Plotting Camlann: Letters from the Dead
Arthur and the Saints
Arthur is intimately linked to the early Saints, appearing in nine different Saints’ Lives (Vitae) that are largely independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Most of these accounts, including Cadoc, Carannog, Gildas, Illtud, Padarn and the Breton Saint Goeznovius, were written in the 11th and 12th centuries, some 500 years or so after Arthur is said to have lived and, it must be admitted, of little historical value; five of these Lives were written at the Celtic monastery established by St Cadoc at Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales.
The majority of the Vitae portray Arthur as a tyrant, typified as a fractious warlord as a foil to display the excellent skills of the Saint. Yet these accounts of the deeds of the saints, fictitious or otherwise, were shaping the future Arthurian legend.
Gildas is often considered one of the few contemporary sources for late 5th and early 6th century Britain and frustratingly fails to mention Arthur by name. Explanation is providedby Gerald of Wales who claims that after Arthur killed Hueil the brother of Gildas he threw all his books into the sea. But Gildas is not writing a history; he bemoans the sins of the Britons who are being punished by God with the onslaught of the Saxons.
There are two versions of the Life of Gildas. The first was written in the 9th century by an unnamed monk at the Rhuys monastery in Brittany, the second "Life" was a work by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the 12th century and includes the first account of the abduction of Arthur’s Queen Guinevere by Melvas, king of the Summerland, who holds her captive at Glastonbury. Arthur musters the forces of Dumnonia and besieges her abductor but Gildas, then Abbot of Glastonbury, intervenes to peacefully resolve the matter. In response Arthur makes gifts of land to the Abbey.
The Age of the Saints
Christianity in Wales is said to have emerged in the late Roman period of the country. Initially the religion was banned in the Empire through a series of edicts. It is doubtful if the persecution of Christians as seen in the eastern empire, was felt to such a degree this far in the west. However, Gildas writes of the martyrdom of Aaron and Julius in Caerleon in South Wales around the same time as the first British martyr Alban at Verulamium. Debate continues as whether these martyrdoms occurred during the persecutions of Severus (208-211), Decius or Valerian (251–259), or Diocletian (304).
|The Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon, |
the site of the martyrdom of SS Julius and Aaron?
The persecution of Christians was to officially come to end during the during the reign of Constantine the Great (306–337) and Christianity began to develop as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. This was all to change with the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain in 410 when Christianity is said to have all but died out in the island. However, survive it did and the gentle flicker of the flames developed under Celtic influence rather than Roman with the emergence of the Celtic Saints in Western Britain.
After nearly two hundred years of freedom to develop unhindered the Celtic Church came under pressure to accept the religious practices of the Roman Empire once more when St Augustine arrived in Britain in 597. Augustine was on a Papal mission to convert the Anglo Saxons in the south and east of the country but he soon came in contact with the native church in the west.
Following a series of meetings with the Welsh Bishops, known as the Synod of Chester, the Celtic Church refused to accept his authority. Soon after the Celtic monastery at Bangon-on-Dee, just outside Chester, was attacked by the Northumbrian King Aethelfrith and raised to the ground with many hundreds of its monks massacred.
|The Massacre of the Clergy of Bangor by Aethelfrith|
Augustine has been see as complicit in this destructive act, perhaps in frustration at the Welsh Bishops’ rejection of his (Papal) authority, or a deliberate attempt to wipe out the native church. History has muddied the waters in identifying the real reason and date for the destruction of Bangor-on-Dee, otherwise known as “The Battle of Chester” (Urbs Legionis).
The Brut y Brenhinedd, a Welsh version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) records the battle as occurring at Bangor Orchard (Welsh = Perllan Fangor) which seems to suggest it was indeed the destruction of the Celtic monastery that Aethelfrith accomplished. This is supported in the Triad; Three Gate-Keepers at the Action of Bangor Orchard.
Dates for the battle vary between sources, several push the date typically to 613 x 616 to separate the event from Augustine who is said to have died in 26th May 604. Other Chronicles offer an earlier date.
The Welsh Annals list an important synod of St Augustine with the Welsh bishops at "Urbs Legion" for the year 601 AD. Bede records a second synod in 603 AD:
“In the meantime, Augustine, with the assistance of King Ethelbert, drew together to a conference the bishops, or doctors, of the next province of the Britons, at a place which is to this day called Augustine's Ac, that is, Augustine's Oak, on the borders of the Hwicce and West Saxons..."
And yet here again we find our man Arthur: Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum, c.829 AD, (often referred to as simply 'Nennius'), also known as the Arthurian battle list, cites Arthur's ninth battle at the 'City of the Legion' (Urbs Legionis). The only known Dark Age battle at the City of Legion is Chester (Bangor-on-Dee). Clearly, the Dux Bellorum is out of place here; we can only assume the battle has been wrongly ascribed to Arthur.
