Tuesday 31 October 2017

Arthur and Snowdon

The Road to Camlann – Part V

“We marched, a hundred of us,
By moonlight, on our way,
To climb the steeps of Wyddfa,
And see the break of day:
We looked upon the heavens,
From many lonely hill;
We looked upon the mountain llyns,
And staff in hand stood still!”1

Moonlight Vigil
It was a late evening in July when we walked up Snowdon. Ascending by the Ranger Path in twilight, joined the Snowdon Mountain Railway line at Bwlch Glas and followed the track to the summit. As the sun descended over Llŷn and glowed into Cwm Clogwyn we walked up Snowdon, the setting sun on our backs, red skies behind us. We spent the few sun-less hours on Yr Wyddfa, sipping Rumbullion from a flask and telling tales of giants, dragons and King Arthur, while waiting for the  break of day.

One step from Heaven
In our search for the site of Arthur's final battle at Camlann we find ourselves overnight on the summit of Snowdon, at 3,560 ft (1,085m) the highest mountain in Wales, and the highest point in the British Isles outside of Scotland. The peak is busy during the day, in the summer months it is often crowded and you can queue to stand on the summit plinth and take in the extensive views. It was childhood holidays in Snowdonia that got me hooked on the Arthurian legend many, many years ago. It seems every lake, every hill has a story to tell; in this country Arthur is an eternal part of the landscape.

Glaslyn below Yr Wyddfa (Edward Watson)

We sat with our backs to the Hafod Eryri visitor centre, opened in 2009 replacing the previous eyesore; everyone seems to have a strong opinion on the building and its placement at the summit of Wales highest peak. Etched along the wall by the entrance is "Copa'r Wyddfa: yr ydych chwi, yma, Yn nes at y nefoedd / The summit of Snowdon: You are, here, nearer to Heaven". Love it or hate it, there have been buildings on the summit since the early 19th century offering shelter for climbers and refreshments for tourists, but it wasn't until the advent of the railway in 1896 that tourism really took off with the introduction of accommodation buildings to the summit. There are six main walking routes up Snowdon and of course you can take the train from Llanberis to the summit station and today walk along steps to the plinth on the cairn without even stepping on the natural surface of the mountain.

The name Snowdon is derived from the Old English “Snaudune” meaning literally “snow hill”. However, we are told that the Welsh use the name “Eryri” to refer to the Snowdonia region, as opposed to the Snowdon massif itself. Eryri has been interpreted as meaning the “abode of eagles”. Hundreds of years ago eagles were certainly observed building their aeries on the rocks of Snowdon, which is said to have led to the Welsh term “Craigian-eryri,” the “Crags of the Eagles”; accordingly, some claim the highest point was known as “The Eagle's Nest”. However, some Welsh scholars claim that Eryri simply means “highland”.

A Place of Presence
Yet, the Welsh name for the summit, first recorded in the 12th century, is “Yr Wyddfa” meaning “the burial mound” or “tumulus”. I have also heard it described as “place of presence” which seems very apt. The burial mound is said to refer to the legend of Rhita Gawr, (variously Ritho or Ricca) the giant killed by Arthur who had a cairn built over the corpse; thus, “Gwyddfa Rhudda” (Rhita's Cairn). Rhys Goch Eryri (d.1420), a native of Beddgelert, included the following couplet in a poem: “On the ridge, cold and vast, there the giant Ricca lies.It has also been known as “Yr Wyddfa Fawr” (the great tomb) and “Carnedd y Cawr” (the cairn of the giant), however, over time the name of Rhudda was lost and the summit cairn became known simply as “Yr Wyddfa”. Sadly the giant's cairn was demolished in the mid-19th century to make way for the summit buildings to accommodate the advent of tourism.

19th century summit cairn

The story of Ritho (Rhitta Gawr) is first recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae = HRB), as occurring on on Mount Aravius:

“[Arthur] told them he had found none of so great strength, since he killed the giant Ritho, who had challenged him to fight, upon the mountain Aravius. This giant had made himself furs of the beards of kings he had killed, and had sent word to Arthur to carefully cut his beard and send it to him; and then, out of respect to his pre-eminence over other kings, his beard should have the honour of the principal place. But if he refused to do it, he challenged him to a duel, with this offer, that the conqueror should have the furs, and also the beard of the vanquished for a trophy of his victory. In his conflict, therefore, Arthur proved victorious, and took the beard and spoils of the giant...”[HRB, Book X.III]

Geoffrey's Mount Aravius is thought to be his attempt at a Latin form of 'Eryri'. In the Prophecies Of Merlin, contained in Book VII of Geoffrey's History, he again refers to Aravius, and on this occasion refers to an eagle's nest:

“The lion's whelps shall be transformed into sea-fishes; and an eagle shall build her nest upon Mount Aravius. Venedotia shall grow red with the blood of mothers, and the house of Corineus kill six brethren.” [HRB,Book VII.3]

The sentence immediately following Mount Aravius refers to Venedotia (Gwynedd) and giants. According to Geoffrey, Corineus arrived in Britain with Aeneas and the descendants of the Trojans. Corineus settled in Cornwall, which was then inhabited by giants. Corineus fights the last of these, giants, Goëmagot (Gogmagog) and throws him into the sea. The place, Geoffrey tells us, is called Lam Goëmagot, that is, Goëmagot's Leap, identified as the Giant's Leap, or Plymouth Hawe.

