Monday, 20 June 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Roman King Arthur? by Tony Sullivan

The Roman King Arthur?
Lucius Artorius Castus
By Tony Sullivan

Pen & Sword Military, Hardback, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781399084024
Published: 8th June 2022

There are many theories as to the true identity of the legendary King Arthur, most preserve the fifth to sixth century Post Roman era, but can be located in all geographic locations across the UK and sometimes beyond. One popular theory places the origin of Arthur way out of the normal time frame by several hundred years, and places him in Roman Britain. This theory proposed that the Arthur of the Post-Roman period (c.480-520) has his origin in a Roman Officer named Lucius Artorius Castus stationed in Britain in the late second or early third century. 

The connection was first suggested nearly a hundred years ago by Kemp Malone in 1924, based largely on the etymology of the Latin name 'Artorius' which could certainly evolve into 'Arthur' in Welsh. As the only known figure in Britain of this name it is unsurprising that Lucius Artorius Castus should attract attention.

The theory was advanced by Helmut Nickel in the 1970s who suggested that Artorius was the original Arthur and that a group of Sarmatian cavalry posted to Roman Britain in the late second century serving under him inspired the tales of the Knights of the Round Table.

C Scott Littleton, along with Anne C Thomas and later Linda Malcor, expanded this further, arguing that in addition to Artorius being in contact with these Sarmatians, many elements of the Arthurian legend actually derive from Caucasian mythology, which the Sarmatians brought to Britain in the second century, finding parallels for key features of the Arthurian legend such as the Sword in the Stone, the Holy Grail, and the return of Arthur's sword to a lake. This has become known as the Sarmatian Connection

I have no problem with a historical Arthur being Roman, Welsh, Scottish or whatever; I do however hold issue with speculative theories without evidence to support their claims to identify the true King Arthur. Lets see how Lucius Artorius Castus does under the scrutiny of Tony Sullivan.

In The Roman King Arthur? author Tony Sullivan provides the first historical study detailing the military and civilian career of Lucius Artorius Castus and investigates the links claimed by proponents of the Artorius - Arthur theory:

  •  Lucius Artorius Castus was a legionary commander in the north of Britain;
  •  He was governor during the reign of Commodus;
  •  Following defeat in AD 175, 5,500 Sarmatians were posted to Britain bringing their families with them, numbering around 20,000 in total;
  •  These Sarmatians remained in Britain throughout the centuries leaving an archaeological signature;
  • The legends of 'swords in stones', 'magical cups' and ‘red dragon banners’ can be traced back to the Sarmatians;
  • Lucius Artorius Castus fought and led these Sarmatians in battle;
  • Lucius Artorius Castus career can be dated accurately;
  • An inscription on a memorial to Lucius Artorius Castus can only be interpreted as 'ARMATOS' (armed men).
  • Leader of the three British legions against armed men?

In the first chapter the author commences his investigation by examining the two inscriptions on the funerary stones from the Roman province of Dalmatia, in modern Croatia, discovered in the nineteenth century; the first from a sarcophagus was discovered in the wall of a churchyard, the other nearby. Both the stones are eroded and broken leading to much debate about the exact lettering. 

The first inscription details the career history of Lucius Artorius Castus and forms the essence of the 'Artorius - Arthur' theory, indeed a full and interesting military career in its own merit. But, as Tony Sullivan point out, there is not a single reference to Artorius from our Roman sources from the second to the fifth centuries. It appears that all the evidence we have for Artorius is on the two memorial stones from Croatia and possibly a third inscription on a ring.

Tony Sullivan dissects the inscription in forensic detail and provides clear definitions, explaining the debate over Artorius’s adversaries as either ‘Armenia’, ‘Armatos’ or ‘Armorica’ and discusses possible timeframes, which is critical for the correct interpretation. 

One of the earliest readings of the inscription, interpreted some of the missing letters as giving AMORICANOS (Brittany) suggesting that Castus led Legions from Britain to Gaul in an attempt to fit the campaign to the Gallic Campaign of King Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, c.1136.

However, there is no record of any conflict in Armorica in the timeframe suggested for Castus. Subsequently, Amoricanos was dropped and ARMATOS (‘armed men’) became the preferred choice by the theorists. ARMATOS would certainly fit the inscription yet this of course could mean Castus’s adversaries were armed men from anywhere? ARMENIOS (Armenians) is now accepted by many historians as the most likely inscription.

From this scant career history on a tombstone in Croatia fantastic stories have developed claiming Artortius led a force of Sarmatian knights in the north of Britain in response to Cassius Dio's commentary on the northern tribes crossing Hadrian's Wall and slaying a general (AD 180-184). This episode has been used in an imaginative reconstruction of Castus and his Sarmatian knights fighting along The Wall to provide an original account of the Arthurian battle list in the ninth century Historia Britonnum [See: Malcor, Heroic Age 1999b, & Appendix to From Scythia to Camelot, Revised Edition, 2000], when all we know from Dio is the northern tribes crossed the Wall - he certainly does not describe a series of battles. When something is just too fantastic to be true it usually isn't.

