Sunday 16 February 2020

The Lost Story of Camlan

“Many a streaming tear coursing down cheeks, many a blood-stained side gashed, many a widow bewailing him, many a fatherless son, many a ruined homestead in the track of conflagration, many an anguished cry as after Camlan...” - Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Goch (fl.1280), elegy for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales.

Plotting Camlan: Letters from the Dead

Geoffrey’s Story
Allusions to Arthur’s last battle at Camlan can be found in the work of the Welsh poets from Y Cynfeirdd, continuing through Y Gogynfeirdd, to Cywyddwyr; a thousand year period commencing in the mid-6th century. Evidently the tradition of Camlan had a remarkable longevity in Welsh literature but, frustratingly, only incomplete references have survived; we never find a full account of the battle or the reason for the conflict. Does this suggest that the Welsh literati were aware of the full account of the battle that brought down the Dux Bellorum without need for further expansion; or was there a lost saga of Camlan long forgotten in the mists of time?

The first full account of the battle of Camlan, or “Camblam” as the author calls it, is found in the 12th century work of Geoffrey of Monmouth known as Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136). Geoffrey claims to have taken his story from a very ancient book in the British tongue given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, which he translated into the Latin.

In Geoffrey’s account King Arthur returns to Britain from his campaign in Europe in response to Mordred usurpation of the throne and abduction of Arthur’s Queen, Gwenhwyfar (Geoffrey’s “Ganhumara”, later known as “Guinevere” in the Romances). In Geoffrey account Gwenhwyfar does not resist Mordred and appears to go with him willingly. On his return to Britain Arthur lands at Richborough in Kent where his army eventually gets ashore after much fighting with Mordred’s forces. Mordred withdraws his army to Winchester. When Arthur’s host marches on Winchester Mordred takes flight to Cornwall and Gwenhwyfar flees from York to the City of the Legions (Caerleon) and joins the order of the nuns there at the church of St Julius the Martyr.

The forces of Arthur and Mordred meet for the final conflict on the River Camblam, identified by historians as Camelford on the river Camel. Geoffrey is the first to identify this Cornish location as the site of Camlan. In his study of Geoffrey’s work (The Legendary History of Britain, California, 1950) JSP Tatlock argues that Geoffrey has simply taken the name “Guieith Camlann” from the Annalaes Cambriae, and applied it to the location to the River Camel in Cornwall, barely a stone’s throw from Tintagel, the place, he identifies, of Arthur’s conception; thus, Geoffrey’s account of Arthur’s story, from birth to death, has turned full circle.

Does this stone,  lying on the bank of the
River Camel  at Slaughterbridge,
mark the site of the battle of Camlan?
Mordred has a force of 60,000 men for the final battle according to Geoffrey, which he split into six divisions, in each he placed six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six armed soldiers, the rest he placed in his own division. Meanwhile, Arthur divided his men into nine divisions. Battle commenced then after much of the day fighting with heavy losses on both sides, Arthur, with a single division of six thousand, six hundred and sixty six men charged for the squadron where Mordred was. After hacking their way through causing immense slaughter, Mordred was killed along with thousands of his men. The fighting continued until eventually Arthur was mortally wounded and carried off to the Isle of Avalon so that his wounds might be attended to. The crown of Britain passed to his cousin Constantine, the year 542.

But Arthur is not dead; Geoffrey reiterates this point in his later Life of Merlin, in which he states that Arthur is being healed of his wounds by Morgen and her sisters. It seems Geoffrey knew of tales of Arthur’s anticipated return; the “Breton Hope”. However, in the Brut, the Welsh version of the Historia regum Britanniae, Arthur is said to be buried in a hall on the island of Avalon.

The Sources of Legendary History
Geoffrey’s sources have been the subject of much debate and his claim of an ancient book is not taken seriously by modern scholars. It was even doubted by his contemporaries, who accused him of lying. He certainly had access to the works of Gildas, Bede and Nennius; the rest, filling in the gaps, is considered to be pure invention on Geoffrey’s part.

This presents two possibilities: Firstly, the allusions to the battle of Camlan found in Welsh literature from the 12th century onwards correspond to an independent source that Geoffrey also used; or secondly the medieval Welsh poets were influenced by, and followed, Geoffrey’s account.

To consider the first possibility first, we find tantalising glimpses of the battle of Camlan in early Welsh literature but lacking any specific detail.

The earliest extant and only account considered to be a historical record of Camlan is found in the 10th century Cambro-Latin chronicle, the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) for Year 537: “The strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell”.

