Saturday 11 July 2020

The Battle of Mount Badon

Ambrosius, Arthur and the Defence of Britain  
by Alistair Hall 
Raven Fell Limited, 2019. (Kindle Edition). 

Having a passionate interest in Arthur since childhood, some 50 years ago, author Alistair Hall set off on a historical detective trail with the aim of solving one of the greatest British historical puzzles; was King Arthur simply a legend or did he actually exist?

Alistair is convinced that Arthur was real and in his book The Battle of Mount Badon: Ambrosius, Arthur and the Defence of Britain he aims to prove it.

The front cover illustration appears to be Artorius (Clive Owen) from the awful 2004 film King Arthur directed by Antoine Fuqua, starring Owen and Keira Knightly.

We know this film was inspired by the theory, currently pushed by Linda Malcor and John Matthews the “historical advisors” to the film, that the origin of the Arthurian legend can be found in Lucius Artorius Castus a Roman officer stationed in Britain in the 2nd century apparently in command of a troop of Sarmatian cavalry, a theory rejected by most Arthurians as utter bollocks; which seems odd why the author would choose this as his book cover to entice us in?

Why the author would chose to associate his book with this film which gave a dreadful reinterpretation of Arthur as the Roman officer is not an encouraging start.

Alastair Hall tells us that in the year 2000 he began to believe that he had identified a number of locations for King Arthur’s battles. He held back for another 20 years before putting pen to paper.

Following a long discussion on the ending of Roman Britain, the centrepiece of the book is the history of Britain 430 to 470 in which Hall asserts his claim to have discovered the true identity of Arthur, but he also rewrites history and provides a new structure and chronology. But he concedes that in reality this book is about the outcome of more complex events that occurred a century before; the ending of Roman Britain.

The author's claim to prove the existence of Arthur is a bold one indeed, and his forensic research, as he calls it, suggests that the received history of the 5th century is incorrectly dated by as much as a generation since these events occurred in the North and followed the Roman evacuation. The majority of historians date the Battle of Mount Badon, accepted as a real event recorded by Gildas and Bede, to within ten years either side of 500 AD. In this book Hall moves the date of Badon back by a generation to fit his revised chronology.

He also tampers with the accepted geography to relocate the traditional landing site of Hengist and Horsa from Kent to 250 miles further north to the Humber, associating Vortimer’s last battle with Arthur’s first even though they are recorded as separate events in the Historia Brittonum. The other eleven battles of the Historia Brittonum, the Arthurian campaign, immediately follow occurring mainly, Hall argues, in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire culminating in the battle of Mount Badon at Bardon Hill in c.469.

Rising up from the Vale of the Trent, Bardon Hill dominates a region known as Charnwood Forest and the M1 road passes close by its summit, at 912 feet, the highest point on this motorway. Hall admits he was attracted to this hill as the site of Arthur's greatest battle simply because of the similarity of its name to Mount Badon. Sadly the heart of this hill has been ripped out and forms a massive quarry, the high quality granite used for many miles of road building. Yet, there is no more than a late legend to link Bardon Hill with the site of Arthur’s greatest victory.

Hall claims that through the centuries the story of the early Anglo-Saxon rebellion  and war has been misunderstood and misplaced. Bede recounted a tradition that the mythical progenitors of the Jutes,  Hengist and Horsa, landed in Kent but Hall claims that they were never that far south, but in fact on the east coast of England further north in Lincolnshire.

Hall identifies Arthur as Arthwys of the Pennines, son of Mor, and accordingly locates him in Elmet and as a result of his research claims that the historicity of the Dux Bellorum will no longer be in doubt.

Unfortunately the author has been influenced by tired old sources, Britannia: A History of Roman Britain by Sheppard Frere and Roman Britain and the English Settlements by R. G. Collingwood and J. N. L. Myers. Both now outdated.

And it's never a good sign when you see The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 by John Morris listed among the author's sources. Unfortunately the image of post-Roman Britain constructed by Morris has stuck with so many self-styled historical detectives who seek to identify Arthur’s battle sites fighting back the Anglo Saxon onslaught from the east. Modern studies of the English is moving away from the “slash and burn” rhetoric of Gildas, a model that influenced all later writers for centuries.

