Tuesday 29 January 2019

The Location of Rhonabwy's Dream

Plotting Camlann: Letters from the Dead

Part III

The Gathering of A Great Host
The tale of Rhonabwy’s Dream is set on the modern England – Wales border, the site of many conflicts over the centuries. Perhaps this is the reason why the author selected this location?

The plain of Argyngroeg is today named 'Gungrog' near the town of Welshpool, known in Welsh as ‘Y Trallwng’, meaning the sinking or marshy land, historically in Montgomeryshire but today under the administration of Powys.

South of Welshpool is a strategic crossing point of the river Severn at Rhydwhyman. This ford was the main passage from mid-Wales along the valleys of the river Camlad and Rea Brook into Shropshire and Shrewsbury. The first structure built to guard this rite of passage was an Iron Age hillfort at Fdridd Faldwyn. North of the ford the Romans built the fort at Forden Gaer (Lavobrinta).
About a mile and a half from the ford the massive earthwork known as ‘Offa’s Dyke’, said to have been constructed by the Mercian king Offa in the 8th century, crosses the Camlad near Rhyd y Groes ('the ford of the cross').

Half a mile south is the remains of the motte-and-bailey earthen fortification of Hen Domen (old mound), commanding the ford across the Severn, built by Roger de Montgomery, the Earl of Shrewsbury shortly after the Norman Conquest. About 150 years later, during the reign of Henry III, the castle was established a mile south at Montgomery, in his campaign against Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. However, the Severn crossing at Rhydwhyman was not visible from here and it is thought the tower at Hen Domen was retained to watch the ford. Henry’s castle at Montgomery survived many attacks of the years, notably those in 1228 and 1231 by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, and again in 1245 by Dafydd ap Llywelyn, until is was demolished by Parliamentarians in 1649 during the English Civil War.

The author of Rhonabwy’s Dream seems to have selected this location as a site with a history of conflict between the English and Welsh. However, historians see this as an unlikely location for the battle of Badon. In the story, Arthur breaks camp at Rhyd y Groes, moves up the valley of the Severn toward Cefn Digoll then dismounts below Caer Faddon; Badon then, according to the storyteller, is somewhere near the north end of Long Mountain?

Cefn Diggoll is the Welsh name for ‘Long Mountain’, a mass of high ground extending in the southwest from Forden to Vennington, near Westbury, in Shropshire to the northeast. Ivan Margary traced a Roman road running over Long Mountain, crossing the summit at 1,339 feet (408m) and the hillfort of Beacon Ring, linking the Roman city at Viriconium (Wroxeter) to the fort at Lavobrinta (Forden Gaer). Margary only considered a highland route but evidence has been discovered since his study of a low level Roman road running along the valley of the Camlad.

The Triads of the Island of Britain
(Trioedd Ynys Prydein) record a battle fought at Cefn Digoll in 630 between Edwin of Northumbria and a Mercian-Welsh alliance led by Cadwallon of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia. The battle preceded a Welsh campaign into Northumbria, which ultimately led to Edwin's death at the Battle of Hatfield Chase.

Another Triad records the fetching of Myngan from Meigen to Llansilin as one of the 'Three Missions that were obtained from Powys'. The poem In Praise of Cadwallon (Moliant Cadwallon) lists a sequence 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'.

Clearly this is the site of Dark Age conflict, yet the relationship of the accounts in the Triads with the Welsh Annals entry for the battle of Meigen on the Kalends of January in 630, where Edwin and his two sons were killed by Cadwallon, and the Annals entry for 632 which records the slaughter of the Severn and the death of Idris in 632, is uncertain and may, or may not, be referring to the same events.

North across the valley from Long Mountain, in which runs the A458 road from Welshpool to Shrewsbury, is Dygen Freiddyn the old name for the Breidden Hills, a location preferred by Blake and Lloyd as the location of Badon. (Keys to Avalon, Element, 2000). However, no evidence of Dark Age occupation has been found there.

We are left to ponder if the author of the Dream of Rhonabwy consciously selected this location for the mustering of Arthur’s Great Army before the battle of Badon based on its historical setting for conflict between the English and Welsh; or did he hold some local knowledge of a now lost tradition of this being the site of Arthur’s greatest victory?