In his survey of Cornwall (1602) Carew reported the outline images of two giants, cut into the turf exposing the white limestone, at Plymouth Hoe. The figures were said to be Goemagot and Corineus (some say Gog and Magog), however they were lost sometime after 1671.

Ricca also appears in the tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, the oldest tale in the Mabinogion, which has giant killing and beard collecting as an underlying theme throughout. Gormant son of Ricca is twice invoked in the tale by Culhwch. Jones and Jones3 assert that Gormant is brother to Arthur on his mother's side, his father the chief elder of Cornwall. Bromwich and Evans4 suggest that the name Gormant can be equated with the Cornish Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall and husband of Arthur's mother Igerne.

Here There be Dragons
Looking east from the summit you cannot help but look down to the lakes below in Cwm Dyli; Llyn Llydaw, crossed by the Miner's Track, and the blue-green waters of Glaslyn. Stained by the presence of copper ore from the old Snowdon mines Glaslyn was formerly known as Llyn Ffynnon Las (the lake of the green well), the pool has a rather sinister reputation as the bottomless abode of demons that no bird will fly over. This is the home of the Afanc, a water monster dragged from a pool on the Conwy known as Llyn yr Afanc, across the mountains of Dolwyddelan by two oxen. In the early 18th century a shepherd who claimed to have seen the monster described it as “toadlike with tails and wings”.5

Cradling the two lakes of Llyn Llydaw and Glaslyn is the backdrop of Y Lliwedd with its East and West peaks, the waters of Glaslyn seemingly held back by the ridge of Y Gribin leading up to to Bwlch y Saethau (The Pass of the Arrows). The path up to Y Lliwedd is named after Sir Edward Watkin, officially opened by Gladstone in 1892, and said to be the hardest path up Snowdon because it starts at the lowest point of all the main routes. The Watkin Path starts at Pont Bethania in Nant Gwynant, at 190 feet above sea level requiring another 3370 feet of ascent to the summit in just three and a half miles, over a thousand feet more than other routes stating from Pen-y-Pass.

Further along the valley of Nant Gwynant by Llyn Dinas, overlooking the southern end of Cwm Llan and the initial stretches of the Watkin Path, is the historic site of Dinas Emrys The site has been known as Dinas Emrys since the 9th century Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius) and marks the birth of the Merlin legend.

According to the storyteller, after being advised by his wise men to retire to the remote boundaries of the kingdom to build a fortress, Vortigern arrived at North Wales and having surveyed the mountains of Heremus (the eagle rocks; Eryri). Every night the materials gathered to build the tower vanished, a second and a third time. The wise men informed him that he must find a fatherless child, put him to death, and sprinkle his blood on the ground on which the tower is to be build.

They find a boy at Ælecti in the district of Glevensing (Monmouthshire) who prophesied to them that the reason the citadel could not be built was because in an underground pool there was a vase containing two serpents, one white and the other red, which represented the races of the English and the Welsh. The boy reveals himself as Ambrose, son of a Roman consul. Ambrose, or Emrys in Welsh, is later named by Geoffrey of Monmouth as "Merlinus Ambrosius", who becomes the prophet of Arthurian legend.

Today little remains of the Iron Age hillfort that occupied the hilltop although traces of occupation into the 5th century have been found there. Still visible today are the remains of some stone ramparts and the base of a Keep said to have been erected by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llewelyn the Last, d.1282), guarding the pass below. The Keep at Dinas Emrys must have had an imposing presence in its day and probably resembled that of Dolwyddelan Castle constructed in the early 13th century by Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, to guard two main routes into Wales. Dolwyddelan remained an important stronghold for his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, until its capture by the English in 1283.

Dinas Emrys - Vortigern's Tower (L) and Dolwyddelan Castle Keep (R)

A pool within the hillfort enclosure may have some connection with the tale of Vortigern and the dragons; excavations during the 1950s identified a platform above the pool as described in the Historia Britonum. How the dragons came to be buried at Dinas Emrys can be found in the traditional Welsh tale of "Lludd and Llefelys". Dinas Ffaraon (Fortress of Pharaoh) is named as the place where King Lludd of Britain trapped and buried the two dragons which were ravaging the land. The tale explains that the site was later named "Dinas Emreis". An allusion to the episode is also found in the Triad, “Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain”.

The Watkin Path leads up through Cwm Llan, the home of the Tylwyth Teg, to the legendary site of the old city of Tregalan below Bwlch y Saethau. Local legend claims that when King Arthur vanquished his enemy at Tregalan he drove them over the pass into Cwm Dyli. When Arthur reached the top of the ridge the enemy let fly a barrage of arrows fatally wounding the king. Arthur was buried where he fell, just below the Snowdon summit, where a cairn was built over the grave; Carnedd Arthur at Bwlch Ciliau was said to mark the spot and was still visible in 1850,6 but little more than a scattering of rocks can be seen here today.

