Thursday 31 December 2020

Camlan Plotted

Plotting Camlan: Letters from the Dead

An.93. Gueith camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt.
[The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell]

Armageddon Found
The journey to Camlan has been a long road, a quest that has covered all corners of the country. I set out on this path with no preconceived notions as to the location of Camlan. I knew, of course, that there are sites in Wales that bear that name today. Yet, any connections between these locations and the battle of Camlan has been dismissed as the earliest record of them does not appear until the 16th century. [Scott Lloyd, The Arthurian Place Names of Wales, UMP, 2017]

This is an absurd suggestion; the first written record of Stonehenge does not appear until the 12th century yet we know it has been in existence since the early third millennium BC. The date of a place name's first documentation is not justification for dismissing its potential ancientness.

The name Camlan is made up of two elements; “Cam” meaning crooked and “Lan” meaning which can be derived from “Glan” river bank, or possibly “Llan” a sacred enclosure. Armed with this etymology historical detectives have scoured the country to find a suitable location for, by all accounts, the battle that caused the end of days for the Arthurian realm, the collapse of the Round Table, and the death of Arthur.

Most are seeking a site in which the British would have encountered barbarians, be they Saxons. Picts or Scotti. But in Welsh tradition the battle is never associated with Saxons and Modred was certainly not the villain, this was introduced by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century.

Historians tend to favour Camboglanna Roman fort by Hadrian’s Wall as the site of Camlan based solely on the etymology of the name; “crooked bank” which is appropriate for the site but hardly unique.

For many years Camboglanna was identified with Birdoswald Roman fort on the Wall with the added appeal of a chieftain’s Dark Age hall that was suddenly abandoned in the early 6th century, the traditional date of the battle. However, it is now accepted that Camboglanna is to be correctly identified as Castlesteads Roman fort, the twelfth fort on Hadrian's Wall, some seven miles west from Birdoswald.  

Camboglanna was constructed 350 metres south of the Wall, being unique as the only fort built between the Wall and the rear Vallum to the south. An inscription dated to the 6th century is the only evidence for sub-Roman activity at the site. Overlooking the Cambeck Valley, Camboglanna guarded an important approach to the Wall. However, the site was drastically levelled in 1791 when the gardens of Castlesteads House were laid over it leaving no visible remains today.

This site immediately sounds tempting for the location of Arthur’s last battle but there is no record of any Dark Age battle here. Castlesteads went out of use when the Romans abandoned the fort in the 4th century. There are no Arthurian traditions here, no lore, no Dark Age battle to connect it with Arthur. 

We must reject it as a candidate for the site of the battle of Camlan. Furthermore, it is argued that the name of the fort should have evolved into “Camglann” by the 6th century but the entry in the Welsh Annals shows it as “Camlan” as it would have become by the 10th century when the Annals were written down and it immediately becomes questionable if it was indeed a contemporary entry.

Then we must also consider the fact that the entry in the Welsh Annals nicely fills the void of Arthur’s career, left open in the "Battle List" in the Historia Brittonum which list all of his victories. The Welsh Annals links from the peak of Arthur’s career at Badon to his death at Camlan and thus draws his biography to a conclusion. All considered, the historicity of the Camlan entry in the Welsh Annals certainly looks questionable.

If the Camlan entry in the Welsh Annals is suspect then we should look at the Welsh traditional accounts of the battle prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth, or certainly those accounts free of his influence.

I started the quest for Camlan by examining the Dream of Rhonabwy although a 12th century text it is recognised as portraying traditional Welsh detail similar to that found in the early 11th century tale of Culhwch and Olwen. 

In the tale 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 Iddawc Cordd Prydain.

Iddawc tells Rhonabwy that was one of the messengers between Arthur and Mordred (Medraut / Medrawd in Welsh) at the battle and twisted their messages to each other to bring about the strife of Camlan. At least seven years has now passed since Camlan as Iddawc went to Y Llech Las to do penance, where he remained for seven years until he gained pardon. Yet, here Arthur’s forces are gathering for the battle of Badon, which has not yet happened and time appears to running backwards

We then came to the three men who escaped Camlan according to a triad embedded in Culhwch and Olwen; Morfran son of Tegid; Sanddef Pryd Angel and Cynwyl Sant the last to leave Arthur.

Yet, by the 17th century Arthur’s curious association with the Celtic saints had increased the number of survivors from Camlann to seven, Sandde and Morfran are consistent from Culwch and Olwen, but Cynwal Sant has changed to St Cynfelyn, with the addition of three other saints, St Cedwyn, St Pedrog  and St Derfel 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 the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr from the Mabinogi.

The association with the saints continued in a late manuscript known as Bonedd y Saint (Descent of the Saints), which records the genealogical tracts of the early British Saints, and shows Cawrdaf listed as the father of Mordred, in turn the father of Dyfnog (§.51), a 6th century saint. 

Another genealogical tract lists Cawrdaf as the father of Iddawc, Agitator of Britain (§.88), the man who caused Camlan, the self-confessed traitor in Rhonabwy's Dream. Although we should be cautious in holding a high degree of confidence in these late genealogical listings, this does raise the intriguing proposition that Iddawc was the brother of Mordred.  

However, Mordred is notably conspicuous by his absence from Arthur’s warband in early Welsh poems such as Preiddu Annwn, Pa Gur, and significantly from Culhwch and Olwen in which the “court list” calls up nearly three hundred characters from Arthurian lore and beyond. Significantly, after appearing in the 10th century Welsh Annals, in the entry for Camlan, Mordred is largely absent from Welsh literature until Geoffrey uses him as Arthur’s arch nemesis.

Mordred and Gwenhwyfar are also absent from the earliest version of the Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) contained in the manuscript Peniarth 16. However, as later version of the Triads developed, recorded in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest (14th century), they both became implicitly involved with Camlan and according to the accounts contained within these later Triads the cause of the battle always involved Gwenhwyfar

In contrast, there are ample allusions to the Battle of Camlan in Welsh sources prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s early 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, indicating the existence of a lost story of Camlan in Welsh tradition, yet none of these accounts elaborate on the cause of the battle or infer that it was caused by Mordred and Gwenhwyfar. Indeed, apart from the entry in the Welsh Annals, neither Mordred or Gwenhwyfar appear in Welsh literature securely dated before Geoffrey’s story; thus their later involvement with Camlan is possibly due directly the result of Geoffrey’s influence.

Finally, we come to the earliest mention of Camlan as found in the 9th or 10th century Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau) from the Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin) containing topographic details of the graves of legendary Welsh heroic characters in stark contrast to the simple entry in the Welsh Annals:

The grave of Osfran’s son is at Camlan
After many a slaughter;
The grave of Bedwyr is on Tryfan hill 

Patrick Sims-Williams speculated that there seems to be an association between Osfran and Morfran without developing the concept further. I pondered the idea if Osfran was the Nightcrow paired with Morfran the Seacrow? Whatever, Osfran is the key to Camlan.  

I have plotted these characters associated with the Welsh traditional account of Camlan on the map and now looked for some sort of pattern. They appear to be laid out in a best-fit outer group and then an inner group.

Finally I joined the locations of Morfran at Llyn Tegid, with Osfran at Tywyn and found they intersected two of the three Camlan sites in Wales. I was convinced there was something in this association between the site of Arthur’s last battle and these mythological crows.

Unfortunately, it must be admitted, that none of these sites bears any early Arthurian traditions; Welsh poets remember the battle as a particularly bloody affair – is it really likely they would forget the location of such a catastrophic event?

