Sunday 21 August 2022

The Historicity of the Arthurian Battle List

“Early in the ninth century an anonymous cleric in Gwynedd…… wrote a text …which became known as the History of the Britons … [and]... took the Arthur figure with whom he was apparently familiar from folk tales rooted in what is now the west Herefordshire/Powys countryside and converted him into a historical character. This was still a warrior hero, reminiscent of the man in the ‘mirabilia’ stories, but now Arthur came forth as the great British leader, the glorious victor in the ‘war of the Saxon federates’.”1

Poets and Scribes
There have been many attempts to identify the “Real King Arthur”, the legendary British war leader who according to medieval histories and chronicles led the defence of the Britons against the incoming Saxons in the so-called Dark Ages. Yet evidence of Arthur's historical existence rests solely on two late sources, the 9th-century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons, also known as “Nennius”) and the 10th century Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals). The History of the Britons clearly places Arthur in the late 5th century/early 6th century, appearing before Ida (the Flamebearer) became king of the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia in AD 547.

The two Arthurian entries in the Welsh Annals, short references to the battles of Badon and Camlann, are generally accepted by many historians as genuine chronicle entries. The History of the Britons contains a section listing twelve battles in which Arthur was victorious in all, culminating in the battle of Badon without any mention at all of Camlann. Here Arthur is described as the leader of battles (dux erat  bellorum); manifestly, only his successes interested the author. This sequence of battles, leading up to and including Badon, corresponds with the 6th century account of Gildas.2 Historians generally agree that Badon occurred within ten years of AD 500, which corresponds with the History of the Britons date for Arthur’s battle campaign. Significantly the Welsh Annals state that Arthur fell at Camlann in 537, ten years before Ida is recorded as ruling in Bernicia. Thus, we have pinpointed Arthur’s floruit as the late 5th-early 6th century.

However, we should note that the History of the Britons and the Welsh Annals are the only sources to assign Badon to Arthur. Neither Welsh heroic poetry or contemporary sources for the period, such as Gildas and later Bede, associate Arthur with the victory at Badon. 

The History of the Britons

It was suggested many years ago that the Arthurian battle list in the History of the Britons may have its origin in an Old Welsh praise poem.3 We find evidence for the composition of early panegyric poetry by the Britons in works such as the “Moliant Cadwallon” which lists a sequence of victories by Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd, and an elegy to Cynddylan, Prince of Pengwern, called “Marwnad Cynddylan”. 

A recent work attempting to identify the Arthurian battle sites made two assumptions necessary for its central theme, that the battle list has its origins in such an old battle poem and secondly, that Arthur was a genuinely historical figure.4 Not everyone would agree with either assumption.5 There may be glimpses of a rhyme-scheme in the Arthurian battle list, yet conversely the construction of a poem around Arthur’s battles may indicate a non-genuine campaign which required victories to be conveniently borrowed from other heroes to maintain such a rhyme-scheme as we shall see below. However, even if it could be proven that the battle list originated in an old bardic work it would not alone prove the historicity of Arthur.

Yet, how many Arthurian detectives have used the battle list as a primary source in reconstructing a biographical account of Arthur’s wars against the advancing Saxons proclaiming that they have identified the “Real King Arthur”; how many books or articles have you seen claiming this in the title? And how many have you read that were actually convincing?

Some of the earliest Arthurian material, known as the pre-Galfridian tradition, that is prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), portrays Arthur as a mighty defender of Britain fighting witches, beheading giants and hunting supernatural boars.6 Significantly Caitlin Green (then writing as Thomas Green), champion of a pre-Galfridian Arthur, deconstructs the Arthurian battle list as a series of Otherworldy adventures.7 Green identifies some of these as mythical battles taken from Welsh poetry8 and Higham9 sees other battles in the list as taken from other heroes exploits and wrongly attached to Arthur. We will discuss these in more detail later.

It has also been claimed that the battles in the list are not in chronological order, yet it has a clear division noticeable at the mid-point in which the nature of the descriptions changes significantly. The first six battles are simply listed as all occuring at obscure rivers: Glein; Dubglas (four battles); Bassas, without much further detail. The author of the list may have claimed four battles were fought at the Dubglas simply to have made the total number up to twelve, always a favoured number in medieval literature. Positive identification has no doubt been impeded by the loss of place names from the original language as the English spread west.

The next six battle locations provide place names which at first glance appear to offer some hope but become problematic in identifying these sites with an Arthurian campaign: Cat Coit Celidon; Castle Guinnion; City of the Legions; the river Tribuit;  Mount Agned (or Breguoin); and Badon as we have seen above only associated with Arthur by the History of the Britons and the Welsh Annals. We will come back to these in more detail later.

The Welsh Annals

It may have been that some of these battle sites were taken at random from Bede, Gildas and the (6th century) Taliesin who’s works all predate the History of the Britons, to construct a rhyme-scheme for a poem in an attempt to historicise Arthur. Yet as we have seen the majority of these are obscure and defy positive identification; anyone who claims otherwise in their quest to identify the “Real King Arthur” is deluding themselves and their readers.

What if Arthur were not a historical figure and the battles were pure invention on the part of the author of the History of the Britons? After all, not one of the many 5th-9th century British inscriptions contain the name "Arthur", or even anything that could be interpreted as the name. As the Stanzas of the Graves tell us, there is no 'grave for Arthur'.

We must consider if the author was a genuine compiler as he claims in the Nennian prologue, bringing together many different strands from different periods of time (the heap), or was he producing a synthetic history, selectively using and inventing material to suit the politics of 9th century Gwynedd?10 A genuine battle poem would fit in to the first category, but an invented Arthur fits comfortably in the second. Ironically the History of the Britons was a major source used by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain and he is generally accused of inventing much of his story.

It is certainly a complex picture and we should not assume the battle list in the History of the Britons is a genuine first hand record of a campaign fought in the late 5th/early 6th century such as that portrayed by Gildas as noted above. Certainly many of these battles attributed to Arthur in the History of the Britons are found nowhere else. Yet, one thing is certain, and we can work with this, is that although the History of the Britons is our first securely dated documentary evidence for Arthur, it is clear that the figure of Arthur was known well before the 9th century and was not invented by its author.

>> Continued in Part II - Evidence for a pre-Nennian Arthur 

Notes & References:
1. Nick Higham, King Arthur, The History Press, 2015, p.61.
2. Gildas appears to be describing a similar sequence of battles: “From that time, the citizens were sometimes victorious, sometimes the enemy, in order that the Lord, according to His wont, might try in this nation the Israel of to-day, whether it loves Him or not. This continued up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill.”– Section 26, de Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (trans) Hugh Williams 1899.
3. HM Chadwick & NK Chadwick, The Growth of Literature - Volume 1. Cambridge University Press, 1932.
4. Tony Sullivan, The Battles of King Arthur, Pen & Sword, 2022.
5. For an opposite view see: David Dumville, Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend, History, 62 (1977).
6. Rachel Bromwich & D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen: The Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales Press, 1992, Introduction, pp.v-lxxxiii.
7. Caitlin Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007.
8. Green, Ibid.
9. Nick Higham, King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Yale, 2018, pp.185-194.
10. David Dumville, The historical value of the Historia Brittonum, Arthurian Literature 6,

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