The dating of Castus’s posting to Britain now becomes critical; as we have seen above for the Arthorius-Arthur theory to work, they have claimed he was in Britain during 181-184, the time of the uprising of the northern tribes according to Cassius Dio.

Supporters of the Artorius – Arthur theory claim that in 181 Castus was sent to Britain as praefectus of an auxiliary unit stationed at Brementennacum (Ribchester, Lancashire) where there is evidence for Samatian cavalry in the third century.  Yet, the longer inscription shows quite clearly that Castus was actually ‘prefect of legion VI Victrix’ and does NOT mention Brementennacum. He was undoubtedly camp prefect at York where legion VI Victrix was stationed.

Supporters of the Artorius – Arthur theory then claim that in 185 Castus was appointed Dux (Duci) , a term they consider equivalent to governor of Britain, and led three legions against the ARMATOS (armed men). The following year he was Procurator of Liburnia where he finished his military career.

Much significance is placed on the word 'Duci' on the inscription, the dative form of ‘dux’, in a further attempt to link to Arthur who was of course described in the Historia Brittonum as 'Dux Bellorum' (leader of battles). Duci was a temporary position held by Castus to lead three legions (or more likely parts of) from Britain (probably to Armenia) and there is absolutely no reason to link this position to the title given to Arthur in the ninth century.

The inscription is difficult to date securely. Tony Sullivan says the style of the inscription is suggesting it was Antonine yet the wording leans toward the Severan period. 

He provides four options for dating the period the three legions were led from Britain by Lucius Artorius Castus :

1. The Armenian campaign of AD 161-6
2. Campaign against mutineers in Britain or Gaul AD 184-7
3. The civil war between Clodius Albinus and Septimus Severus AD 197
4. The Armenia campaign of Caracalla AD 215.

The first option is the one most widely accepted by the majority of historians (see Higham, 2018:135) who see Castus stationed in Britain c.160 - which means he had left Britain many years before the Sarmatians had arrived in AD 175.

Surprisingly, Tony Sullivan opts for a late date seeing Castus into the third century, but credits Higham’s early timeline as probably the most likely.

However, for all the discussion on the missing letters on the inscription and the correct interpretation of ARM…., whether it is ‘Armenia’, ‘Armatos’ or ‘Armorica’, it fails to provide any evidence for Castus's contact with Sarmatians in Britain.

Chapter 2 recaps on the Arthurian legend from the ninth century Historia Brittonum, Saints' Lives,  through the twelfth century and Geoffrey of Monmouth, to later French Romances and Welsh Tradition. 

The next chapter looks at Artorius's place in the history of Rome between AD 150-250, discussing ranks and responsibilities, before providing an overview of Roman Britain. At the end of this chapter (Table 9) the author provides an analytical assessment of the Artorius - Arthury theory; out of 13 points of the theory only 3 provide any possible evidence for the points mentioned above; the rest are negative indicators with no evidence. This is quite a persuasive result leaving the reader little alternative than to agree with the author's conclusion that the theory has performed very poorly against the evidence and should be rejected.

The Sarmatians are examined next to find evidence of their contact with Artorius. Again, summarised in a table at the end of the chapter there seems to be a distinct lack of evidence for the 5,500 Sarmatians bringing their families with them to Britain in AD 175 (totalling 20,000 people) and certainly no evidence of Artorius leading a Sarmatian cavalry unit. 

It is claimed that the tales of the Narts have been handed down orally through many centuries, but were not written down until the nineteenth century. Alarm bells should now be ringing! The theory claims these tales can be traced back to Sarmatians in the second century. Tony Sullivan says that we are asked to compare these legends with the Arthurian legends, themselves written down 600 years or more after any historical Arthur could have lived, which is of course several hundred years before the Nart Sagas were written down. The historical Arthur of the ninth century bears little resemblance to the Arthur of the Romances written down from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; to attempt to link the Nart Sagas back to this is just not credible.

However, first and foremost, it must be demonstrable that there is a direct link between Artorius and the Sarmatians and the Arthurian legends must also be traceable back to the second century Sarmatians. Further, the later legends and tales which evolved between our earliest Arthurian reference in the ninth century to the later middle ages must possess a link back to the Roman era. And we should have something linking Artorius in the second century to a Post-Roman leader of battles named Arthur of the fifth/sixth century. Tony Sullivan is unable to present any evidence these can be traced back to the Sarmatians or influenced Arthurian legend.