When historical detectives have searched the British Isles and beyond for the site of Arthur’s last battle with similar sounding names in vain, we find that a place called Camlan, spelt exactly as recorded in early Welsh sources, at precisely and strategically in the border area of the old kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys. This site is quite appealing as it suggests civil strife between the two kingdoms as suggested by Gildas when writing in the 6th century he states that external wars have ceased.

We find Camlan situated by the River Dyfi (Dovey) beyond the pass of Bwlch Oerddws on the A470 between the village of Dinas Mawddwy and Dolgellau, a strategic route between north and south Wales. A memorial stone to mark the site of the battlefield was erected in 1994. This is accessed by a footpath at the rear of the Meirion Mill car park where the neighbouring field is called Maes-y-Camlan. 

North of Dolgellau, an outlier to the two sites near Dinas Mawddwy, the Afon Gamlan rises on the east slope of Y Lethr, the highest point on the Rhinogs and flows easterly through Cwm Camlan to discharge into the Afon Mawddach just south of the village of Ganllwyd, surrounded by the King's Forest Coed y Brenin. The A470 road passes through the village here and broadly follows the same direction of the old Roman road known as Sarn Helen which used to ford the Eden just before it joins with the Mawddach and Gamlan. The exact route of the Roman road is unclear but is known to pass the Roman fort of Tomen-y-Mur by the now redundant nuclear power station of Trawsfynydd further north along the A470.

The A470 is a lonely road where it passes through Coed y Brenin, the oldest and most extensive forest in Wales. It is easy to see the ford of a Roman road in a deep forest as an attractive site for an ambush. 

Intriguingly, we find the death omen of the “washer at the ford”, often a hag washing bloody garments at the ford of a river; if a warrior saw her washing his armour in the stream, it meant he was to die that day. In Celtic mythology she is known as Badb, an aspect of the Morrigan, known as the Battle Crow. 

In conclusion, I have not found the site of a historical battle but I seem to have stumbled upon the mythological origins of the Strife of Camlann as revealed by the three crows.

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Sunday 27 December 2020

Osfran’s Son

Plotting Camlan:Letters from the Dead

The Cave of the Lads of Eyri
Long ago, the story goes, a local shepherd was collecting his sheep on mount Snowdon when one fell down to a shelf on Y Lliwedd. When he scrambled down the precipice to rescue the stray he stumbled across the narrow entrance of a cave. There was light within: he looked in and beheld a host of warriors without number all asleep, resting on their arms and equipped for battle. As he was squeezing in the shepherd struck his head against a bell hanging in the entrance. It rang so that every corner of the immense cave rang again, and all the warriors woke uttering a terrible shout, which so frightened the shepherd that he fled and never more enjoyed a day’s health. The cave has never been found since. 

The story of the "Cave of the Young Men of Snowdon” (Ogof Llanciau Eryri) belongs to the mythic genre of the sleeping king in the mountain. The classic tale of a king who once ruled over a golden age is said to have withdrawn with his knights into a mountain cave where he waits, sleeping but not dead, one day to return. It is often associated with King Arthur and several mountains in Britain claim the King is sleeping within. 

Tryfan overlooking Llyn Ogwen

How did these young men end up in this cave? When King Arthur returned to Britain after his campaign in Europe, he found the throne had been usurped by his nephew Mordred. Arthur pursued Mordred’s forces through the mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia) until they came to Tregalan just above Cwm Llan below Snowdon.

The two armies engaged at the pass now known as Bwlch y Saethau, the Pass of Arrows, between Yr Wyddfa and Y Lliwedd. Mordred’s archers let fly a rain of arrows at Arthur’s men, one of which mortally wounded Arthur who was then buried under a pile of stones, known as Carnedd Arthur on the summit of Yr Wyddfa.

After burying Arthur his men went up the ridge of Y Lliwedd, and then descended the precipice overlooking Llyn Llydaw into a cave in the face of the cliff. They sealed the entrance up behind them, sleeping in their armour awaiting the King’s return.

After the battle Bedwyr is said to have thrown Arthur’s sword into Llyn Ogwen (some say Llyn Llydaw immediately below the cliff face of Y Lliwedd), but he must have been wounded in the final battle and never made it back to the cave as he was buried on the slopes of Tryfan in the Ogwen Valley.

So much for local legend; it is impossible to date the survival of these oral tales but Bedwyr’s burial place is recorded in an ancient Welsh poem which has been dated to the 9th or 10th century, but may preserve an even older tradition. This same text provides the oldest mention of the battle of Camlan:

The grave of Osfran’s son is at Camlan
After many a slaughter;
The grave of Bedwyr is on Tryfan hill

The Graves of the Warriors
The earliest mention of Camlan is found in The Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau). It is a Middle Welsh poem dated to the 9th or 10th century, a collection of 73 englynion found in the 13th century manuscript known as the Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin). Additional stanzas appear in the later manuscripts Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) and the White Book of Rhyderrch (Llfyr Gwyn Rhydderch), yet the Black Book stanzas are considered the core text.

This text contains the first mention of Camlan in Welsh tradition, earlier than the 10th century entry in the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae). However, whereas the Welsh Annals, in their simple chronicle format, are conventionally regarded as “historical”, The Stanzas of the Graves contains topographic details of the graves of legendary Welsh heroic characters. Many of the characters are obscure, long forgotten heroes; Oliver J Padel sees the poem as memories of landmarks believed to be their graves.

However, some characters are known from the Mabinogi and early Welsh Arthurian literature such as Cai and Bedwyr who appear in tales such as Culhwch and Olwen. Needless to say, many of the graves cannot be located today.

The Stanzas of the Graves contains mentions of several Arthurian characters, but the most well known stanza is St.44 which records the fact that the grave of Arthur is unknown. This stanza is often cited in the legend of Arthur’s survival and future return. This legend was certainly extant in the early 12th century when the Canons of Laon visited Cornwall (1113) and a near riot broke out when the local people took offence to the suggestion that Arthur was dead. Even Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136) tells us that following the battle of Camlan the mortally wounded Arthur was taken to Avalon to be healed of his wounds. Geoffrey did not say Arthur was dead.

As we have seen, The Stanzas of the Graves tells us that Arthur’s trusty companion Bedwyr is buried on the slopes of Tryfan, This is without doubt the 3,000 ft high mountain in the Ogwen Valley in Snowdonia. As this is contained in the same stanza as the reference to Camlan it surely locates the traditional site of Arthur’s last battle in Wales also. 

So here we have a reference to Arthur’s last battle attached to the same stanza as Bedwyr’s grave on Tryfan in Snowdonia. Significantly, later Arthurian literature, such as Malory, also attaches Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere) to Camlan, indeed he is the knight who returns Arthur’s sword to the Lady of the Lake. As The Stanzas of the Graves tends to group associated lore together, Osfran’s grave will not be far away. Find Osfran and surely we can locate Camlan.

The Saint and the Stone
Osfran is a rare name in Welsh. Even worse, we are not even given the name of his son. Patrick Sims-Williams suggested the first element has an Anglo Saxon ring to it, such as in Oswald. 

Arthurian sleuths have played about with the name and come up with various concoctions, conveniently linking the name to topographic features to suit their argument for a particular location for the battle of Camlan. This is the biggest problem with today’s crop of modern authors who claim to have identified Arthur and solved the riddle of his battles in the north, south or west, and ultimately damages the credibility of the quest. Manipulating names to suit a self-generated theory is not good scholarship. Arthur is Arthur, not some similar name, or a warrior’s battle name meaning “The Bear”. Similarly Camlan is Camlan (note the spelling in Welsh Tradition), not something similar.

