Wednesday 6 October 2021

King Arthur and the Conquest of Gaul

The Tyrant Emperor
The usurpation of Magnus Maximus in 383 AD is well known; the withdrawal of much of the Roman garrison to support Maximus's imperial ambitions was a major contributory factor leading to the end of Roman rule in Britain by 410 AD.

Maximus is often accused of the final evacuation of Hadrian’s Wall but this view is no longer supported by the archaeological evidence. However, his expedition required the evacuation of many of the Roman forts of the Western Pennines and North Wales, including Legio XX from Chester, never to be reoccupied. The Seguntienses, said to be of the former garrison of Segontium (Caernarfon, Maximus’s seat in Welsh tradition), are recorded in the 4th century Notitia Dignitatum among the auxilia palatina in Illycrium, the province where Maximus’s troops had the final conflict with Theodosius I in 388 AD.1

Segontium Roman fort imposed on modern Caernarfon
(reconstruction CADW)

In his hostile summary of the usurpation of Maximus, Gildas clearly shows he held the man in contempt and did not approve of his rule. Gildas paints a vivid picture of the event:

“The island was still Roman in name, but not by law or custom. Rather, it cast forth a sprig of its own bitter planting, and sent Maximus to Gaul with a great retinue of hangers-on and even the imperial insignia, which he was never fit to bear: he had no legal claim to the title, but was raised to it like a tyrant by rebellious soldiery. Applying cunning rather than virtue, Maximus turned the neighbouring lands and provinces against Rome, and attached them to his kingdom of wickedness with the nets of his perjury and lying.”

“One of his wings he stretched to Spain, one to Italy: the throne of his wicked empire he placed in Trier, where he raged so madly against his masters that of the two legitimate emperors he drove one from Rome, the other from his life – which was a very holy one. Soon, though entrenched in these appalling acts of daring, he had his evil head cut off at Aquileia...”2

Gildas held Maximus responsible for stripping Britain of its military leaving the country defenceless against the onslaught of the barbarian hordes. He continues:

“After that Britain was despoiled of her whole army, her military resources, her governors, brutal as they were, her sturdy youth, who had followed in the tyrants footsteps, never to return home.”3

Gildas is delivering a sermon against a self-induced down turn in the fate of the Britons, punished for their sins by God with persistent raids by the Scots and Picts followed by settlement of the Saxons. It is clearly Maximus that Gildas holds responsible for severely depleting the countries defences and starting this decline although further Roman troops were withdrawn from Britannia by the Roman military commander Stilicho in 402 AD and the British usurper Constantine III in 407 AD. It has been suggested that it was Maximus who first settled Saxons in Britain, as foederati to fight for the country, and that he was the proud tyrant (superbus tyrannus) mentioned by Gildas in chapter 14 (above) that he comes back to in chapter 23.4

About three hundred years after Gildas wrote, another British text, the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), c.829/830 AD, states that Maximus was the sixth emperor to rule in Britain and he spoke with St Martin. This is verified in the Life of Saint Martin, in which the 4th century chronicler Sulpicius Severus writes of a meeting in 384 between the usurper-emperor Magnus Maximus and Martin of Tours.5

The very next chapter in the Historia Brittonum records the seventh emperor to reign in Britain was Maxim(ian)us who went from Britain with all her troops and killed Gratian and “held the Empire of all Europe.” According to this document, Maximianus refused to send the soldiers home to their wives and lands but settled them in Armorica. This is why, the text claims, “that Britain has been occupied by foreigners, and the citizens driven out.” This is clearly the same man as Maximus from the previous chapter who Gildas reprobates so sternly. Evidently, here Maximus is Maximianus and clearly there is an error between the number of Emperors to rule Britain recorded in the Historia Brittonum.6

The next chapter tells us how Maximianus was made Emperor in Britain by a mutiny, again echoing Gildas. He soon crossed to Gaul and overcame Gratian who was betrayed at Paris by his commander-in-chief, Merobaudes and fled. Gratian was captured at Lugdunum (Lyons) and executed. Maximus (note the name spelling changes back again) elevated his son Victor to Augustus of the Western Roman Empire making him effectively co-emperor. The text of the Historia Brittonum goes on, “After a long lapse of time Maximus was stopped by the consuls Valentinian and Theodosius at the third milestone from Aquileia. His son Victor was killed in Gaul in the same year  by Count Arbogast”.7

Arthur's Battles in the Historia Brittonum
(British Library Harley MS 3859)

The same 9th century manuscript of the Historia Brittonum (British Museum MS Harleian 3859) describes a series of battles attributed to a man named Arthur, dux bellorum, leader of battles.8 The location of these battles has been plotted all over Britain, rarely, but occasionally, on the European Continent. Arthur’s twelfth and final victory in this list is successfully leading the Britons against the Saxons at Badon. In the 6th century Gildas described this as the siege of Badon Hill, although he doesn’t name the leader of the Britons, it is accepted as a historical event that occurred within 10 years either side of 500 AD, thus, accepting the Historia Brittonum account, framing Arthur’s floruit. 

Three hundred years later Geoffrey of Monmouth produced the History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae, c.1138),9 the centrepiece being the first full biography of Arthur the soldier of the Historia Brittonum but now elevated to Emperor and conqueror of Europe. Geoffrey’s text produced a dramatic change to Arthur the soldier, much of the material found in no other source, that most regard the majority of its contents a product of the man’s imagination.

Geoffrey’s sources have been the subject of much debate for a number of years. Geoffrey certainly used the Historia Brittonum as part of his source material. Many of the stories contained therein he greatly expanded in his own way, confusing names and geography as he does. Notably, Geoffrey refers to the Roman usurper as Maximianus which he no doubt took from the Historia Brittonum, the name used as noted above. When Geoffrey writes of Maxim(ian)us he expands on the settlement of Armorica by troops from the British garrison. 

Illustration of King Arthur from Historia regum Brittannie

It is not until Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, some three hundred years after these battles are first described in the Historia Brittonum and some six hundred years after he is said to have lived, that Arthur is described as leading an expedition to Gaul. Geoffrey’s account is not by any means historical, it is literature, a fictional story, yet modern author’s continue to claim to reveal "the true story” behind Arthur’s European conquest based on Geoffrey’s work. 

Two potential candidates that campaigned in Gaul are popularly considered as being behind King Arthur’s Gallic invasion. A late 5th century British king named Riothamus, who took 12,000 men to Gaul “by way of ocean” and down the Loire valley, has been cited as the real event behind Arthur’s Gallic war.10 Then there is the Armorican campaign of the 2nd century Roman Officer Lucius Artorius Castus which is seen as the inspiration behind the Arthurian tale.11 Significantly Geoffrey doesn’t mention either. At least Riothamus is a candidate in the right time frame, but it is a far stretch to argue for the memory of a 2nd century Roman equestrian officer as the inspiration behind the legendary Arthurian battles as recorded in the Historia Brittonum some six hundred years later and then the Grail Romances of the 12th century and later.12

Do we really need a Roman Arthur, or an Arthur who fought the Romans? In the 16th century Polydore Vergil challenged the authenticity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Arthur fighting both Romans and Saxons; how could the same man fight enemies two hundred years apart?13

Yet, almost 900 years after Geoffrey wrote his Arthurian fables they continue to inspire today's Arthurian enthusiasts who claim to have unearthed new evidence and identified the real figure behind Arthur’s European conquest.14

Ultimately the problem lies in the vagueness of the source material and the lack of positive identification of the battle sites listed in the Historia Brittonum. By manipulating the chronology, relocating the geography and reinterpreting names then Arthur can be many things to many people. 

The most satisfactory explanation is to accept Geoffrey’s "Arthur" as purely a literary figure constructed with various elements taken from a range of historical heroes to produce a composite character. Recently it has been argued that Geoffrey modelled his Arthur on five different historical characters and produced a composite figure which concluded that the late 4th century Roman usurper Magnus Maximus was the primary source for Geoffrey’s story of the conquest of Gaul by Arthur.15 I believe there is certainly some merit to this suggestion and presents a perfectly rational argument that Geoffrey simply modelled Arthur’s European adventures on Maximus’s usurpation and brought them into Arthur’s time, i.e. the late 5th early 6th century. 