In The Roman King Arthur? author Tony Sullivan presents a convincing case that the Artorius - Arthur theory does not stand up to scrutiny; there is nothing linking the second century Roman officer named Artorius to a Post-Roman Arthur as recorded in the ninth century, or to the Arthurian legends written down from the twelfth-thirteenth centuries and concludes that there is no Sarmatian Connection; it is a modern myth.

The Roman King Arthur? is a fascinating, comprehensive and important contribution to the Arthurian debate.

Copy received from the publisher in return for posting a review without obligation.

Further Reading:
Kemp Malone, "Artorius". Modern Philology. University of Chicago Press, 1925, 22 (4): pp.367–374.
Helmut Nickel (1975). The Dawn of Chivalry -From the Lands of the Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the U.S.S.R., 3000 B.C – 100 B.C. published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, pp.150-152.
Helmut Nickel, "The Last Days of Britain and the Origins of the Arthurian Legends", cited in Matthews, 2019.
C. Scott Littleton and Ann C. Thomas, The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 91, No. 359 (Jan. - Mar., 1978), pp. 513-527.
C. Scott Littleton, Linda A. Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Routledge, 1st Edition, 1994 (Revised edition 2000) Appendix.
Linda Malcor, “Lucius Artorius Castus, Part 1: An Officer and an Equestrian”, 1999a, Heroic Age, 1 (Spring/Summer).
Linda Malcor, “Lucius Artorius Castus, Part 2: The Battles in Britain”, 1999b, Heroic Age, 2 (Fall/Winter).
John Matthews, King Arthur of the Romans: Lucius Artorius Castus and the Sarmatians in Britain, BCM Hallowquest, 2019.
Nicholas J. Higham, King Arthur: The Making of a Legend, Yale University Press 2018.

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Sunday, 12 June 2022

Book Review: The Battles of King Arthur by Tony Sullivan

The Battles of King Arthur
By Tony Sullivan
Pen & Sword, Hardback, 288 pages + 32 illustrations
ISBN: 9781399015301
Published: 26th May 2022

This is Tony Sullivan’s second Arthurian book from publisher Pen & Sword, the first outing being King Arthur: Man or Myth? (2020) an investigation of the evidence for King Arthur based on the earliest written sources, weighing the possibility of Arthur as an historical figure or purely a creation of fiction.

Many recent works by a new generation of authors has become tedious in their pursuit of identifying a specific person in a particular location as the legendary king. This is fuelled by the limited reliable information available and the vagueness of Arthur’s battles as recorded in the ninth century Historia Brittonum allowing poetic licence to run a mock.

Refreshingly, KingArthur: Man or Myth? examined a list of possible suspects without bias toward identify a particular figure as King Arthur and is therefore the best starting point for anyone new to Arthurian studies.

The Battles of King Arthur continues with the author’s unbiased approach, focusing on Arthur’s battles in the Historia Brittonum, but making two assumptions: firstly that Arthur was a historical figure; and secondly, that this battle list is genuine. Not all will agree with these assumptions as this is a contentious subject, but these assumptions are essential for a study of Arthur’s battles; otherwise the page remains pretty much blank.

Tied to these two assumptions the author sets out the case for the most likely locations of Arthur’s battles using archaeological evidence and historical sources to place Arthur and his battles in the correct political, cultural and military context. To this end the book focuses on three broad hypotheses: firstly, that there is a reasonable amount of evidence to estimate the political, cultural and military context; secondly, some of Arthur’s battles can be located on the balance of probabilities; and finally, the proposed locations will make sense in the context of the political and military situation and the archaeological and literary evidence.

We start with a brief look at historical events leading up to the time when Arthur fought, from Roman Britain to Post-Roman Britain AD410-450. Next we move on to examine the Anglo Saxons, investigating the archaeological and literary evidence to understand the Germanic migration and the possible meaning of Gildas’s “partition” before examining how regional polities evolved from civitas to Kingdoms. It quickly becomes clear that this was a far more complex picture than what we are often told; it seems there is not one single scenario that comfortably fits all.

Using contemporary accounts of fifth and sixth century battles (such as Y Gododdin for example) the next chapter on weapons and warfare sets the scene for how these battles must have been fought discussing sizes of armies, battle formations and tactics.

The author acknowledges that having laid out the historical background in great detail, a complex picture has emerged. A fragmenting political and civilian structure in addition to changes in cultural identities across a range of different groups: aristocratic elites; townsfolk; peasants; military and mercenary groups; and a heterogeneous group of Germanic settlers. Into this pressure cooker of economic, religious and social frictions he places Arthur within a time-frame of c.450-520.