Mentions of the name Osfran are few and far between but we find another in the Canu I Gadfan (Song to Cadfan) a long praise poem to St Cadfan by Llywelyn Fard I. The poem links traditions and praise of Cadfan to Morfran, the first abbot and the church at Tywyn “near the edge of the blue sea”, in the ancient Cantref of Meirionnydd, which lay between the waterways of the Mawddach and the Dyfi.

Today this church at Tywyn is some three quarters of a mile from the sea, but was originally on a rising mound by the coast, only becoming land locked when the marshes were drained in the 18th century. The church at Tywyn is in indeed ancient; here we find the oldest known stone inscribed with the Welsh language.

St Cadfan's Church, Tywyn

St Cadfan's Church is situated in Tywyn in the county of Gwynedd, formerly Merionethshire, Wales. The church is noted for its Romanesque architecture and for housing the Cadfan Stone, one of four early medieval inscribed stones associated with the church:

Tywyn 1 (now lost) was first noted in 1698, when it stood in the churchyard, to the south-east of the Church. Its Roman inscription is thought to be 5th century in date. 

Tywyn 2, thought to be 9th century in date, presently stands upright in the north aisle of the church. It bears the earliest known inscriptions in Welsh.

Tywyn 3, a 7th to 9th century cross-inscribed pillar-stone, thought to have been found buried at Bryn Paderau (Pater Noster Hill) some 500m south-south-east of the church, at the point where it first comes into view. Modern Ordnance Survey mapping depicts the road connecting the two sites as 'Ffordd Cadfan'. The stone is thought to have possibly been a boundary marker associated with church land and was built into the tower (below the belfry window) in 1884. 

Tywyn 4, is currently located inside the church building, at its west end. It was first noted in 1986 after the demolition of Ynysmaengwyn mansion where it had been built into one of the outhouses. Originally a sundial dating to the 8th or 9th century, it is thought to have been originally associated with the church. 

Located some 150m to the west-north-west of the church is Ffynnon Gadfan (St Cadfan's Well) which in the 16th century was said to lie within the original churchyard which appears to have once been a larger curvilinear enclosure. The well reputedly cured rheumatism, scrofula and cutaneous disorders.  

The first documentary reference to St Cadfan’s Church was in 963 AD, when it is thought to have been the mother church of the region. 

A 12th century poet, Llywelyn Fardd, reportedly described the church as a whitewashed building with a ditch surrounding it, beyond which was a 'clas' or lay community, dependent on the church. The poet also emphasised the refuge and territorial protection conveyed by St Cadfan (and hence, by association, the church). The church was a place of pilgrimage at that time, where relics were kept and miracles reportedly occurred.

St Cadfan, also the patron of Llangadfan in Montgomeryshire, is credited with the foundation of the monastic settlement on Bardsey island where he is recorded as first abbot. He was traditionally the son of Eneas the Breton and crossed from Brittany (some say Llanilltud Fawr) to Wales with a party of other monks, many of these were said to be his relatives. It is claimed he established the first ‘clas’ in Wales at Tywyn in the early 6th century, traditional date AD 516. Fourteen of his companions are said to have founded churches in the area.

When Llywelyn composed his ode to Cadfan in the 12th century a man named Morfran was abbot at Tywyn. Morfran appears to have been lay-abbot of the clas at Tywyn and also steward of Cynfal castle (Castell Cynfael) 2 miles north east of Tywyn. The motte was built in 1147 by Cadwaladr ap Gruffudd ap Cynan with commanding views across the Dysynni valley. The castle was captured later that year by Cadwaladr’s nephews, Hywel and Cynan. Morfran’s efforts in defending the castle would appear to have been the inspiration for the Canu Cadfan.

In the poem Llywelyn goes on to praise the prowess of Osfran as a warrior:

“Like loud Osfran piercing the enemy’s shield,
A generous, magnificent shield prevailing over counterclaims;
And its giver-abbot dispenses favour:
To us he distributes from his church a multitude,
He arranges battle with the Lord’s consent
Morfran flowing with gifts, pride of a days entertainment.”

If Morfran’s defence of Castell Cynfael was the bard’s inspiration for Canu Cadfran, then the abbot seems to be compared to the warrior Osfran. If Osfran’s son fought and died at Camlan in 537, according to the Welsh Annals, then Osfran himself must have been a well known warrior in this area in the early 6th century, which would make him contemporary with St Cadfan’s arrival at Tywyn.

The Night Crow
However, I find the association of Osfran with Morfran intriguing. As you will remember from earlier posts in this series, Morfran was also the name of one of the three who escaped from Camlan according to a Triad embedded in the tale of How Culhwch won Olwen; “Morvran the son of Tegid, Sandde Bryd Angel and Kynwyl Sant”.

As the second element of both names, “fran” means crow (Morfran = sea-crow), could these two names be related in some way in the earliest story of Camlan? 

Now here's a daft thought: “Brân” can be a mutation of “Fran” meaning crow or raven, coupled with “Nos” meaning “night” would give Nosbran, corrupted to [N]osfran. As will be immediately obvious I am no etymologist, and please forgive my very limited knowledge of the Welsh language, but I am intrigued by the possibility that Osfran could have been the “night-crow” associated with Morfran the “sea-crow”? Did they have a role reminiscent of the two ravens of Norse mythology Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory)?

The Stanzas of the Graves 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. Although it must be admitted that some warriors names and locations are obscure and may indeed be that ancient that their tales are lost to us. However, we find information of a similar ilk in the Mirabilia, appended to the Harlian manuscript of the Historia Brittonum where Arthur the soldier has become entangled with topographic folklore.

The question is burning a hole in the page: Was Camlan historical or mythical?

Whereas the veracity of the Arthurian battle list in the Historia Brittonum can be readily challenged with the Badon entry in the Welsh Annals incorrectly ascribed to Arthur and looking every inch like it follows the battle at Guinnion, many see the Camlan entry in the Welsh Annals as independent evidence for a historical Arthur with Camboglanna on Hadrian’s Wall favoured as the battle site on etymological grounds alone.

Yet, in Welsh tradition the battle has a distinctively Otherworldy tone to it. But clearly the account of Arthur’s last battle has been lost to us. We see glimpses of Camlan in early Welsh tradition such as the tale of Culhwch and Olwen and The Stanzas of the Graves, which seem to be a million miles away from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account.

Thomas Jones, ed., The Black Book of Carmarthen ‘Stanzas of the Graves’ Proceedings of the British Academy 53 (1967): pp.97–137.
OJ Padel, Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature, University of Wales Press, Second Edition, 2013, pp.37-38.
Patrick Sims-Williams, The early Welsh Arthurian poems, in: Bromwich, Rachel, A. O. H. Jarman, and Brynley F. Roberts (eds.), The Arthur of the Welsh, 1991, pp.33–71.

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Thursday 24 December 2020

King Arthur’s Shield

In Castello Guinnion
We find the earliest mention of Arthur’s shield in the early 9th-century Cambro-Latin text Historia Brittonum. Several manuscript versions exist of this text with slight variants of the so-called Arthurian battle list, a short chapter that details the twelve battles of Arthur who here is referred to as the Dux Bellorum (leader of battles), not a king. The Historia Brittonum is often cited as historical evidence for Arthur yet modern historians tend to dismiss its historical value. However, a deconstruction of the Arthurian battle list is beyond the scope of this article; suffice to say that debate continues as to whether it was the work of the author was part of a carefully constructed synthetic history for the political purposes of the house of Gwynedd, or, at the other end of the spectrum, the battle may be the remnant of an Old Welsh poem as witnessed by the rhyming structure of battle site names; Dubglas with Bassas; Cat Coit Celidon with Castell Guinnion; Cair Legion with Bregion. 