Yet, there are still those who insist that it was a true event that lies behind Geoffrey’s Arthurian European invasion. Taking this a stage further, and in response to Polydore Vergil’s criticism, it has been argued that the legendary King Arthur was actually two historical figures. Firstly, the man who fought the Romans in the 4th century was Magnus Maximus’s general Andragathius, the man behind the usurper’s conquest of Gaul and executioner of the Emperor Gratian, identified as Arthur I. It is claimed this man is identifiable as Maximus’s son in the genealogies of South Wales. Secondly, the later Arthur who fought the Saxons being a late 6th century petty king also from south Wales.16

This dual Arthur theory, characters two hundred years apart, was first proposed over thirty years ago but recently has been reproduced in a new work which claims the account of Maximus’s invasion of Gaul is so similar to Geoffrey’s account of King Arthur’s conquest of Europe that the author concludes that they must be describing the very same event.17

I reviewed this work in October last year and came in for some criticism that I had missed evidence for Arthur I of the 4th century and I was invited to revise my post. Gladly, I have accepted the opportunity to look at this again; a comparison of Geoffrey’s legendary history and Maximus’s invasion of Gaul to determine similarities of the two accounts follows.

 >> Next: Geoffrey of Monmouth's Gallic Invasions

Notes & References
1.  Sheppard Frere, Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, BCA, 1974, p.361.
2. Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other documents (Arthurian Period Sources, Vol 7), edited and translated by Michael Winterbottom, Phillimore, 1978, chp 13.
3. Ibid., chp 14.
4. Guy Halsall argues that neither the written or excavated evidence supports Gildas's 5th century model of the Saxon settlement in Britain. He proposes an alternative scenario that Magnus Maximus settled Saxon troops in the late 4th century; this later evolved into the dramatic account of the mid-5th century adventus saxonum and (owing to Maximus's popularity in British tradition) transferred to Vortigern. [Halsall, 4.b]
a) Guy Halsall, Barbarians Migrations and the Roman West 376-568, Cambridge University Press, 2007. Appendix: Gildas’ Narrative and the identity of the ‘proud tyrant’.
b) Guy Halsall, Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp.214-216.
5. Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals (Arthurian Period Sources, Vol 8) edited and translated by John Morris, Phillimore, 1980, chp 26.
6. Ibid., Chp 27.
7. Ibid., Chp 29.
8. Ibid., Chp 56.
9. Works consulted:
a) Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, Lewis Thorpe (Introduction, Translator), Penguin Classics, 1973;
b) The History of the Kings of Britain: An Edition and Translation of the de Gestis Britonum (Historia Regum Brittannie) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Edited by Michael D. Reeve, translated by Neil Wright, Boydell Press (Arthurian Studies, 69), 2009;
c) The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Translated and Edited by Michael A. Faletra, Broadview Press, 2007.
10. a) Geoffrey Ashe, The Discovery of King Arthur, Henry Holt & Company, 1987;
b) Marilyn Floyde, King Arthur's French Odyssey: Avallon in Burgundy, BSF Publishing; Revised edition, 2016.
11. The Armorican campaign is based on the inscription on Lucius Artorius Castus’s tombstone in Dalmatia (modern Croatia); however, the correct reading is almost certainly ‘Armenians’.
12. a) Malone, Kemp, Artorius, Modern Philology 23 (1924–1925): pp.367–74;
b) Linda Malcor, Lucius Artorius Castus, Part 1: An Officer and an Equestrian, Heroic Age, 1, 1999;
c) Linda Malcor, Lucius Artorius Castus, Part 2: The Battles in Britain, Heroic Age 2, 1999;
d) Scott C Littelton and Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Routledge, 2000.
13. The publication of Polydore Vergil's Anglica Historia in 1534 sparked a debate over the veracity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, a work which Vergil saw as largely Geoffrey's invention. See: James P. Carley, Polydore Vergil and John Leland on King Arthur: The Battle of the Books, Arthurian Interpretations, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1984, pp.86-100.
14. Paul Sire, King Arthur’s European Realm: New Evidence from Monmouth's Primary Sources, Mcfarland & Co., 2014.
15. Miles Russell, Arthur and the Kings of Britain, Amberley Publishing, 2018.
16. Blackett and Wilson, Artorius Rex Discovered, MTB, 1986.
17. Caleb Howells, King Arthur: The Man who conquered Europe, Amberley Publishing, 2019.

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Friday 6 August 2021

On the Trail of the Grey Hound Bitch

 In my previous post I proposed that the portal dolmen, or cromlech, known as Gwal-y-Filiast (Dolwilym, Bwrdd Arthur) usually translated as the “Lair of the Greyhound Bitch” should be interpreted as the 'Lair of the She-Wolf’ with its name associated with the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth in the Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen.

Positioned on a secluded woodland ridge overlooking the River Taf about 3.5 miles south east of Crymych in Carmarthenshire, south-west Wales, it can be argued that this megalithic monument is on the trail of the giant boar Twrch Trwyth as it rampaged through south Wales. As one of the tasks set by Olwen’s father Ysbaddaden chief-giant for Culhwch to win her hand in marriage is to obtain the two whelps of the ‘gast Rhymi’(the Bitch of Rhymi), Gwyddrud and Gwyddneu Astrus. Arthur and his men find the gast Rhymi at Aber Deu Gleddyf where she is in the form of She-Wolf.

Gwal-y-filiast (Dolwilym)

Several cromlech’s in Wales share the "filiast" name, such as Twlc y Filiast, Gwal y Filiast (St Lythans) and Lletty'r y Filiast (Great Orme), but no satisfactory story has survived to explain it. The designation is often explained as an association with the witch Ceridwen who has transformed herself in to a greyhound bitch (milast) in her pursuit of Little Gwion (Bach) which started by Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake) in Gwynedd in the Tale of Taliesin and that these megalithic monuments were named in her honour as a canine symbol. 

Indeed Chris Barber recalls a comment from J Smith Jnr in The Archaeology of the Great Orme’s Head, North Wales (1875) in which he calls Lletty'r y Filiast “a cromlech in which the bones of the mythical hag Keridwen are supposed to be interred”.

Poor old Ceridwen, she really has suffered over the years, turned into an old hag and thrown into a dog’s kennel. This seems a very unlikely explanation, I just can’t see why Ceridwen would be confined in these megalithic kennels; there is certainly no surviving story to justify such a proposition.

My suggested interpretation as the 'Lair of the She-Wolf’ at least for several of the monuments in south Wales in relation the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth as told in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen is surely a more convincing explanation. In support of this it is worth noting that many of these megalithic sites bear a second name usually associated with Arthur, such as Coetan Arthur or Bwrdd Arthur. 

However, there are several sites in North Wales which also attract the “filiast” name, and yet there is no story to suggest the hunting of Twrch Trwyth or Ceridwen’s pursuit of Little Gwion was anywhere near to suggest an association. If not linked to the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth or Ceridwen’s chase could there be another explanation for the appellation of these northern Welsh sites? 

In discussing the cromlech at St Lythans Barber quotes Rev T Rees in A Topographical and Historical Description of South Wales (1815) who called it Lech-y-Filiast and states “that it has been conjected that it derived from the circumstances of the early Christians envincing their contempt for these vestiges of pagan worship by converting them into kennels for their dogs...”

Christian kennels for their dogs? This is another unbelievable explanation; I started to wonder if the greyhound names of these prehistoric burial chambers is the result of a totally random exercise - or is there some other reason?

Twlc y filiast

Other Lairs?
In addition to the burial chamber of Gwal y Filiast (Dolwilym, Bwrdd Arthur) near Crymych, previously discussed, there is another monument named as Twlc y Filiast, but also known as Arthur's Table or Ebenezer, sited near Carmarthen. As with the previous cromlech this is sited amongst trees by a babbling stream, which flows down to join the Afon Taf. Glynn Daniel describes three orthostats partially supporting the slipped capstone which now touches the ground which would have formerly enclosed a small rectangular chamber. He adds there are no traces of a mound at this site but later investigation by Hubert Savory found evidence of a 55ft long mound aligned to the axis of the valley with one sided now eroded by the stream. Savory suggested that a fallen slab had once formed an ante-chamber and located a series of ritual pits. Nothing was found in the chamber except a dark brown earth deposit and charcoal. In addition a flint scraper, a stone pendant and some unidentifiable pottery were found within the cairn. The stone pendant has been been said to be representative of a metal axe suggesting a possible Early Bronze Age date. Nash noted about seven stones that he considered may delineate a narrow passage and forecourt area, suggesting the ante-chamber could actually be part of the passage.