The faithful companion Bedwyr is said to have thrown Arthur's sword into the cold waters of Llyn Llydaw, returning it to the Goddess of the Lake. According to the Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau), after Camlann, Bedwyr was buried on the slopes of Tryfan, which lies a stone's throw from Snowdon across the Llanberis Pass (A4086).

Arthur's men who survived, said to number seven, descended down the cliff face of  Y Lliwedd and into a cave, the entrance sealed behind them. The cave is known as Ogof Llanciau Eryri, or Cave of the Young Men (lads) of Snowdonia. Legend claims that Arthur's knights, fully armoured and armed, sleep there, waiting for Arthur's return in the hour of the country's greatest need.

Once a shepherd is said to have strayed into the cave and accidentally struck his head on a bell hanging at the entrance which awoke the knights, but he managed to reassure the knights that they were not yet needed, and they returned to their slumber. The shepherd never recovered from the shock and to this day the cave entrance has never been found since. However, old climbers stories tell of a shallow cave half way up Slanting Gully under the precipitous north face of Y Lliwedd beyond which they claim the knights sleep.

Glaslyn outflow with Llyn Llydaw below (Edward Watson)

A late Triad, 'Three Treacherous Meetings on the Isle of Britain', included in Y Myvyrian Archaiology (1807) compiled by Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) states the Third was the meeting of Medrawd and Iddawg Cord Prydein with their men of Nanhwynan, where they entered into a conspiracy against Arthur.

In the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, Iddawg Cord Prydein informs Rhonabwy that his nickname is the 'agitator of Britain', because he was one of the messengers between Arthur and Medrawd at the battle of Camlann, and because of his desire for battle he delivered harsh messages between the two men from which the battle ensued. Nanhwynan  is the old name for Nant Gwynant at the bottom of Cwm Llan.7


Break of Day
The stars faded from the sky, then the north-eastern horizon glowed with a brilliant bright amber band. Then there she was, the first glint of the sun, a new day was born, for just the briefest moment there was hope of a world without ills. Tales told, we left the summit and crossed Bwlch Main above Cwm Tregalan, crossed Llechog and descended to Rhyd Ddu with red skies behind us.

“We saw the Steven Stars arise
Northward, and with their glow
Smile down upon the paler Seven
Within the llyn below.
We dare not halt,we did not stay -
One short half-hour of night,
And then the Break of Day would rise
On Wyddfa's utmost height.”8

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1. John Ceiriog Hughes, Toriad y Dydd – Break of Day, in Robert Jones, The Complete Guide to Snowdon.
2. John Rhys, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, 1901.
3. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, The Mabinogion, Everyman, 1993.
4. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen; The Oldest Arthurian Tale, UWP, 1992.
5. Robert Jones, The Complete Guide to Snowdon: Yr Wyddfa, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1992
6. John Rhys, op.cit.
7. Around 1200, probably soon after Llywelyn ab forwerth (Prince Llywelyn the Great) gained control of Dinas Emrys and the township of Nanhwynan (now Nantgwynant), he granted the whole township as a grange to the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy. Now the site of Hafod Rhisgl farm by Llyn Gwynant – see: Margaret Dunn, Wenallt, Nant Gwynant, Gwynedd, Excavation Report, 2005.
8. John Ceiriog Hughes, op.cit.

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Tuesday 24 October 2017

The Priest and the Astrolabe

Astrolabe found in shipwreck
Marine archaeologists excavating a shipwreck off the coast of Oman have recovered the oldest known example of a type of maritime navigational tool. The archaeologists believed the object, originally discovered in 2014, to be an astrolabe, but they could not find any navigational markings on it.

The astrolabe was a very ancient astronomical instrument used to determine the latitude of a ship at sea by measuring the noon altitude of the Sun to determine their location during their voyages. The device has been used by mariners for around two thousand years.

Now, a later analysis has uncovered its hidden details. Laser scanning work carried out by scientists at the University of Warwick revealed etches around the edge of the disc, each separated by five degrees, which allowed the mariners to measure the height of the sun above the horizon.

The astrolabe was recovered from the Portuguese ship Esmeralda, which sank during a storm in the Indian Ocean in 1503. The ship was part of the fleet led by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first person to sail directly from Europe to India. The recovered astrolabe is believed to date from between 1495 and 1500.1

The University of Warwick used laser scans to uncover etches on the astrolabe, 
which helped navigators work out the height of the sun – source BBC.
The astrolabe was a sophisticated precision instrument, with which a skilled navigator was able to determine the date, time (during clear skies), the position of stars, the passage of the zodiac, latitude on the earth's surface, tides and basic surveying.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343 – 1400) wrote a medieval instruction manual on the astrolabe entitled 'A Treatise on the Astrolabe'. Chaucer's work is considered the "oldest work in English written upon an elaborate scientific instrument".

Chaucer wrote approvingly of Nicholas of Lynn's work, and made much use of it. The 16th century literary historian John Bale claimed Lynn became a Carmelite friar then moved to Oxford, where he studied at university and developed a significant reputation for his scientific work. In 1386 Nicholas published a Kalendarium of astronomical tables for the years 1387–1462. 

