A Certain Very Ancient Book Part IV
"Who was King Arthur? That question has puzzled researchers for hundreds of years, yet still, no consensus has been reached. However, whether it is concluded that he was a Celtic king or a Roman officer, or something in-between, there is one conclusion that virtually all investigators agree on: he was some kind of war leader who fought against the Saxons in Britain. This is a fair conclusion, but it misses - or ignores - something crucial. In the legends of Arthur, he engages in a monumental campaign into Europe and wages war against the Roman Empire. Few researchers even attempt to offer an explanation for this, most simply dismissing it as fiction. The few theories that have been offered to explain the historical origin of this part of the legend are invariably unconvincing and do not address the scale of Arthur's campaign in the legend.
“In this book, the historical event behind this legend is revealed. Arthur's enemies are identified as real historical figures. Most importantly, the identity of the man who conquered Europe is discovered and it is shown exactly how he came to be known as King Arthur."
King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe
Amberley Publishing, 2019.
From the publisher’s blurb on the inside front flap (above) we can expect a different approach in Caleb Howells’s book; instead of a reconstruction of King Arthur conquering Europe based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Historia Regum Britanniae, or more correctly De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons), the author aims to identify a real historical event that inspired the legend of King Arthur's Gallic conquest.
Geoffrey cliamed that he had translated an old British book presented to him by Walter Archdeacon of Oxford into Latin. Geoffrey’s work, completed before 1139 AD, charts the exploits of the British kings from Brutus the Trojan to to the death of Cadwaladr in the 7th century. But the centrepiece of the De gestis Britonum is without doubt the rise and fall of King Arthur. From a character of supernatural legend fighting giants, witches and monsters, Geoffrey transformed Arthur into a figure of history, a national hero, a successful military leader who conquered much of Europe.
Many authors have produced reconstructions of Arthur’s European exploits such as King Arthur’s European Realm by Paul Sire (Mcfarland & Co., 2014). Recently in Arthur and the Kings of Britain (Amberley, 2018) Miles Russell proposed that Geoffrey skilfully weaved together early traditions with material pulled from post-Roman sources in order to create a national epic. In so doing, Russells argues, Geoffrey created a composite character gathered from the exploits of the ancient kings of Britain. Strip away the traditions of these ancient kings and there is nothing left for Geoffrey’s Arthur as a historical figure he claims.
I anticipated Howells’s book to continue along Russell’s line as it promised to reveal a real historical event that inspired the legend of King Arthur’s European conquest. And like Russell, he also sees King Arthur as a composite character, the legend inspired by more than the adventures of one man.
Howells starts by revealing the identity of King Arthur. This he does by determining the date for the battle of Badon, the most historical event connected with King Arthur, first mentioned by Gildas in the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, a rant against the morals of the Britons wriiten in the 6th century. Providing no dates, in an ambiguous passage Gildas claims that Badon took place in the year of his birth, which since 44 years have passed. Conventionally, Gildas is considered to have penned the De Excidio around the mid-6th century, dating Badon to within ten years of 500 AD. The Venerable Bede, who closely followed Gildas for this era in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD, seems to suggest that it referred to an event 44 years before Badon , i.e. the Saxon Advent, around 449 AD (see: The derivation of the date of the Badon entry in the Annales Cambriae from Bede and Gildas by Howard Wiseman).
Rejecting the conventional dates of Arthur’s two battles in the Welsh Annals (Annalaes Cambriae) Howells argues for a later date for Badon, sometime between 547 and 559, and pushes Arthur’s final battle at Camlann back to 570. He expands his argument on the dating of Gildas in Appendix 1. Although Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Arthur’s last conflict occurred in 542 Howells argues for a 33 year discrepancy in dating owing to a confusion between the dates of the Incarnation and the Passion of Jesus. He further explains this dating anomaly in Appendix 2. Howells has good reason for bringing the dates of these key Arthurian events forward.
Then having established a mid-late 6th century period for King Arthur’s floruit the author places the key Arthurian locations of Gelliwig and Kernyw in Gwent, South Wales. Having determined the date range and location it should then be a simple matter to find a dynasty in the genealogical tables with the right sounding name that fits, and hey presto we have identified the real King Arthur.
The Harleian 3859 manuscript provides a list of the kings of Gwent and neighbouring realm of Glywysing (modern Glamorgan). The first named king for Glywysing is Teudubric (Tewdrig) followed by Atroys (Athrwys). Other sources name Meurig between Teudubric and Atroys. After scanning various Saints’ Life’s, Llancarfan charters and the Book of Llandaff, Howells establishes that Meurig’s birth should correctly be dated to around 476-480 and Athrwys around 502. This, Howells asserts, makes Athwrys “an exact contemporary of the legendary King Arthur” that fought at Badon and fell at Camlann, which fit nicely with his revised dating of course.