The Stanzas of the Graves, or The Graves of the Warriors of Britain, (Englynion y Beddau) records the resting places of legendary characters from Welsh literature. As the text is folkloric in nature it is not considered a reliable historical resource. However, recorded in several manuscripts, the earliest collection is found in the Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin), compiled in the 13th century. Scholars of Welsh orthography argue that the majority of the englynion are much older than the manuscript and date to the 9th- or 10th-century. Of the 73 stanzas found in the Black Book three have Arthurian content mentioning Arthur's grave and the site of the battle of Camlan. Unfortunately the text fails to elaborate and reveals neither location.

The next mention of the battle of Camlan is in the 11th century tale Culhwch and Olwen in which we find a reference to Gwyn Hyfar (Hy-far = Irascible) steward of Cornwall and Devon, as one of the nine who plotted Camlan. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen also includes an embedded triad listing three men who escaped from Camlan; Morvran the son of Tegid, Sandde Bryd Angel, and Cynwyl Sant. Yet, oddly this Triad is completely absent of The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein). Again, no further information is given on the cause or location of the battle of Camlan.

In Culhwch and Olwen we also meet Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar for the first time in which she is listed along with his other possessions, sword, knife, etc. We also find Gwenhwyfach for the first time, identified as the sister of Gwenhwyfar. Yet, although the tale is conventionally dated to the 11th century it is not found in written form before the 14th century manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch and Red Book of Hergest. Simon Rodway has argued for a composition date from the second half of the 12th century (CMCS 49, 2005, and Arthur in the Celtic Languages, UWP, 2019), therefore we cannot securely state that the first appearance of Gwenhwyfar in Arthurian literature, as found in Culhwch and Olwen, is entirely independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

It must be noted that in these accounts, prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth, there is no suggestion of a love triangle between Mordred and Gwenhwyfar. Neither is Mordred described as a traitor, indeed he is noted as brave, good-natured man by the medieval Welsh poets.

Yet, on the other hand, Mordred is conspicuous by his absence from Arthur’s warband in his early adventures found 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 as noted above, 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. As later version of the Triads developed, as found in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest (14th century), they are both implicitly involved with Camlan.

In conclusion, although 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, none of these accounts elaborate on the cause 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 and we cannot be certain that their involvement with Camlan was directly the result of Geoffrey’s influence.

However, according to the accounts of Camlan contained within the Welsh legendary historical texts known as The Triads of the Island of Britain the cause of the battle was quite different but always involved Gwenhwyfar.

The Welsh poets:
Y Cynfeirdd (The Early Poets. 6th Century - 1100)
Y Gogynfeirdd (The Less Early Poets, c. 1100 – c. 1300)
Cywyddwyr (Poets of the Nobility, c. 1300 – c. 1650)

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Saturday 1 February 2020

St Brigid and the Blue Glass Bowl

St Brigid
Brigid personifies the remarkable survival of a pagan Goddess into the 21st century. Born in the mid-5th Century as daughter of a Druid she developed into a Goddess yet today, the 1st February, she is celebrated as Saint Brigid, patron to many including blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle farmers, held in such high esteem in Ireland She is second only to Saint Patrick. In the Celtic calendar it is Imbolc and marks the start of the light half of the year when days begins to lengthen and grow warmer. It is a favourite time of the year when nature awakes after the long dormant dark days of winter; bulbs are starting to come into flower, buds are ready to burst on trees and shrubs.

The night before, St Brigid's Eve, 31st January, corn dollies known as the Brideog (little Brigid) would be made by young girls and unmarried women, adorned with ribbons. They would all gather in one house and stay all night with the Brideog. The following day the Brideog would be carried through the neighbourhood, calling at house to house, where the girls would receive offerings such as food or coins. Households would leave a piece of cloth outside for Brigid to bless as she walked the earth. In the morning the cloths are brought inside and believed to possess powers of healing and protection recived from the Goddess. St Brigid Crosses would be manufactured from rushes and placed above the door on the outside of the house to provide protection from fire and evil.

We find Brigid sites predominantly in Ireland but also across the British Isles from the many churches dedicated to Her, but also ancient burial chambers such as the Bridestones on the Staffordshire-Cheshire border. But one of the most peculiar stories associated with a St Brigid site is at Bride’s Well near Glastonbury in Somerset.

This land between The River Brue and Wearyall is known as Beckery, granted to Glastonbury Abbey by the Saxon king Cenwealdh in 670AD. Debate continues to the origin of the name; it may be derived from the Old English name for ‘Bee-keeper’s Island’ (Beocere) or from the Gaelic for ‘Little Ireland’ (Becc-Eriu). The later explanation fits well with the story of St Brigid at Glastonbury a tradition that the Saint stayed at Beckery for a short period and left relics behind. A stone marks the site of Bride’s Well and  a gentle rise is named Bride’s Mound. 