The Astrolabe and the Discovery of the North
Early maps of the northern polar regions were based on information from the lost book Inventio Fortunata, of about 1363. Indeed, the 1507-08 map of Johann Ruysch explicitly claims such.

It seems likely this data had also influenced the early map of Claudius Clavus of 1431. Ruysch's map shows a ring of 18 islands surrounding the North Pole, nearby a marginal note claims the data came from the Inventio Fortunata.

Clavus's statement in the 'Vienna Texts' states that Norway had eighteen ice-bound islands, which suggests he also knew of this book. Gerard Mercator showed a version of these islands in his 1569 map.

Mercator's 1606 map of the northern polar region 
Mercator's map contained the following caption over the polar area, which again seemed to be based on the account in the Inventio:

"In the matter of the representation, we have taken it from the 'Travels' of Jacob Cnoyen of Buske who quotes certain historical facts of Arthur the Briton, but who gathered the most and the best information from a priest who served the king of Norway in the year of Grace 1364.....He related that in 1360 an English minor friar of Oxford who was a mathematician reached these isles and ..... measured the whole by means of an astrolable somewhat in the form hereunder which we have reproduced from Jacob Cnoyen."

The only knowledge we have today of the lost Inventio comes indirectly through another lost book, the 'Itinerary of all Asia, Africa and the North' by Jacob Cnoyen, probably written in the 14th century. Cnoyen's work contained a summary of part of the Inventio and extracts from another lost book, the Gestae Arthuri. Cnoyen seems to have gleaned his information from an intermediary source and may not have actually read the Inventio himself.

This intermediary was an unknown roving priest who claimed to have acquired an astrolabe directly from the unnamed author of the Inventio during face-to-face conversations.

Mercator also quoted parts of Cnoyen's work, now also lost, in a letter of 1577 to the Elizabethan mage John Dee. Mercator had wrote in response to questions from Dee concerning the source material for the "Septentrional Islands" on his map of the northern polar regions in 1569. Fortunately Dee had made a transcript of Mercator's letter after the original was lost. Dee's transcript is now slightly fire damaged but sufficient remains legible for the most part.

Dee's text included a description of eighteen to twenty islands, the "Septentrional Islands" adjacent the North Pole, separated from each other by nineteen "In-drawing channels" which would suck any ships in against the rocks.

Dee purpose was to assert British sovereignty over the north-western Atlantic during the Age of Discovery when he wrote:

"That all these Northern Isles and Septrentrional Parts are lawfully appropriated to the Crown of this Brytish Impire: and the terrible adventure and great loss of the Brytish people and other of King Arthur his subjects perishing about the first discovery thereof."

Dee's assertion is based on the account in the Gestae Arthuri which claims that the army of King Arthur conquered these Northern Islands. Dee also drew on the accounts of the Welsh Prince Madoc and Brendan the Navigator as evidence for British dominion over the New World.

According to Dee's translation of Cnoyen's summation of the Gesta Arthuri, found in Brytanici Imperii Limites (Limits of the British Empire, 1578), in 530 AD Arthur's great army had over-wintered in the northern islands of Scotland. The following May, part of this army crossed over into Iceland. Almost 4,000 men entered the in-drawing seas and never returned. Then four ships returned from the North and warned Arthur of the in-drawing seas. Arthur did not proceed any further, but colonised all of the islands between Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland.

In 1364 eight people claiming to be descendants of those who had penetrated the Northern Regions in the first ships, arrived at the King’s court in Norway. The delegation included two priests, one of whom possessed an astrolabe, and claimed to be descended in the fifth generation from a Bruxellensis.2

What are we to make of this odd account of the discovery of the North? 

Clearly early depictions of the northern polar regions was based on mythical accounts that existed only in lost books. Most of the information we have about the contents of the Inventio comes indirectly from the priest with the astrolabe who reported to the Norwegian king as relayed by Jacob Cnoyen. The priest, based on time and date, has been identified as the Norwegian Ivar Bardarson or Nicholas of Lynn.

In response to a request from Richard Hakluyt in 1580, Mercator said he had borrowed the Gestae  Arthuri from a friend in Antwerp. Mercator restored it and returned it, but when he required it again his friend had forgotten from whom he had lent it. We cannot rule out the likelihood that the Gestae, if it ever existed at all, was influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1138, in which Arthur had become an emperor and conqueror of Northern Europe, including Iceland and Norway.

Indeed, the account of Arthur's deeds as reportedly found in the Gestae Arthuri may well be derived of Norse tales of Eirik the Red's 10th century adventures in the North Atlantic.3

However, we can be certain that the astrolabe is real enough.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1. Astrolabe: Shipwreck find 'earliest navigation tool' - Rebecca Morelle, BBC News, Science &
2. James Robert Enterline, Erikson, Eskimos, and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
3. Thomas Green, John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic, in The Heroic Age
A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 15 (October 2012).