I didn't dislike this book but it brings nothing new to the Arthurian debate; the usual investigation into identifying the battle sites which typically commences with the ending of Roman Britain, an examination of the sources, with a typically adjusted chronology and relocated geography, on this ocassion centred around Lincoln, Doncaster and Derby, to suit the author's argument. Camboglanna is the site of the strife of Camlann, surprisingly outside the author's own locality. I was certainly not convinced by the author’s claims, he fails to present an assertive argument that Arthwys was Arthur; you need more than just a hunch that you’ve identified the real person.

After making such a grand entrance on the front cover, Artorius is not mentioned in the text at all.

At £25 for a copy, and only available from the publisher plus £3.50 delivery, this is not a cheap book. This will seriously limit the books distribution. Fortunately I downloaded a Kindle edition at a reduced price of £2.99 from Amazon.

[Read during lockdown 2020]

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Sunday 5 July 2020

Staffordshire Hoard: The Book of the Treasure

Eleven years ago today on 5th July 2009 local metal-detector Terry Herbert started to unearth some gold objects in a recently ploughed field near Hammerwich, near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Over the next few days he uncovered over two hundred gold objects. The discovery of the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found had begun.

Herbert contacted the Staffordshire and West Midlands Portable Antiquities Scheme and Fred Johnson, landowner, gave permission for an excavation to search for more items. Finally 4,600 fragments were found consisting of more than 600 significant objects of mainly war gear, totalling around 4 kilos of gold, 1.7 kilos of silver and thousands of cloisonné garnets; there is nothing comparable in terms of content and quantity anywhere in the UK or Europe.

This historic find was called the Staffordshire Hoard and went on display at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The discovery captured the public imagination and many of us stood in huge queues to see exhibitions of the muddy Anglo Saxon gold, before the conservators began work cleaning the finds before the difficult task began of identifying these thousands of objects which would take several years to complete.

It was announced in December 2012 that another 91 items of gold and silver metalwork had been found in the same field at Hammerwich where the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered. 81 of these items were declared treasure by the coroner.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery jointly purchased The Staffordshire Hoard for £3.285 million, where it is permanently on display with regular loans to historic Mercian sites at Tamworth Castle and Lichfield Cathedral.

Except for three religious objects, the Staffordshire Hoard is mainly composed of male war gear; 80% of the objects are decorative fittings from the hilts of swords or from their scabbards. It is estimated that over a hundred weapons are represented by these fittings.

About a third of the fragments in the Staffordshire Hoard come from a very high-status helmet, a very rare find; only a very small number have been found from this period, only five other reasonably-complete Anglo-Saxon helmets are known. Over a thousand pieces were reconstructed from the original Anglo Saxon helmet that had been cut into strips and buried with the Hoard. The detail and bold, crested design indicate that the Staffordshire Hoard helmet probably worn by an important owner.

Two reconstructions of the helmet were completed in 2018, nearly 10 years since the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered, by a team of specialist combining ancient craft techniques and modern technology. These two replica helmets can be seen on display in the museums in Birmingham and Stoke.

The Reconstructed Staffordshire Hoard helmets

It seems we will never know who buried the hoard and why; most people in Anglo-Saxon society would never have had access to such items. However, we do know the objects were worn by elite warriors, ranked among the upper classes of society. Their style suggests that most of the objects in the Hoard were crafted in different places over a long time period, between 550 - 650 AD, yet assembled and buried together between 650-675 AD in a remote area, just south of the Watling Street Roman road, barely 2 miles from the remains of the old Roman settlement at Letocetum (Wall, Staffordshire), in the heart of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.

The Welsh poem Marwnad Cynddylan (Lament for Cynddylan), a 7th century king of Powys, describes an otherwise unknown battle near Lichfield and alludes to Cynddylan’s host taking great booty. However, although the discovery of the buried gold has generated much interest in this poem, the context of the elegy in relation to the Staffordshire Hoard is yet to be determined; yet, intriguingly it is argued the poem originates from around the time of Cynddylan's death.