Archaeological excavation has uncovered a Chapel at Beckery with evidence indicating a monastic community lived there. Arthurian legend claims King Arthur visited the chapel at Beckery after experiencing a recurring dream while staying at a nunnery on Wearyall. At the chapel he met the Virgin and Child, an encounter which led to the change of his coat of arms as described in the account of King Arthur’s eighth battle at Guinnion from the Historia Brittonum.

The Blue Bowl
However, the strangest story associated with Beckery is a mysterious blue glass bowl found in Bride’s Well, which some have described as the true Grail of Glastonbury.

Dr. John Arthur Goodchild qualified as a medical practitioner in 1873 and started his practice in Cannes, France. In 1877 Goodchild moved his practice to Bordighera in Italy. It is here he purchased a blue glass bowl and platter in 1885. He took these to a glass specialist at the British Museum in London who was puzzled by the techniques used in the manufacture and their origin but thought it was indeed very ancient. He took them to his father’s house at Hampstead and locked them away in a cupboard where they remained for the next ten years.

Goodchild had a strong interest in spirituality and religion and believed that the Divine was feminine and the West would witness a spiritual revival led a woman, or group of women. This was published in his book “The Light of the West” (1898).

A year earlier in 1897 Goodchild had a psychic experience while in Paris. He found himself paralysed, unable to move he heard a voice which informed him that Jesus had actually owned the bowl, still in his father’s cupboard. The voice told Goodchild to take the blue bowl to Bride’s Hill, Glastonbury, but not until after his father’s death. The objective was, he was told, for the bowl to pass into the possession of a woman when new spiritual truths were to be revealed.

Shortly after, on his return to Bordighera, Goodchild received news that his father had died. He returned to England in 1898. The platter he passed on a family in Italy but kept the bowl which he duly took to Glastonbury. He followed the instructions received in the vision and placed the blue glass bowl in a muddy pond at Glastonbury. This was a lost well near the rising ground at Beckery known today at Bride’s Mound. He returned to Hampstead and told no one of what he had done.

Beckery (

Goodchild journeyed back to the pond at Glastonbury every year between 1899-1906, except 1905, and was convinced the blue bowl was no longer there but never checked the location where he had hid it in a hollow under a rock. He stayed in the town trying to pick up on any local news of such a discovery. He visited the pond to find the spring there had a reputation as a healing well and visitors had tied pieces of material to the nearby trees and bushes containing prayers. He noticed one tied to a Holy Thorn tree there was from one Katherine “Kitty” Tudor Pole.

In August 1906 Goodchild experienced a vision of a sword floating in the eastern sky. He didn’t understand its meaning and simply made a note of it. Then in early September he experienced a vision of a cup suspended in the western sky. He felt compelled to send a drawing of the sword to his friend Wellesley Tudor Pole, brother of Kitty, in Bristol and simply asked that it be passed on to the two pilgrims who had recently visited the well. It is not clear how Goodchild knew about the "two pilgrims" but his information was correct.

He received no further communications from the voice he had heard in Paris and was not aware that other people were starting to receive psychic messages about the blue glass bowl.

In 1902 Wellesley Tudor Pole, a young man from Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, experienced visions while ill in which he saw himself as a monk at Glastonbury. Believing that a pre-Christian culture from Ireland had spread to Glastonbury he became convinced, around 1904, that he needed to move to Glastonbury believing he would find a sacred object. He believed that the discovery would require the assistance of three maidens.

Wellesley duly passed on Goodchild’s message to Janet and Christine Allen, friends of the Tudor Poles, who had recently been to Glastonbury. Later in September they visited Goodchild in Bath and revealed how their friend  Wellesley had received a psychic message saying that they should go to a well at Glastonbury and search the waters for something. They had actually visited Glastonbury some two or three weeks before this meeting with Goodchild, around the same time he had received his visions of the sword and cup.  On the occasion of their visit to Glastonbury Janet and Christine had searched the well at Beckery and found the blue bowl in the well at Bride’s Mound, Beckery, but sensing the great sacredness of the object they placed it back in the muddy waters. On returning to Bristol they told Wellesley what had happened.

Wellesley and Kitty visited Goodchild in Bath later that month, 29th September, and he explained the whole story of the blue glass bowl. On 1st October Kitty went to Beckery and removed the bowl from the well, and with Goodchild’s consent, took it to a shrine in her family home in Bristol. They were convinced that they had found the Holy Grail.

Today at Beckery a stone showing the cross of St Brigid marks the place where the blue bowl was found at Bride’s Well. The blue glass bowl is now held by the Trustees of Chalice Well at Glastonbury, a charity founded by Wellesley Tudor Pole in 1959.

Further reading:
Brian Wright, Brigid: Goddess, Druidess, Saint, The History Press, 2009.
Steve Blamires, The Little Book of the Great Enchantment, Skylight Press, 2013.
Patrick Benham, Avalonians, Gothic Image Publications, 2nd Edition, 2006.

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