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Sunday 15 October 2017

Cerdic, Charford and Camlann

The Road to Camlann Part IV

The Battle of Cerdicesford
Charford in the north-west corner of Hampshire has attracted some attention from scholars of Arthuriana in the search for the site of the battle of Camlann. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records a series of battles fought by Cerdic and his son Cynric in the foundation of the kingdom of the West Saxons. In 519 AD Cerdic and Cynric fought the Britons at 'Cerdicesford' (Certiceford) and from that day on ruled the West Saxons.

The hamlets of North and South Charford in the New Forest occupy a strategic position near the Hampshire Avon. It is possible this 6th century battle resulted in the demarcation of the early border of Cerdic's realm. Of all the sites of Cerdic's battles the identification of North Charford is fairly certain as it is recorded as 'Cerdeford' in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Yet, Cerdic is recognised as a British name, in the genealogies the ancestor of the kings of Wessex; subsequent monarchs all had some level of descent claimed in the Chronicle from Cerdic. He has been identified as several characters from post-Roman Britain including: Cerdic, son of Cunedda, founder of Ceredigion; Cerdic, Vortigern's interpreter; Sir Caradoc Briefbras (Short-Arm) a Knight of the Round Table and ancestor to the Kings of Gwent; in Welsh legend his father is named as Llyr Marini, the Celtic Sea-God; and Cheldric in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain'.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle identifies Cerdic's father as Elesa, his grandfather as Esla, son of Gwis, descended from Woden, the god of the Anglo-Saxons. Elesa has been identified with the Romano-Briton Elasius, the “chief of the region” the man who met Germanus of Auxerre.

Sir John Rhys1 noted long ago the similarity of Cerdic's Saxon forebears Elesa, Elsa, as recorded in the Chronicle, with the Welsh king Eliseg, and his father Elis, inscribed on the pillar at Valle Crucis near Llangollen in Wales. Similarity of one name may not be significant but the duplication of both names suggests a connection. Furthermore, Cerdic's son Cynric has been identified as Cunorix, the name on a tombstone turned up at Viroconium (Wroxeter). We immediately question why the first king of Wessex should be recorded in 9th century Powys?

Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman2 flirt with the idea that the battle of Certiceford was Arthur's final campaign. Phillips and Keatman see an alliance between Cunormorus in Dumnonia in the south-west of Britain and Cerdic in the east. They suggest that Arthur attempts to drive a wedge between the two kingdoms and ventures into Wessex to engage with Cerdic at Certiceford.

Phillips and Keatman are clearly influenced by Medieval Arthurian sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth has Mordred ally with the Saxons and engage in battle at nearby Winchester before moving the battle on to Camelford in Cornwall, and Malory places the battle of Camlann on Salisbury Plain which is barely 20 miles north of Charford (Certicesford). However, although Phillips and Keatman see this as Arthur's final campaign,  they have him return to his homeland, weak and wounded, to fight Camlann in north-west Wales.

John Rudmin and Joseph Rudmin3 identify CERDIC AS the legendary KING ARTHUR and the battle of Badon, the moment when he and Cynric established the kingdom of the West Saxons, at Banbury in Oxfordshire. Evidently, such theories are based on little evidence and much assumption; we cannot even be certain that Arthur's battles were fought against the Anglo Saxons; Cerdic is as enigmatic as Arthur himself.

Whereas Aelle and the early foundation of Sussex, the land of the South Saxons, may have lasted twenty years, from the mid-470s to the battle of Badon, c.495, we could argue that the date of Cerdic's floruit mirrors the period after Badon leading up to Camlann; Gildas' golden age when external wars had ceased, the 21 years listed between the two battles in the Welsh Annals.

The Origins of Wessex
The most important historical source produced in Wessex itself is the Anglo Saxon Chronicle compiled from the late 9th century under the instigation of King Alfred. The West Saxon entries begin with the landing of Cerdic and Cynric in 495 at the unidentified Cerdicesora (Cerdic's shore). But not all sources agree that Cynric was his son, for in the earliest recorded version of the West Saxon genealogy Cynric is given as the son of Creoda, son of Cerdic.

However, the Chronicle is not the simple record of West Saxon history which it might at first sight appear with composition commencing some three to four hundred years after the Cerdic event. We know it was compiled by more than one individual and seems to have undergone large-scale manuscript copying and circulation, extant in several versions. Indeed most historians regard the account of Cerdic as forming the basis for the legendary foundation story of Wessex, yet they are reluctant to abandon the only written account of the birth of the kingdom of the West Saxon kings; regardless, to many it is referred to as “The Cerdic Legend”.

