[The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell]
Part I – The North
The Strife of Camlann was the final battle of King Arthur in which he either died or was mortally wounded fighting with, or against, Medraut (Cornish = Modred). Whichever, after Camlann Arthur disappears and the golden age of the Round Table comes to an end. This period, the 10th century Welsh Annals date Camlann to 537 AD, coincides with the end of sub-Roman Britain and the onset of Anglo Saxon England.
The name 'Camlann' is said to derive from the Brittonic *Cambo-glanna (crooked-bank, of a river) or *Cambo-landa (crooked-enclosure). Scholars who argue against the existence of Arthur doubt Camlann was a real event and assert the location is unknown. However, advocates for a historical Arthur in the north of Britain claim it was a battle fought on Hadrian's Wall.
OGS Crawford1 concluded that, despite a derivation from the Celtic camb(o) = curved and landa = enclosure, there was no such place called "Camlann". He suggested the name was probably of Latin origin, i.e. "Camboglanna" which he identified as the Roman Fort of Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall. Crawford saw the provenance of the Welsh Annals in Scotland which he used to support his northern Arthur theory. Accordingly, academic authors followed, indeed, Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall is the preferred option for Richard Barber2 which fits well with his thesis that Arthur was a prince of Dalriada.
|Along the line of The Wall|
A possible early Arthurian reference in the Medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin in which the poet Aneirin praises the prowess of one of the warriors, Gwawrddur, who fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress in comparison in valour to Arthur, has been seen a reference to a conflict at a old Roman fort in the north, possibly on Hadrian's Wall. John Koch has suggested that the earliest version of Y Goddodin could have been composed in the 6th or 7th century prior to a later transmission to Wales and if authentic would be the earliest known Arthurian reference.4
The proponents for a northern Arthur argue that the name Camlann most likely derives from that of the Roman fort Camboglanna on Hadrian's Wall5. Indeed, Camboglanna has remained a favoured location for Camlann among academics in the argument for a Northern Arthur ever since Ekwall first made the suggestion in 1927, followed by OGS Crawford in 1935.6 Collingwood and Wright7 identified Camboglanna as Birdoswald, but recent research indicates that the Roman fort of Castlesteads by the Cam Beck is the correct identification.
There can be little doubt that the Roman garrison in Britain was severely weakened by successive troop withdrawals by Maximus, Stilicho and Constantine III, but the opinion that Hadrian's Wall was deserted after the late 4th century has, in the light of recent archaeological work, been abandoned in favour of continuous use well into the 5th century.
Following the end of Roman administration in Britain c.410 AD occupation of the fort at Birdoswald appears to have continued into the early 6th century by which time two granaries had been demolished and the northern one replaced with a large timber hall, probably occupied by a local warlord, a construction conjectured by size and type to have been similar to that evidenced at South Cadbury hill fort in Somerset. Today the position of the timber pillars of the hall are marked by modern posts. The hall seems to have survived into the 6th century when the site appears to have gone out of use around 520 AD.8
Thus, at Castlesteads (the Roman fort of Camboglanna) is situated above a winding stream, the Cam Beck, with a very crooked bank indeed (*Cambo-glanna = crooked bank, of a river). After the Roman withdrawal a local chieftain refortified the next Roman fort along Hadrian's Wall at Birdoswald (Banna) building a Dark Age Hall which was suddenly abandoned around the time the Welsh Annals date the battle of Camlann. Coupled with the fact that the earliest reference to Arthur may be contained within the poem Y Goddodin, the case for a northern Camlann appears strong.
|Birdoswald Roman fort = Banna|
In the 6th century Gildas wrote that as soon as the Romans withdrew from the Island the Picts and Scots returned and seized all the country towards the extreme north as far as the Wall. A garrison was placed on the Wall but the hooked weapons of their enemies dragged the guards from the battlements. The Britons then abandoned the protection of the Wall and the enemy pursued them and butchered them like sheep. The Britons then appealed to Aetius, thrice consul for help (the Groans of the Britons):
“The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus
two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.”