Binchester (Vinovia) Roman Fort;
was this the site of Arthur's eighth battle at Castle Guinnion?

Here we are concerned with the iconography on Arthur’s shield; was it a Christian cross or a representation of the Virgin Mary from its inception 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 a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother.” [Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, John Morris (Editor , Translator), Arthurian Period Sources Vol 8, Philimore, 1980]

The description of the eighth battle is by far the longest in the battle list, from 193 words in the passage, nearly a third, 60, are found in the record of the battle at castello guinnion; the centrality of the event in the passage clearly underlines its significance, yet  the location of the eighth battle is unknown beyond the Arthurian battle list. 

The description of the battle at Castle Guinnion has a legendary feel to it, similar to the reference to the battle of Badon in the same passage in the Historia Brittonum:

“The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's, and no one laid them low save he alone..” [Morris]

Debate goes on as to whether the battle of Badon should be attributed to Arthur, or not, as the contemporary historian Gildas fails to mention him as the leader fo the British at the siege of Badon Hill. The issue appears to resolve itself when we find an entry in the 10th century Welsh Annals (Annalaes Cambriae) claiming Arthur as the victor:

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. [AC] 

The Badon entry in the Welsh Annals and the Guinnion passage in the Historia Brittonum are clearly very similar, indeed at first glance, we notice that the Badon entry looks suspiciously like it is derived directly from the eighth battle in the Arthurian battle list.

This has led to suggestions that they derive from a common source, or may indicate copying from the earlier manuscript to the later. Indeed, much discussion has been held over the years with regard to the old Welsh word scuit / scuid used in both entries and whether Arthur carried the religious icon, be it the Cross or the Virgin, on his 'shield' or 'shoulder'. Shoulder makes no sense; this must be a reference to the icon on his shield.

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 it was inserted into the Annals. It certainly seems unlikely that the same error for 'shield' or 'shoulder' would be committed twice and does suggest that the compiler of the Welsh Annals had the Historia Brittonum in front of him when he made the Badon entry.

The battle at castle Guinnion may well record a ‘Christian victory’ or a battle claimed as such in later years when the author of the Historia Brittonum wrote. Yet, it is doubtful that devotion to the Virgin Mother had reached Britain by Arthurian times, the first half of the 6th century. Marian devotion developed in the Eastern Empire, yet the oldest portrayal in the West is thought to be that of a mother and child from the catacomb of Priscilla (3d century). Western iconography of the Virgin borrowed heavily from Byzantium.

However, there is no evidence that Mariolatry reached Britain until later with the earliest Marian shrines not known until the early 8th century, such as Evesham (700 AD) and Tewkesbury (715 AD). Arthur had fought about two hundred years before this; Badon is generally accepted as having been fought around the turn of the 6th century, within 10 years of 500 AD, thereby accepting Arthur as the leader of the triumphant Britons at Badon fixes the date of his floruit.

According to Gildas the siege at Badon Hill was the culmination of the Britons fightback against the  Saxons. This is reflected in the Arthurian battle list in the Historia Brittonum which puts the battle of Badon at the end of the Arthurian campaign. The battle of castle Guinnion must therefore have taken place before 500 AD. It is unlikely that veneration of the Virgin was common in Britain as early as the late 5th century, but certainly more common by the time the Historia Brittonum was compiled in the 9th century as evidenced by the growth of Marian shrines. This suggests the passage was enhanced with the reference to the Virgin at the time of its composition. Further, early references to the shields of Dark Age Celtic warriors simply limewashed their shields which would shed dust on impact in battle.

The next mention of Arthur’s shield is found in the 11th century Welsh prose work, Culhwch and Olwen:

"excepting only my ship, my mantle, my sword Caledfwlch, my spear Rhongomyniad, my shield Wynebgwrthucher, my knife Carnwennan and my wife Gwenhwyvar."

Wynebgwrthucher (= face of evening) is not recorded in any other source and no description is provided of its decoration. But clearly later writers understood Arthur's shield to be decorated with an icon of the Virgin.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Arthur's shield bore an image of the Virgin; “upon which the picture of the blessed Mary, mother of God, was painted, in order to put him frequently in mind of her.” But strangely, Geoffrey names the shield as Prydwen (or Pridwen) meaning 'fair face'. However, in Culhwch and Olwen and the Preiddeu Annwfn (Spoils of Annwfn), an early Welsh poem from the Book of Taliesin, Prydwen was the name given to Arthur's ship. It wouldn’t be the first, or last, time Geoffrey confused native interpretations.

After Geoffrey, writing in the 12th century in his De Principis Instructione, Gerald of Wales failed to record the name of Arthur’s shield but claimed that the image of the Virgin was painted inside the shield and Arthur would kiss the feet going into battle:

“Indeed, more than all other churches of his realm he prized the Glastonbury church of Holy Mary, mother of God, and sponsored it with greater devotion by far than he did for the rest. When that man went forth for war, depicted on the inside part of his shield was the image of the Blessed Virgin, so that he would always have her before his eyes in battle, and whenever he found himself in a dangerous encounter he was accustomed to kiss her feet with the greatest devotion.” [Gerald of Wales, Liber de Principis Instructione, 1193]

Gerald is not considered the most reliable of witnesses, being somewhat of a medieval spin doctor. Of course after Geoffrey, the Continental Romancers took Arthur in to the world of Chivalry and the fellowship of the Round Table were adorned with shields displaying contemporary heraldic devices.

The Clawing Cat
Old French and Anglo-Norman sources mention a monstrous cat known as chapalu. The name means “bog cat” alluding to the creature’s association with water. The cat is recorded as fighting King Arthur; in the Vulgate Cycle the cat is nameless and Arthur is victorious but in L’estoire de Merlin the beast is referred to as the Devil Cat of the lake of Lausanne. In this version, Arthur kills the beast with his shield. Yet, in other French accounts the chapalu kills Arthur and then goes to Britain to claim the throne. It has been suggested that this is the scene depicted on the Otranto mosaic, seen below Arthur mounted on a goat, which sees Arthur being mauled by the chapalu and must have been in circulation as an oral tale before the cathedral floor was laid c.1165 AD.

The Otranto Mosaic

A similar account of conflict with a monstrous cat is recorded in the poem "Pa Gur yv y Porthaur" ("What man is the porter"), recording a dialogue between Arthur and the gate-keeper Glewlwyd, found in the 13th century Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (The Black Book of Carmarthen). The date of composition of this poem is considered to be much older than the manuscript and portrays Arthur and his retinue in a similar vein to that of Culhwch and Olwen in which they are in a fantasy world pitched against supernatural monsters. Yet the poem details many of Cei’s achievements, last included in the incomplete poem is Cei’s fight against the monstrous cat the Cath Palug. In Welsh this means the “clawing cat” but over time has become interpreted as the name of the beast. As the poem breaks off here we do not know the final outcome but we assume it was Cei who pierced the creature with his spear.

In the Welsh Triads (Trioedd Ynys Prydein), under the title of the Three Great Swineherds of the Isles of Britain, the third Swineherd, Coll son of Collfrewy, has a pregnant swine named Henwen who gives birth to a wolf cub, an eagle, and a kitten. The kitten is thrown into the Menai Strait by Coll but she swims across to the island of Mon (Anglesey) where she becomes known as the Cat of Palug, one of the Three Great Oppressions of Anglesey

The poem Pa Gur tells us how Cei goes to Anglessey specifically to fight lions and, as with Arthur, fights the Cat of Palug with his shield:

Cai the fair went to Mona,
to devistate Llewon.
His shield was ready
Against Cath Palug
When people welcomed him.
Who pierced the Cath Palug? 