He then argues that the name “Arthur” could have become “Atroy” over a period of time. Thus, having revised the chronology and relocated Arthur’s realm the author is able to identify Athrwys as the legendary King Arthur.
Astute followers of Arthuriana will know that this is not the first time King Arthur has been identified as Athrwys ap Meurig ruler of Glwyssing and Gwent. Indeed, this identification was first made in the 18th century and endorsed more recently by Baram Blackett and Alan Wilson (1980) and then Chris Barber and David Pykitt (1993). There is certainly no exclusivity to ownership of this identification and no reason why authors cannot agree on a certain character as a contender for the real King Arthur.
Having established the identity of a 6th century King Arthur the author then moves on to his family and spends most of the next chapter attempting to convince the reader that the father of Athrwys, Meurig ap Tewdrig, was the legendary Uthyr Pendragon. Howells reminds us that he is searching for a historical event that inspired the story of Arthur’s invasion of Gaul and later march on Rome; yet there is no record of any 6th century invasion of Europe by a British king fighting Roman forces. Indeed, as Polydore Vergil pointed out long ago in the 16th century in his denouncement of Geoffrey’s King Arthur, how could the same British king fight both Saxons and Romans?
The next two chapters analyse Books 4 and 5 of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s De gestis Britonum, covering the period from Caesar’s invasion to the death of Magnus Maximus. Howells details the number of errors in Geoffrey’s book, explaining that this is necessary to show that the information contained in Geoffrey’s pages is more accurate than not. Miles Russell has shown that the historical events covered in these two key chapters had a significant impact on shaping Geoffrey’s legend of King Arthur.
In his quest he dismisses two popular theories; the Roman officer from the 2nd century Lucius Artorius Castus and the British king Riothamus from the 5th century. He argues that these were not major incursions and therefore cannot provide the historical origin for King Arthur’s Gallic conquest as found in Geoffrey of Monmouth. It seems we must look elsewhere.
Howells determines that this invasion of Gaul must have taken place after 284 when the Empire split in two but before 476 when the western Roman Empire came to an end. He concludes that the real events of the late 4th century when a British ruler invaded Gaul and can certainly account for King Arthur’s campaign into Europe as described by Geoffrey; Frollo fled from Arthur’s men just as the Emperor Gratian fled from the usurper Magnus Maximus’ forces in 383 AD.
Of course a 4th century King Arthur cannot have been Athrwys ap Meurig, the 6th century ruler of Glwyssing and Gwent, already identified by Howells as the man behind the later Dark Age Arthurian legend. Howells reasons that the stories of this earlier figure who had a successful Gallic campaign must have been grafted onto the later Arthur to form Geoffrey’s composite character, the man who fought both Romans and Saxons.
As we have seen previously, Miles Russell sees Magnus Maximus’s invasion of Gaul as the inspiration behind part of the Arthurian Legend in which he sees Arthur as a composite character, his adventures made up from the exploits of several early British kings. Howells is looking in the same direction.
The Dream of Maxen
The tale of Magnus Maximus is fascinating; he was an important figure in the history of the Roman Empire and his actions impacted on the end of Roman rule in Britain. He left his mark in Welsh legend featuring in the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig (The Dream of the Emperor Maximus) and, as we have seen, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s magnum opus named as “Maximianus”.
Said to be of Hispanic descent Maximus is frequently found listed as an ancestor figure in several Welsh poems and royal genealogies of South Wales. A number of local rulers in various regions in Britain also traced their origins to Maximus, no doubt to legitimize their claims to regional authority.
The Roman histories record Maximus’s first visiting Britain with Count Theodosius to put down the Great Barbarian Conspiracy of 367-368. He then served as a general under Theodosius in Africa c. 373 and then on the Danube three years later. In 380 he returned to Britain as the supreme military commander of the Roman forces and seems to have been responsible for successfully repelling an invasion of Scots and Picts in 381.
In 383 Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by the troops of the British garrison. He crossed to Gaul and made his capital at Augusta Treverorum (Trier) on the west bank of the Rhine. He brought the Western Emperor Gratian to battle near Paris. Gratian fled after many of his troops pledged allegiance to Maximus and was killed at Lyons on 25 August by Maximus’s general Andragathius.
