Tuesday 15 September 2020

Arthur and the Kings of Britain

A Certain Very Ancient Book Part III

“In the mean time, the Trinobantes, almost the most powerful state of those parts, from which the young man, Mandubratius embracing the protection of Caesar had come to the continent of Gaul to [meet] him (whose father, Imanuentius, had possessed the sovereignty in that state, and had been killed by Cassivellaunus; he himself had escaped death by flight), send embassadors to Caesar, and promise that they will surrender themselves to him and perform his commands; they entreat him to protect Mandubratius from the violence of Cassivellaunus, and send to their state some one to preside over it, and possess the government. Caesar demands forty hostages from them, and corn for his army, and sends Mandubratius to them. They speedily performed the things demanded, and sent hostages to the number appointed, and the corn.” [The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, Book 5, Chapter 20]

Julius Caesar carried out his first expedition to Britain in late August 55 BC. It was not a large invasion force that did not venture beyond east Kent and in less than a month had returned to Gaul before the storms of the autumn set in. He returned in the summer of 54 BC with a much larger force that required 800 ships to ferry them across the Channel. 

Caesar's expeditions to Britain 55- 54 BC

Caesar’s two expeditions to Britain were part of his Gallic campaign to subdue the Celtic tribes of Gaul (a territory equating to modern France and Belgium) from 58 BC to 50 BC culminating in the decisive battle of Alésia, France, in 52 BC. Caesar’s commentary is recorded in De Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars). Yet, from his actions, its seems clear his intention was not a permanent occupation of Britain at this time.

Caesar claimed the purpose of the British expeditions was because the Belgic tribes across the Gallic Sea (The Channel) had assisted the Gauls in the Armorican rebellions of 57 and 56 BC. However, according to De Bello Gallico in his second expedition Caesar appears to have had a singular objective; to re-instate Mandubracius (Mandubratius) to the Trinobantes (Trinovantes).

Mandubracius, prince of the Trinovantes, an Iron Age tribe north of the Thames, equating to roughly modern Essex, had fled to Gaul the previous winter pleading for protection after Cassivellaunus, tribal chief of the neighbouring Catuvellauni tribe, that occupied territory north of the Thames roughly corresponding to modern day of Bedfordshire, part of Hertfordshire and southern Cambridgeshire, had killed his father, named Imanuentius by Caesar.

For two thousand years the site of Caesar’s landing place on his second expedition, somewhere in Kent in July 54 BC, was unknown. Now recent archaeological work by a team from University of Leicester led by Andrew Fitzpatrick ahead of the construction of the new East Kent Access road in south-east Thanet has revealed a large ditch at Ebbsfleet, near Richborough. At the bottom of the 5m wide and 2m deep ditch, enclosing an area at least 500m long north–south, was pottery dated to the 1st century BC and a Roman pilum,(javelin blade). 

The Roman pilum from Ebbsfleet

Although the enclosure is today about one kilometre from the sea, 2,000 years ago it would have been much nearer the seashore at Pegwell Bay. At this time Thanet was an island, cut off from mainland Kent by the Wantsum Channel. This raises the possibility that the ditch may be evidence of one of Caesar’s camps, maybe where some of the expedition party first dug in? Suggestively, the enclosure is very similar in size and shape to the Roman defensive features found at Alésia.

At the northern end of the excavation site evidence of an Iron Age village was found which appears to have been abandoned around this time, perhaps in reaction to the Roman landing, or perhaps a totally unrelated event.

At the second expedition, using Mandubracius’s local knowledge, Caesar’s army swiftly moved through Kent, across the Thames, avoiding the stakes set by Cassivellaunus, and into the territory of the Trinovantes and the oppidum of Camulodunum ("stronghold of Camulos"), modern Colchester, before the confrontation with Cassivellaunus, said to have taken place at Wheathampstead (Hertfordshire). The huge prehistoric ditch known as Devil’s Dyke appears to be one side of the massive earthworks defences enclosing the stronghold of the Catuvellauni. A smaller ditch, known as The Slad, is thought to form the eastern side of the enclosure. Sir Mortimer Wheeler claimed the Devil’s Dyke is where Julius Caesar defeated Cassivellaunus in 54 BC.