Then, Gildas continues, the Picts settled at the extremity of the island for the first time. Following this all the councillors, together with the Proud Tyrant invited into the country (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. First landing on the eastern side of the island, to fight for it but ending up fighting against it.9 If then we are to believe Gildas, the Saxon mercenaries were first settled by the eastern end of the Wall to guard against the threat from the north.
We find a Dark Age battle recorded on the Wall in the 7th century, some 200 years after the Romans departed from British shores. The Battle of Heavenfield, fought in 633 or 634 AD between the British kingdoms of Northumbria and Gwynedd where the Anglian King Oswald defeated the Welsh Cadwallon ap Cadfon.
The same conflict was recorded by Bede as the Battle of Deniseburna, near Hefenfelth, where Oswald was said to have had a holy vision on the eve of the battle, and had his men erect a large wooden cross. In commemoration of the battle today a wooden cross stands at the entrance to St. Oswald’s church, on the line of the Wall, a few hundred yards off the B6318, some 4 miles north of Hexham.
Just when the search for a battle on Hadrian's Wall that could equate to Camlann appears fruitless, a serious contender emerges in the theory of C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor10 in which they argue that a number of features in the Arthurian legend could be Scythian in origin, and, they claim, the evidence of Scythians in Britain begins in the 2nd century, when a group of Sarmatian horsemen were brought over to northern Britain as Roman heavy cavalry by Marcus Aurelius in 175 AD. Littleton and Malcor do not attempt to identify Camlann but demonstrate a number of parallels between the Arthurian and Scythian legends, notably return of the hero's magical sword to the Queen of the Sea (Lady of the Lake). After Camlann, the mortally wounded Arthur insists Bedivere throws Excalibur into the lake; Littleton and Malcor argue that this ritual may have its origins in the Nartz legend when Batraz throws his sword into the sea after his final battle.
A potential link with Lucius Artorius Castus as the figure of Arthur behind medieval European literature was first suggested by Kemp Malone.11 In her re-construction of the career of Lucius Artorius Castus in Britain based on epigraphic evidence and the account of the Caledonian revolt in the 180s AD from Dio Cassius, Malcor presents a serious contender for Arthur, stationed at York, the City of the Legions, recovering much of the north. Malcor reconstructs several Arthurian battle sites along Hadrian's Wall, including Camboglanna, which must have seen heavy fighting against the Picts during the Caledonian invasion in the 2nd century, but does not argue for an northern site for Camlann as Castus did not die in Britain.
Accorded the tittle of 'Dux' Castus left Britannia with two Legions to engage in a Civil War that Malcor claims has strong parallels with Arthur's final battle at Camlann. Malcor argues that Lucius Artorius Castus is the only figure with this name whose military activities in Britain can be traced to the battles of King Arthur and would come in contact with the origins of the Arthurian legend through the Sarmatians (Nartz sagas).12 Malcor's theory was the inspiration behind Antoine Fuqua's 2004 film 'King Arthur' starring Clive Owen, in which she was historical advisor.
|Antoine Fuqua's 'King Arthur'|
Malcor claims that before finishing his military career as a Dux Legionum, a term equivalent to Arthur's title of Dux Bellorum, Castus led an expedition of “Britanicimiae” to Armorica (Brittany). The unit's name probably derived from its early service in Britain, however, no units of this name are known to have been active in Britain during the late 2nd Century.
The epigraphic evidence for Castus is known only from two inscriptions found in Croatia. An inscription on a sarcophagus which was broken in two and set into the wall of the Church of St Martin in Podstrana, Croatia, has been translated as:
“To the divine shades, Lucius Artorius Castus, Centurion of the Third Legion Gallica, also
Centurion of the Sixth Legion Ferrata, also Centurion of the Second Legion Adiutrix, also
Centurion of the Fifth Legion Macedonica, also Chief Centurion of the same Legion, in charge of (Praepositus) the Misenum fleet, Prefect of the Sixth Legion Victrix, Commander of two British Legions against the Armenians, Centenary Procurator of Liburnia with the power of the sword. He himself (set this up) for himself and his family in his lifetime.”
|Lucius Artorius Castus inscription|
However, the name is right ('Artorius' could have developed as 'Arthur' when taken into Welsh) and, according to Malcor, he even crosses to Gaul, putting him in direct contention with Geoffrey Ashes's Riothamus.