We now move to the climax of the book, Chapter 7, The Thirteen Battles of Arthur, a solid forty pages. Here the author discusses all twelve battles from the Historia Brittonum with the addition of Arthur’s apparent final battle at Camlann from the Annals Cambriae. Each battle is discussed in depth in turn with a map to show the location as identified against the balance of probabilities. The locations of Arthur’s battles is another contentious issue, and not everyone will agree with these conclusions, yet Tony Sullivan provides the best fit for a historical Arthur in the context of the timeframe.

This is weighty volume, packed with detailed information, but the author’s writing style makes for a very easy read that moves on at a fair pace. This is an important addition to the Arthurian debate and so refreshing when the genre is polluted these days with whacky theories claiming to identify King Arthur as whoever you like.

In The Battles of King Arthur author Tony Sullivan has taken popular Arthurian studies to a new level. Highly recommended.

Copy received from the publisher in return for posting a review without obligation.

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Sunday, 17 April 2022

The Location of the burh at Scergeat

In response to Viking raiding up the Severn, Æthelred and Æthelflæd, the Lord and Lady of the Mercians, built a series of fortified settlements, known as burhs, to control he movement of the Norse raiding parties. The Vikings would come up the Severn again, this time in 910, resulting in the Battle of Tettenhall. The battle was a resounding victory for the Anglo-Saxons.

Æthelflæd's burhs

The Mercian Register, from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle 'C' version, records a series of burhs constructed, in all likelihood in response to Tettenhall, mainly by Æthelflæd alone after Æthelred's death in 911, which included the restoration of Chester (907), Bremesburh (910), Scergeat and Bridgnorth (912), Tamworth and Stafford (913), Eddisbury and Warwick (914), Weardbyrig, Chirbury and Runcorn (915):

912 - "Here, on the eve of The Invention of the Holy Cross, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, came to Scergeat and built the burh there, and in the same year that at Brycge." - The Mercian Register (The Annals of Aethelflaed)

The entry in the Mercian Register appears to be the earliest mention of the burh at Scergeat and all later sources are likley to have derived from it. It was clearly a site known to the Mercians and possibly the name changed shortly after construction. We are informed that the name "scergeat" in Old English means something like "boundary gap" or "boundary route" indicating that the burh was sited near an access point in the Mercian frontier. 

David Horovitz (Æthelflæd: Lady of the Mercians, 2017, pp.148-49) writes that in "scergeat"  the element "scer" can be found in variant forms, scear, scier, scir, suggesting the Old English 'scir' for 'shire' = 'an administrative district, a county; bright, clear'. Other possible interpretations include Old English 'scearu', 'scaru' = 'a share, a shearing, district boundary', and 'something which cuts off'.

The second element, Old English "geat" = 'a gate, a gap, an opening, a ravine or pass', according to Horovitz, often used for physical gaps in earthworks or walls, or entrances to parks or enclosures with a similar meaning to Old English 'sceard', 'scard', 'scerde' = 'an incision, a notch, notched, a cleft, a gap; gashed, mutilated'. 

There could be many sites identified as gaps or access points in the boundary of Aethelflaed's Mercia; perhaps a natural pass through the uplands, or a break in a linear earthwork. For example, Jane Wolfe (Æthelflæd; Royal Lady, War Lady, 2001) suggested that the location of the burh may have been constructed to defend the gap between Offa's Dyke and Wat's Dyke, proposing the Iron Age hillfort at Old Oswestry as a possibility.

A typical Anglo Saxon burh

When the Lady of the Mercians constructed two burhs in the same year it is likely that they were in close vicinity, such as in 913 at Stafford and Tamworth, in this case just 30 miles apart. From this it is reasonable to speculate that Scergeat was near Brycge. 

The identification of Brycge, "the Bridge", is generally accepted as Bridgnorth a crossing point on the river Severn in Shropshire. 

Can we expect Scergeat to be somewhere along the Severn, within perhaps 30 miles of Brycge, where a natural or manmade feature provides access into Mercia? 

Recognising the strategic importance of the site, in the 12th century the Normans constructed a motte and bailey on the hill overlooking the crossing point, the site thought to mark the site of Aethelflaed's burh, but no trace of the Anglo-Saxon construction has yet been found there. With this doubt cast on the confidence of Bridgnorth as the site of the burh at Brycge alternatives have been sought. 

In 895 a Viking army camped at "Cwatbrycge" while raiding along the river Severn. This has been identified as the village of Quatford, barely a couple of miles south of Bridgnorth. If Quatford is correctly identified as the burh at 'Brycge' then it is likely that 'Scergeat' is within 30 miles distance. 

Posted in response to a recent email asking about the interpretation of Scergeat as "boundary gap". The sender thinks he may have the answer to the location of the burh of Scergeat. We await his response.

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Monday, 21 February 2022

Arthur’s Battles according to Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth provides the first full length account of the story of King Arthur's career, as such it can be stated that Arthurian literature begins with the Historia regum Britanniae (De gestis Britonum), c.1138. 