Like the Battle of Chester, the early Celtic Saints in Wales are shrouded in mist; most Saints’ Lives date from the 12th century and Wales is lacking an account similar to the Book of Kells or Lindisfarne Gospels.
From the mist, Saint David emerges as the pre-eminent Saint of Wales, unique as the only British patron Saint to have been born in the land of his patronage. He was probably born in the early 6th century but little is known of his early life, his hagiography, like many saints lives, was not written down until the 11th century. There is a tradition that David was the nephew of King Arthur.
Before St David there were St Dyfrig and St Illtud. The earliest account of Dyfrig (Dubricius), appears in the 12th century. He is said to have been active in Ergyng (Archenfield, south Herefordshire) and much of southeast Wales. St Dubricius is said to have crowned King Arthur.
St Illtud is said to have re-founded the Celtic monastery Cor Tewdws, whose ruins are thought to lie under today’s St. Illtyd's Church in Llantwit Major. The legendary college of Theodosius was founded c.395, said to be “the oldest college in the world”, but thought to be have burned down in the mid-5th century. According to the 12th century Book of Landaff, St Dubricius commissioned Illtud to re-establish the college, and the place came to be known as Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major). At its peak the college is said to have had a thousand pupils and educated many of the great Celtic Saints such as David, Patrick and Gildas.
|St. Illtyd's Church in Llantwit Major|
The Life of St Illtud claims he was a Breton prince and a knight of King Arthur and a Welsh account states he was given custody of the Grail, and consequently compared to Galahad.
Many of the Celtic Saints did not evangelise as such but would live the life of a hermit helping the poor and sick. We can trace their geographic spread by the number of llanau bearing a saint’s name. A llan was a sacred enclosure of consecrated ground required to bury the dead, such as Llanbadarn (St Padarn), Llandeilo (St Teilo) and Llandudno (St Tudno).
Arthur’s curious link with the saints is found in accounts of his passing and the lists of the Survivors of the battle of Camlann.
The Seven Survivors of Camlann
So far we have seen the three survivors of the battle of Camlann as listed in an embedded triad in the 10th century Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen; Morfran son of Tegid, Sanddef Pryd Angel and Cynwyl Sant, who was the last to leave Arthur.
Yet, by the 17th century the number of survivors from Camlann was listed as seven. Rachel Bromwich [Trioedd Ynys Prydein, University of Wales Press, 4th Edition, 2014] questions if this was later Welsh tradition simply following the early Arthurian poem The Spoils of Annwn, from the Book of Taliesin, which lists seven survivors in a series of triplets, such as; “Except seven none rose up from the Fortress of the Mound”, and so on. However, the survivors of this raid on the Otherworld are not named, yet we assume Arthur to be one.
The ‘seven survivors’ may well be remnants from an ancient tradition as Bromwich suggests; the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, names seven survivors from the war between Ireland and the Island of the Mighty. A note in Evan Evans’s (1731-1788) notebook (Panton MS 13) gives seven names for the Survivors of Camlann. Bromwich considers Evans' text to be a copy of Lewis Morris' copy of 17th century manuscript Peniarth 185. The names in Evans’s text are quite different from the seven survivors listed in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi:
“Here are the names of the men who escaped from the battle of Camlan: Sandde Angel Form, because of his beauty. Morfran son of Tegid, because of his ugliness. St Cynfelyn, from the speed of his horse, St Cedwyn, from the World’s blessing, St Petrog from the strength of his spear, Derfel the Strong from his strength, Geneid the Tall, from his speed. The year of Christ when the battle of Camlan took place was 542.”[Bromwich, TYP]
In his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth records but three dates; significantly he includes the date of the end of Arthur’s reign as 542. Evans may have been influenced by Geoffrey’s account with regard to the date, yet we do not know where he obtained his information; it may have been a Welsh tradition totally independent of Geoffrey. However, it is close enough to the 537 date given for the battle in the 10th century Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals).
In Evans’s manuscript we find the names are consistent in Sandde and Morfran from Culwch and Olwen, but Cynwal Sant has changed to St Cynfelyn, with the addition of three other saints, with Geneid the Tall unidentified, although it has been suggested he was Hefeydd Hir, one of the seven chieftains left in Britain when Brân departed on his disastrous journey to Ireland in Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr.
Next we will look at the four saints who survived Camlann: St Cynfelyn, from the speed of his horse
The nine Saint's Lives:
Cadoc by Lifris of Llancarfan
Cadoc by Carranog of Llancarfan
Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan
Miracula Sancte Marie Laudunensis by Herman of Tournai
It is also worth mentioning that the Life of St Kentigern features the wildman Lailoken who may have inspired the northern Merlin legend; and the Life of San Galgano (and the formal record of the canonisation in 1185) which contains perhaps the origin of the sword in the stone.
* * *