“While these things are going forward in those places, Cassivellaunus sends messengers into Kent, which, we have observed above, is on the sea, over which districts four several kings reigned, Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus and Segonax, and commands them to collect all their forces, and unexpectedly assail and storm the naval camp. When they had come to the camp, our men, after making a sally, slaying many of their men, and also capturing a distinguished leader named Lugotorix, brought back their own men in safety. Cassivellaunus, when this battle was reported to him as so many losses had been sustained, and his territories laid waste, being alarmed most of all by the desertion of the states, sends embassadors to Caesar [to treat] about a surrender through the mediation of Commius the Atrebatian. Caesar, since he had determined to pass the winter on the continent, on account of the sudden revolts of Gaul, and as much of the summer did not remain, and he perceived that even that could be easily protracted, demands hostages, and prescribes what tribute Britain should pay each year to the Roman people; he forbids and commands Cassivellaunus that he wage not war against Mandubratius or the Trinobantes.” [The Gallic Wars, Book 5, Chapter 20]

In addition to re-instating Mandubracius to the Trinovantes, Caesar’s actions led to a dramatic change in trade patterns. Studies have shown that Italian wine amphorae came into Britain through the southern coast of the Durotriges into central southern Britain. Yet after Caesar’s second expedition in 54 BC, trade was directed through the territories of the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes. It has been argued that this change to a well established trading pattern must have been a direct result of Caesar’s intervention; his commentary of the events in east Britain concealing a complex series of trade agreements with the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes. [John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain, Sutton, 1987]

As one might expect in an account of the history of the kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth includes Caesar’s expeditions to Britain 55-54 BC in his Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1136. 

Geoffrey claims to have used the Roman Histories as his source; no doubt he is using Bede and the Historia Brittonum; however these all too brief accounts are vastly elaborated by Geoffrey, yet as with most of his Historia he displays a kernel of fact and fills in the gaps with fantastic detail that can only have been his own creation.

King Lud

Geoffrey’s account of Caesar’s expedition to Britain begins with the king he calls "Heli" [Book III.53]. Welsh sources, including versions of Geoffrey’s Historia known as Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), renders “Heli” as “Beli ap Mawr”. Beli is a father figure and appears in several genealogies at the head of royal lines. He is typically equated with Belenos (or Belinus = ‘The Shining One’) a deity of the Celtic Belgic tribes on both sides of the Gallic Sea.

According to Geoffrey, Heli ruled the kingdom for forty years and had three sons: Lud, Cassibelanus and Nennius. After Heli the kingship passed to Lud, who is credited with rebuilding the walls of the city of Trinovantum on the Thames, originally founded by Brutus the Trojan as Troia Nova (New Troy). After Lud’s renovation it became known as Kaerlud, and finally London. Geoffrey tells us that when Lud died his body was buried at Ludsgate.

Ludgate Hill – Gustave Doré (1872)

Lud had two sons, Androgeus and Tenvantius, but because of their young age they could not rule and the kingship passed to Cassibelanus (Cassivellaunus). This became a permanent arrangement as Cassibelanus became known as a generous king, but on recognising their due inheritance he granted the greater part of the realm to his nephews, installing Androgeus as Duke of Trinovantum and Kent with Tenvantius as Duke of Cornwall, although Cassibelanus remained as High King of the entire island.

With Cassibelanus firmly installed as the supreme King of the Britons, Geoffrey now moves on to Caesar’s two expeditions to Britain [Book IV.54]. Cassibelanus is triumphant in fending off Caesar’s first expedition (55 BC) but his brother Nennius is mortally wounded in hand to hand combat with Caesar. Fifteen days after the battle Nennius died of the wound and was buried next to the north gate of Trinovantum with Caesar’s sword “Yellow Death”, that he had obtained during the fight, at his side.