Soon enough Maximus advanced on Italy to displace Valentinian II, bringing him into direct conflict with Theodosius, the Emperor in the East who was now marching into the Balkans. Maximus sent his forces under the command of Andragathius to head him off and stop him entering Italy. They first clashed at the river Save at Siscia and then Poetovio where Maximus’s troops were annihilated. Andragathius withdrew and was last seen on a boat and is assumed to have committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea.
Maximus fled from the unstoppable Theodosius but was later captured and executed in the city of Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic in August of 388. His wife and two daughters were spared but his son Victor was executed by Valentinian's general Arbogast later that year.
When Maximus left Britain in 383 to pursue his ambitions of empire he took the best Roman soldiers with him, highly trained legionnaires who never returned to Britain. Gildas clearly held Maximus responsible for stripping Britain of her military muscle:
"Britain is left deprived of all her soldiery and armed bands, of her cruel governors, and of the flower of her youth, who went with Maximus, but never again returned" - (Gildas, On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, 6th century)
The 9th century Historia Brittonum remembers Maximus as the final Roman emperor to rule in Britain; he was certainly associated with the final days of Rome in the British Isles. His final defeat resulted in Constantinople becoming the centre of the Roman empire which never fully regained control of Britain and Gaul in the west.
Yet, it would appear that Maximus reorganised Britain’s defences and left the island in a strong position when he advanced into Gaul. It is claimed that Maximus put his son Anwn Dynod (Antonius Donatus Gregorius) in control of the military in South Wales to combat the threat from Irish raiders. A similar role is said to have been bestowed upon Cunedda who was put in military control of Gwynedd in North Wales. It was around this time that the Deisi tribe were settled in Wales to defend the south-western coast from Irish raiders. With the addition of Saxons settled on the eastern shore, Maximus probably felt that he had left the coastal defences of Britain reasonably secure.
For this reason Guy Halsall [Worlds of Arthur, OUP, 2013] suggests that Maximus would qualify as the Superbus Tyrannus that Gildas writes of, the man who invited the Saxons into Britain, initially to fight for Britain but who soon battled against it; “like wolves into the sheepfold”. Halsall suggests that after withdrawing the legions Maximus shored up the defences of Britain by employing mercenaries on strategic points around the coast.
The genealogical tables (that must be used with caution) suggest that following the death of Maximus in 388, his dynasty appears to have retained control of South Wales. Several local rulers claimed descent from Maximus: Custennin, Peblig, Anwn Dynod, Gratianna and Severa (depending on which Genealogical table you read). It is claimed that his sons appear to have been held in high regard by the Britons, and were installed to oversee these defences while the legions of Maximus marched through Europe.
One son in particular, Anwn Dynod, seems to have remained in Britain when his father left and became a powerful man in South-West Wales during the late 4th century. Anwn’s full Roman name was Antonius Donatus Gregorius, hence he is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Anwn, King of Greece.
The King of Greece
However, it appears it was not Maximus himself that inspired Geoffrey’s tale; Howells identifies his general (Magister equitum) Andragathius as the "first Arthur" and son of Maximus, named as "Anthun" in the genealogies, who became known as king of Greece. Howells states:
“…..the fact that Anthun was recorded as the king of Greece could conceivably be explained if he was Andragathius. This latter individual is known to have fought in the Balkans, with Greece the most prominent part of the area…… it is conceivable that records of of Andragathius fighting in Greece, which, in turn, developed into the propaganda that he had conquered that area.” [p.224]
In support of this claim Howells frequently refers to the gatekeepers tale in Culhwch and Olwen as evidence that Arthur (Andragaithus) was actually ruler of Greece:
“Then Glewlwyd went into the Hall. And Arthur said to him, "Hast thou news from the gate?"
"Half of my life is past, and half of thine. I was heretofore in Kaer Se and Asse, in Sach and Salach, in Lotor and Fotor; and I have been heretofore in India the Great and India the Lesser; and I was in the battle of Dau Ynyr, when the twelve hostages were brought from Llychlyn. And I have also been in Europe, and in Africa, and in the islands of Corsica, and in Caer Brythwch, and Brythach, and Verthach; and I was present when formerly thou didst slay the family of Clis the son of Merin, and when thou didst slay Mil Du the son of Ducum, and when thou didst conquer Greece in the East. And I have been in Caer Oeth and Annoeth, and in Caer Nevenhyr; nine supreme sovereigns, handsome men, saw we there, but never did I behold a man of equal dignity with him who is now at the door of the portal." [Culhwch and Olwen, from the Mabinogion byLady Charlotte Guest]
Howells argues that the gatekeepers recital in Culhwch lists the lands conquered by Magnus Maximux, Emperor in the West, or more correctly, his general, Andragathius. He argues that the Balkans qualifies for Greece and maintains that if India is really meant then is is "likely to be a misrendering of some location within the British Isles".
|The Roman Balkans in the 4th century|
Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr (Grey Bold Mighty Grasp) also appears as Arthur’s gatekeeper in other Arthurian works in a similar role; compare with Pa gur yv y porthaur? (What man is the gatekeeper?) found in the mid-13th century Black Book of Carmarthen, but said to date from the 10th century.