Cerdic is cited in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as the founder of the West Saxon dynasty, reigning from 519 to 534:

495 – Cerdic and Cynric his son, arrived with five ships and fought the Welsh at Cerdices ora.
501 - This year Porta and his two sons, Beda and Mela, came into Britain, with two ships, at a place called Portsmouth and slew a noble young Briton
508 - This year Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king, whose name was Natanleod, and five thousand men with him. After this was the land named Netley, from him, as far as Cerdices ford.
514 – This year the West Saxons came to Britain in three ships at the place called Cerdices ora and Stuf and Wihtgar fought the Britons.
519 - This year Cerdic and Cynric undertook the government of the West-Saxons; the same year they fought with the Britons at a place now called Cerdices ford. From that day have reigned the
children of the West-Saxon kings.
527 - This year Cerdic and Cynric fought with the Britons in the place that is called Cerdic's leag. 
530 - This year Cerdic and Cynric took the isle of Wight,and slew many men at Wihtgaraesbyrg.
534 - This year died Cerdic, the first king of the West-Saxons. Cynric his son succeeded to the government, and reigned afterwards twenty-six winters. And they gave to their two nephews, Stuff and Wihtgar, the whole of the Isle of Wight.

A few things are immediately obvious from this list: the 495 entry would appear to be duplicated 19 years later in 514. The duplication of a number of the Chronicle entries for Cerdic and Cynric 19 years apart has cast doubt on the validity of 495 as a date for the beginning of Cerdic and Cynric’s conquest of Wessex. The Cerdic and Cynric victories around the Hampshire Avon certainly suffers from a defective chronology, we should therefore view the other Cerdic entries with due suspicion; the arrival of the West Saxon's certainly bears much in common with the foundation legend of the Jutes in Kent.4

Portchester Roman walls
Similarly, the battle at Portsmouth in 501 in which a noble young Briton was killed has been related to the Arthurian poem the Battle of Llongborth found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, significant for its early mention of King Arthur. The Elegy for Geraint was written in praise of Geraint, a Dumnonian king, said to have fallen during the Saxon wars in the early 6th century. Llongborth has been interpreted as 'port of the warships' which equates well with Portsmouth, and yet, following this entry, we here no more of Port and his sons.

In studying the regnal dates given in the Chronicle and in the closely related West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List, David Dumville came to the conclusion that the 5th and 6th century dates were extremely unreliable and had been artificially extended to make it appear that the kingdom was founded at an earlier date than was actually the case. Dumville's calculation on the basis of the reign-lengths given in the Genealogical Regnal List was that Cerdic’s reign was originally seen as beginning in 538, six years after his arrival in 532.

Cerdic is somewhat an enigma himself; he arrives on the south coast of Hampshire with several ships and quickly establishes his territory. However, although Cerdic may have led a British-English alliance in expanding the territory of the West Saxons it seems unlikely he landed on the south coast of Hampshire at all. Barbara Yorke5 argues that the account of Cerdic and the origins of Wessex as noted in the Chronicle seems to be based on the foundation legend of the Jutes arrival in Kent. Indeed, Bede identifies the Hampshire coast as being occupied by Jutes:

“Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany - Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent, and of the Isle of Wight, and those also in the province of the West Saxons who are to this day called Jutes, seated opposite to the Isle of Wight.”6

Bede, using information supplied by Bishop Daniel, indicates that southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were independent provinces which did not become part of Wessex until much later, in fact not until after their conquest by King Cædwalla in 686–8; these people were indeed classed as Jutes and not Saxons; the south Hampshire coast therefore seems an unlikely geographic origin for the West Saxons.

Archaeology has not helped locate the origins and expansion of the West Saxons, as too often finds are made to fit a preconceived framework based on the evidence of the Chronicle. Further, it would appear that Wessex was established from the upper Thames Valley from the 6th century; analysis of the accounts of the origins of the kingdom suggest that Cerdic was establishing his position in the 530s, around the upper Thames valley. Little more can be said until the reign of Ceawlin, son of Cynric, when Wessex began to acquire significant territory. However, it wasn't until after the reign of Cædwalla when the term ‘West Saxon’ begins to appear, whereas Cerdic’s people seem to have been known as the “Gewissae” with Cerdic named in early sources as "dux gewissorum", that is, “duke of the Gewissae”. Indeed Bede writes of “Cædwalla, of the royal race of the Gewissae,” and asserts that the West Saxons of Winchester were Gewissae,7 a Saxon tribe descended from Gewis of Baeldaeg's Folk.

The identity of the Gewissae is debated among scholars, however, it is fairly certain that they were not a Saxon tribe at all but Britons, which is supported by the British name of their leader Cerdic and perhaps the connection with Powys as we have see on the Pillar of Eliseg. Significantly, the earliest references to the Gewissae is found in the upper Thames region around Dorchester on Thames. Barbara Yorke suggests the name may be derived from the Old English word for “reliable” or “sure”, as in the “trusted ones” which would be appropriate for a British militia. If this is correct then Gewissae would be a corruption of “Gleuissae”, derived from the Latin “Gleuenses” meaning “men of Gloucester” and “men of Gwent” respectively. From this, scholars agree that Cerdic, the “dux gewissorum”, led the Gewissae from Gwent to Gloucestershire, then into Hampshire where they became known as the West Saxons.8 For a British warlord to have ultimately been accepted as “West Saxon” by writers of the Chronicle indicates his forces relied heavily on Germanic mercenaries.

We should then reconsider Cerdic's first battles around the Hampshire Avon in the context, not of Saxon expansion, but as internecine warfare among the Britons following the 21 year peace of Badon fought against Aelle of the neighbouring South Saxons c.495. According to the Chronicle, Cerdic dies in 534; there is no mention of a battle, no Camlann; perhaps old age had caught up with the battle-weary dux gewissorum.