Moving east, at Mynydd Llangynderyrn, near Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire, there are twin burial chambers known as Gwal-y-Filiast and Bwrdd Arthur. Jointly these burial chambers are referred to as Bwrdd Arthur but individually the western chamber is known as Gwal-y-Filiast. These are the remains of two partially destroyed burial chambers imagined as a monument perhaps similar to the twin chambers of Dyffryn Ardudwy, but there is such a jumble of rock here they can be difficult to identify. The western group consists of a large capstone with a number of collapsed orthostats beneath. The eastern group is in worse condition yet Daniel is of little doubt they represent an authentic burial chamber, however George Nash remains silent and fails to mention the site, perhaps an indication that he views the authenticity of the site with some suspicion. 

St Lythans

Moving south-east from here into Glamorgan, near Barry there is the burial chamber known as St Lythans or Maes-y-Felin which also carries the alternative name of Gwal-y-Filiast. Maes-y-Felin seems to be a reference to the field in which this cromlech stands which is said to be known as the “Accursed Field” as it is claimed nothing will grow there. Three large orthostats supported a rectangular capstone measuring 14ft by 10ft which would have been covered over by a 50ft long mound orientated east-west, with the chamber set at the east end. There is a hole in the western slab said to release the spirts of the departed interred within. This monument is very similar in shape and design to those found in south-west England classified as the Cotswold-Severn type. As noted above, a local tale claims this was apparently where Christians kept their dogs.


The cromlech at St Lythans is often confused with Tinkinswood less than a mile away in the adjacent parish of St Nicholas. Tinkinswood is variously called Llech-y-Filiast, Maes-y-Filiast or Gwal-y-Filiast and well known for enclosing its burial chamber with the largest capstone in Wales, measuring 22ft in length and 3ft thick, estimated to weigh around 40 tons. According to Daniel this was covered by a 130ft long mound orientated east-west. Excavations during restoration in the early 20th century revealed the remains of at least 50 people in the chamber. Neolithic pottery from this site was typical to that uncovered at other  Cotswold-Severn type monuments. Artefacts dating to the Early Iron Age, Romano-British and medieval periods suggests that the monument may have been used a shelter during these periods. Nash observes that the monuments of Tinkinswood and Maes-y-Felin (St Lythans) are intervisible, i.e. each can be seen from the other.

Continuing on our travels in an easterly direction across South Wales we come to an 8 ft high standing stone that bears the name of Gwal y Filiast, also known as the Druidstone, at Risca, north-east of Cardiff. This appears to be a single standing stone (monolith) not part of another structure such as a burial chamber or a ruined stone circle. According to Leslie Grinsell (Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain), when the cock crows at night the stone goes down to the River Rhymney to bathe. The Afon Rhymni cuts the Rhymney Valley between Monmouthshire and Glamorgan and the Twrch Trwyth must have crossed this waterway at some point before plunging into the Severn. In attracting the “filiast” name does this stone mark the route of Arthur’s boar hunt or is it simply a boundary marker with an odd name?

Llety'r Filiast

Moving on to the very top of North Wales we find Llety'r Filiast burial chamber on the Great Orme’s Head, Llandudno. Daniel writes that this was once an 85ft long barrow orientated east-west which incorporates a natural rock outcrop. All that remains today is a small polygonal chamber at the east end in very poor condition with a broken capstone that has collapsed at some point. The burial chamber is located very close to the famous Bronze Age Great Orme copper mine sitting in a marshy depression with restricted views which Frances Lynch sees a similarity with portal dolmens in Ireland. Vicki Cummings notes that owing to the massive alterations to the landscape here and the addition of modern housing it is difficult to determine the original landscape setting, however views to the north and south west are restricted with visibility limited to Great Orme’s Head to the north west and Llangernyw valley area to the east. As we have seen above, this was apparently the tomb of Ceridwen.

Moving further inland we find the cromlech of Cwrt y Filiast (Maen-y-Bardd) near the village of Ro-wen looking out over the wide valley of Afon Conwy on the north side of Caernarfon at an altitude of 1,000ft on an exposed plateau. Daniel records this monument as a simple chamber with four orthostats supporting a distinctive large capstone. It's a beauty. He found no traces of a mound of any sort. This monument is situated by Bronze Age and Roman routes leading to Tal-y-fan and the coast beyond.


Nash sees some significance in the close siting of this monument, within 2 miles, of the Graig Lwyd Neolithic axe factory, which appears to have some association with later funerary activity in the area.  Graig Lwyd was the third largest prehistoric axe quarry in Britain, whose products have been found across England and Wales. Polished stone axes have often been discovered in burial chambers and two plaques made of stone from the Neolithic axe factory at Mynydd Rhiw were found within the burial chambers at Dyffryn Ardudwy.

Cummings writes of the impressive landscape setting of Maen-y-Bardd that is just 100yds from the monument of Ro-Wen East. Views to the east focus on the Afon Conwy and where it reaches the sea. Looking out from the chamber entrance there is a spectacular view across the Conwy valley to the left and mountains to the right. Cwrt y Filiast is placed in a very impressive setting, well worth the effort to get here. Which makes us realise that we don't really understand the true purpose of these megalithic structures in the Neolithic minds.

Alas, there is nothing here to link the two North Wales sites Llety'r Filiast and Cwrt y Filiast (Maen-y-Bardd) with the boar hunt as told in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen which may explain the association of the southern tombs with the She-Wolf, ‘gast Rhymi’. Furthermore,  I find the suggestion that these were used as dog kennels in their remote locations absurd. And there is no surviving story to link Ceridwen with these monuments. 

However, in North Wales there are two ancient hill top cairns which do appear to have been named after a Greyhound; these are not burial chambers or megalithic monuments as such but one is claimed to be a Bronze Age cairn.

1. Carnedd-y-Filiast (Glyderau) is 2694 ft high, the top identified by the small cairn. The highest point is known as Y Fronllwyd, also as Carnedd-y-Filiast North Top, overlooking Nant Ffrancon, the A5 pass though the mountains. This is an isolated mountain towards the Elidir Fawr end of the Glyder Ridge overlooking Bethesda and Anglesey to the north. Carnedd-y-Filiast is well known to climbers for the 'Atlantic Slab', a distinctively marked bedding plane of Cambrian Sandstone. The eyesore of Penrhyn Quarry can be seen from the summit, once the World’s largest quarry. Yet no story survives for why this summit cairn should be named after a greyhound.

Carned-y-Filiast (Cerrigydrudion)

2. Carnedd-y-Filiast (Cerrigydrudion) is a hill top cairn set upon the 2,195ft summit of part of the Arenig mountain range to the north of Llyn Celyn reservoir, circumscribed on its north side by the A4212 road from Bala to Trawsfynydd. This Bronze Age cairn at the summit is another prehistoric monument to have legendary associations with a greyhound, in this case, according to Archaeologia Cambrensis, (1887), a beast belonging to St Helen.

Elen and the Greyhound
The antiquarian Harold Bayley wrote of Elen in his book The Lost Language of London (1935). He said Elen was a lost goddess of London, claiming that the capital city was named for her. In his book Bayley claimed Elen was the patron goddess of the capital city based on the importance of the Helen in London legend and the prominence of the Priory and Church of St Helen in its early Christian history. In the late 16th century John Stow alluded to the tradition that Helen was responsible for encircling London with its first wall, which perhaps inspired Bayley to seek out Elen as the Goddess of London.

Bayley saw Elen as an ancient British deity associated with animals of the hunter-goddess, similar to Diana, such as the greyhound and the deer. Bayley saw her origin in Nouhalennia, or Nehalennia, a goddess found all over Europe, and in coastal areas of Britain including Lands End and the Scilly Isles.

Bayley cites four shrines or tablets illustrated to Nehalennia in which she is depicted undoubtedly with a dog, which he positively identifies as a greyhound. He then refers to a “table stone”, as he calls it, in North Wales that he says is known locally as “Llety-y-filiast or stone of the greyhound bitch”. He is certainly referring to the remains of the burial chamber on the Great Orme’s Head as discussed above.

Bayley sees the name of the burial chamber as an allusion to the British Cerres or Keridwen who was symbolized as the greyhound bitch. He argues that an animal which is unmistakeably a greyhound bitch appears on pre-Roman British coins and was probably a national emblem. According to Bayley it is therefore possible that Nehalennia of the Greyhound was a pre-Celtic Goddess, stating that the greyhound was not only a tribal emblem but also a Royal appendage not only in England but also in Ireland. He quotes the Celtic scholar Sir John Rhys who, owing to its persistence, surmised the dog was once a totem of the country.