Two years later Caesar turned his sights back to Britain [Book IV.59]. Hearing of the Emperor’s intentions Cassibelanus fortified the cities and installed stakes below the water line of the Thames. Sure enough, as the ships sailed up the Thames toward Trinovantum disaster struck as they hit the stakes [Book IV.60]. The survivors scrambled to the shore to face the forces of Cassibelanus who out numbered them by three to one and the Britons attained the victory.

Iron Age territories 1st Century BC

Following his second victory over the Romans Cassibelanus arranged a huge feast, offering a total of forty thousand cows and a hundred thousand sheep [Book IV.61]. During the celebrations two youths, one, Cuelinus, the nephew of Duke Androgeus and the other, Hirelglas, the nephew of Cassibelanus, were tied in a wrestling match. As an argument escalated between the two over who had gained the victory, Cuelinus snatched a sword and cut off the head of Hirelglas.

Cassibelanus demanded that Androgeus bring his nephew to his court for sentence, but he refused and said he would hold his own court at Trinovantum as was the custom. Unable to agree terms, Cassibelanus ravaged Androgeus’ lands and laid them waste. Unable to withstand Cassibelanus’ rage, Androgeus decided to seek aid from Caesar across the Channel and wrote that if he restored his lands to him Caesar would be master of Britain. Caesar responded to Androgeus’ plea provided he was sent hostages. Androgeus accepted and sent his own son and thirty hostages. According to Geoffrey, Caesar set sail as soon as possible and landed at Richborough [Book IV.62].

Cassibelanus had laid siege to Trinovantum and pillaging outlying villages when he received news that Caesar had returned. He abandoned the siege and hurried toward the coast. As he came to a valley by Canterbury he saw the Roman army setting up their camp. Androgeus had led them there so they could set up a secret attack on the city. The armies went into battle formation, but Androgeus took five thousand men into a nearby wood to ambush Cassiebelanus. Unable to resist Androgeus’ forces after being decimated by the Romans, Cassibelanus abandoned the battlefield and headed for a nearby hill. Unable to storm the hill owing to the strong defences of the Britons, Caesar decided to besiege Cassibelanus who had little choice but to make terms.

The Roman War Machine

Caesar made peace with Cassibelanus who agreed to pay an annual tribute of three thousand pounds of silver. Seven years later Cassibelanus died and was buried at York. He was succeeded by Tenvantius, Duke of Cornwall, as Androgeus had gone to Rome with Caesar. Tenvantius’ son Cymbeline succeeded him to the throne; he was a mighty warrior whom Augustus Caesar had reared himself. Cymbeline had two sons, Guiderius and the younger Arviragus. When Guiderius took the throne after Cymbeline, so Geoffrey’s story goes, he refused to pay the tribute to Rome which led to the invasion by the Emperor Claudius [Book IV.63].

After Guiderius was slain in battle with the Romans, Arviragus agreed a treaty with Claudius which would see him give his daughter’s hand if the Britons were to acknowledge the suzerainty of Rome. The offer was accepted by the nobility of the Britons. Then Claudius, with the help of Arviragus, subdued the Orkneys and all the outlying islands, then sent for his daughter Genvissa and they were duly wed [Book IV.68].

- Source: The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated and edited by Michael A Faletra, Broadview Editions, 2008.

Significantly, Caesar’s first contact with the Britons is remembered in Welsh tradition which includes details not found in the account of Geoffrey of Monmouth. 

The events of over 2,000 years ago can be found in the Welsh Triads (Welsh: Trioedd Ynys Prydein = Triads of the Island of Britain) which survive in medieval manuscripts from the 13th century; the oldest series of Triads (Peniarth 16) which Rachel Bromwich [editor and translator; Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 4th Edition, 2014] has numbered as 1 – 46 (Bromwich has collected 96 Triads in total from all manuscripts). The early series of Triads, Bromwich argues, are free of influence from Geoffrey of Monmouth, who irrevocably changed the Arthurian legend with his 12th century work History of the Kings of Britain.