In these accounts the monstrous cat (Cath Palug or the chapula) is killed with the shield, either Arthur’s or Cei’s. In some obscure accounts Arthur’s shield is described as made of glass in others it is described simply as “polished” without mention of the Virgin.

The Valley of Woe
It is claimed that a fragment of Arthur's shield was preserved in the church of St Mary of Wedale, at Stow, a Scottish village about 20 mile south of Edinburgh. [See for example: Battle 8 in King Arthur: The Mystery Unravelled by Chris Barber] However, once again the icon on Arthur’s shield is confused with the Cross.

The tradition of Arthurian relics held at Stow is recorded in the Sawley glosses, marginal additions, attached to a late version of the Historia Brittonum (Corpus Christi College Cambridge Manuscript 139 (CCCC 139). This version of the Historia was produced by several different hands from the monks of the Abbey of St Mary at Sawley, Yorkshire, dating from the late 12th or early 13th century. One of the glosses claims:

"Then Arthur went to Jerusalem. There he made a cross of the same measure as the health-bringing Cross. And there it was consecrated. And for three continuous days he fasted and kept vigil, praying in the presence of the Lord's Cross, so that the Lord gave victory by his sign over the pagans, so was it done. And he himself carried the image of Holy Mary, fragments of which were saved and greatly venerated at Wedale."

Here, as we have seen before, the Cross and image of the Virgin seem to be confused. The gloss clearly states that Arthur carried the image of Holy Mary, fragments of which were saved at Wedale. The three day vigil is reminiscent of Arthur’s battle at Badon as recorded in the Welsh Annals, which states that Arthur carried the cross for three days and three nights. Moreover, the website of the Parish Church of Stow St Mary of Wedale claims it was endowed with fragments of the True Cross, the symbol of Christianity, but associated with Christ more than the Virgin. [The website of the Parish Church of Stow St Mary of Wedale ]

Stow of Wedale is remembered as the site of a great battle, indeed a local tradition remembers it as one of Arthur's battles, with the name interpreted as The Dale of Woe. There may be something in this, as Stow is said to derive from the OE for Holy Place and Wedale from the OE for valley of the shrine. The first church here was apparently built around 600 AD, but claims that it was dedicated to the Virgin seem unlikely, as we have seen the oldest recorded shrines to Mary date to around a century later. 

And the story goes that after his victory, Arthur founded the first church, dedicated it to the Virgin Mary, and endowed it with fragments of the True Cross. The site of the original chapel is said to lie a mile south of Stow near St Mary's Well. 

Oddly enough, another marginal addition to the same manuscript states that '"Arthur" translated into Latin means "horrible bear"...' from the Welsh ‘arth’ = ‘bear’ and ‘uthr’ = ‘horrible’ and refers to Arthur as “the breaker of the jaws of lions”. So here the search for Arthur’s shield brings us once more to a strange association with fighting lions.

Edmund Chambers summarises; “No doubt the gloss referring to the journey to Jerusalem was 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.” [Edmund Chambers, Arthur of Britain, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1927, reprinted 1966]

Thus, Chambers interprets the Sawley gloss as meaning that Arthur brought back from Jerusalem a relic of the Virgin AND a relic of the True Cross.

The Change of Arms
However, there is a late text that describes Arthur’s shield in detail and explains why Arthur adopted a new Christian coat-of-arms which replaced the Red Dragon. This episode has been termed "King Arthur’s Chapel Ride".

In the Perlesvaus (The High Book of the Grail), written around 1202 AD probably by a monk at Glastonbury Abbey, we find a strange account of King Arthur’s visit to St Augustine's chapel in the White Forest. One night Arthur’s squire dreams that he visits the chapel and sees a dead body on a bier squared by four gold candlesticks. The squire takes one of the candlesticks but is stabbed as he leaves by one of the Black Knights that guards the chapel. He cries out is his sleep which wakes Arthur and he finds the Black Knight’s knife in the squire’s side and then also the candlestick. Arthur presents the candlestick to the newly founded church of St. Paul in London.

Later Arthur visits the chapel and finds a hermit lying in rest. He overhears angels and devils vying for ownership of the hermit’s soul. He then witnesses a strange mass in which the Virgin and Child appear.

A very similar account appears in John of Glastonbury's 14th century Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey) but the tale, unsurprisingly, is placed within a Glastonbury context. In the Cronica, King Arthur is staying at a nunnery on Wearyall Hill and the chapel is that of St. Mary Magdalene at nearby Beckery.

In John’s account Arthur’s squire has a similar dream to that in the Perlesvaus, then Arthur visits the chapel at Beckery and again witnesses a strange mass with the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Following mass the Virgin presents Arthur with a crystal cross (now lost) which was said to be processed at the Abbey during Lent. The candlestick and knife were both presented to Westminster Abbey.

The Cronica claims that this event caused Arthur to change the arms on his shield to a Christian icon of a crystal cross on a green background with an image of the Virgin and Child in the top left hand corner substantiating the account given in the 9th century account in the Historia Brittonum of the 8th battle at Castle Guinnion. 

In studying the two episodes Alfred Nitze concluded that John did not use Perlesvaus as his source, but thought both accounts derived independently from a lost Latin text at Glastonbury, which would have been therefore the Latin source to which the author of Perlesvaus alluded to in a colophon at the end of his work:

“The Latin from whence this history was drawn into Romance was taken in the Isle of Avalon, in a holy house of religion that standeth at the head of the Moors Adventurous, there where King Arthur and Queen Guenievre lie”

However, John Carley’s edition of the Cronica has shown that John made much more imaginative use of his source material than Nitze was willing to concede and it is fairly certain that John borrowed heavily from the Perlesvaus in the episode of King Arthur’s Chapel Ride with some poetic creativity. [The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An edition and translation, James P Carley]

So finally, in John’s Cronica, some five hundred years after the event was first recorded, we find a clear description of the device on Arthur’s shield; it bears both a cross and an image of the Virgin. This explains the entry for Arthur’s 8th battle at Guinnion in the Historia Brittonum, an image of the Virgin, and the entry in the Welsh Annals for the battle at Badon, a cross.

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Tuesday 8 December 2020

Bwrdd Arthur: Arthur's Table

In Malory’s “Le Morte Darthur” Arthur sends Merlin to ask King Leodegrance of Cameliard for the hand in marriage of his daughter Guinevere:

".....said King Leodegrance, the best tidings that ever I heard, that so worthy a king of prowess and noblesse will wed my daughter. And as for my lands, I will give him, wist I it might please him, but he hath lands enow, him needeth none; but I shall send him a gift shall please him much more, for I shall give him the Table Round, the which Uther Pendragon gave me, and when it is full complete, there is an hundred knights and fifty. And as for an hundred good knights I have myself, but I faute fifty, for so many have been slain in my days.”

And so Leodegrance delivered his daughter Guinevere unto Merlin, and the Table Round with the hundred knights......" [Book III, Chapter 1]

The Table Round

The Round Table was introduced to Arthurian legend by the Norman poet Robert Wace in his Roman de Brut (1155), an adaption of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Layamon soon followed with the first English version of the Brut which recalled the tale of a carpenter from Cornwall who built a huge transportable Round Table following a quarrel over seating positions. Credit for the origin of the Round Table was recognised by both these writers as belonging to the Bretons.