The case for Elen/Helen seems remarkably confused; in early British legend Elen is said to be the daughter of King Cole and associated with road building along with Dunwal Molmutius and his son Belinus, which has led to her association with Ley Lines as identified by Alfred Watkins and the New Age earth mysteries movement instigated by John Michell.

The association with road building in straight lines from one end of the country to another is a clear echo from the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Mascen Wledig (Magnus Maximus, the 4th-Century Roman emperor) in which she appears as Elen Luyddog, Elen of the Hosts, remembered as a saint in Wales as St Helen of Caernarfon, feast day 22 May. The Roman road known as Sarn Helen running through Wales is named in her honour.

English chroniclers of the Middle Ages linked Elen to Helena of Constantinople, the mother of Constantine the Great, the lady said to have discovered the True Cross, claiming she was of British noble descent but there is no historical basis to support this. 

However, a Roman inscription from Holland clearly portrays Nehalennia as protectress of those travelling by sea. This would explain why she is often found in coastal areas across Europe and a far cry from a goddess of high places; an association with a greyhound does not necessarily define a hunter-goddess of the hill tops.

Although Bayley does not cite a reference for Elen of London as a hunter goddess we can discount him as the inventor of this story because the legend of (H)Elen and her greyhound was in circulation in the late 19th century at least.

The 1887 edition of The Journal of The Cambrian Archaeological Association states:

"Tradition, indeed, in the Hiraethog, still speaks of the Llwybr Elen (the road of the Empress Helen, mother of Constantine) as passing over the Carnedd y Filiast, where her favourite greyhound died, and where a great carnedd exist to this day to its memory..."

Here we finally have an explanation for the hill top burial cairn on Carnedd-y-filiast being named after the Greyhound Bitch. But this is one site only and there is no evidence that Sarn Helen or one of branches passed over this summit. However, by a strange coincidence this hill is not far from Bala where the story of Ceridwen and Gwion Bach is set. Perhaps we have come full circle? But one thing is certain; the origins of Elen requires further study.

Christopher Thomas Barker, The Chambered Tombs of South-West Wales, Oxbow Monograph 14, 1992.
Chris Barber and John Godfrey Williams, The Ancient Stones of Wales, Blorenge Books, 1989.
Vicki Cummings and Alasdair Whittle, Places of Special Virtue: Megaliths in the Neollithic Landscapes of Wales, Oxbow Books, 2004.
Glynn E Daniel, The Prehistoric Chamber Tombs of England and Wales, Cambridge University Press 1950 (first paperback edition 2013).
George Nash, The Architecture of Death: Neolithic Chambered Tombs in Wales, Logaston Press, 2006.
George Nash and George Children, Neolithic Sites of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire & Pembrokeshire, Logaston Press, 2002.
Harold Bayley, Great St Helen, in John Matthews and Chesca Potter, editors, The Aquarian Guide to Legendary London, The Aquarian Press, 1990.
Caroline Wise, editor, Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Ways, Eala Press, 2015.

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Sunday 27 June 2021

Gwal Y Filiast: The Lair of the She-Wolf

“The whole region is Arthurian country where the part-historical, largely mythical king is said to have hunted. The land is studded with standing stones, burial chambers and cairns, a natural outcrop  known as Carn Arthur, a hilltop cairn called Bedd Arthur, ‘Arthur’s grave’, and five miles south-east of Cwm garw the tomb of his dog, Gwal Y Filiast, ‘the lair of the greyhound bitch’. It is also known as Arthur’s Table. His cauldron lies in the river Taf below.” - Aubrey Burl, From Carnac to Callanish: The Prehistoric Stone Rows and Avenues of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale, 1993.

Raising Stone
It is estimated that there is over 40,000 megalithic structures in Europe, traces of a prehistoric landscape stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to Norway. Recent studies have began to recognise the relationship between these monuments and local landscape. 

Limited dating evidence denies the construction of a solid chronology, however the Portal Dolmens are considered among the oldest megalithic structures in Europe if not the world. A Portal Dolmen (known as “cromlech” in Wales, literally “bent stone”) is is defined as a Neolithic structure consisting of a large flat stone supported horizontally on two or more upright stones (orthostats), the enclosed area thought to have been used as a burial chamber. The whole structure is said to have been covered over with a mound of earth or cairn of stones. Often a forecourt at the entrance would be delineated by other othostats forming a horn-shaped area of the cairn. It remains unclear why these huge stones were raised in this way, the giant capstone of Garn Turne is estimated to weigh  more than 60 tons. 

The location of many of these monuments coincides with evidence for Mesolithic activity, such as coastal flint scatters, suggesting continuing over thousands of years with the portal dolmens emerging in the earliest Neolithic period which may account for the affinity of many monuments with the coast. For example, some monuments can be located within a kilometre of the coast but their careful siting denies visibility of the sea. Indeed the monuments appear to be positioned in such away to point to a specific landscape feature with some capstones seemingly mimicking a mountain profile against the skyline. Surely this makes the suggestion that the capstone was completely covered over by a mound of earth or cairn of stones look absurd. 

No doubt some flat-topped burial chambers, such as Capel Garmon, were covered over but when you look at the carefully selected shape of some of the capstones such as Llech-y-Tribedd mirroring the profile of Mynydd Carningli behind, can there really be any doubt. Furthermore some capstones are covered in cupmarks, such as the destroyed monument at Trefael; is it really conceivable that this highly decorated capstone was covered over? I would also question their primary function as burial chambers which is not supported by the minimal artefacts found within the chamber; the few human remains or grave goods found at these monuments could easily have been placed through gaps in the portal stones as some later time. The shape of the capstone and their careful siting in the landscape suggests a different purpose altogether, although in our modern world in which we are disconnected from the landscape we struggle to understand how.

The monuments of Wales exhibit a unique megalithic architecture, different from other areas of Britain and Europe, influenced by the culture of the Irish Sea zone. Archaeologists have categorised the megalithic chambered tombs of Wales into eight geographical groups: North Wales; Anglesey; Lleyn Peninsula; Harlech; Gower Peninsula; Black Mountains; South-East Wales; and the South-West Wales group.

The largest group is that of South-West Wales, consisting of 50 or so monuments spread across the modern counties of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. Many of these megalithic structures are named after King Arthur, such as Bwrdd Arthur (Arthur’s Table), or Coetan Arthur (Arthur’s Quoit) the capstone often said to have been thrown some distance by the legendary king. 

Gwal Y Filiast (Karen Sawyer: Wikimedia Commons)

One inland cromlech is Gwal Y Filiast, which we are told commonly translates as "Lair of the Greyhound Bitch", also referred to as Dolwilym (William's Meadow?), situated 6km south east of Crymych in Carmarthenshire, south west Wales, a delicately balanced capstone is all that remains of a Neolithic burial chamber, apparently denuded of its mound. This is a very secluded site on a steep wooded ridge overlooking the River Taf, where the sound of roaring water fills the background. 

Four uprights support a large capstone forming a polygonal chamber beneath. In the 19th century a fifth upright was reported facing east down the slope; this may have formed the entrance directed down toward the river Taf. Away from the main structure but seemingly related to it are two monoliths also on the eastern side which may have formed the entrance to a passageway into the main chamber. In the 19th century the structure was apparently covered by a mound and over 30 kerbstones delineated the edge of the mound. However, 150 years later there is little evidence of this mound today. The large capstone points towards the river Taf and the eastern extent of the Preseli Hills but today this view is obscured by the mature Beech trees that form the backdrop to Gwal Y Filiast. 

Below Gwal-y-Filiast the river Taf snakes through a wooded valley but at this point the river changes to a violent torrent over a series of rapids where there is a naturally created hollow called Crochan Arthur (Arthur's pot or cauldron):

“This [feature] is under a cromlech at Dolwillim, on the banks of the Tawe, and in the stream itself when the water is high; it is a circular hole of considerable depth, accurately bored in the stone by the action of the water. This hole is called Arthur's Pot, and according to local belief was made by Merlin for the hero king to cook his dinner in.” - Wirt Sikes 'British Goblins' 1880

Further up and downstream from this point the waters of the river are still. Christopher Tilley makes the observation that “in this connection the importance of rapids in rivers in many systems of mythological thought as constituting doors or openings to the underworld.”

