I know that Efrawg sounds perfectly Welsh, but it’s actually just the British version of Latin Eboracum, modern York. Now that’s a little odd for a man’s name, but then again it isn’t actually a man’s name. You see there actually was an historical Peredur. His father’s name was Eliffer and most scholars locate him around York. See how that works, Peredur was from York so his patronym was mistakenly mixed up with the area he ruled.
The discussion about Arthur’s existence has been active since Geoffrey of Monmouth made him a European sensation in the mid-eleventh century. For many, it revolves around his mention in Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, which is now generally believed to have come from the Northern Memorandum. Personally, I’ve approached the question from several angles no one had ever thought to so it’s not necessary for me to believe that the hypothetical source is early to know Arthur existed. That also means I’m less likely to be biased toward making it any earlier than it has to be. To business; the veracity of both sources depends on the Northern Memorandum written within the lifetime of an individual.
I say this because it has been suggested that people during this period might have lived a hundred years or more, as long as they were able to avoid wars and disease. Between 526 and 547, Britain suffered three major plagues or famines. Between 410 and the time of Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae, the Germanic migrants expanded west to control what in later times would be Northumbria, Essex, a good portion of Wessex, Sussex, East Anglia, and Kent. And the Germanic peoples were not Christian at that time so that they saw monasteries as storehouses of wealth only. By 632, when Cadwallon would run roughshod over Northumbria, northern Britain was cut off from Wales, suggesting Mercia had expanded to the western coast. Safe to say that nowhere on the island was there a region that could have avoided disease, poor crops, or war for more than a decade. And of course the very young and the very old would have been the most likely to die during plagues, famines, or conquests.
Statistical fact, the average male lived to be 32 and the average female 28 in the first couple centuries of post-Roman Britain.
All that out of the way, we know that the rare churchman could live to be as old as 80. Unlikely as that seems, it means he could have been witness to an event he saw at 5 and wrote it down at about 80. More likely, a person would remember an event from 15 on, but we’ll stick to the extremes. That way whatever dates we come up with won’t be edited for a wider range.
The first dated historical event in either Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae is the Battle of Arfderydd, dated to 573. A boy aware of the event at the time might have recorded it as late as 648. The last northern British dated event is the death of Dunod in 595, and therefore the earliest possible date would be 595. Thus Run, or a monastery associated with him, likely scribed the original Northern Memorandum in 595×648.
Professor Koch long ago suggested a means by which a British history could have been brought into Germanic hands and made use of without bending it to a strictly Germanic bias. At some time after 664, Alhfrith revolted against his father. He was dead by 671. Alfrith was possibly a descendant of Urien according to the Historia Brittonum, which means he might have had access to British records. Modernizing the history for the purpose of showing his ancestry and winning the support of British nobility would have been an excellent motivator for a Northumbrian to put in the details about Rieinmellth marrying a Northumbrian.
However, as he died in 671, the Germanic genealogies end during Ecgfrith’s reign, and the last event of Germanic concern is 685, it’s also a safe bet that the history was rewritten in 685 or later.
There is also one curiosity in the history of the theoretical Northern Memorandum; Patrick is one of three religious figures mentioned in prominent roles (Rhun as the author and Germanus as the nemesis of Vortigern being the other two). But Patrick serves no known purpose for any British history written between 595 and 648. Nor would Alhfrith or Ecgfrith have had any political motivations. In fact, one might argue the British would have had more reason to mention other British saints, while the Northumbrians would have been more likely to name Columba or Aedan. Add to this that Arthur’s presence seems to be interwoven with the Arthurian entries and we are given the suggestion that these two may have been part of a still earlier recension. Is there any evidence as to its date-range, or even that there was an earlier recension? Nope! Just a thought.
Most of the British history books the author has read focus on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms between Rhun’s campaign and the alliances of Urien and the Gododdin on one end and Cadwallon on the other, ignoring the British people completely in the process. Historians do this because we know very little about the British people during this time, little more than the names of several kings really.
Several people have offered their theories. Hamerow argued that the Germanic peoples’ local and extended kin-groups gave them a distinct advantage over the British social structure.1 However, we are not exactly certain how those kin-groups functioned but judging by existing kingship customs and the extant law codes of the period they seem to have been similar to the Celts. In both cases, an extended cousinhood protected each other among the freemen. It could be argued that the English tradition was closer to the modern system of justice with its concept of crimes against the state, but that would not have given the English any obvious advantages in warfare.
In studying the period, Professor Higham realized the unusual weight Badon had on both British and Germanic histories,2 and suggested that it might have been important independent of Gildas. He suggested that after the battle some sort of a compromise was worked out between both sides that in the short term forced the Anglo-Saxons to pause in their advance into British territories, but in the end allowed them to develop whatever political structure or military strength they needed to conquer Britain.3
The problem with that theory is that it requires some unlikely assumptions. The first is that the battle had islandwide importance. Gildas’ interests and knowledge were fairly local within his lifetime; he focuses on modern Wales and Cornwall with the kings for instance. It is at least feasible that the Battle of Badon was only locally important too. The knowledge we have gained about political development supports that possibility; we have learned that the British kingdoms were only just forming in the late fifth century and regional alliances were still decades off, while the Germanic people of the late fifth century were still organized into clans controlling individual villages.4 While it might have been possible for several British chiefs to band together, bringing hundreds of villages under a confederation, unless they were being invaded themselves, would have been a impractical.