Anglo Saxon Treasure
Since its discovery we have awaited publication of the full story of the Staffordshire Hoard. Obviously an immense amount of work has been done since 2009 in cleaning, conservation and analysis. For example, who would have thought on discovery of those near 5,000 fragments that a third of them would comprise a rare Anglo Saxon helmet? Until recently the only literature available on the Staffordshire Hoard was a couple of booklets serving as exhibition souvenirs.

A 48 page booklet The Staffordshire Hoard by Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland was published by the British Museum shortly after the Hoard’s discovery in 2009. Then in 2014 West Midlands History published a 40 page booklet Beasts, Birds and Gods: Interpreting the Staffordshire Hoard by Chris Fern and George Speake providing tentative interpretations of the symbolism and iconography employed in the decoration of selective objects from the Hoard. Both of these slim booklets were produced to accompany the exhibitions.

Then in 2016 local man Robert Sharp, a guide at Lichfield Cathedral where a selection of objects from The Staffordshire Hoard are on display, published The Hoard and its History: Staffordshire's Secrets Revealed (Brewin Books, 2016) which tends to focus on the religious items of the Hoard and religious artwork from the 7th century onwards.

Now a new book published by the Society of Antiquaries of London tells the complete story of the Staffordshire Hoard in detail, from its discovery in Hammerwich to the reconstruction of the helmets. The Staffordshire Hoard: An Anglo-Saxon Treasure (2019) edited by Chris Fern, Tania Dickinson and Leslie Webster, containing over 600 pages written by a team of specialists in Anglo-Saxon archaeology and history, together with expert conservators, illustrated throughout with full-colour photographs, maps and explanatory drawings. But be warned this is a big book!

From the publisher:

“The Staffordshire Hoard: An Anglo-Saxon Treasure tells the story of the Staffordshire Hoard’s discovery and acquisition, and the six-year research project that pieced its fragments back together, identified its objects and explored their manufacture. Key chapters discuss the decoration and meaning of the Hoard’s intricate ornament, the techniques of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen, the religious and historical background, and hoarding practice in Britain and Europe, to place this most exceptional find in context. Finally, the text explores the impact that the find has had locally, nationally and internationally in the twenty-first century.”

Table of Contents:


Part One: The Hoard
Chapter 1. From discovery to acquisition
Chapter 2. Characterising the objects
Chapter 3. Workshop practice
Chapter 4. The lives of objects: wear, modification, repair and damage
Chapter 5. Styles of display and revelation Style and substance
Chapter 6. Date and origin Dating the Hoard

Part Two: The Broader Context
Chapter 7. The historical context: local, regional and national
Chapter 8. The archaeological context: matters of material and social significance
Chapter 9. Hoards and hoarding
Chapter 10. What does it mean?

Part Three: Catalogue and Guide to the Digital Component

>> The Staffordshire Hoard website

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Friday 3 July 2020

Arthur the God?

The legendary King Arthur has defied positive identification as a historical character despite the best efforts of legions of authors. Should we be looking elsewhere for him? There is no doubt that in the early Welsh tales Arthur belongs to a magical world of supernatural creatures and journeys to the Celtic Otherworld at will; does he have a place in the historical world at all?

This is the question that Richard Denham asks in his book Arthur: Shadow of a God (Blkdog Publishing, 2019), claiming to give “a fascinating overview of Britain’s lost hero and casts a light over an often-over-looked and somewhat inconvenient truth; Arthur was almost certainly not a man at all, but a god”.

Children of the Gods
I must admit I find the concept of Arthur as a god intriguing as, search as you will, there is very little evidence for a historical figure behind the legends. If Arthur was indeed a god we should expect to find him among the pantheon of Welsh gods such the Children of Llyr and the Children of Don. These deities feature in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi euhemerised as Christian Kings and Queens. The tales of the Four Branches clearly have their roots in much older fables but Arthur is notably absent.

However he does feature in the later Native British tales, such as Culhwch and Olwen (10th century?) and The Dream of Rhonabwy (12th century) included in the collection known as the Mabinogion, first compiled in the 18th century.