This cromlech is also known as Bwrdd Arthur (‘Arthur’s Table’) but few would agree with Aubrey Burl, quoted above, that it is the tomb of Arthur’s dog. As the “Lair of the Greyhound bitch”, which several cromlech’s in Wales share this designation, Twlc y Filiast, Gwal Y Filiast (St Lythans) and Lletty'r y Filiast (Great Orme), the burial chamber at Gwal Y Filiast has become associated with the witch Ceridwen.

The She-Wolf
An old Welsh tale set during the days of King Arthur tells of Ceridwen’s cauldron and her strange concoction of herbs called Awen which she brewed for a year and a day for her son. The cauldron was tended by a blindman and little Gwion (Gwion Bach). When the brew was ready the three drops of Awen landed on Gwion’s thumb which he stuck in his mouth and he received inspiration. 

A shapeshifting chase ensures in which Gwion turns into a hare and Ceridwen transforms into a greyhound in pursuit down to the river. Eventually Ceridwen as a hen catches Gwion, now a grain of wheat, and she swallows him whole. Now pregnant she vows to kill the child at birth, but when the time comes he is so beautiful she can’t bring herself to do it and instead places him in the sea, or a river depending on the version. When the boy is found he is called Taliesin. So is the Tale of Taliesin, connecting Ceridwen with Arthur that some ask if these 5,000 year old cromlechs could perhaps be associated with the story? 

Ceridwen has had a rough deal by academics ever since the Welsh scholar Sir Ifor Williams translated the story of Taliesin a hundred years ago. Williams said her name meant “bent, crooked” as in a witch, when originally she was a Goddess. Surely the translation of Gwal Y Filiast has also been misinterpreted. In 'Folklore and Folkstories of Wales' (1909)  Marie Trevelyan argued that Ceridwen transformed herself in to a greyhound bitch (milast) in her pursuit of Little Gwion and that these megalithic monuments were named in her honour as a canine symbol.

However it is important to note that Gwal Y Filiast translates as “Lair of the Grey Hound Bitch”; as opposed to “greyhound”, i.e. a breed of racing dog. A grey hound, literally a hound that is grey, is a reference to a wolf in Welsh or more correctly considering the association of these sites with Arthur, a She-wolf. In this context the correct translation should be the “Lair of the She-Wolf”. There is such a tale that connects Arthur with a She-Wolf with Gwal Y Filiast on the route of a boar hunt.

Hunting Twrch Trwyth
In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen in order to win her hand in marriage Culhwch must complete forty impossible tasks (anoethau) set by Olwen’s father, Ysbaddaden chief-giant. The formula is well known to folklorists and termed “the Giant’s Daughter” in which the hero sets out to obtain precious objects under great difficulties. In Culhwch the first group of tasks require preparation for the wedding. The second group is to make Ysbaddaden presentable to his guests; to cut his hair and to shave his beard he requires comb, scissors and razor. 

These tonsural items are located between the ears of Twrch Trwyth, a king who has been transformed into a huge boar with poisonous bristles The hunting of this boar cannot be accomplished without obtaining a whelp, a leash, a collar and a chain along with the best hunters in the land, Mabon son of Modron and Gwynn son of Nudd. The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is the pinnacle of the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the oldest Arthurian tale; the boar hunt also appears in the Mirabilia (List of Wonders) attached to the 9th Century Historia Brittonum, and a (possible) 7th Century poem attached to Y Goddodin.

To hunt Twrch Trwyth Arthur’s band must obtain the two whelps of the ‘gast Rhymi’(the Bitch of Rhymi), Gwyddrud and Gwyddneu Astrus, named earlier in the list of names that Culhwch invokes to help him obtain Olwen. The next task is to obtain a leash made from the beard of Dillus the Bearded as nothing else will hold those two whelps. 

Arthur is told that the gast Rhymi is at Aber Deu Gleddyf. Arthur went to the house of Tringad, in Aber Cleddyf, where he is informed she is in the form of She-Wolf with her two cubs where she is in a cave at Aber Cleddyf. This is the mouth of the Afon Cleddau (Sword river) where the Eastern and Western Cleddau rivers converge to form the estuary at Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, South-West Wales. So Arthur went in his ship Prydwen by sea, the others by land, and when they surrounded her Rhymi and her cubs were changed into human form. Most explanations for this strange episode suggest she was a human princess turned into a wolf for her sins. Shapeshifting features strongly in Culhwch and Olwen as Twrch Trwyth is the son of Prince Tared who has been turned into swine for his sins.

The hunt for Trwch Trwyth starts in Ireland. Arthur's men find the boar with seven young pigs at Esgeir Oervel (Seiscenn Uarbeóil in Ireland?). The boar and piglets then cross the Irish Sea to cause havoc in South Wales. The boar lands at Porthclais in Dyfed, near St David’s Head, before moving onto Aber Gleddyf, "Mouth of the Sword [River]" (the estuary at Milford Haven) then went in to the Preseli Hills. At Cwm Kerwyn, (Cwmcerwyn in Preseli) Twrch Trwyth made a stand against Arthur’s men. Here Twrch Trwyth slew four of Arthur's champions, and in a second engagement killed Arthur’s son Gwydre. Here stands the Stones of the Sons of Arthur (Cerrig Meibion Arthur).

From here, travelling east, Twrch Trwyth must have crossed the river Taff on route through Sancler (St Clears) on to Abertwyi. The crossing point must have been near Gwal Y Filiast. The story goes that a little further east at Dyffryn Llychwr (Loughor Valley)  the offspring of Twrch Trwyth , Grugyn Gwallt Ereint and Llwydawg Govynnyad slew more of Arthur’s men, then Arthur then let loose all of the dogs upon these two swine but hearing the noise Twrch Trwyth came to their assistance. By the time they got to Dyffryn Amanw (Valley of the Amman), all the piglets that came with Twrch Trwyth from Ireland were now dead  except Grugyn Gwallt Ereint, and Llwydawg Govynnyad.

Arthur’s men chased the boar to Llwch Ewin (Llyn Llech Owain), past the Black Mountain where Arthur overtook and made a stand. And then they went to Llwch Tawy (Llyn y Fan Fawr; Brecon) and to Ewyas Harold. Twrch Trwyth plunged into the Severn at Aber Gwy (mouth of the river Wye) and here in the water they obtained the scissors and razor from between the ears of the boar. Arthur and his men pursued Twrch Trwyth in to Cornwall where they obtained the comb then the boar escaped into the sea.

Gwal Y Filiast must be situated on, or close to, the route of Twrch Trwyth which Arthur and his warband pursued across south Wales. The name, the Lair of the She-Wolf, suggests an association with the whelps of the Bitch Rhymi, required to hunt the supernatural boar. No doubt the positioning of this cromlech above a potential opening to the underworld is significant and possibly related to the hunt of this enchanted swine. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we have lost the local tale.

Margaret Isaac, Arthur and the Twrch Trwyth, APECS Press, 2012.
Idris Llewelyn Foster, Culhwch and Olwen, in R S Loomis ed., Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, (Oxford University Press, 1959), Special edition for Sandpiper Books, 2001.
George Nash, The Architecture of Death: Neolithic Chambered Tombs in Wales, Logaston Press, 2006.
Christopher Tilley,  A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments, Berg, 1994.

* * *

Saturday 12 June 2021

Geoffrey and the Giants’ Dance

 "The discovery of a dismantled stone circle—close to Stonehenge’s bluestone quarries in west Wales—raises the possibility that a 900-year-old legend about Stonehenge being built from an earlier stone circle contains a grain of truth."  - Mike Parker Pearson, et al, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales, Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): 85–103.

The Bluestone Trail
Much has been written recently about the claimed discovery of the “original” Stonehenge in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, following the television program Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed first screened on BBC Two on 12 February 2021. The documentary followed the revelations of Mike Parker Pearson and team in the Antiquity journal, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales (Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): pp.85–103).

The media quickly picked up on the claims that the earliest megalithic circle at Stonehenge was first built in the Preseli Hills (Mynydd Preseli) more than 5,000 years ago, before it was dismantled and its stones dragged over 140 miles to its present location on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.

The huge sarsen stones, making up the outer circle and inner trilithon horseshoe, were sourced locally and brought from Marlborough Downs about 20 miles distant around 500 years later. The construction of the sarsen ring appears to be in common with most prehistoric stone circles that used local materials. Nevertheless, moving the massive sarsens weighing as much as 20 tons each was no mean feat. Yet it is the 80 or so smaller bluestones, the largest weighing around 4 tons, at Stonehenge that have puzzled archaeologists since the British geologist Herbert Thomas identified their source in south west Wales a hundred years ago. 

