Widely reported recently 1, 2, has been the revelation that the legendary British King Arthur has been identified as a historical figure, a general from 5th and early 6th century Strathclyde who fought all his battles in southern Scotland and Northumberland.3
This is not a new story; the same was widely publicised back in March this year, see for example King Arthur in Strathclyde.
So what's new? This isn't just another pseudo-historical account published by a keen amateur Arthurian so beloved by Guy Halsall (Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, OUP 2013) but a paper published by an academic, so it must be factual, right?
The paper presenting the argument for Arthur not as a King but as a Dark Age general based in Strathclyde details the research of Dr Andrew Breeze, a philologist and Celticist from the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, whose previous works include the controversial claim that the Mabinogion was authored by Gwenllian, the daughter of Gruffudd ap Cynan, king of Gwynedd.
“The evidence,” for the historical Arthur Breeze claims “is in a Latin chronicle called The History Of The Britons, written in the ninth century by a Welsh monk. It lists nine places where Arthur defeated his enemies, but nobody has been able to say exactly where they were.”
Breeze's paper, The Historical Arthur and sixth-century Scotland, is published in the University of Leeds journal Northern History, Volume 52, Issue 2, September 2015.
Breeze bases his argument on his positive identification of the Arthurian battle list in the 9th century Latin chronicle known as The History Of The Britons (Historia Brittonum), often referred to as 'Nennius' after the monk who claimed to make a pile of all he could find on the Britons, as detailed in the prologue in some versions of the text.
The Arthurian battle list, the so-called chapter 56 of the Historia, lists twelve battles fought by Arthur in which he was victorious in all of them. The author does not claim Arthur was king of the Britons but the Dux Bellorum, the leader of battles, i.e. a generalissimo.
|How Mordred was slain by Arthur - Arthur Rackham|
The Arthurian battle list from the Historia:
Then Arthur, with the kings of Britain, fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the dux bellorum.
The first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein.
The second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis.
The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas.
The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon.
The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary, the everlasting virgin, on his shoulders [shield]; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them.
The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion.
The tenth battle was waged on the shore of a river which is called Tribruit.
The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agned.
The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor.4
The battles on the rivers Glein, Dubglas and Bassas are unknown outside the Historia. However, Breeze follows previous scholars in identifying the 'Glein' as the River Glen near Wooler in Northumberland, but the 'Dubglas' he cites as the River Douglas near Lanark. The sixth battle at 'Bassas' Breeze sees as a scribe’s miswriting of Tarras Water in Eskdale.
It is commonly agreed that the seventh battle in the forest of Celidon, Cat Coit Celidon, is the Caledonian forest in Scotland. The links with Merlin who fled into the forest after the Battle of Arfderydd, (The Battle of Armterid entry for AD 573 in the Welsh Annals) and its Arthurian associations requires no further comment here. Breeze places this battle in the Southern Uplands, near Beattock Summit.
The location of the eighth battle at the fortress of Guinnion is also unknown beyond the Arthurian battle list. 'Guinnion', according to Breeze, took place at Kirkgunzeon, between Dumfries and Kirkcudbright.
The battle fought at the City of the Legions is generally considered to be a misplacement of the Battle of Chester, c.616, in which the forces of Powys were slaughtered by the Northumbrians. The battle is a hundred years too late and wrongly ascribed to Arthur; no other battles at the city of the legions are known.
Breeze places the ‘city of the Legion’ at the east end of the Antonine Wall near Bo'ness and not at Chester or York as most others have. He sees this as yet another scribal error, for “The Rock of the Legion”, near Kinneil. Earlier, in March this year, Breeze identified Gildas' city of the legion, the place of the martyrdom of Aaron and Julius, as Caer-Lerion as Leicester (Ratae).
The tenth battle was fought on the shore of the river Tribruit (Tryfrwyd in Welsh) which may be the same battle found in an obscure poem from the Black Book of Carmarthen known as Pa gur yv y porthaur? (What man is the porter?) which contains the lines “Perforated shields from Tryfrwyd?” and “On the strands of Tryfrwyd” while Arthur fights dog-heads (Cynvyn) on Mynyd Eiddyn (Din-Eidyn). Here Arthur's retinue includes mythological figures such as Mabon, the son of Modron and Manawydan, the son of Llyr. Here we are clearly in the realm of fantasy. Breeze argues the site of this battle is actually Dreva in Upper Tweeddale.
The eleventh battle was fought at a hill called 'Agned'. Geoffrey of Monmouth identifies Mount Agned as Edinburgh and specifically Din-Eidyn as the Castle of Maidens. Perhaps Geoffrey knew of a tradition of an Arthurian battle on Edinburgh rock; 'Arthur's Seat' is the name of the main peak of the group of hills at the centre of the city of Edinburgh with a hill fort situated on the summit. In 638 AD the monks of Iona record the siege of Din Eidyn; is this the same battle wrongly ascribed to Arthur?
Other recension's of the Historia give the eleventh battle the alternative name of Breguoin. It has been suggested that this name could derive from Bremenium, now High Rochester in Northumberland, a Roman fort constructed near the Roman road known as Dere Street.