To scholars of the 19th century the Gaelic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill was seen as a historical figure fighting battles against foreign invaders. Yet, in early literature Fionn clearly belonged to the realm of mythology rather than to that of history.

There is now general agreement among scholars that Fionn was originally a pagan deity; indeed early references record Fionn as a descendant of Nuada Airgetlám of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the folk of the goddess Danu), deities of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland.

The early Fionn, like Arthur before Geoffrey of Monmouth, belongs to a mythical world; did Arthur, like Fionn, have a divine origin?

I was quite eager to read what Denham unearths in searching for “The untold mythical Roots of King Arthur”.

Mist and Shadows
In setting out to reveal the obscure Celtic origins of King Arthur Denham waste no time in getting to “one of the earliest” references to him, which, he claims, comes from the Roman Province of Dalmatia (p.7). Of course here he is referring to Lucius Artorius Castus a 2nd century Roman officer briefly stationed in Britain. But this no early reference, indeed the link to the legendary King Arthur was not suggested until the 20th century.

Denham swiftly dismisses the notion of a “Dalmatian Arthur” before examining a “Sarmatian Arthur” from which the Roman historian Dio Cassius records 5,500 Sarmatian heavy cavalry were sent to Britain in AD 175 by the emperor Marcus Aurelius and literally disappeared from the archaeological record. Denham then moves on to the “Nartian Arthur”; the Narts Sagas are claimed to have influenced the Arthurian mythology and the Grail stories. Denham is so far not impressed and I’m in agreement with him.

We then move on to the ancient king of Britain Arviragus identified as Arthur by J Whitehead (Guardians of the Grail, 1959) and then the Ufologist Brinsley le Poer Trench who claimed Arthur was a generic name for a series hereditary priests (Men Among Mankind, 1962).

He’s starting to loose me now but then the relevance of the inclusion of these characters becomes apparent when Denham asks as he winds up the Prologue; "does Arthur occur everywhere, by different names and different guises, because he is not human at all?"

This then presumably sets the tone for book which one expects to be an investigation of the various claimants to be the real Arthur, ultimately leading to the conclusion of the author's argument that Arthur is a God. And so the investigation begins.

Book I examines the Dark Ages the period following the Roman withdrawal from Britain and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. The is the classic Arthurian period in which our Hero is typically depicted as a Romano-British warlord. Denham toys with the idea of Arthur as a mercenary "like Vortigern's Hengist", who “transmogrified” over time into a king.

Denham claims many early texts refer to Arthur as a cavalry commander, which in the later Romances evolved into the Knights of the Round Table. What early texts? Denham does not reference any.

Then we're off to Armorica with Riothamus, another candidate for the legendary king before briefly examining Ambrosius Aurelianus and quoting John Morris (The Age of Arthur, 1973) who argued that what Ambrosius started [the Anglo-Saxon wars] Arthur finished.

The author briefly examines the Arthurian reference in the poem Y Gododdyn, suggesting that this Arthur was probably Artur mac Aedan of Dal Riada who died in battle with the Picts around 596.

Denham takes us through the Arthurian sources before coming to the conclusion that Arthur is an amalgamation of two gods; the horned god Cerunnos and Artio the bear goddess. No mention of any similarity with Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Arthur’s absence from the Four Branches.

Here he fails to present a persuasive argument for Arthurian links with these two deities before he departs on the next chapter, a round up of Arthurian sites. In this list he claims there are five ‘Arthur’s Quoits’ when in fact Chris Grooms lists over thirty just in Wales (The Giants of Wales: Cewri Cymru, Edwin Mellen, 1993). And this is the main problem with this book; there are a number of errors and inaccuracies which disappointingly shows the lack of research carried out on the subject:

p.6 "No doubt William of Malmesbury believed that Arthur's killing spree was accomplished with his mighty sword Excalibur".

Excalibur ultimately derives from the Welsh Caledfwlch, listed as Arthur’s sword in Culhwch and Olwen. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1136), Latinised the name of Arthur's sword as Caliburnus, perhaps derived from the Latin chalybs for "steel".