In 1923 Thomas established that the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge originated in the Preseli Hills where he envisaged they may have originally formed a “venerated stone circle”. He identified a site called Carn Menyn in the Preselis as the source of the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge. 

Good Science or Bad Science?
Since then it is now known that there are at least 20 different rock types that constitute the “bluestone group” of stones, an unsatisfactory generic term used by archaeologists to describe all the non-sarsen stones at Stonehenge, such as spotted dolerites, unspotted dolerites, rhyolites, and tuffs. Modern science has identified the sources of two types of the Stonehenge bluestones at outcrops at Carn Goedog (near Carn Menyn) and Craig Rhos-y-felin  in the Preseli Hills.

The Stones of Stonehenge project team led by Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) claims to have identified the site of a dismantled bluestone circle situated between these two proposed quarry sites. The Antiquity paper argues for the existence of a bluestone circle at Waun Mawn that was dismantled in prehistory and re-erected as Stonehenge. 

Archaeology is perhaps the most speculative of all the sciences as one must put the archaeological finds into a context. Parker Pearson is a master of the archaeological story, a skill he has crafted since Stonehenge Riverside Project days when he proposed that the people of Durrington Walls were the builders of Stonehenge. Influenced by funerary practices in modern day Madagascar Parker Pearson saw the timber constructions at Durrington Walls as the land of the living and the stone circles of Stonehenge as the abode of the ancestors. The two sites linked by ceremonial avenues aligned to the midwinter sunrise and sunset by the river Avon.

The big flaw in this is that when a senior academic puts forward a theory such as the first Stonehenge was a bluestone circle at Waun Mawn it can very quickly become established fact among popular opinion, when there is little, if any, proven evidence to confirm the theory in this case. The team have been accused of stretching the evidence and making it fit their scheme; I leave criticism of the archaeological methods to those better qualified than me. Here I am more interested with the prospect of Geoffrey of Monmouth's tale of the Giants’ Dance and how this may have influenced the archaeologists.

Merlin and the Legend of the Stones
Herbert Thomas's discovery of the geological origin of the Stonehenge bluestones led several academics to look again at Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century tale. Archaeologists Stuart Piggott (1941), Aubrey Burl (2006), Timothy Darvill & Geoffrey Wainwright (2009) and now Parker Pearson have all speculated that there may be a grain a truth in Geoffrey’s tale of the Giants Dance. The possibility certainly seems to have influenced the authors’ of the Antiquity paper:

"In the oldest story of Stonehenge’s origins, the History of the Kings of Britain (c. AD 1136), Geoffrey of Monmouth describes how the monument was built using stones from the Giants’ Dance stone circle in Ireland. Located on legendary Mount Killaraus, the circle was dismantled by Merlin and shipped to Amesbury on Salisbury Plain by a force of 15,000 men, who had defeated the Irish and captured the stones. According to the legend, Stonehenge was built to commemorate the death of Britons who were treacherously killed by Saxons during peace talks at Amesbury. Merlin wanted the stones of the Giants’ Dance for their magical, healing properties." [Parker Pearson et al, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales (Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): pp.85–103]

There are many flaws in Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae); much of what he wrote he seems to have simply made up to fill out a good yarn; today, at best, it is considered a pseudo-historical account. Did Geoffrey really believe the stone circle was erected during the Arthurian era, the period known by the (now out-of-favour) term the Dark Ages 400-600 AD? 

In the Antiquity paper Parker Pearson argues that the area of Wales where the bluestones came from was considered Irish territory in Geoffrey’s day. This is simply not correct; during the 12th century the newly arrived Norman Lords were busy settling Flemings in south-west Wales.

The earliest account we have of Stonehenge is found in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, (History of the English), written around 1125, in which he lists the stone circle by its English name as one of the four marvels in England:. 

“The second is at Stonehenge, where stones of remarkable size are raised up like gates, in such a way that gates seem to be placed on top of gates. And no one can work out how the stones were so skilfully lifted up to such a height or why they were erected there.”

Amazingly it has been suggested that Geoffrey of Monmouth didn't invent the story of the stones of the Giants’ Dance but simply recounted known folklore; yet it is inconceivable that an oral tradition could have survived from the Neolithic, some 4,000 years before he put quill to parchment in the 12th century. Yet the account is not found in any source before Geoffrey and we must conclude that his 900-year-old story of Stonehenge is pure fantasy; in his day Geoffrey could not have possibly known that the smaller bluestones came from Wales.

Geoffrey’s Sources
Evidently from his account of the Giants’ Dance Geoffrey was not familiar with the geography of the area around Salisbury Plain and it is doubtful if he had even visited the stone circle. Geoffrey clearly models his convent at Ambrius with the Priory at Amesbury but appears confused between the location of Mount Ambrius and the Temple at Ambrius; he seems to use both terms to describe the same thing.

According to Geoffrey the Britons met with Hengist’s Saxons at the monastery at Ambrius on the kalends of May for a peace conference. During the meeting the Saxons pulled out concealed daggers and slaughtered 460 British nobles. The murdered Britons are given Christian burial by St Eldad, bishop of Gloucester (unknown outside Geoffrey) “not far from Kaercaradauc, now Salisbury….. near the monastery of Ambrius, the abbot, who was the founder of it.” Geoffrey tells us that at this place was a convent that maintained 300 friars, situated on the mount of Ambrius.

It is here on mount Ambrius that the king Aurelius Ambrosius has Merlin re-assemble the Giants’ Dance as a memorial to the slaughtered British nobles. When Aurelius dies he is buried “near the convent of Ambrius, within the Giants’ Dance.” His brother Uther Pendragon takes the throne of Britain. When Uther drinks water poisoned by the Saxons at Verulam his body is taken to the convent at Ambrius where he is buried close by Aurelius within the Giants’ Dance.

Following Uther’s death his son Arthur becomes king and fights a series of battles, the pinnacle of Geoffrey’s opus. After being mortally wounded in his last battle against Modred, Arthur is taken to the isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds, not buried among his kinsfolk within the Giants’ Dance as one might expect. Clearly here Geoffrey was familiar with the Breton and Cornish legend of Arthur’s return; you can’t bury a man who isn’t dead.

At this point in Geoffrey’s tale one could be forgiven for questioning whether the Giants’ Dance is actually Stonehenge; all we can be certain of at this point is that it is a stone circle somewhere near Salisbury. But where is mount Ambrius? Stonehenge is situated on a plain, not a hill or a mountain by any means.

However, the location of the Giants’ Dance is revealed after Arthur’s kinsman Constantine takes the throne and on his death is buried close by Uther Pendragon “within the structure of stones, which was set up with wonderful art not far from Salisbury, and called in the English tongue, Stonehenge.

The name Ambrius is clearly created by Geoffrey to provide a connection with Amesbury, about 5 miles from Stonehenge, where there has been a religious house since the 10th century. Amesbury Priory was founded by the Saxon Queen Ælfthryth in 979 AD as a house exclusively for women. Shortly after Geoffrey’s time when Henry II dissolved this house in 1177 there were some 30 nuns, a far cry from Geoffrey’s 300 friars. Henry used the priory buildings for the foundation of a double priory of the Fontevrault Order, which he introduced into England, known as Amesbury Abbey.

It would appear that when Geoffrey refers to the convent of Ambrius he means the Priory at Amesbury, and when using the term mount Ambrius he is referring to the site where the Giants’ Dance was reconstructed, that is Stonehenge. But as stated above Stonehenge is hardly on a hill, let alone a mountain.

As we have seen above, Geoffrey has the British nobles buried “not far from Kaercaradauc, now Salisbury”. Kaer Caradawg was used as a name for Old Sarum hillfort, about 2 and a half miles miles north of Salisbury cathedral.

The Iron Age hillfort at Old Sarum, 2 miles north of Salisbury was known as Sorviodunum to the Romano-Britons. Sacked by the Saxons in 552, refortified by King Alfred in the 9th century, the Normans constructed a motte and bailey castle in 1070. Shortly after the cathedral was constructed but was badly damaged just five days after completion in 1092. The Old Sarum cathedral was refurbished and expanded in the 1110s by bishop Roger of Sarum.