Remarkably these Triads must have survived as oral traditions before being written down over a thousand years later in the Welsh manuscripts, remembering Cassivellaunus (Cassibelanus) as Caswallawn son of Beli as the man who fought the Romans. For example, Triad 36 records three invasions:

Three Oppressions that came to this Island, and not one of them went back:
One of them (was) the people of the Cor(y)aniaid, who came here in the time of Caswallawn son of Beli: and not one of them went back. And they came from Arabia.
The second Oppression: the Gwyddyl Ffichti. And not one of them went back.
The third Oppression: the Saxons, with Horsa and Hengist as their leaders.
[Bromwich, TYP, 2014]

The Coraniaid also appear in the Welsh tale of Lludd and Llefelys as one of three plagues that come to Britain during the reign of Lludd and may be confused with Caesar’s Romans? 

The Triads hold a tradition that following Caesar’s second expedition to Britain Caswallawn pursued Caesar to Rome. Triad 35, Three Levies that departed from this Island, tells how Caswallawn took 21,000 men with him, one of the three silver hosts of the island.  

Triad 51,Three Men of Shame, names “Afarwy” as the son of Lludd son of Beli who first summoned Julius Caesar and the men of Rome to Britain, causing the payment of three thousand pounds as tribute every year because of the quarrel with Caswallawn his uncle. This is clearly the man named as Mandubracius by Caesar and Androgeus by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Triad also lists Medrawd as the third and worst of the Men of Shame who Arthur left in charge of the island when he himself crossed the sea in response to the Emperor of Rome’s demands for tribute. Bromwich identifies this Triad as the only one from the Red Book collection that is drawn from the narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth. [Bromwich TYP] 

In Triad 67, Caswallawn is named as one of the Three Noble (Golden) Shoemakers of the Island of Britain when he went to Rome to seek Fflur. Caswallawn is named as one of the Three Lovers of the Island of Britain in Triad 71 for Fflur. Bromwich suggest this episode relates to a lost tale of Caswallawn and Fflur that was known to Welsh poets of the mid-12th century.  [Bromwich TYP]

There is clearly some contention beyond Caesar and Caswallawn over Fflur in Welsh tradition; did Caesar take her back to Rome as a hostage to ensure the British chieftain complied with the terms of his treaty? Triad 67 has been interpreted as Caswallawn travelling to Rome disguised as a cobbler to seek out Fflur. As we have seen above, Caesar’s account of his expedition to Britain fails to mention Fflur, or indeed Cawallawn following him. 

In Triad 71 Fflur is mentioned as daughter of "Mugnach the Dwarf". Ifor Williams suggested the word “coraniaid”, as in Triad 36 and the tale of Lludd and Llefelys, may be linked to “cor” a dwarf, and compares with the Breton “Korriganed” or fairies. However, Bromwich suggests the word may be a confusion with “caesarids”, i.e “Romans” which raises various possibilities to Fflur’s relationship to the Romans and why Caesar may have taken her back to Rome. [Bromwich, TYP] 

Geoffrey must have used a different source than that recorded in Welsh tradition as he fails to mention Fflur and does not mention the fourth son of Beli Mawr, Llefelys. As the tale of Llud and Llefelys does not appear in the Historia he clearly was not aware of the tale, or it did not exist when he wrote, but it is included in later Welsh versions of his Historia known as Brut Y Breninhedd (Chronicle of the Kings). However, the tale of Llud and Llefelys bears witness to a much older tradition as it alludes to the burial of the red and white dragons at Dinas Emrys which is to be found in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (Nennius).

In the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Caswallawn is named as the man who usurps the throne while Bran is fighting in Ireland. Although this episode bears no correlation to Caesar’s expeditions to Britain it does show Caswallawn as regarded as the over-king of Britain.