Arthur occupies more than one fifth of Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain; out of eleven books Arthur’s career spreads across four, making his entrance toward the end of Book Eight, his exploits completely fill Books Nine and Ten, and his exit is set at the beginning of Book Eleven. His reign is without doubt the pinnacle of Geoffrey's work on the Kings of Britain.


Liber VIII. Book Eight of the Historia regum Britanniae closes with Arthur's conception at Tintagel through Merlin's magic and swiftly moves on to his father Uther Pendragon's death at St Albans after being poisoned by the Saxons. 

Liber IX. Following the death of Uther Book Nine begins with his son Arthur invested as king. No sooner than he is crowned than Arthur set off to fight Saxons, Picts and Scots by the river Duglas near York. The enemy retreated into the city where Arthur subjected them to a siege. The Saxons awaited the arrival of Chelricus from Germany. When Chelricus arrived with six hundred ships of pagan warriors Arthur called off the siege and withdrew to London. Arthur then sent for assistance from his nephew Hoelus and the Armorican Britons. When Hoelus arrived with fifteen thousand men they immediately went to Kaerluidcoit, which Geoffrey tells us is also named Lincoln in the province of Lindsey, which was under siege from the Saxons. Once battle commenced six thousand Saxons fell, the rest abandoned the siege and quickly fled to the forest of Celidon. Arthur surrounded them and after three days the Saxons requested to leave and return to Germany, they left hostages and promised to pay tribute.

On the return voyage, breaking their promise, the Saxons turned back and landed at Totnes, ravaging the land as far as the Severn estuary and subjected the town of Bath to a siege. Hearing of this Arthur abandoned his expedition against the Scots and Picts who were besieging his nephew Hoelus who had been taken ill in the city of Dumbarton. Arthur headed south to the region of Bath. So great is Arthur's victory that many of the Saxons under Chelricus fled. Following his success Arthur immediately hurried back to Scotland and ordered Cador, Duke of Cornwall to pursue the Saxons. Cador caught up with them at Thanet and inflicted great slaughter, killing Chelricus.

Cador then went north to assist Arthur against the Scots and Picts who were now blockaded at Loch Lomond after fighting three battles against Arthur. Gillamuris, King of Ireland, came to the aid of the Scots with a fleet of ships but Arthur abandoned the blockade and turned on them who, after heavy losses, were forced to sail home. He then turned his attention back to the Scots and Picts who Geoffrey says he wiped out with utter ruthlessness.

Arthur then turned his attention to the islands and conquered Ireland and then Iceland. The kings of Gotland and the Orkneys submitted and paid tribute to Arthur. He then set off for Norway and Denmark. After accepting their submissions he sailed for Gaul and engaged with the Roman tribune Frollo who ruled there on behalf of Emperor Leo.

After some of Frollo's men, the best of the Gallic knights, moved across to join Arthur, Frollo withdrew to Paris. Arthur besieged the city which prompted Frollo to come out and fight Arthur in single combat to end the suffering of the citizens. Arthur defeats Frollo by cleaving his head in two with his sword Caliburnus. Then the city opened its gates and surrendered to Arthur. He now divided his forces in two with Hoelus subduing Aquitaine and Gascony while Arthur dealt with the other provinces. 

Having spent nine years subduing all the regions of Gaul, Arthur then returned to Britain. During the following Whitsun celebrations at Caerleon Arthur received a delegation from Lucius Hiberius, procurator of the Roman republic. They presented a letter that demanded tribute from the Britons for taking the Roman province of Gaul. Cador, Duke of Cornwall, states that the Britons have been at peace for five years without being tried in war, and claimed that God had set the Romans on course to allow them to recover their old virtue.

Arthur, with unanimous support from his recently acquired empire, ordered his armies to meet him at the harbour of Barfleur on the first day of August from where they would advance into the land of the Burgundians. Meanwhile, Arthur sent a letter to the Romans stating that he would never pay tribute nor would he be going to Rome to face their sentence, but demanded from them what they had demanded from him.

Liber X. The entire contents of Book Ten of the Historia regum Britanniae is dedicated to Arthur's second Gallic campaign and its finale at the Battle of Siesia.

Before leaving Britain, Arthur charged his nephew Modred and Queen Guanhumara with the governance of the country in his absence. After departing from Southampton Arthur had a dream during the crossing of a Bear and a Dragon. He men saw this as a good omen but Arthur believed this was relevant to his own fate.

On landing Arthur fought with the giant of Mont-St-Michel and then retold the story of his victory over Ritho the giant who made a cloak from the beards of kings.

Giants defeated, Arthur headed for Autun where he expected to find Lucius Hiberius. Arriving at the river Aube he discovered that Lucius was camped not far away. He sent a delegation, including his nephew Gawain, to tell Lucius to leave France or advance the following day. After some minor skirmishes the senator Petreius Cocta advanced with 10,000 men but he was captured by Arthur's men and taken to Paris with other prisoners.