Next >> Prophetic Visions of the Past

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Monday 28 January 2019

Rhonabwy's Dream: A Time Reversal

Plotting Camlann: Letters from the Dead

Part II

Time and Out of Place Warriors
Over a third of the content of Rhonabwy’s Dream is spent on descriptions of the warrior’s and their horse’s attire; this is the reason the author claims the tale cannot be recited without a book. The tale is said to be satirical yet many search for a hidden meaning in the tale of Owain’s Ravens, but this was a common term for warriors during the Dark Ages.

The Dream of Rhonabwy is a late addition to the Mabinogion collection, as assembled by Lady Charlotte Guest, and probably the only text in the anthology written in North Wales.

The tale is quoted by some commentators to identify the location of the battle of Camlann (e.g. Graham Phillips, The Lost Tomb of Arthur, Bear & Co., 2016). It does not. The point missed by many is that this tale narrates the build-up to the battle of Badon, often described as Arthur’s greatest victory that brought peace to Britain for a generation and resulted in some of the Germanic settlers moving back to their homelands around the Rhine in northern Germania.

Unlike many dream narratives, Rhonabwy does not have a prophetic vision, neither does it contain romantic imagery like The Dream of Macsen Wledig in which the dreamer desires the woman of his vision. Rhonabwy’s dream is more like a real dream that you or me might experience. In his dream, time is reversed; he meets Iddog who was a messenger that the battle of Camlann – Arthur is therefore now dead.

Yet, we then come to Arthur preparing for the battle of Badon at Rhyd y Groes with an enormous army. Iddog performs a role similar to an Otherworld guide. And according to the Welsh Annals, Camlann occurred twenty-one years AFTER Badon. (see: Edgar Slotkin, “The Fabula, Story, and Text of Breuddwyd Rhonabwy”, CMCS 18, Winter, 1989).

Other characters are also out of time sequence; Rhun, son of Maelgwn (d.586) and Owain son of Urien (d.595) should both be dated long after Arthur’s death and would not have not participated in Badon if it is accepted that the battle was fought within a generation either side of the date given by the Welsh Annals, i.e. 516 AD. Indeed, most historians tend to date the battle to within a decade either side of 500 AD.

Although out of time, Owain is perhaps not so out of place as first appears as he features prominently in the Arthurian cycle, notably as Yvain, the Knight of the Lion by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, a tale similar to the Welsh Romance Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain also included in Lady Guest’s Mabinogion. The date of composition of Chrétien’s work is unknown but generally agreed to be in the second half of the 12th century, perhaps around the same time as the Dream of Rhonabwy. Chrétien undoubtedly used Celtic sources for his story which drew Roger Sherman Loomis to conclude that the Welsh Romance was the earlier of the two tales. Others are more cautious, suggesting both tales drew from a common original. From here on Ywain, or Owain, then featured in many Arthurian romances as a Knight of the Round Table.

Osla Big-Knife is Arthur’s opponent at Badon in the Dream of Rhonabwy, but in the earlier Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen, he features amongst Arthur’s warband in hunting the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth. However, in Culhwch, Osla drowns when the scabbard for his big knife fills with water and drags him under. Osla is often confused with Octa of Kent, son or grandson of Hengist and traditional leader of the Saxons at Badon. In reality the leader of the Saxon’s at Badon is not recorded; the Anglo Saxon Chronicle fails to even mention the battle.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1136, Octa is the leader of the Saxons brought across to defend Britain by Vortigern; here Geoffrey follows the 9th century Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius). Geoffrey continues with Octa emerging as the nemesis of Aurelius Ambrosius, the leader of Britons, who he based on the historical Ambrosius Aurelianus of Gildas. The 6th century cleric Gildas does not mention the leader of the Britons at Badon, however, it could be argued that his intent was toward Ambrosius, who he says rallied the beleaguered natives in a series of battles against the Saxons right up to the battle of Badon.

Evidently, the great advantage of introducing time-reversal to a tale, such as through a dream sequence, permits the author to employ out of place characters, forward and backward in the sequence of the story; chronological bounds become limitless.