It has been necessary to show both accounts of the Roman expeditions to Britain 54-55 BC (above) as these episodes demonstrates Geoffrey’s manipulation of the source material; notably Caesar records two expeditions, neither being a defeat for the Romans. Yet, Geoffrey, following the Historia Brittonum (Nennius), records three battles, twice victories for the Britons preceding a final defeat. These events have also been interpreted as being influential on Geoffrey’s construction of the final episode of the Arthurian legend.

In complete contrast to previous studies of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), which endeavour to use the text to identify the real King Arthur, historian and archaeologist Miles Russell has carried out a new examination of Geoffrey’s book and presents the case that it is much more than just a piece of unreliable historical fiction but in reality preserves the ancient foundation myths of Britain. In his latest book Russell traces individual elements in Geoffrey’s work back to the 1st century BC and the Britons first contact with Rome and its impact on his account of the Arthurian legend.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. His publications concentrate on the prehistoric and Roman periods such as Bloodline: The Celtic Kings of Roman Britain (Amberley, 2010) and (with Stuart Laycock) UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia (The History Press, 2011). He is one of the few archaeologists to have excavated at Stonehenge; in 2008, along with Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, he participated in the first excavation to take place inside the stone circle for some forty years.

In Arthur and the Kings of Britain (Amberley, 2018) Miles Russell claims that Geoffrey skilfully weaved these early traditions together with material pulled from post-Roman sources in order to create a national epic. In so doing, Russell argues, Geoffrey also created King Arthur as a composite character gathered from the exploits of the ancient kings of Britain. Russell’s book is a refreshing change from the typical reconstructions of King Arthur’s European exploits based on Geoffrey’s pseudo-historical chronicle.  

Russell tells us that the key to unlocking Geoffrey’s Historia is the story of Julius Caesar’s two expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC and the military response of King Cassivellaunus (Cassibellanus); events that can be verified from external sources. Russell argues that a close reading of Geoffrey’s Historia reveals that he describes two invasions, not three, the second one being recorded twice with the first expedition by Caesar in 55 BC actually described second. Geoffrey clearly confuses Trinovantum, the New Troy (London), with the territory of the Trinovantes.

Significantly, in Geoffrey’s account of the third invasion, Cassibellanus is waging a campaign of terror on Androgeus (Mandubracius) following the death of Hirelglas as we have seen above. Cassibellanus’s actions force Androgeus to make a deal with Caesar to stop his tyrant uncle.

Geoffrey claimed to be using the Roman Histories but he was clearly not using Caesar’s account as recorded in de Bello Gallico but is elaborating on the version in the Historia Brittonum (Nennius), which also describes three battles against Caesar, the first two being victories for the Britons and the third ending in defeat. 

Russell goes on to assert that King Arthur is a composite of characters, his adventures mirrored in the exploits of the early British kings. He claims that the figure of Arthur is ultimately modelled on the 5th century warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus, a historical figure recorded by Gildas in his 6th century sermon. Gildas clearly held Ambrosius in high regard, remembering him as a gentleman and the last of the Romans who’s parents wore the purple, an indication they were high ranking Roman officials. 

The Devil's Dyke earthwork at Wheathamstead

According to Gildas, Ambrosius rallied the Britons following the Anglo Saxon rebellion in the mid-5th century. He led the beleaguered Britons to a series of victories culminating in the victory at Badon Hill. But Gildas never mentioned King Arthur.

The Britons fightback of twelve victories under Ambrosius was later transposed to Arthur, Dux Bellorum, in the Historia Brittonum (Nennius) where it is recorded as the Arthurian battle list. Thus, Ambrosius provides the bones for the Arthurian legend, the post-Roman war leader who beat back the Saxons.

With Ambrosius’s battles providing the backbone, Russell argues that Geoffrey then pulls the base elements of the Arthurian legend, his conception at Tintagel, his parentage, his wife Guinevere (Ganhumara), association with Merlin, conqueror of Europe, his final battle and the betrayal by his nephew, all from the exploits of earlier British kings. 