The cathedral was moved to “New Sarum”  (Salisbury) in 1220 when, as legend claims, an arrow was shot from Old Sarum and where it landed the new church would be built. However, the distance is too great for a single arrow shot and it is claimed that the arrow hit a white deer that continued to run and finally dropped on the spot where the cathedral stands today. As the site around the new cathedral grew Old Sarum was abandoned and the stones robbed. New Sarum was made a city in 1227 and by the 14th century was the largest settlement in Wiltshire.

It therefore follows that if Old Sarum became New Sarum (Salisbury) when the settlement relocated, then if Kaercaradauc (Kaer Caradawg) was Salisbury it must previously have also been the name of Old Sarum. By this reasoning it seems very likely that Geoffrey confused mount Ambrius with the new cathedral and hillfort at Old Sarum (Kaer Caradawg) and clear evidence that he never visited the site of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain.

A late Triad refers to The Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain as being sited at the Isle of Avalon (Glastonbury), Caer Caradoc (Old Sarum) and Bangor Is-y-Coed (Bangor-on-Dee, near Wrexham) with 2,400 singers in each choir, a hundred for every hour of the day and the night. Following a translation (or more correctly a re-interpretation) by Iolo Morgannwg, the earth mysteries writer John Michell argued that Bangor Is-y-Coed  should be identified with Llantwit Major. Michell proposed further choir locations forming a huge decagon 63 miles across centred on a Whiteleafed Oak was in existence in ancient days for the enchantment of the land.

In the The Dimensions of Paradise, Michell wrote; “Three of the choirs were located at Stonehenge, at Glastonbury, and near Llantwit Major in Wales. Others appear to have been at Goring-on- Thames and at Croft Hill in Leicestershire….” Michell claimed the decagon formed a straight line from Glastonbury to Stonehenge, then down the line of the Stonehenge Avenue and the Midsummer sunrise to Goring-on-Thames forming an internal angle of 144 degrees. Michell had determined there was ancient temple at Goring but this has proven to be incorrect

However, the connection with the line of the Stonehenge Avenue is intriguing and we will return to this point later in discussing Parker Pearson’s claim for why Stonehenge was constructed at this place.

Stones from Africa
Geoffrey claimed “the giants of old brought them [the stones of the Giants’ Dance] from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country.” He added that these were healing stones; by washing the stones they would put the sick into the water and they were cured of their ills. There is no doubt that this statement has encouraged some [see: Darvill & Wainwright] to see the bluestones as possessing healing properties and this is the reason why so few have survived at Stonehenge today. There is no folklore outside of Geoffrey to support such a concept. The bluestones have been chipped away by souvenir hunters since at least Roman times simply because some types are considerably softer and flakier than sarsen.

Why Africa? Geoffrey’s claim that giants brought the stones from Africa is medieval make-believe of course, but he had to provide a link to these large mythological figures to justify the name, the Giants’ Dance. However, during Geoffrey’s time the Islamic world was at its cultural peak, a Golden Age, in which major advances in the sciences such as alchemy, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, had major influences on the Western world. Linking to the Islamic world also enhances the mysticism of the stones.

Stones from Ireland
Geoffrey tells us that the Giant's Dance was at Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland where it stood as a  structure of stones of a such vast magnitude that Merlin scoffed none of his age could raise them. This seems a very apt description of the massive sarsen stones at Stonehenge (not the smaller bluestones) topped with a ring of interlocking lintels, a very impressive structure indeed.

Mons Killaraus” can only be the hill of Killare in County Westmeath, Ireland. Killare was situated at the foot of the Hill of Uisneach, the sacred centre of Ireland, the axis mundi, where sky touches land and three worlds meet; the gateway to the mythical Otherworld. This place is associated with druids, the fire festival of Bealtaine and said to be the burial place of the mythical Tuatha Dé Danann, the supernatural folk of the goddess Danu. The hill is connected by a ceremonial road to the Hill of Tara, an ancient site that has been in use for more than 5,000 years as a place of burial and assembly. According to Geoffrey the purpose of the Giants’ Dance is exactly the same; a place of assembly and then a royal cemetery.

The Hill of Uisneach consists of a series of monuments and earthworks including a megalithic tomb, burial mounds, enclosures, standing stones, holy wells, the earliest dating to the Neolithic period. The passage tomb known as St Patrick’s Bed is claimed to be the oldest structure on the hill. On the south-west side of the hill is a huge stone known as Ail na Míreann (The Stone of Divisions, or Cat Stone) said to be the point the four ancient Provinces of Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster, met. This is the home of the sovereignty goddess, Eriu, who, according to legend, is buried under the Catstone. The stone is also said to be the entrance to the mythical fifth Province of Ireland; Midhe. 

As the mythical centre Uisneach fits requirements in all measures; but the big question is of course did a stone circle once stand here in ancient days? There are claims, but little evidence, that Ail na Mireann was ringed by a stone circle. But ultimately this myth always leads back to Geoffrey of Monmouth and there is no current evidence to support this. The only way to be certain is to carry out archaeological surveys but there is little appetite for such intrusions on this most sacred of sites.

The Sacred Centre
The convergence of five ancient roads at the Hill of Tara, linked to Uiseneach by a ceremonial avenue, indicates the spiritual and political importance of the site; burial place and seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry of Huntingdon recognised the significance of the ancient roads of Britain that we should expect to converge at, or very near, Stonehenge if it were to be the sacred centre:

“So important was the safely of Britain to its loyal people that, under royal authority, they constructed four great highways from one end of the island to the other, as military roads, by which they might meet any hostile invasion. The first runs from west to east, and is called Ichenild. The second runs from south to north, and is called Erninge Strate. The third crosses the island from Dover to Chester, in a direction from south-east to north-west, and is called Watling Street. The fourth, which is longer than the others, commences in Caithness, and terminates in Totness, extending from the borders of Cornwall to the extremity of Scotland; this road runs diagonally from south-west to north-east, passing by Lincoln, and is called the Foss-way. These are the four principal highways of Britain, which are noble and useful works, founded by the edicts of kings, and maintained by venerated laws.” [The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, Book I]

Geoffrey seems to have used Henry’s Chronicle as a source for the four paved Roman roads (see JSP Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain, pp. 34, 121, 281). On the ancient roads of Britain Geoffrey says: 

“The king [Belinus] ……………….. summoned all the workmen of the island together, and commanded them to pave a causeway of stone and mortar, which should run the whole length of the island, from the sea of Cornwall, to the shores of Caithness, and lead directly to the cities that lay upon that extent. He commanded another to be made over the breadth of the kingdom, leading from Menevia, that was situated upon the Demetian Sea, to Hamo's Port, and to pass through the interjacent cities. Other two he made obliquely through the island, for a passage to the rest of the cities.”

In following Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey is describing the main Roman roads of Britain, none of which intersect at Stonehenge. In medieval times the centre of the country was considered the intersection of two of these principal Roman Roads, Watling Street and The Fosse Way at High Cross in Leicestershire where a stone monument was erected in 1712 marking the site of a wooden cross which had stood there for several centuries. Originally a larger, decorated structure was sited at the centre of Watling Street near to its junction with the Southern Fosse Way. 

According to the ancient British Tale of Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd measured the length and breadth of the island and found the centre to be at Oxford. However the sacred centre, omphalos or navel, is not necessarily a geographical centre but a spiritual point. There are several sites that could qualify for the scared centre and Stonehenge, with its many concentric rings, is certainly among them; surrounded by prehistoric barrows Stonehenge is a central point in a huge cemetery.

But who knows where the Neolithic people considered the sacred centre of Britain? Even if we consider the prehistoric trackways of Britain, such as the Great Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, there is no evidence that they all led to Stonehenge as the sacred centre. The nearest we find is the Harrow Way, or Hard Way, an ancient trackway dating from the Neolithic period that runs from the mouth of the River Axe in Devon to near Dover in Kent, the eastern part known as the “pilgrims way” adopted as a Holy route to the shrine of Thomas Becket. The line of the Harrow Way where it passes Stonehenge is not agreed by any means.

The Harrow Way would appear to shadow the line of the A303 near Stonehenge. However, it diverts from the A303 before Stonehenge and fords the river Avon at the village of Ratfyn, just north of Amesbury. The Harrow Way then climbs the Kings Barrow ridge before joining the line of the Stonehenge Avenue into the stone circle and emerging through the Neolithic barrows of Normanton Down, through Berwick St James, before rejoining the line of the A303 at Chicklade Bottom. Further west the Harrow Way joins the Great Ridgeway at Beaminster Down before hitting the Devonshire coast.