Bremenium has also been identified as the site of King Urien Rheged's later battle of the
Cells of Brewyn (cellawr Brewyn) recorded in A Song for Urien Rheged, a battle-catalogue poem from the Llyrfr Taliesin (‘The Book of Taliesin’). Many historians accept that Arthur's Breguoin battle was taken from the Urien poem and incorporated into the Arthurian battle-list in the Historia.
Breeze has identified Mount Agned as Pennango in Teviotdale. Consulting books on early Scottish place-names he states Pennango means ‘Death Hill’, a lost toponym southwest of Hawick.
Arthur's Last Stand
Included in the Harelian manuscript is the Annals Cambriae (Welsh Annals), a 10th century Cambro-Latin chronicle with the following Arthurian entries:
516 -The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors.
537 -The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Mordred fell and there was death in Britain and in Ireland.
The Badon entry in the Welsh Annals looks suspiciously like it is derived directly from the eighth battle in Historia battle list; at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of Holy Mary, the everlasting virgin, on his shoulders.
The battle is found in Gildas' 6th century work De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae as the Seige of Mons Badonicus. Gildas does not name the leader at the battle but cites Ambrosius Aurelius as the leader of the Britons in the campaign leading up to it; by implication Ambrosius was the British leader at Badon. In the Historia account of the battle Arthur slays 960 by his own hand; it seems here we have again ventured into the realm of the fantastic. Clearly the Badon entry does not belong to Arthur and cannot be considered as evidence to his historicity.
The site of the battle of Badon, Breeze says was likely to be Braydon, near Swindon in Wiltshire and had nothing at all to do with Arthur, arguing that the battle is entirely absent from Early Welsh vernacular tradition and Arthur's first association with the battle is not found until the 9th century Historia.
Finally we come to the battle of Camlann and Arthur's last stand. Although featured in later Welsh tradition such as the Triads, the strife of Camlann is entirely absent from the Historia and earlier sources.
As with all the Arthurian battles a multitude of locations have been suggested for Camlann over the years, ranging from the River Camel in Cornwall, the Afon Gamlan in Gwynedd, Wales, to Cameleon near Falkirk in Scotland. Breeze locates the site of the conflict at Castlesteads on Hadrian’s Wall. Again, this is hardly new, being first suggested by Ekwall in 1928, followed by Crawford in 1935.5
Breeze said the pattern presented by the new identifications is “startling”. Instead of Arthurian battles occurring up and down the country, as others have claimed, there is a concentration in southern Scotland and the Borders. Hence, Arthur fought all his battles on the borders of Strathclyde defending the kingdom from other Northern Britons.
A Dark Age Battle Poem
It was first suggested some eighty years ago that the Arthurian battle list contained within Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum is excerpted from an Early Welsh battle-catalogue poem, perhaps an elegy to Arthur.6 Similar poems can be found in The Book of Taliesin in praise of Urien Reheged.
However, the authenticity of the Arthurian battle list is far from proven; if the list is based on an old poem it is possible the names of the battle sites may have been selected for their rhyme scheme rather than historical value and borrowed from other sources: Dubglas rhymes with Bassas; Cat Coit Celidon with Castell Guinnion; Cair Legion with Bregion. Indeed, Arthur appears in the legends of all the Brythonic lands yet there is no trace of this 'poem' outside of the Historia. At best a battle poem can only be used as a measure of the growth of a legend of a particular hero7 and we should use caution in using Early Welsh poetry as a historical source.8
If the battle sites in such a poem were indeed recollections of a historical account we should expect to find external references to them. Only three of the nine Arthurian battle sites can be verified from external sources and even then they appear to be wrongly ascribed to Arthur the soldier. The first six battles, all fought at rivers, defy identification; the seventh looks suspiciously like Merlin's forest; the fortress at Guinnion is the oddity, it looks like it should belong to a poem like Preiddu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn) a mythical tale in which Arthur attacks several fortresses; The battle of the Tribuit has striking similarities to the mythological account in the poem Pa Gur. The final three battles, the city of the Legions, Mount Agned (Breguoin) and the battle of Badon, all wrongly ascribed to Arthur but 'borrowed' for the battle list.
In summary, prior to Breeze's article, the situation on the Arthurian battle list is that we have six unidentified battle sites at rivers, three mythical encounters and three borrowed from external sources but seemingly wrongly ascribed to Arthur conveniently making the battle list up to the biblical number of twelve. Yet, the Historia is typically cited as being the first document to support Arthur as a historical figure.
What the Historians say
And there lies the problem with Breeze's argument and many others attempting to construct a historical Arthur from the Historia; the 9th century document is not considered a reliable source by any means. Modern scholars consider the document to be a well-constructed piece of synthetic historical writing.
The Historia Brittonum was compiled in Wales in the first half of the 9th century. About forty manuscripts are known to exist in eight recensions. The 'Nennian Prologue' is now generally agreed as a later forgery. Most manuscripts omit the introduction and leave the authorship blank, as such, scholarly opinion no longer considers the ascription to a monk named 'Nennius' as valid.