Russell gives examples of how Geoffrey moves back and forth in the chronology and repeats the feats of others to construct a narrative of the kings of Britain. Such as the British king named Arvirargus (Togodumnus), who allies with with the Roman emperor Claudius to subdue the Orkneys. On his return Arvirargus takes the Roman lady Gewissa (great beauty) as his wife. In the Historia, Geoffrey clearly uses this model for his the story of Arthur who allies with Hoel to conquer Ireland and on his return home he takes Ganhumara/Guinevere (great beauty) as his wife.

According to Geoffrey's account Arthur invaded Gaul and marched on Rome. There is no record of Arthur fighting the Romans before Geoffrey. This, Russell claims, he modelled on Constantine (later ‘Constantine the Great’) who was proclaimed emperor by his men at York in AD 306. After campaigning in the north of England Constantine pulled his forces from Britain and advanced on Rome, resulting in the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD in which the western emperor Maxentius fell. Russell argues that much of Constantine’s campaign, from York to Rome, is later mirrored in Geoffrey’s tale of Arthur's invasion of Gaul.

Russell also sees the role of the usurper Magnus Maximus used in a similar way in Geoffrey’s Arthurian chronicle. In 383 AD, Magnus was proclaimed emperor by the legions in Britannia. Magnus took an army to Gaul where he fought and killed the emperor Gratian. In the Historia Geoffrey has Arthur lead an army to Gaul in response to the Roman’s demand for tribute. Geoffrey has Arthur defeat the emperor Lucius Hiberius. Russell sees Arthur’s exploits in Gaul mirrored in the accounts of Magnus; where else could the story have come from he argues?

Then we come to the conclusion of the story with Arthur’s final battle, which, according to Russell, is based on the 1st century BC warrior king Cassivellaunus who refused to pay tribute to Rome as we have seen above. The Romans attacked his kingdom but as he was near to defeating the Roman army, Cassivellaunus was betrayed by his nephew Mandubracius (Androgeus). 

Significantly in pre-Galfridian texts Mordred is never recorded as a traitor and the Welsh poets remember him as a valiant warrior; Russell asserts that Geoffrey modelled the treacherous nephew story on Mandubracius (Androgeus).

The issue of tribute features throughout the Britons conflict with Rome. In the Historia, Geoffrey writes that Arthur, refusing to pay tribute to Rome leaves for Gaul. On the verge of attacking Rome, he is betrayed by his treacherous nephew Mordred who has taken Guinevere (Ganhumara) and usurped the kingdom. Mordred appeals to Cheldric for assistance; in response 800 ships land at Richborough loaded with Cheldric’s Saxon troops. It is noted above that Caesar is recorded landing with 800 ships.

The gateway to The Devil's Dyke

Arthur turns back from his intended assault on Rome and returns to Britain. His army lands at Richborough and takes many casualties during the landing. As we have seen, Julius Caesar landed somewhere near here for his second invasion, the exact site is not known. 

Arthur pursues Mordred to Salisbury Plain before the final battle in Cornwall. Caesar pursues Cassivellaunus with the assistance of Mandubracius (Androgeus) to the oppidum of the Trinovantes; this had to be Camulodonum (Colchester) which Russell claims provided the inspiration for Arthur’s final battle (Camblam).

It must be admitted that there are many similarities in the two stories; but is it too incredible to be true? 

One final point betrays Geoffrey’s inspiration; in the Historia Regum Britanniae, Cassibellanus from the 1st century BC suddenly appears from nowhere to be present at the battle at Camblam (Camlann) in the 6th century AD. This is an odd inclusion, but it demonstrates where Geoffrey’s mind was when he wrote this episode of his tale and provides credence to Russell’s argument.

Russell’s deconstruction of Geoffrey’s model of King Arthur provides the best solution yet proposed to explain the Arthurian sources of the Historia Regum Britanniae. Russell asserts that Geoffrey’s King Arthur is a composite character based on the deeds of the early kings, Cassivellaunus, Arvirargus, Constantine, Magnus and Ambrosius, and once you strip away their stories there is nothing left for a real Arthur.

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