However, Rachel Bromich and D Simon Evans (Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the oldest Arthurian tale, UWP, 1992) cite earlier precedents to Glewlwyd’s “rhetorical and bombastic” speech that he delivers as he introduces Culhwch to Arthur’s court and show that it is closely paralleled in a poem from the Book of Taliesin which lists the conquest of Alexander and employs a similar use of exotic names for unknown and faraway places. An earlier example is to be found in a similar speech by Curoi mac Diari in the Old Irish tale known as Bricriu’s Feast (Fled Bricrend). Here Curoi lists his foreign travels and like Glewlwyd, he has visited Europe, Africa and Greece, as well as Asia, Scithia and the Columns of Hercules. This of course does not make Curoi a Roman general who conquered these lands, but the purpose is “to create a feeling of wonder by citing a list of strange and unfamiliar names which served to to enhance the speaker’s boastful recital of his exploits in far-off unknown places”.
That Curoi’s speech was the inspiration behind the gatekeeper’s recital in Culhwch and Olwen is fairly certain as he and four other heroes from the Ulster cycle appear in the list of characters that are invoked to assist Culhwch in wining the hand of Olwen, demonstrating that the Irish tale was known and influential to the author.
From what has been shown above, scholars of Celtic studies concur that Glewlwyd’s recital cannot in anyway be considered a historical list of conquests. India was regarded as a land of magic and enchantment in the Middle Ages, as were Greece and Llychan (Norway). [Bromwich and Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, p.59. Idris Foster in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, p.38]
Andragathius lost both of his battles against Theodosius in the Balkans so it is certainly unlikely he would have been remembered as king of Greece. In fact Andragathius never reached Greece, so how could he be their king? Indeed, as we have seen above, the identification of Arthur (Andragathius) as the king of Greece is based on a complete misunderstanding of the Gatekeepers recital in Culhwch and Olwen.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Howells claims that the activities of Andragathius bear a close correspondence with the Continental activities of Geoffrey’s King Arthur. He explains how Andragathius became confused with Arthur owing to the name Anthun appearing in the genealogical tables.
In addition to the sons of Maximus as listed above, other sons are recorded in the earliest surviving Welsh genealogies; Constantine, Owain and Dunod. Descendants of Owain and Dunod are recorded ruling in south-east Wales. Howells draws the readers attention to Dunawt (Dunod) being synonymous with Anthun in an identical sequence in Jesus College MS 20 and Harleian MS 3589 [p.211].
He argues that the name Arthur became confused with Anthun who was in fact Andragaithus, the man who inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale of the conquest of Gaul. He argues that if Anthun, the first Arthur, was not Andragathius how else would he have acquired the title of King of Greece? And summarises that there does not appear to be an alternative explanation; the reasoning is Dunod is therefore Anthun who is Andragathius who is the 4th century Arthur.
This is hardly convincing; I really can’t see the connection with Andragathius and the South Wales dynasties. I also can’t see Andragathius as the King of Greece. It certainly appears to be based on possibilities and conjecture – not fact. There is no evidence presented here to convince the reader of the author’s argument. But then this all seems very familiar. Indeed, I was sure I had come across this theory before and I wasn’t convinced then either.
The story of two Arthurs, one from the 4th century and one from the 6th, which forms the kernel of Howells book, was first covered by Baram Blackett and Alan Wilson who appear to be the source for Andragathius being the son of Magnus Maximus and the first (?) King Arthur.
Blackett and Wilson put forward this theory, and much more, in The Holy Kingdom with Adrian Gilbert in 1998. They proposed that the Arthurian legend as we know it was based on two characters; Arthun, (Arthur I), son of Magnus Maximus, and Athrwys ap Meurig (Arthur II), king of Gwent.
Magnus Maximus may well have been the inspiration behind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story of King Arthur’s conquest of Gaul but there is absolutely no evidence for an individual who was known as King Arthur in the 4th century.
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