Nevertheless, the Historia is an important source for Roman Britain and Wales and the Brythonic north (yr Hen Ogledd) of the 5th to the 7th centuries. It purports to give an account of the geography and history of the British Isles from their first settler (Brutus) to the early Middle Ages; subsequently it was the single most important source used by Geoffrey of Monmouth in creating his legendary History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1139).
Today historians view the document with considerable suspicion. John Koch for example states, “much of the contents are picturesque, fantastic, and clearly unhistorical, with the result that some view the work as a whole as belonging to the genre of legendary history rather than history”.9
Nicholas Higham states, “Arthur emerges for the first time in an insular context as a pseudo-historical character in a series of Latin works written in Wales and Brittany in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and early twelfth centuries. These works were of several different kinds, including a synthetic pseudo-history (the Historia Brittonum), a chronicle (the Annales Cambriae)...”
“We should be hesitant, therefore, in ascribing any particular antiquity to the author’s sources and cautious about judging it as historically accurate as regards the depiction of the fifth and sixth centuries. There is much legend and myth included, which must once again tell against its historicity.”10
Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, in his ongoing study of the Historia Brittonum argues that “The bases of recent critical arguments about the historical value of the text are that:
1. Where it impinges upon history that can be tested by external sources (for instance, in its accounts of Roman Bitain (§§19-30)..... or Saint Germanus (§§32-35, 39 and 47), it is demonstrably either wrong or it distorts the evidence to fit the author’s preconceptions about British history. The pseudo-history constructed around the career of Magnus Maximus (§27) is an excellent example of this tendency.”11
Caitlin (Thomas) Green tells us that, “.....the case for a historical Arthur rests entirely on two sources, the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, both of which would appear to have a concept of Arthur that is (at least partly) unequivocally historical.
“As such the Historia is of very dubious historical value, for example, in addition to many of its sources being of a similar date to itself and suspect in nature, the Historia can be shown to portray characters who are decidedly mythical in origin, such as Hengest and Horsa as genuinely historical.
“Indeed, as a number of recent commentators have recognised, the Historia Brittonum is in fact a synchronising and synthetic history of the type well known from medieval Ireland, fusing sources for its own political ends and involved in the creation of a full national pseudo-history, a process which was closely allied with the historicising of legend.”12
David Dumville views the document as a carefully crafted political statement, reflecting the concerns of early 9th-century Gwynedd and containing little or nothing of value to the history of earlier ages. The best we can say with regard to Arthur is that the Historia Brittonum provides an indication of the state of the Arthurian legend in 9th century Gwynedd.13
When using the battle list from the Historia Brittonum to reconstruct a Dark Age history it is often overlooked that the same early manuscript (Harleian MS 3859) includes the Mirabilia, a list of topographical Wonders of the Island of Britain that are described as “overtly folkloric and non-historical in nature”; Arthur the soldier appears in two mirabilies (wonders) concerning s pile of rocks showing his dog Cabal's footprint with a miraculous returning stone and the tomb of Arthur's son Amr which always varies in length. Clearly, this is not history but fantasy and aptly demonstrates that even from the earliest stage the Arthurian legend had entered the marvellous world of myth. Consequently the Mirabilia is often ignored by those claiming the battle list as a genuine campaign itinerary.
Dr Breeze should be commended on making the first positive identification of the battle sites, if that is indeed what he has achieved. However, positive identification of the localities mentioned in the so-called chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum, possibly, but not probably, based on an Early Welsh battle catalogue poem, is not proof of the historicity of the victor.
As Kenneth Jackson remarked on the Arthurian battle list as long ago as 1959, “a great deal of nonsense has been written in the attempt to identify them”14
Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. King Arthur? No, the legendary leader was just a Scottish general who lived most of his life in Strathclyde – The Mail Online 03 September 2015
2. King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic
claims – The Independent 03 September 2015
3. Andrew Breeze, The Historical Arthur And Sixth-Century Scotland, in Northern History Volume 51, Issue 2 (September 2015), pp.158–181.
4. John T Koch & Antone Minard eds., The Celts: History, Life, and Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2012.
5. Eilert Ekwall, English River Names, 1928 (Oxford reprints 1968), and OGS Crawford ,Antiquity Volume IX, No: 36, 1935.
6. H M & N K Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, 3 Volumes, 1932-40, (Cambridge Library Collection 2011).
7. David N Dumville, The Historical Value of the Historia Brittonum, in Arthurian Literature VI, 1986.
8. David N Dumville, 'Early Welsh Poetry: Problems of Historicity', in Early Welsh Poetry: Studies in the Book of Aneirin, ed. Brynley F. Roberts. Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 1988.
9. John T Koch, entry for Historia Brittonum in Celtic Culture, ABC, 2006.
10. Nicholas J. Higham, Early Latin Sources: Fragments of a Pseudo-Historical Arthur, in Companion to Arthurian Literature, Edited by Helen Fulton, Blackwell, 2009.
11. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, The Historia Brittonum website.
12. Thomas Green, The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur, 1998.
13. David N Dumville, The Historical Value of the Historia Brittonum,
14. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, 'The Arthur of History' in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed., RS Loomis, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.
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