Next >> The Location of Rhonabwy's Dream

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Sunday 27 January 2019

Visions of Badon

Plotting Camlann: Letters from the Dead 

Part I

Rhonabwy's Dream
Mid-12th century Powys. Madog son of Maredudd the last prince to rule the whole of the kingdom (1132-1160 AD), has sent out a hundred men in every three commots to search for his rebellious brother Iorwerth who has been raiding into England. In these days Powys stretched from Montgomeryshire to Flint, including parts of Merioneth and Denbigh.

One of Madog’s retainers on the quest was a man named Rhonabwy, who along with Cynwig Frychgoch of Mawddwy and Cadwgan Fras from Moelfre in Cynllaith come across the house of Heilyn Goch whilst seeking somewhere to stay for the night. Rhonabwy and his two companions are put up in a blackhouse, a building shared with cattle in which the floor is covered in dung. Cynwig and Cadwgan sleep on a blanket spread across flea-infested straw and twigs. Rhonabwy settled down on a yellow ox-skin on a dias. As soon as Rhonabwy fell asleep he was granted a vision.

Rhonabwy dreamt he was journeying with his companions across the plain of Argyngroeg and his intent was towards Rhyd y Groes on the Severn. As they travelled they came across a rider who said he was Iddawc the son of Mynyo but better known through his nickname Iddog Cordd Prydain (Agitator of Britain).

Arthur plays gwyddbywll with Owain - Alan Lee
Iddog tells Rhonabwy that was one of the messengers between Arthur and Medrawd his nephew, at the battle of Camlan and kindled strife between them because he was young and eager for battle. When he was sent by Arthur to seek for peace with Medrawd, charged with the fairest sayings he could think of, yet Iddog would say to Medrawd the most offensive words he could. And that, he says, is how the battle of Camlan was contrived. But three nights before the end of the battle of Camlan he left them, and went to Y Llech Las in Prydain (The Grey Rock in North Britain) to do penance, where he remained for seven years until he gained pardon.

They continued across the great plain of Argyngroeg to Rhyd y Groes on the Severn. A mile from the ford, on each side of the road, they see the mustering of a great host. When they came to the edge of the ford they saw Arthur sitting on a flat meadow. Troops of men are joining the host at the ford in preparation for a great battle.

A man identified by Iddog as Caradog Freichfras, son of Llyr Marini, said to Arthur that it was strange to see such a large host accommodated in such a confined space, and that it is even stranger that those who had promised to be at the battle of Badon by noon to fight Osla Gyllellfawr (Big-Knife) should still be at the ford. Arthur agrees with him and decides that they should go together and they set off toward Cefn Digoll.

Rhonabwy looks down the valley of the Severn to see two troops of men approaching the ford of the Severn. Iddog tells him these are the men of Norway and the men of Denmark. By the time they have caught up with the host, Arthur and his warriors have dismounted below Caer Faddon. Arthur now indulges in a game of gwyddbywll with Owain. As they play Arthur’s men and Owain’s Ravens began squabbling. As they play on it escalates to fighting with Owain’s Ravens killing the sons of the noblemen of the island of Britain. Arthur asks Owain to call off his ravens but he plays on. The game comes to an end when Arthur crushes the gwyddbywll pieces into dust. Owain lowered his banner and the ravens stop fighting.

Then twenty-four horsemen from Osla Gyllellfawr come to Arthur to ask for a truce for a month and a fortnight. Arthur takes counsel and asks an auburn haired man for advice. Iddog tells Rhonabwy that this auburn haired man is Rhun, son of Maelgwn Gwynedd, because no man gave more solid advice than him. Then 24 mules arrived loaded with gold and silver in payment for the truce.

Cai then got up and said that those wishing to follow Arthur should join him tonight in Cornwall, and with the great commotion Rhonabwy awoke having slept for nights and three days.

Next >> Rhonabwy's Dream: A Time Reversal

Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, OUP, 2007.

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Sunday 20 January 2019

Plotting Camlann: Letters from the Dead

"Thither after the battle of Camlan we took the wounded Arthur, guided by Barinthus to whom the waters and the stars of heaven were well known. With him steering the ship we arrived there with the prince, and Morgen received is with fitting honour, and in her chamber she placed the king on a golden bed and with er own hand she uncovered his honourable wound and gazed at it for a long time. At length she said that health could be restored to him if he stayed with her for a long time and made use of her healing art. Rejoicing, therefore, we entrusted the king to her and returning spread our sails to the favouring winds." (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini)

Camlann the last battle of the legendary King Arthur. Over the course of time and the quill of medieval scribes it has come to be known as the downfall of the King at the hands of his nephew Modred. However, it was not always that way.

