Plotting Camlan: Letters from the Dead
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?
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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