In the poem Conte du Graal (c.1180) Chretien de Troyes has Arthur present Gawain with the sword Escalibor. It is not until Malory, in the 15th century, that Arthur's sword is properly named as Excalibur and neither Malmesbury (died c.1143) or Geoffrey would not have known it by this name in their day.

Ok, so we all all know what the author means by Arthur’s sword, so what’s in a name, perhaps I’m just nit-picking and after all, we do all make mistakes, but this early inaccuracy sets the scene for the rest of the book and we rapidly loose confidence in the author’s argument:

p.20 "This is the Arthur of the Britons whom Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about in the early thirteenth century...." Geoffrey actually wrote his account around 1136 and died in the mid-12th century.

p.27 Denham claims many early texts refer to Arthur as a cavalry commander, which in later Romances evolved into the Knights of the Round Table. What early texts? Denham does not reveal what these are.

pp.46-7 He states that in Culhwch and Olwen, "Arthur and Bedivere survive Camlann" along with Sandar and Morvan. When in fact there are just three survivors of Camlann recorded in Culhwch; Sande, Morvan and Cynwal Sant.

p.82 Denham writes that the "whole area around Glastonbury is criss-crossed with leylines and chalk carvings that echo signs of the zodiac in the sky overhead." Leylines maybe, but the Glastonbury zodiac is not made up of chalk figures; according to Emma Maltwood it consists of a series of mounds, paths, streams and rivers that come together to form terrestrial representations of the 12 horoscope constellations. No chalk.

p.150 lists the burial chamber Cors-y-Gedol at Talybont in Gwynedd as one of five "Arthur's Quoits littered all over Britain." Chris Grooms lists over thirty in Wales alone as stated above.

p.197 At the big reveal Denham then hints at the "Belgic god Camulos ....  a war god with the similarity of name with both Camelot and Camlann cannot be a coincidence" before claiming that "we believe" the once and future king is actually a mix of two Celtic gods; Cernunnos, the god of the hunt, and Artio, the bear goddess.

Cernunnos, the god of the hunt and of the forest, Denham associates with Arthur because "the hunt occupies so much Arthurian legend in the Welsh texts" (in Culhwch and Olwen yes) and in France the Wild Hunt is known as la Chasse Artu (Arthur's Hunt) and "Arthur himself is also known as Herne the Hunter"  (where?). I can't see the relationship myself, however, carry out your own research into Cernunnos and Herne the Hunter and explore the associations with King Arthur.

The Goddess Artio is depicted in the Muri statuette group now displayed in the Historisches Museum in Bern, Switzerland. The bronze statue shows a large bear facing a woman, perhaps the goddess in human form? The woman, or goddess, is holding a bowl of fruit in her lap, perhaps feeding the bear as a Mother of Plenty. It would appear the attributes of Artio were later absorbed into the hunter goddess Diana.

The association with Arthur appears to be based solely on the Proto-Celtic *arto which has been argued for the source of the name. However, there the similarity ends and there are no links between the goddess Artio and the Arthurian legend.

And then we get the odd notion put forward by Denham that the image that Nennius says Arthur carried on his shoulder at his eighth battle was not an image of Saint Mary at all but more probably a bearskin (p.200) without qualifying his argument. Then, on the same page, he claims that the bear goddess Artio is also linked with horses which he says brings us back to "Arthur's cavalry" and the knights of the Round Table. I’m now seeing a big grizzly bear riding a horse.

Then he claims that Ambrosius Aurelianus, Lucius Artorius Castus, Vortigern and "even the shadowy Hengist" are "all fifth and sixth century figures" (P.202). Last time I looked Lucius Artorius Castus was a 2nd century Roman officer.

We can excuse one or two errors but this account has many, which betrays how poorly researched this investigation in to the world of Arthur has been. Ultimately Denham fails in his quest to present a convincing argument for his identification of Arthur as a combination of Cernunnos and Artio, or indeed a deity at all. I really wanted to like this book, I was hoping it would bring something new to the Arthurian debate, and a negative review is never pleasant but at least it is honest.

Richard Denham is the co-author of the popular historical fiction series 'Britannia'. 

[Read during lockdown 2020]

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