In conclusion it is certainly unlikely that Cerdic had any contact at all with Arthur and had no association with the battles of Badon or Camlann. More likely Cerdic, whoever he was, filled the void left following the demise of Arthur at the battle of Camlann.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1. John Rhys, Y Cymmrodor, Vol XXI, 1908.
2. Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, King Arthur: The True Story, Century, 1992.
3. John Rudmin and Joseph Rudmin, Arthur, Cerdic, and the Formation of Wessex
4. Barbara Yorke, The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the origins of Wessex, in Origins of the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms, edited by Steve Basset, Leicester University Press, 1989, pp.84-96.
5. Ibid.
6. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford University Press, 2008, Book I. XV
7. Ibid., Book 4. XV.
8. David Hughes, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, Heritage, 2007, p.229.

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Friday 6 October 2017

Arthur and the Saxons

The Road to Camlann Part III – The South East

“It is useless to look for Arthur's battle-sites anywhere but round about the area, once highly Romanized, in southern England, in the country south of the Thames and west of Kent. If it can be shown that enough remains to suggest identification of the battle-sites on the fringe of this area, the story of Nennius becomes credible.”1

Arthur's Battles and the Saxon Wars
If Arthur's battles were fought against the Saxons, and it is not certain they were, we might hope to find some trace in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. We find no records of Badon or Camlann, the high and low points of Arthur's career, among the early English; perhaps they are there, hidden from a form we might recognise, but in a different language.

The battle list contained within the 9th century Historia Brittonum (also known as 'Nennius' if you will) shows a series of battles that culminated in the twelfth at the battle of Badon. This account of the Britons fortunes seems to reflect Gildas (De Excidio Britanniae, ‘On the Ruin of Britain’) who, gives no dates but was writing before Maelgwn's death in 547 AD and certainly within living memory of the battle, places great significance to the ‘siege of Badon Hill’ (obsessio montis Badonicus) as the ‘final victory of our Country which has been granted to our time by the will of God.’
Anderitum Roman fort
Gildas tells us that the Britons took up arms and rallied under Ambrosius Aurelianus, the last of the
Romans and that, “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.”

In this passage it seems obvious that Gildas is saying is that he was born in the same year as the siege of Badon Hill and he was writing forty-three years and one month after that battle; we can thus date the battle to within a few years of either side of the year 500 AD.

Alternatively, it has been suggested saying that he is saying that the battle of Badon took place
forty-three years and one month after some other event not named by him in this sentence.

Bede closely follows Gildas in describing the fluctuating fortunes of the Britons, and the battle of Badon:From that time on, now the citizens, now the enemy were victorious right up until the year of the siege of mount Badon, when there was no small slaughter of the enemy about forty-four years after their arrival in Britain.2

Here Bede appears to have interpreted Gildas' statement as meaning that Badon occurred in the year of his birth, the forty-fourth year of the English settlement in Britain.

Bede claims the English Advent occurred in 449 AD. Badon, then must have occurred around 493 - 495. 449 is the year that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in Ipwinesfleet, at the invitation of Vortigern the king of the Britons. Battles at Aylesford (455), Crayford (457) and Wippedfleet (465) followed, which resulted in the Britons conceding Kent and fleeing to London. This account is mirrored in the so-called 'Kentish Chronicle' of the Historia Brittonum, but with the names Hengist and Horsa meaning stallion and horse it raises suspicion of it being a purely mythical foundation story.

In the 10th century Welsh Annals, Badon [Bellum Badonis] is entered under year 72, which corresponds to A.D. 518, and reads,

“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 victorious.”

The Annals are the first to give these details, and the first to provide a precise date for Badon; there are no other extant sources for the 518 date. Frank Reno3 re-calibrates the dates of the Annals Cambriae by 19 years, a full lunar cycle, calculated from the Easter Tables, which once again brings the date for Badon to around 500 AD.

As Badon is the last battle in the 12 listed in the Historia Brittonum (Nennius), Arthur's battles must have all been fought prior to that date, and, following the Welsh Annals, Camlann 21 years later. We can therefore pinpoint Arthur's floruit within a window of around 480 to 520.

If Arthur was the leader of the Britons at Badon it is unlikely he could have been around to fight Hengist and Horsa in the mid-5th century, the Britons were led by the sons of Vortigern against the Saxon in Kent. Indeed, if Arthur fought against the Saxons in the south-east during the last quarter of the 5th century his adversaries would have been Aelle and Cerdic. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records:

477 Aelle lands at place called Cymenes ora with his three sons, Cymen, and Wlenking, and Cissa, in three ships. There they slew many of the Welsh; and some in flight they drove into the wood that is called Andred's leag.
485 - This year Aelle fought with the Britons at Mearcreades burnam.
490 - This year Aelle and Cissa besieged Andredes cester, and slew all that were therein; nor was one Briton left there afterwards.4