In the mass of Arthurian Romance that followed it came to represent the chivalric order of King Arthur’s court known as the fellowship of the Round Table. Such was esteem of the Order of the Round Table that it was emulated by the Plantagenet kings.

The Round Table top now hanging on the wall at the Great Hall at Winchester was constructed during the reign of Edward I (1272 - 1307) for a feast with chivalric tournaments, a trend that continued for centuries. In the 16th century king Henry VIII had the table repainted in Tudor colours with himself in Arthur’s place, as we see it today. 

At its inception Layamon writes of a table big enough for 1600 knights and three hundred years later Malory has the number of seats as 150. However, the Winchester Round Table has seating for only 25 knights.

At some point in the development of the Arthurian legend the Round Table became associated with topographical features. Dating the use of these features is problematic; we can only be certain of a particular features name from its first appearance in the written record. However, it is fairly certain that these names were in common usage before they were recorded.

Some of the earliest Arthurian named landscape features appear well before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia (c.1138) and the onset of Continental Romance such as the 9th century History of the Britons (Nennius) which describes the footprint of Arthur's dog, and the tomb of his son Amr. On the tour through southwest England by the Canons of Laon in 1113 records local sites known as Arthur’s Seat and Arthur’s Oven were pointed out to the visitors as they entered “Arthur Country”.

This account alone demonstrates that tales of Arthur in the landscape were well known before the onset of Arthurian Romance following Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century chronicle. Recently historians have attempted to identify the site of Roman amphitheatres such as at Caer Leon and Chester as the Round Table, arguing that the feature would need to be of such a size to accommodate the numbers mentioned by the early chroniclers.

Yet, the Round Table as a late addition to the legend, is found in several landscape features such as the possible Neolithic henge monument at Eamont Bridge, Penrith, and hill forts such as Bwrdd Arthur (Arthur’s Table) in Clwyd and Anglesey.

Bwrdd Arthur
Situated between the village of Llanddona and the coast is Bwrdd Arthur (Arthur’s Table), the site of an Iron Age hill fort on the Welsh island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) overlooking Red Wharf Bay. The natural defences of the flat topped hill at 164 metre (538ft) elevation were enhanced by a drystone wall of large limestone boulders with two entrances to the south and west. Roman artefacts dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries have been found on the hill indicating continued usage. It is understandable how the exposed limestone pavement covering the plateau could present the impression of a huge round table to the imaginative mind that could easily have been the meeting place for a multitude of Arthur’s gigantic knights.

Bwrdd Arthur (Gwynedd Archaeological Trust)

On the western slope lies the small now deserted church of Llanfihangel Din Sulwy, St Michael’s. There is a well here just outside the church gate but there is no information to support suggestions that it was once sacred, although we should not dismiss the possibility that it could be a lost St Michael’s Well, popular across northern Wales.

On the side of the hill at Red Wharf Bay is Llanddona beach, claimed by local legend as the place the Llanddona witches landed. No one knows where they came from, cast adrift in a small boat without rudder or paddles.

In the 19th century five Viking silver arm-rings of Hiberno-Norse type were found near Dinorben quarry below Bwrdd Arthur. These arm-rings from Red Wharf Bay are seen in a similar context to the Cuerdale hoard, Lancashire; both have been associated with the expulsion of the Vikings from Dublin in 902/903. 

Intriguing as this local information may be, there is no evidence of occupation at Bwrdd Arthur beyond the Roman Era making any association with a King Arthur who fought Anglo Saxons in the Dark Ages extremely doubtful. Indeed the association of the hill fort with Arthur seems late, very late. 

The Welsh antiquarian Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) writes of the hill fort in his Tour of Wales, published 1781. Pennant suggests that the true name of the hill known as Bwrdd Arthur was probably Din or Dinas Sulwy, the fort of a local tribe, as identified by the church beneath the high hill known as Llanfihangel Din Sulwy. Further, there is no local folklore to support the Arthurian association.

Llanfihangel Din Sulwy

Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan sees this as “Arthurianisation of a non-Arthurian place name as an example of the persistent popularity of the Arthurian tradition in Wales” replacing the genuine native tradition.

The re-naming of topographic features with Arthurian names can be directly attributed to the persistent popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae in Wales, known as the Brut tradition, in which many of Geoffrey’s misnomers were corrected by Welsh writers.

Yet belief in the authenticity of British history and Arthur as conqueror of Europe was in decline in the 15th century following Polydore Virgil’s denouncement of Geoffrey’s Historia and then followed by Hector Beocce rejecting claims that Arthur had ever conquered Scotland.

In the 16th century John Leland and William Camden both recorded sites with Arthurian associations in their respective itineraries. However, their guarded approach, particularly by Camden, led the Welsh doctor Sion Dafydd Rhys to produce a work in defence of British history according to Geoffrey. Rhys wrote of the giants of Wales and many of them killed by who else but Arthur.

In 1538 Leland recorded a monument in Denbighshire known as the "Round Table" that “…. is in the parish of Lansannan, in the side of a strong hill, a place where there be twenty-four holes, or places, in a roundel, for men to sit in…”. By the start of the 17th century local traditions had replaced the English name with the Welsh form "Bwrdd Arthur".

Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709) clearly realised the importance of recording local traditions, but sadly many of his manuscripts are now lost. In 1693 when he was asked to contribute to the latest revision of Camden’s Britannia he took a trip to Wales and added further Arthurian associations as told by the local people. One such monument was the Neolithic cromlech so named Bwrdd Arthur (alt. Gwal y Filiast) near Llandboidy in Carmenthenshire. 

Bwrdd Arthur: Gwal y Filiast

Lhuyd showed that the name Coetan Arthur (Arthur’s Quoit) was the most common name for megalithic sites associated with Arthur but with the earliest instance not recorded until 1547. Lhuyd determined that the name Coetan Arthur was used as a generic term for any large flat stone rather than a particular monument type. Yet he could not find any local traditions for an Arthurian connection at many of these sites. Indeed, the popular tradition of Arthur removing a pebble from his shoe and flinging it across the countryside to form a cromlech where it landed is not recorded until the early 19th century.

Interest in the Arthurian legend waned in the 18th century as shown by the marked drop in sites noted by the antiquarian Lewis Morris (Celtic Remains, 1757; published 1878), however he was the first to record a square earthwork known as Llys Arthur (Arthur’s Palace) in Ceredigion in 1748. This rectangular enclosure likely originated as a Roman camp, and was known locally as Cloddiau Llys, first recorded in 1574.

And finally, as late as the early 20th century another cromlech known as Bwrdd Arthur (Alt. Twlc y Filiast) at Llangynog  appeared for the first time in the inventory of the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales for Carmarthenshire, 1917. Once again we find the earlier place name replaced by an Arthurian name with no local tradition to support the association. Several Welsh cromlechs bear names associated with The Lair of the Greyhound Bitch, such as Twlc y Filiast or Gwal y Filiast, but the origin of this tale has also been lost. 

There is ample evidence of Arthurian titles replacing the original name of these ancient Welsh monuments; no doubt Welsh tourism benefited from these Arthurian associations, the numbers recorded in the inventories of the antiquarians reflected in the periodic peaks and troughs of the popularity of the Arthurian legend. 

Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, Narratives and Non-Narratives: Aspects of Welsh Arthurian Tradition, in Arthurian Literature XXI: Celtic Arthurian Material, Boydell & Brewer, 2004, pp.115-136.
Scott Lloyd, Arthurian Place-Names of Wales, in Arthur in the Celtic Languages, UWP, 2019, pp.231-244.

