeway, a chapel was demolished when they built the  modern B4397 road in the 1930s. During the demolition a gravestone was found bearing the Latin inscription "HIC" which Phillips contends was probably part of the words 'HIC IACET' which translate as ‘Here Lies...’.

This site, where the B4397 crosses the line of the southern causeway at Birchgrove, Phillips suggests could be the site of a chapel where the tarmac was laid over. This, he argues, could be the site of King Arthur's lost tomb. We will only know for certain if he obtains permission to dig up the road.

Arthur of Gwent
In 'Journey to Avalon' (1997) Chris Barber and David Pykitt identify the legendary King Arthur with Athrwys ap Meurig, a petty king of Gwent and Glamorgan in 7th Century Wales, outlived by his father. This identification is questionable as the late date is inconsistent with the historical Arthur of the Battle of Badon which is normally dated between 495 - 500 AD.

To get around this chronological obstacle Barber & Pykitt, following Blackett & Wilson (Artorius Rex Discovered, 1986), argue that Athrwys was the REAL King Arthur by pushing his lifetime back to the traditional Arthurian period in the early 6th century.

In King Arthur: Unravelling the Mystery Barber maintains this identification and argues that as a young warrior Athrwys may have made quite an impression and it is quite conceivable that many stories associated with King Arthur in south-east Wales actually refer to Athrwys. One notable association is King Arthur's link with Caerleon (City of the Legions) deep in the heart of King Athrwys' kingdom, which, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, was one of his major courts.

Barber tells us that Medraut's family had a residence on the Llŷn Peninsula, North Wales. According to the Welsh Triads, Medraut's father Cawdraf was one of Arthur's three counsellors. He is said to have been buried at the church he founded at Abererch which became known as Llan Gawrda. About a mile north of this church is a large boulder called Cadair Cawdraf which seems to preserve a memory of him.

Further evidence for the association of Camlan with the North Wales peninsula is found with Cynwyl, named as one of the survivors of Arthur's final battle, as the patron saint of Penrhos near Lannor on Llŷn.

Barber has Arthur land his army at a small harbour known as Porth Cadlan (Battle-place Harbour) on the Llŷn Peninsula. In Journey to Avalon Barber argues for the battle of Camlann being fought here at Cadlan. In King Arthur: Unravelling the Mystery he revises his opinion on the strength of Geoffrey of Monmouth's account stating that the battlefield was three days from the point of disembarkation and now opts for a location in Wales bearing the very name of the battle of Camlan(n).

The memory of Camlann is found in Welsh tradition free of influence from Geoffrey of Monmouth. Between Dinas Mawddwy and Mallwyd, near the border between Powys and Gwynedd, we find 'Camlan isaf', 'Bron Camlan' (lower and upper Camlan respectively), 'Bryn Cleifion' (hill of the wounded) and 'Maes y Camlann' (the field of Camlan).  Anyone visiting this location cannot fail to be moved by this desolate valley and the voices of the ancient warriors carried on the wind.

Again following Geoffrey, Barber claims that Medraut was killed at Camlann and Arthur was mortally wounded. Geoffrey states that Arthur was taken to the island of Avalon to be healed of his wounds and handed the crown of Britain to his cousin Constantine. Barber sees this as an act of abdication. Arthur's disappearance after the battle of Camlann is one of the great mysteries of the legend.

Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlii)
Barber solution to this mystery is to claim that Arthur was taken to Bardsey Island off the western tip of the Llŷn peninsula. Here he was healed of his wounds before sailing to Brittany where he became known as St Armel. Barber argues that this was the same fate of his grandfather Tewdrig, who abdicated and then became known as St Tewdrig.

Armel is a combination of the words 'Arz' (Bear) and 'Mael' (Prince). There are several churches dedicated to him in Brittany. The wounded Arthur, or Arzur as he is called locally, arrived at Plouarzel on a silver bier, a few kilometres inland from where he landed with his companions at Lyonesse. At Ploermel (Plou-Armel), once known as Lann Arthmael, a 15th century stained-glass window tells the story of St Armel arriving from Britain with his company, subduing a dragon, and finally his death at around 80 years of age.

It is not known for certain, writes Barber, where St Armel died but he dates it to the year 562 AD. It is probable that he died at Ploermel and his body was taken to St Armel-des-Boschaux for burial. Indeed, the church at St Armel-des-Boschaux displays a stone sarcophagus which claims to have once contained the saint's bones. Some relics seem to have been kept at Ploermel where the cranium was retained and later the lower jaw was obtained. Other relics are claimed by Plouharnel and Chateau-Revand.

Silhouettes and Shadows
How can these two accounts of the life and death of Arthur be so widely different?

The simplest answer is that the Arthurian legend contains many elements that can be found in the accounts of various historical characters such as Athrwys ap Meurig of south-east Wales (Arthur of Gwent),  Arthwys ap Mor (Arthur of the Pennines), and possibly even Owain Ddantgwyn, but although there are similarities in the names of many contenders none contains all the elements of the legend in one place and none are actually named ARTHUR.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

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