Aelle and the foundation of Sussex
According to the Chronicle, Aelle landed at Cymenes ora (ora = shore), which has been identified as a stretch of south-eastern coast between Selsey and Pagham. Andred's leag is the forest of Anderida, the Weald, which then stretched from Kent in the east to just north of Selsey in the west. Andredes cester is without doubt meant as the Roman Saxon Shore fort at Anderitum (now Pevensey castle) some 50 miles eastward along the coast from Selsey. From these two Chronicle entries we can see Aelle's progress from landing in 470 to the South Saxons spreading to Pevensey twenty years later. But the main area of Saxon settlement in the 5th century seems to have been between the river Ouse and Cuckmere. By the 6th century this had spread westward to the Adur, the opposite direction to the Chronicle.5

Pevensey Castle (Anderitum) - copyright English Heritage
The Chronicle tells us that in 485, in the midst of this reign, Aelle fought the Britons at Mearcreades burnam but does not record this as victory for the English. Mearcreades burnam has been interpreted as 'the river of the frontier agreed by treaty,' i.e the Ouse was the boundary of Saxon settlement, and the battle could have been an attempt by Aelle to break out beyond this boundary.At 480-feet Mount Caburn is one of the highest landmarks in East Sussex, on the summit is the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, separated from the South Downs, by Glynde Reach, a tributary of the River Ouse.

Collingwood identifies Arthur's first battle ("on the river Glein") from the Historia Brittonum as the Glynde in eastern Sussex, at its confluence with the Ouse near Lewes beneath the Caburn (Caer Bryn = strong fort). A long barrow on Cliffe Hill, part of the Caburn, is known as the Warriors Grave, which may have been so-named in memory of a battle fought here. Ekwall7 accepts the Glynde as equivalent to the "river Glein” a site often favoured by scholars as the Glen in Northumberland, or the Glen in Lincolnshire.

If this was indeed Arthur's first victory as recorded in the battle list of the Historia Brittonum, the date, 485, fits perfectly with the dates suggested for the Arthurian campaign. Aelle seems to have been contained until he struck at Andredes cester (Pevensey) some five years later.

We then hear no more of Aelle in the Chronicle and there is no record of his death. Yet, Bede, the historian of the English peoples, tells us that Aelle was the first English king to hold sovereignty (bretwalda) over all the southern provinces south of the Humber.8

Traditionally Aelle is the leader of the Saxon's at Badon (c.495) along with Octha of Kent (son of Hengist?). Octha is identified with 'Osla Big-Knife' (Gyllellvawr) in Arthurian tradition; in Culhwch and Olwen he is one of Arthur's warband as they hunt the giant boar Twrch Trwyth, but drowns when he follows the boar into the Severn and the scabbard of his seax (Saxon long-knife) fills with water dragging him under; in the Dream of Rhonabwy he is Arthur's adversary at Badon (Caer Faddon).9

Badbury Rings, Dorset
Traditionally we are are told that Badon was fought at Bath, as this describes the ancient name of the city with the hot springs, an idea that has stuck since Geoffrey of Monmouth's fables; but surely Bath is far too west for a Saxon advance at this time. Even the favoured sites of Liddington Castle (Wiltshire) and Badbury Rings (Dorset) are too far west for a South Saxon advance, a battle site further east, nearer the territory of the South Saxons (suthsaexe) would make much better sense. Archaeological evidence for early Saxon settlement in Sussex has been found in burials at Alfriston, Selmeston, Bishopstone, Beddingham, Glynde, Saxonbury (Lewes) and Wooodingdean.

However, if the identification of Arthur's first battle on the Glynde (river Glein) and his penultimate, Badon, in the south-east are correct we should then also expect to find the other ten battles in this area of England. Collingwood does exactly that for eleven of Arthur's battles but fails to offer a candidate for Badon in the region of the South Saxons.10 Oddly, the south-east is one area of Britain largely absent of Arthurian tradition.

After Badon, Aelle disappears from the Chronicle and even Sussex fails to get a mention for 150 years; it seems almost certain that both Aelle and his sons were killed in the battle. Badon was without doubt such a resounding victory for the Britons, perhaps revenge for the slaughter of all the occupants of the fort at Andredes cester, that the archaeological record shows a cessation in Saxon expansion in the south from this time for several generations. Indeed, writing before 865, a monk from Fulda records Saxons from Britain landing at Cuxhaven, Lower Saxony, Germany, in 531, an event which is also supported by the account in Procopius who writes of 6th century migration from Britain to the land of the Franks across the Channel.

If Arthur's twelve battles were fought in the south of England then can we expect find the site of Camlann also in the same area?

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1.  WG Collingwood, Arthur's Battles, Antiquity 11, 1929.
2.  Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford, 2008.3. Frank D Reno, The Historic King Arthur, McFarland & Co, 1997.
4. Michael Swanton (Translator & Editor), The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.
5. Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of King Arthur, Robinson, 2005.
6. Ibid.
7. Ekwall, English River Names, Oxford University Press, 1928.
8. Bede, op.cit.
9. Thomas Jones and Gwyn Jones, The Mabinogion, Everyman, New Edition, 2001.
10. Collingwood, op cit.

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