If Stonehenge was constructed at the sacred centre it would explain the reason for a prehistoric trackway running across southern Britain from east to west to the centre of the stone circle and may well be the reason why Stonehenge was constructed where it is rather than Parker Pearson’s solstitially aligned glacial striations.  

Geoffrey’s tale of the Giants’ Dance describes the translation of one structure marking the sacred centre of a country to another land. No doubt he had heard of the sacred centre of Ireland and imagined an equivalent structure was needed in southern Britain as we have seen above, he selected elements from various sources to construct his story of the Giants’ Dance. However, we may ask what inspired Geoffrey to add this element of a grand memorial to the fallen to his Historia?

A Memorial to the Fallen
Without doubt the kernel of Geoffrey’s story of a memorial to the murdered British nobles is taken from the History of the Britons (Historia Bittonum, c.829AD), popularly known as "Nennius". Yet the original account fails to mention Stonehenge or a memorial constructed for the fallen. These embellishments to the story are not known from any other source and therefore must be due to Geoffrey’s creative spirit. Clearly he wanted a fitting memorial the British nobles murdered by the Saxon invaders. 

Fast forward from the post-Roman days of Ambrosius to Geoffrey’s own time in the 12th century. Only 70 years before Geoffrey produced his Historia an army of nobles had been killed fighting heroically to the death for the Crown of England by the invading Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The late 12th-century Chronicles of Battle Abbey records a speech made by William I (The Conqueror) which he delivered immediately before the battle pledging to found a monastery if God granted him victory. The Chronicles, which date from around 1180, states the abbey was "founded by the Conqueror in expiation for the sin involved in the conquest".  Consequently, within 5 years of William’s victory the Abbey of St Martin (now know as Battle Abbey) was built with the high altar of the abbey church reputedly sited on the exact spot where King Harold died on Senlac Hill.

On William’s death he bequeathed many gifts to the Abbey including his royal cloak and a portable altar used on his campaigns. William had endowed the Abbey to such an extent that it became the 15th wealthiest religious house in the country.


    • Geoffrey took the idea of the peace conference between Britons and Saxons from the History of the Britons (Historia Bittonum).

    • He saw Stonehenge as a fitting tribute to the British nobles murdered at the conference.

    • Geoffrey does not appear to be familiar with the geography of Stonehenge and claims it was erected on mount Ambrius when the monument is sited on a plain.

    • He models mount Ambrius on the ancient hillfort at Old Sarum (Kaer Caradawg) where a new cathedral had been built shortly before he wrote his History of the Kings of Britain.

    • Geoffrey models the convent at Ambrius which he claims housed 300 friars on the Priory at Amesbury that had 30 nuns.

    • He relates Stonehenge to the Sacred Centre of Ireland at Uisnech

    • Prehistoric roads converge on the Hill of Tara which is linked to Uisnech by a ceremonial avenue.

    • The ancient trackway known as The Harrow Way runs east to west across southern Britain and through the centre of Stonehenge, entering the stone circle through a ceremonial avenue.

    • He claims the huge stones of the Giants’ Dance came from Africa and were erected by the giants of old.

    • In Geoffrey’s day the Islamic lands were experiencing a golden age and everything coming out of Africa was considered mystical.

    • He modelled his grand memorial devoted to the murdered British nobles slaughtered by an invading race on the Abbey built shortly before he wrote his Historia dedicated by William I to the English nobles slaughtered at the battle of Hastings by the invading Normans.

When you break out and analyse the elements of Geoffrey’s elaborate tale of the Giants Dance it becomes quite clear that he did not follow an ancient tradition at all but carefully constructed a story taking inspiration from events in his own time. We come to the unavoidable conclusion that Geoffrey had no idea the bluestones of Stonehenge came from south-west Wales and archaeologist are quite wrong to think there was ever a “grain of truth” in his story.

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Saturday 22 May 2021

The Thomas Becket Exhibition

 Murder and the Making of a Saint

By the mid-12th century Thomas Becket was one of Henry II’s closest friends and most trusted advisers. Yet within twenty years the relationship had turned sour and Becket, now Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral by four knights associated with the King.

This exhibition at the British Museum from 20 May to 22 August 2021 tells the dramatic story of Becket’s life and the murder that shook the Middle Ages.

Born about 1119 on Cheapside, London, on 21 December, the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle, Becket began working as a clerk in the service of Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury, when King Henry II first noticed him. He was soon promoted and by 1154, Theobald named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury. Held in such high esteem by the King that when Archbishop Theobald died on 18 April 1161 in his palace in Canterbury Becket was quickly named as his replacement. 

Becket was ordained as a priest on 2 June 1161 and the very next day consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. The rapid appointment did not hold the approval of many in the English Church who saw Becket as unfit for office on numerous accounts and quickly won the resentment of the monks of Canterbury Cathedral who would normally elect the archbishop. 

On his appointment Becket immediately began to distance himself from royal policy and argued over Church lands with the nobility. He constantly sent requests to the Pope to assert the authority of Canterbury over York. It was as if overnight he had become the opponent of the king switching allegiance from the Crown to defender of the privileges of the Church.

The rift between the two men became absolute in 1164 when Henry introduced a set of legislative procedures known as the Constitutions of Clarendon in an attempt to restrict ecclesiastical privileges and reduce the authority of the Church and the Pope in England.

The sixteen articles forming the constitutions was the King’s attempt to establish clear demarcation between Church and royal authority. Yet the issue of heinous clerics led to the relationship between the two men deteriorating further throughout the summer. Henry was informed that in the nine years since he became king over one hundred murders and many other criminal acts committed by clerics had gone unpunished.

With Becket opposing the king at every opportunity Henry aimed to have the archbishop removed for being in breach of the Constitutions of Clarendon. Judicial proceedings were brought against Becket at Northampton castle but he refused to listen to the final judgement and walked out of the room. He fled England not to return for five years.

Henry made efforts at reconciliation with Becket at Montmirail  and then Montmartre in 1169 to no avail. The following summer he crossed The Channel bringing his eldest son to Westminster Abbey where the younger Henry was anointed king by the archbishop of York.

Becket was furious at the king’s actions and hesitantly crossed to England on 30 November 1170 intending to discipline the bishops who had taken part in the ceremony. He went on to excommunicate anyone who had ever wronged him and imposed severe sentences against those who had taken part in the Young Henry’s improper coronation.

When Henry, feasting at his Christmas court in Normandy, heard what Becket had done he is said to have he uttered the words:

will no one rid me of this troublesome priest? 1

Within days, the archbishop had been murdered. On 29 December 1170, Becket was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights with close ties to King Henry II, an act that sent shockwaves across Medieval Europe. Soon after his grisly death, Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III. 

The Exhibition
Marking the 850th anniversary of his brutal murder, this special exhibition at the British Museum presents Becket's tumultuous journey from a merchant's son to an archbishop, and from a revered saint in death to a 'traitor' in the eyes of Henry VIII more than 350 years later. 

The exhibition provides the visitor with a unique opportunity to get close to the man, the murder and the legend through an incredible array of objects associated with Becket; from illuminated manuscripts, some of which include eyewitness accounts of the murder, to jewellery and sacred reliquaries. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum collection as well as important loans from major collections across the UK and Europe, including an entire medieval stained glass window on loan for the first time from Canterbury Cathedral. 

>> The Thomas Becket Exhibition: Murder and the Making of a Saint
The British Museum - 20 May to 22 August 2021

Further Reading:
The Sword that Killed Thomas Becket
The Mystery of Becket’s Bones

1. This phrase has been incorrectly recorded throughout history. Henry II actually said: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!” - Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings who made England, William Collins, 2013.

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Saturday 15 May 2021

The Green Knight

The Green Knight is an American epic fantasy adventure film produced and directed by David Lowery based on the 14th-century Middle English chivalric romance. The anonymous poem is one of the best known Arthurian tales, its plot combining the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. David Lowery's Green Knight is a fantasy re-telling of this classic story in a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.

The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain, King Arthur's headstrong nephew, played by Dev Patel, who embarks on a quest to confront the gigantic green-skinned stranger who bursts into King Arthur's hall laying down a challenge to the knights. In this fantasy version Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. 

The film was originally scheduled for release in 2020 but was cancelled owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now due for release in August 2021.

>> The Quest for the Green Knight

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