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Friday 13 November 2020

Vikings: Return to Weymouth

Concerns had been voiced about the impact the construction of the new relief road from Weymouth to Portland would have on Ridgeway Hill, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in Dorset, England. As ever, the protests failed to stop the cutting of the new road through Ridgeway Hill but nobody could have foreseen the discovery about to be unearthed by the road builders.

The relief road would roughly follow the line of an old Roman road that ran from a small port at what is now Weymouth to Dorchester (Roman Durnovaria), passing close by the Iron Age hill fort of Maiden Castle. The new road was designed to reduce traffic congestion between the A354 and the A353 routes from Weymouth to Dorchester prior to sailing events coming to Portland for the 2012 Olympic Games. 

In June 2009 a mechanical digger uncovered an old quarry pit on the Ridgeway Hill. Human bones were observed and construction work stopped while the archaeologists were called in. This was at first not surprising as the early excavations on the site in 2008 revealed one of the main themes of the Ridgeway was its use as a burial site from prehistoric times. But on this occasion the digger had hit the edge of a pit containing around 50 skeletons, all had been decapitated, their bodies thrown into an old quarry pit with their heads piled up to one side.

The remains were all male with the overwhelming majority aged from their late teens to about 25-years-old, with just a small number of older men. Most of the skulls show evidence of multiple blows to the vertebrae, jawbones and skulls with a large, very sharp weapon such as a sword. Splinters of bone indicate the execution took place at the pit. The lack of any other finds with the skeletons suggests that the men were probably stripped naked either before being killed or before being buried because there was no evidence of clothing, such as buckles, pins or toggles. Without doubt this was the site of a mass execution.

The bodies showed no obvious battle wounds indicating that the men were captives who were more than likely executed at the same time, all decapitated with a very sharp weapon, most probably a sword. But it was not a straight one strike and head off; the bodies seem to have all been hacked around the head and jaw, on one the collarbone has been sliced through. It would appear to have been a rather messy mass execution with several strikes of the blade required to complete the decapitation. One man had his hands sliced through, he may have been trying to fend off the sword blow as he was being executed. The location is typical of a Saxon execution site, on a main road and parish boundary and close to prehistoric barrows. There were more bodies than heads, the final count revealed a maximum number of 52 headless bodies and 47 skulls. It is thought some heads were taken away as trophies or mounted on stakes along the Ridgeway.

Results of analysis of teeth from 10 of the men, released in March 2010, revealed they had grown up in countries with a colder climate than Britain's. Isotopes in the men's teeth also show they had eaten a high protein diet, comparable with known sites in Sweden, these men almost certainly originated in Scandinavia.

Initial radio-carbon dating returned a date between AD 910 and AD 1030, the classic Viking period, which fuelled the theory that this was a group of Vikings landing on the coast, coming inland to raid, and perhaps being caught by the local population. This is supported by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle which records Viking pirates raiding along the south coast in the 980’s.

St Brice’s Day Massacre
Further analysis of these results has now narrowed the probable date range down to between 970 and 1025 AD which has led to the suggestion that the Ridgeway Hill mass grave could be evidence of the conflict between Saxons and Viking settlers that took place during the reign of the Saxon King Ethelred the Unready, or the Ill-Advised, 978 to 1016 AD. 

Æthelred had paid tribute, or Danegeld, effectively a tax to the Danish King, from 991 in order to prevent the country from being ravaged by Viking raiders. However, on St Brice’s Day 13th November 1002 Æthelred ordered the death of 'all the Danish men who were among the English race'. 

Historians generally regard the St Brice’s Day massacre as a reaction of a people who had been continually harassed and pillaged for over a decade by the Northmen. Yet it seems it was far from a full scale attack on Viking settlers with little evidence of a mass slaughter. Indeed, the pent up anger of the Saxons does not appear to have been directed toward the inhabitants of the Danelaw where the Danes would have been too strong and was probably confined to frontier towns such as Oxford, and larger towns with small Danish communities. 

This view seems to be upheld by the findings of the excavation during 2008 at St John's College, Oxford. Prior to commencing construction work of new student accommodation at the Oxford University college archaeologists were summoned to investigate the site in January 2008. Following  just a few hours of digging the archaeologists discovered the remains of a Late Neolithic earthwork enclosure, or henge, close to the north-south road. 

The skeletons of between 34 and 38 young men, aged 16 to 25, were found disrespectfully dumped in the henge ditch. They were more robust and taller than average, some bearing older scars indicative that they were professional warriors and all initially thought to be Danes killed during the St Brice's Day Massacre. The severity of the wounds suggests the young Viking men were brutally slaughtered, the skeletons showing evidence that each individual was stabbed many times shortly before, and probably after, death. 

There is also evidence of charring on some of the skeletons, showing they may have been exposed to burning before burial and thrown into the makeshift grave of the henge ditch. The evidence of knife wounds and the burning of the bodies is consistent with the documented account of the St Brice's Day Massacre at St Frideswide’s Church, Oxford, where terrified Danish families broke into the church for sanctuary. The church was burned down by the local people and presumably the Danes with it.

The date range and isotopic analysis of some the individuals found in the mass burial site at St John’s College, Oxford, suggests similar origins to the Weymouth Viking group which indicates these were raiders rather than settled Danes. We should therefore also consider the Weymouth Vikings in the context of the St Brice’s Day massacre.

Gunnhild, the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, son of the powerful Viking king Harald “Blåtand” (Bluetooth), was said to be among the Danes murdered at Oxford. He sought retribution the following summer by sacking Exeter and increasing the Viking onslaught on Wessex until by the time of the death of Æthelred in 1016 nearly all England was ruled by Cnut, the son of Sweyn Forkbeard.

Some of the finds from the Weymouth Viking group were displayed at the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum in 2014. One strange exhibit from the massacre on Ridgeway Hill was a skull displaying teeth that had been deliberately filed with horizontal grooves carved into two of his front teeth. 

The purpose of this practice is unknown but several similar instances have been recorded from contemporary burials in Scandinavia in 24 men dating between AD 800–1050. This dental practice was first noted in 2005 and caused much speculation ever since; however, it seems likely it was to identify a certain type of warrior. The filed teeth from the Weymouth skull is the only known example of this practice found in England. It seems this individual was someone significant. This is supported by the fact that the skull was matched to the body at the bottom of the pit, indicating he was first to be executed.

It has long been thought that Harald Bluetooth was so named as he would have had a discoloured tooth that had simply gone rotten. However, it has been suggested that these grooved teeth may have been deliberately filed to hold coloured pigment, which would have been visible when he screamed battle orders and provides a believable explanation for Harald’s epithet. Although little understood, this rare dental marking technique appears to be related to warfare indicating the Weymouth skull belonged to a battle leader, possibly of Royal blood.

For the full story of the Weymouth Vikings see: A Viking Massacre in Mike Pitts, Digging Up Britain, Thames and Hudson, 2019, pp.11-35.

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Saturday 31 October 2020

A Werewolf's Tale

 Halloween Blue Moon
The moon will be full tonight on Halloween, the last night of October. This is a rare occurrence only witnessed once every19 years or so, owing to the Lunar cycle; the last Halloween full moon took place back in 2001 and the next will be in 2039.