The earliest chronicle entry we have for the battle of Camlann is the Cambro-Latin text known as the ‘Annales Cambriae’ (The Welsh Annals), found in a manuscript (MS 3859) from the Harley collection,  along with the earliest version of the Historia Brittonum. Harley 3859 is dated to c.1100 but we can assume the Welsh Annals, as we have it today, was compiled around the time of the date of the last entry; AD 954.

The Welsh Annals include but two Arthurian entries:

Year 72 (c. AD 516) -The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors.

Year 93 (c. 537) -The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) fell and there was death in Britain and in Ireland.

Yet the Badon entry in the Welsh Annals look suspiciously similar to an entry in the so-called Arthurian battle list in the Historia Brittonum:

"The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his shield, and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was great slaughter upon them, through the power of Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother." 

The Badon and Guinnion entries are clearly very similar, leading to suggestions that they may derive from a common source. Indeed,  much discussion has ben held over the old Welsh word for 'shield' and 'shoulder'  (scuit / scuid) which may indicate copying. But no earlier source has been found; it is therefore likely the chronicler had knowledge of the account of Arthur's battle at Guinnion as contained within the Historia Brittonum and used it to put a Christian slant to the Badon entry when he put it in the Annals. However, regardless of this religious wordplay, the fact that Badon is accepted as a historical event is used to argue that the Camlann entry in the Welsh Annals must also have been a real event.

We find the battle of Badon in the 6th century account of Gildas, although he does not mention Arthur as the leader of the Britons. Writing in the early 8th century Bede, the first historian of the English, also records the battle but in essence follows Gildas. Hence, Badon is regarded as a historical event, but the location and the leader of the British are not agreed by historians.

Camlann is treated differently, particularly by the writers of Welsh tradition, who rarely claim Badon as a Welsh event, whereas Camlann is a solely Welsh affair in the earliest sources. Today historians tend to favour a northern site for Camlann, typically Camboglanna Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, in which the location fits well with claims for a Northern Arthur.

The Camlann entry in the Welsh Annals uses the Welsh word ‘Gueith’ while the Badon entry employs the Latin word ‘Bellum’ suggesting the chronicler used a native Welsh source; significantly, there are no earlier references for the battle of Camlann outside of Welsh tradition. Indeed, there are references to be found in Early Welsh poetry said to pre-date the Welsh Annals.

The earliest mention of Camlann is found in the 9th century Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau). However, this cannot be considered a historical entry in any way as this is a catalogue of topographic folklore, detailing the graves of the warriors of Britain, such as:

“The grave of Tydain, father of the Muse, in the region of Bron Aren:
Where the wave makes a sullen sound
The grave of Dylan in Llan Beuno.”

Another mention is contained in a triad within the mythic tale Culhwch ac Olwen, which lists three men who escaped the battle of Camlann; Morvran the son of Tegid, Sandde Bryd Angel and Kynwyl Sant. And then further on in the same text we find a reference to one of the nine who plotted the battle. A later manuscript dated from the 17th century expands on the three in Culhwch and lists seven survivors.

Then we come to the Triads of the Island of Britan (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) in which references to Camlann are found in five Triads, which make it quite clear the battle was caused by Gwenhwyfar. Unlike Camlann, the Battle of Badon is entirely absent from both Culhwch and the Triads.

As Thomas Green asserts, in Welsh tradition prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Camlann is continually associated with mystical Otherworldly overtones and given the legendary context of the battle it “must be treated here as a battle belonging properly to the Arthurian legend rather than to any possible Arthurian history”.  (Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007)

In a later text, The Dream of Rhonabwy, dated to the mid-12th century, as Rhonabwy rides across the plain of Argyngroeg, he meets a man who claims to have been one of the messengers between Arthur and Medrawd at the battle of Camlann and stirred up strife by passing insults on to Medrawd.

By tracing the messages left by the warriors of Camlann, as detailed in these early Welsh sources, is it possible to untangle the cause and plot the location of Arthur’s last battle?

Next >> Visions of Badon

Copyright © 2019 Edward Watson

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