At this point Lucius was undecided if he should push on and engage with Arthur or retreat to Autun and wait for help from emperor Leo. He entered Langres intending to march to Autun that night. When Arthur heard of this he resolved to cut him off that same night, leaving the city he occupied a valley called Siesia, through which Lucius would pass. 

Having learnt of the planned ambush Lucius abandoned his intentions to go to Autun and decided to attack the Britons in the same valley. A great battle ensued when the two armies met with many casualties on both sides in which Lucius was struck down by an unknown lance, and Arthur was victorious. Lucius's body was sent to Rome with a message that this was the only tribute that Britain needed to pay.

Arthur then decided to March on Rome but turned back when he heard that his nephew Modred had usurped the crown and was in union with Queen Guanhumara.

Liber XI. The beginning of Book Eleven details the final battle at Camblam (Camlann). On hearing of Modred taking the crown Arthur hurried back to Britain accompanied only by the kings of the islands and their troops leaving Hoelus, Duke of Brittany, with his forces to maintain peace in Gaul.

Modred had sent the Saxon leader Chelricus back to Germany to gather as many men as he could and return to Britain immediately. In return Modred promised him all of the island from the river Humber to Scotland and the territory of Kent held by Hengist and Horsa in Vortigern's time. Chelricus quickly returned with eight hundred ships of warriors. Modred also called on Arthur's sworn enemies the Picts, Scots and Irish to join his forces. Geoffrey tells us that Modred's total force numbered some eighty thousand fighting men.

Modred attacked Arthur as soon as he landed at Richborough, with Gawain killed in the fighting. Modred pulled his forces back to Winchester. After burying his dead, Arthur pursued him with great slaughter on both sides. Modred took ship and fled to Cornwall where Arthur followed him to the river Camblam where the final conflict unfolded.

Modred was killed in the battle and Arthur being mortally wounded was taken to the Isle of Avallon to be healed of his wounds. He handed the crown of Britain to his relative Constantius, son of Cador Duke of Cornwall.

Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain (An edition and translation of the De gestis Britonum),
Latin text edited by Michael D Reeve, trans. Neil Wright, Boydell Press, 2009.

With Arthur’s victory over the Romans in Gaul, Geoffrey reached the climax of the Historia regum Britannia. This simple fact is often overlooked as it does not fit with the image of Arthur when reconstructed as a “historical” Dark Age warlord leading the native resistance against the advancing Anglo-Saxons in a post-Roman Britain.

It is known that Geoffrey used Gildas, Bede and the Historia Brittonum (Nennius) and no doubt pulled the theme of Arthur’s battles from the latter. It is evident that here Geoffrey departed from his sources as he only briefly follows the Nennian battle list and his source for Arthur’s Gallic campaign has never been found. Consequently, Arthur’s exploits in Gaul are often dismissed as pure invention or, at the other extreme, used in imaginative reconstructions by today’s popular authors claiming to have found the king’s true identity producing vivid accounts of a total European conquest in which Arthur even became known as the “King of Greece”.

Geoffrey certainly pulled names and places from various sources disregarding any set chronology to make it fit the sequence in his story. He fails to adhere to the list of twelve battles fought by Arthur as recorded in the 9th century Historia Brittonum; only three of Geoffrey’s battles can be reconciled with this list. He ignores Nennius’s first battle on the river Glein and concentrates Arthur’s earliest battles on the river Duglas near York, then moves to a siege of the city. Geoffrey’s “Duglas” is clearly intended to be the river Dubglas were Arthur fought his second, third, fourth and fifth battles according to the Historia Brittonum. Geoffrey ignores the sixth battle on the river Bassa. According to Geoffrey, after Duglas, Arthur then besieged the Saxons at York but withdrew to London when Chelricus arrived from Germany with six hundred ships. When Hoelus of the Armoricans arrived with fifteen thousand men, he and Arthur immediately made for Kaerluidcoit which was under siege from the Saxons, presumably by the same group from York. Geoffrey tells us this place is also named Lincoln in the province of Lindsey, the region identified as part of Lincolnshire.

In the Historia Brittonum the four battles on the river Dubglas are said to be in the “region of Linnius” which is equated with Lindsey, so here Geoffrey maintains the general location, he seems to be locating the Duglas somewhere south of York. After breaking the siege at Lincoln the Saxons withdraw to the forest of Celidon, which Geoffrey takes from the seventh battle of the Historia Brittonum in the “Caledonian Forest, that is, the Battle of Celidon Coit”. Most commentators see this as meaning Scotland but clearly to Geoffrey it was not far from York and therefore in Northern England.