In The Discovery of Arthur,14 Ashe traces the legend of King Arthur to its roots, as he says, in the 12th-century chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth and argues for Riothamus as an actual 5th-century British monarch who crossed to Gaul "by way of ocean" with several thousand British troops as the legendary king of the Britons. Riothamus was betrayed by the local prefect and, claims Ashe, was last seen heading in the direction of Avallon. Here, where the sacred waters of Les Fontaines Salées, in the ‘Avallonnais’ region of Burgundy, with its natural salt springs and mineral waters was known as a healing sanctuary since prehistoric times.15
The 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) records that Arthur's eleventh battle was fought on the hill called Agned. Geoffrey of Monmouth identified Monte Agned as Edinburgh, yet ‘Agned,’ has been explained as a corruption of Andegavum, i.e., Angers, capital of Anjou, in the lower Loire Valley. During the 460s Saxons were present on the lower Loire, and for some years in conflict with the Britons who were settling just north of them in Armorica. The Saxons were finally beaten and dispersed in a battle near Angers around 469 by a force of Britons that could have allied with Romans and Franks in the area. These Britons may have been the same force led by Riothamus who would certainly have been in this area around this time before his march on Bourges.
In the preface to the Legend of St. Goeznovius, a Cornish born bishop venerated as a saint around Léon during the 6th century settlement of Britons in Armorica, said to be written by William a Breton chaplain in 1019, it describes the traditional story of Vortigern inviting Saxons into the country until they were driven from the country by King Arthur who fought battles in Britain and in Gaul before being "summoned… from human activity”. Ashe weaves all these threads together to assert that Riothamus was indeed King Arthur, but to make his theory work Ashe is forced to reject any historical evidence for Arthur's presence at either Badon or Camlann.
Further, Rodney Castleden16 suggests we should consider if Arthur's adventures in Brittany are in fact misplaced altogether. Castleden quotes Stuart Piggott who has questioned if this should actually read as a North Welsh campaign; in Latin Gwynedd is 'Armonica' which could easily be confused by a copyist with 'Armorica', the early Latin term for Brittany.
Significantly, the best candidate for a northern Arthur cannot satisfy the requirements of Camlann. The best that we can conclude is that the Gallic excursions of either Lucius Artorious Castus or Riothamus may have provided the inspiration for Geoffrey Monmouth's tale of Arthur's invasion of Gaul. And yet Geoffrey opted for a southern location for Arthur's final battle.
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. OGS Crawford, Arthur's Battles, Antiquity 9, 1935.
2. Richard Barber, The Figure of Arthur, D S Brewer, 1972.
3. Norma Lorre Goodrich, King Arthur, Harper, 1986.
4. John T Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin, University of Wales Press, 1997.
5. Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, Penguin, 1971.
6. Eilert Ekwall, English River Names, Oxford University Press, 1927 (Reprint edition, 1968); OGS Crawford, Arthur's Battles, Antiquity 9, 1935.
7. Collingwood and Wright, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain. Vol. 1: Inscriptions on Stone. Oxford: Clarendon. 1965.
8. Tony Wilmott, Birdoswald Roman Fort, EH, 2005, p.12-13.
9. Gildas, On the Ruin of Britain, translated by J. A. Giles and T. Habington.
10. C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Garland, 1990.
11. Kemp Malone, Artorius, Modern Philology 23, 1924–1925: pp.367–74.
12. Linda A. Malcor, Lucius Artorius Castus - Part 1: An Officer and an Equestrian, The Heroic Age, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 1999.
Part 2: The Battles in Britain, The Heroic Age, Issue 2, Autumn/Winter 1999.
13. The inscriptions were examined in 2012 during the international conference on Lucius Artorius Castus organized by authors Linda Malcor and John Matthews. Croatian archaeologist Željko Miletić dates Lucius Artorius Castus's military career to circa 121–166 AD and his procurator-ship of the province of Liburnia to circa 167–174 AD.
14. Geoffrey Ashe, The Discovery of Arthur, Henry Holt and Company, 1987.
15. Marilyn Floyde, King Arthur's French Odyssey, 2009.
16. Rodney Castleden, King Arthur: The Truth behind the Legend, Routledge, 2000.
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