Tonight's full moon will be the second of the month of October 2020 (the first occurred on 1st October) making the Halloween full moon also a Blue Moon. The late October full moon is also known as a Hunter's Moon, the next full moon following the Harvest Moon which, this year, took place on 1st October, leading many to refer to tonight's full moon as Hunter's Blue Moon on Halloween

Halloween or Hallowe'en (All Hallows' evening) is celebrated every year on 31st October. The tradition is said to have originated with the ancient Celtic fire festival of Samhain. With the harvest gathered this day marked the end of summer and the onset of the dark half of the year when animals were slaughtered to provide meat for the winter months. However, we know from cross-quarter day (mid-way between equinox and solstice) solar alignments at some megalithic passage tombs in Ireland (such as Loughcrew cairn L) that the significance of this point in the calendar is is indeed ancient. 

Samhain was a celebration of the dead and seen as the night when the veil between this world and the next was breached by the spirits of departed ancestors. In can be no coincidence that the following day became a Holy day in the Christian calendar to counter this night of pagan spiritual activity.

Pope Gregory III designated 1st November as a day to honour all the saints back in the 8th century. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween and began to incorporate some of the traditions of Samhain. In modern times Halloween has evolved into a day of spooky activities like trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns and gatherings at fire festivals.

Exceptionally, this year the full moon falls on the night of Halloween. And of course the full moon is associated with the werewolf. So for Halloween here is an Arthurian werewolf tale. Parts of the story are very similar to that found in the anonymous 12th-century Breton lai Melion and Le lai du Bisclavret by Marie de France, which demonstrates the persistence of the man-beast myth though the ages.

Arthur and the Werewolf
The tale of Arthur and Gorlagon begins with a banquet at Arthur’s court on Pentecost, where the king impulsively kisses his Queen leaving her rather shocked at his inappropriate behaviour. She accuses Arthur of never having understood the heart or mind of a woman. He sets off on a quest, vowing not to taste food or drink until he finds understanding.

On his journey Arthur encounters three kings. On visiting the first two he breaks his vow and joins them for dinner and of course learns nothing. When he arrives at the third king, named Gorlagon, Arthur refuses food and drink although repeatedly tested. In response to Arthur’s questions about understanding women, Gorlagon tells him a tale about a king whose queen tricks him into revealing his secret.

The story concerns an unnamed king who has a tree in his garden that was planted on the day of his birth. The story goes that if one cuts down the tree and touch the king with its branch, saying the words “be a wolf, have the mind of a wolf” then the king will turn into a wolf. 

The queen has a lover and learns the secret of the tree and uses it to dispose of her husband, the king, by turning him into a werewolf so she can reign with her lover. The queen having touched her husband with the branch said “be a wolf”, but instead of then saying “have the mind of a wolf" she said “have the mind of a man” and consequently the king transformed into a wolf in body but retained the reasoning and intelligence of a man.

The werewolf lived in the forest doing much damage, and his queen married her lover. The wolf failed to avenge himself and shelters with a foreign king who he finally wins over, becoming his faithful servant, sleeping in his bedchamber. At this point the story of Gorlagon then follows the legend of St Guinefort, the dog saint.

The king recognises his goodness and human intelligence, and restores him to his manhood and monarch of his kingdom. The king's men follow him back to his own country and learn from the people the truth about the reigning queen and king. The queen’s lover is condemned to death but the queen’s life is spared. 

When Gorlagon has finished telling his tale he tells Arthur that he has now learned the mind and nature of a woman. Arthur asks who is the woman sitting opposite him who has spent the time kissing a severed head spattered in blood in a dish at the table. Gorlagon reveals that she is the queen of his tale who betrayed her husband and the head is that of her lover; and he himself was her werewolf husband. Her punishment is to have the severed head constantly before her and to kiss it every time Gorlagon kisses the wife he has married in her place. 

Arthur returns to his court full of wonder.

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Monday 26 October 2020

King Arthur: Man or Myth

“Perhaps a tomb will be uncovered with an engraved cross that can be dated to the early sixth century. Maybe a stone, embedded in an old church or castle , its face hidden from view. The Latin or Ogham inscription will read ‘Arthur, dux bellorum, fought here and won in the year of Christ…’.”

So writes Tony Sullivan as he concludes in his book King Arthur: Man or Myth (Pen & Sword, 2020) that the only way we will ever know for certain if Arthur actually existed is the discovery of some solid evidence. That evidence is currently lacking, leaving many authors the freedom to construct fanciful theories of Arthur’s battles and his realm.

Here Sullivan reviews all the available evidence in chronological order in an effort to reconcile the sources from Gildas, Bede, the Historia Brittonum to Geoffrey of Monmouth to produce a best fit narrative. The early chapters set the scene for Arthur’s time; Roman Britain and the End of the West. Moving through the contemporary sources, he discusses the archaeological evidence (or lack of), timelines, through to the Saints Lives and Geoffrey of Monmouth from the 12th century. After discussing the French Romances Sullivan looks at the Brittany Connection, before examining the genealogies and the etymology of the name “Arthur”.

Along the way he discusses the various theories that have been produced claiming to have discovered the true identity of King Arthur without showing any bias towards any particular given theory.

In the introduction Sullivan tells us that he sets out to examine two things that are often neglected. Firstly, the historical discrepancies concerning the Anglo Saxon arrival; the lack of archaeological evidence for an invasion and the ambiguous genetic evidence contrasting with the literary evidence. He highlights the contradictions between the Gallic Chronicle, Gildas and Bede concerning the dates of the alleged events. Secondly, Sullivan attempts to put all the literary sources alongside each other and address the contradictions and inconsistencies to be found in the Arthurian stories. In doing so the author explores the differences in the timeline of events suggested by these primary sources.

Sullivan determines that the first mention of Arthur places him sometime after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons but before they became the dominant political force of much of what became England, the so-called "Dark Age" period between AD 450-550. This is the Arthur recorded in the 9th century Historia Brittonum who fought twelve battles against the Saxons, culminating in the victory of the Britons at Badon Hill.

Here Sullivan’s work excels, taking a neutral stance, he spends many pages considering the Anglo Saxon advent. He cautiously puts faith in the Gallic Chronicle entries for Saxon incursions which could only have related to southern England.

In examining the sources of the Western Roman Empire he concludes that it is clear that in the whole period there is not one mention of an Arthur. The implication of course is that the King did not exist; the burden of proof does not lie on the historians to prove the existence of imaginary figures he writes.

But perhaps at times Sullivan appears too neutral, particularly on the chapter on genealogies which is overloaded with conjecture and I found my concentration started to drift. Yet this is forced on the author as Arthur does not appear in any contemporary genealogies and we are left to guess the best fit. However, before the end of this chapter I was crying out for the author to get off the fence and declare his preference; which he finally does, without presenting any wild theory, revealing his hunch for who Arthur was, if he existed.

In sifting through this evidence Sullivan sits firmly on the fence and discusses all options, which makes this an important book as a starting point for anyone coming to the Arthurian legend for the first time. A newcomer reading for example King Arthur: The True Story by Phillips and Keatman (Century, 1992) as an entry to the subject would be seriously misled by their concept of the Arthurian story. And this sadly is the situation with the Arthurian story today; everyone has their pet theory, encouraged by the publishers, and the vagueness of the sources allows much freedom of manipulation to produce a pseudo-historical reconstruction of one’s choice, regardless of accuracy; in other words, today Arthur can be anyone you want.

For anyone setting out on the Arthurian journey today, start with the primary sources, read good translations of Gildas, Bede and the Historia Brittonum and form your own opinion; do not be misled by the reconstructions of others. And certainly do not be misled by the suspect reviews on Amazon that award five stars to any garbled theory. Keep an open mind and read Tony Sullivan first.

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