The Historia Brittonum records Arthur’s ninth battle as in the “City of the Legion” (Urbe Legionis). Perhaps Geoffrey identified York as the City of the Legions, or he may have meant Lincoln? Both were significant legionary fortresses in their day and Geoffrey would probably have been aware of their Roman remains. However, Lincoln was never recorded as “Kaerluidcoit” which Geoffrey provides as an alternative name. The Historia Brittonum listed 28 cities in Britain, the twenty-eighth is recorded as “cair-luit-coit” (Fortress in the Grey Wood) which is identified as Wall-by-Lichfield in Staffordshire; Lincoln is notably absent from the list of cities. However, “The City of the Legion” is generally considered as either Caerleon or Chester by most attempting to decipher the battle list.

Geoffrey does not include the Historia Brittonum’s eighth battle at Guinnion fort, the tenth on the bank of the river Tribruit (Tryfrwyd) nor the eleventh battle on the hill called Agned (named as Breguoin in some manuscripts). Geoffrey tells us that Mons Agned was one of cities built by Ebraucus which he identifies as Edinburgh but he does not mention a battle fought there. 

Geoffrey includes Arthur’s twelfth and final battle from the Historia Brittonum at Badon which he identifies at Bath Hill. Badon is undoubtedly Arthur’s greatest victory over the advancing Saxons, the culmination of a series of battles reflecting Gildas’s account of Ambrosius rallying the Britons leading up to that point.

It is likely that Geoffrey simply ignored the battle sites that he could not identify. Indeed, many of the locations of the battles listed in the Historia Brittonum have defied positive identification since being recorded over a thousand years ago. 

Significantly none of Arthur’s battles in the Historia Brittonum have been positively identified in Gaul. Yet after the victory at Badon, and immediately heading north to defeat the Picts and Scots at Dumbarton (Alcud), Moray and Loch Lomond, Geoffrey takes Arthur on a conquest of north-west Europe. As detailed in Book Nine, Geoffrey has Arthur conquer Ireland, Iceland, Gotland, the Orkneys, Norway and Denmark before heading for Gaul for the first time and defeats Frollo, the Roman Tribune. After coming back to Britain, Arthur returns to Gaul when the Romans demand tribute from him for his previous incursion into their province.

Following Arthur’s second successful campaign in Gaul, this time defeating Lucius Hiberius, he is about to march on Rome but before he crosses the Alps he receives news of Modred’s usurpation and returns to Britain. He pursues Modred across southern Britain which ultimately leads to his final battle at Camblam (Camlann) in Cornwall. Modred’s treachery and love triangle with  Guanhumara (Gwenhwyfar/Guinevere) is unknown before Geoffrey. Modred (Medraut) is included in the Welsh Annals as falling along with Arthur at Camlann but there is nothing in this entry to suggest he was Arthur’s nemesis, indeed in early Welsh tradition he was noted for his valour and virtue.

Oddly, Geoffrey has Modred travel from land-locked Winchester to Cornwall by ship. He must have imagined he travelled southward from Winchester to Southampton then travelled along the coast. Camlann is not far from Tintagel and perhaps Geoffrey had it in mind to take Arthur’s journey full circle and place his death near the place of his conception.

No pre-Galfridian source (literature that is generally agreed to date from before the Historia regum Britanniae, c.1138) recalls Arthur returning from Gaul as a prelude to fighting Modred at Camlann which again must be attributed to Geoffrey’s inventiveness. This creative gift of Geoffrey’s is again emphasised by characters from earlier in his tale that are used again at Camlann; Modred calls Chelricus from Germany, who was killed by Cador after Badon, and Cassibellanus from the 1st century BC suddenly appears from nowhere to be present at the battle at Camblam in the 6th century AD. There are many other examples, too many to mention here.

Geoffrey’s disregard for the original locations and sequence of the battle list included in the Historia Brittonum emphasises his “creative” talent. We can only positively identify three locations from that list: River Duglas, Forest of Celidon, Badon; for the rest he seems to have disregarded the original document and felt at liberty to select his own choice. There is certainly no record outside of Geoffrey that has Arthur travelling north to fight Picts and Scots immediately after Badon. Many commentators today consider Geoffrey took selective elements, people and placenames, from various sources and significantly embellished them to construct his own version of the story of Arthur. 

Without doubt Book Ten is the pinnacle of Arthur’s career and the climax of Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae; the entire content is dedicated to Arthur's second Gallic campaign and its finale at the Battle of Siesia. This event was clearly a major inspiration for Geoffrey. Yet, there is no known source for Geoffrey’s Arthurian campaign in Gaul. A Breton source is often argued as providing Geoffrey with geographical knowledge of events in Gaul, but as yet a Breton source has never been uncovered that records Arthur’s Gallic war as detailed by Geoffrey. 

We can immediately disregard the Arthur of early Welsh tales that journeys to foreign lands to steal cauldrons and kill giants, witches and magical boars; these accounts are mythical in nature and here Arthur is dabbling in the supernatural. What’s more, in these early Welsh tales, Arthur always journeys west to Ireland or the Otherworld, never to Gaul. And never fights Romans.

We are left with the choice of either accepting Geoffrey’s account of Arthur as accurate and constructed from another source, now lost and totally unknown to us; or he simply invented much of it, heavily embellishing his source document.

It is often argued that Geoffrey used the accounts of either Riothamus or Magnus Maximus, two historical characters known to have led their forces to Gaul, as his inspiration for Arthur’s Gallic campaign. We will look at these next.

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Tuesday, 1 February 2022

Geoffrey Ashe

It is with great sadness that we received the news of the passing of Geoffrey Ashe yesterday. 

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Honorary Freeman of Glastonbury, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2012 for services to Heritage, but most people visiting this blogsite will know Geoffrey Ashe as a great Arthurian. Indeed, for many of us it was Geoffrey’s books on King Arthur that sparked our endless fascination in the legendary king:

King Arthur's Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury (1957); The Quest For Arthur's Britain (1968); Camelot and the Vision of Albion (1971); Arthurian Britain: The Traveller's Guide (1980); Avalonian Quest (1982), The Discovery of King Arthur (1985); The Landscape of King Arthur (1988); Merlin: The Prophet and His History (2009); in addition to co-editor and contributor on standard Arthurian references works The Arthurian Encyclopedia and The Arthurian Handbook.

He wrote nearly thirty full books and endless articles but no matter what the subject matter it was always worth reading.

Geoffrey Ashe at Glastonbury Abbey

In his Preface to the fiftieth anniversary edition of King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury (Sutton, 2007), Geoffrey said that if he were to write the book today he would say things differently. The original 1957 edition contained many guesses he added and some he was more happier with than others, but he thought far more were right than wrong and stressed that this new preface was a supplement not a recantation.

He goes on to mention that one of the wisest things he had heard on this topic was from the late Aelred Watkin, a monk of Downside Abbey, who said, “you only have to tell some crazy story in Glastonbury and in ten years’ time it will be an ancient Somerset legend”. Geoffrey agreed and admitted that he had seen a legend being born after just four years, not ten!

It was Geoffrey’s writing that first drew my attention to Glastonbury many years ago:

“The Abbey’s most famous legend grew around something that was perfectly real, a primitive-looking one-storey church on the present site of the Lady Chapel. Its dedication to the Blessed Virgin Mary may have been the earliest on this side of the Alps. By historical times it was so ancient that no one knew who had put it there, so it was known simply as the Old Church. Stories took shape around it, some giving it a supernatural origin, some a human but remarkable one.”

Then of course he comes to Arthur’s grave:

“The question of Arthur’s grave, allegedly discovered in the Abbey burial ground in 1190 or ‘91, can today be taken a little further. The notion of a pure fraud and fiction does not entirely work. It is untrue, for instance, that Arthur was never associated with Glastonbury before. He was. He was brought there by the Welsh hagiograpgher Caradoc of Llancarfan in his ‘Life’ of Gildas now assigned to 1130, or thereabouts…….. I continue to be impressed by the fact that the monks’ claim was not challenged.”

In 1965 Geoffrey Ashe was instrumental in forming The Camelot Research Committee with C A Ralegh Radford to investigate the possibility that an Arthur-type figure, a Post-Roman warlord, was once resident at the hillfort at South Cadbury Castle in Somerset. Excavations under the direction of Leslie Alcock 1966-70 revealed that the fort had indeed been re-fortified in post-Roman times, the classic Arthurian period. Alcock published his interpretation of his findings in the book 'By South Cadbury Is That Camelot' (Thames & Hudson, 1972). 

Geoffrey was the leading proponent of the existence of a historical King Arthur putting forward the theory, persuasively, in his book ‘The Discovery of King Arthur’ (1985). Using classical sources such as Sidonius Apollinaris, Gregory of Tours, and Jordanes, he argued that Riothamus, also known as the “King of the Britons”, was active along the Loire valley in northern Gaul supporting the Romans against the Visigoths around 470 AD which, he argued, could be the only explanation for Arthur’s Gallic campaign as told in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

However, Geoffrey was not just an Arthurian, he also had a fascination with prophecy, two of his best books on the subject are ‘The Book of Prophecy’ (1999) and ‘The Encyclopedia of Prophecy’ (2001).

“In its primary sense, prophecy means inspired utterance. A mortal is speaking with more than mortal knowledge or insight, perhaps of future events, but not necessarily.”

Geoffrey’s words will certainly be remembered as inspired utterance. 

Geoffrey Ashe
29 March 1923 - 30 January 2022

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