The fact that the Germanic people were still organized into local clans also means that there would have been no way to work out a compromise after the battle, either. It would have been difficult to make dozens of British chieftains agree on terms, but negotiating with hundreds of Germanic clans would have been impossible unless they had been virtually annihilated – and Gildas makes no claims about that.
Logistics. If a war-band was mounted it might travel thirty or forty miles in a day. At that speed and allowing at least one full day for a battle, it is possible that most Germanic and British war-bands would be able to get to and from the battle in only three days. However, for those three days the entire kingdom would be vulnerable to attacks.5
Finally, Badon itself. Gildas claimed it was the major battle of an entire generation, and if it was the absolute victory he claims it makes sense why English historians never delved into the details. But, if the battle was followed by a compromise which eventually allowed the Germanic people to dominate the island, the English reaction should have been different. One would think that the eventual benefactors would have remembered it with pride as another instance when they had outwitted the British (like Hengest) and as a more important event than the regional accomplishments of Cerdic, Ceawlin, or Ælle. The fact that they did neither probably means that Badon was a major defeat for them. As that seems more likely, we need to look elsewhere for an explanation about why the British kingdoms decline after the mid-sixth century.
To this scholar, the behavior of the British kingdoms after Urien and Rhun’s careers seems like the state of ancient Greece after the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, or the aftermath of a wild New Year’s Eve Party; maybe both comparisons are valid. By the end of the sixth century the British had been in a state of perpetual raiding and warring for over a hundred years, with battles growing larger and more intense as kingdoms grew and allied together in an attempt to control ever larger portions of the island. On the other hand, we hear almost nothing of the Germanic peoples after roughly 500 for decades. While the British were involved in larger and larger battles, the Germanic people were still just raiding. Is it possible that British manpower had been sapped? Battles would deplete the warrior ranks, while invasions would have meant the loss of farmers, without whom there was no food.
At the same time, England has the best farmland on the island.6 While the British lost warriors and peasants to internecine warfare from the late fifth to the late sixth century and survived on lesser farmland, the Anglo-Saxons lost little or nothing and had better crops to grow their population on.
Of course, battles alone did not reduce the British from the dominant power on the island to victims in just a century. It must have strained them, but not so much that they might not have reconquered Britain. There were other issues. Dr. Andrew Breeze has pointed out to me some major volcanic activity in 535-6 which caused major climatic changes throughout the world.7 This would have affected crops and livestock.
At mid-century, Justinian’s Plague hit Britain,8 and that must have put the Britons over the edge. Some scholars have suggested that the British were hit harder and the resulting deaths weakened the British enough that they never recovered.9 That theory seems unlikely on its own though. For one thing, scholars have shown that the Germanic peoples traded both with the continent and the British peoples, demonstrating more than enough contact with bubonic plague regions to have infected their entire population.10
But, if the undermanned British kingdoms had been stretched by nearly a century of war before the plague hit and the Anglo-Saxons had thrived in the meantime, the disease could have hit both groups equally but effected the British much more.
The plague was just the anima though. In organizing the Germanic areas to make tribute-taking more efficient during the early and middle sixth century, the British had inadvertently created the political structure for the Germanic kingdoms – leader, hall, warriors, and villages giving tribute. Once the British people no longer had the strength to control them because of the pandemic,11 the Germanic tax collectors would have simply stopped paying tribute.
So, why do the British kingdoms have an interlude from history after Urien and Rhun of Gwynedd? They were recovering, and the Germanic peoples were too focused on developing from local chieftainships to kingdoms. That focus would allow for the rise of the first Germanic over-kings like Ælle, Ceawlin, Æthelberht, and Æthelfrith while giving the British kingdoms time to replenish their numbers.
1 Hamerow, Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 2012).
2 Badon is in both British sources, is mentioned but not explored in Bede, and its effects seen in lower England with The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
3 Higham, “From Tribal Chieftains to Christian Kings”, The Anglo-Saxon World, eds. Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan, (New Haven, 2013), 126-78.
4 One major hiccup a reader may have with this theory is Gildas’ testimony, but a close look at his account suggests that the British fought raiders looking for food and supplies, not kings and their war-bands attempting any sort of conquest or even cattle raids.
5 Having no knowledge of the relations between villages the author must acknowledge that several warriors from each clan/war-band might have come to the battle. That possibility would have made it important islandwide without endangering all the kingdoms represented.
6 “Why farming matters: Wales”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: Scotland”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: Northern Ireland”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: England”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015.
7 Baillie, “Dendrochronology raises questions about the nature of the AD 536 dust-veil event”, The Holocene 4.2 (Washington D.C., 1994), 212-7; “Marking in Marker Dates: Towards and Archaeology with Historical Precision”, World Archaeology 23.2 (Abingdon, 1991), 233-43.
8 “Annales Cambriae”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), entry 547.
9 Wacher, The Towns of Roman Britain, (Berkeley, 1974), 414-422; Russell, “Late Ancient and Medieval Population”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 48.3 (Philadelphia, 1958), 71-99.
10 “The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Stephen Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 55-74; Brown, History and Climate Change: An Eurocentric Perspective, (Routledge, 2001), 94-5.
11 Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, (New York, 1982), 31.
Britain; 367-664 is at the publisher and should be available in August. I’ll continue publishing chapters for the next few books and any errors you may find I will make use of when the manuscript is sent back to me.
Now, I have no immediate plans to write something as massive as that any time soon, but I have already gotten the unofficial go-ahead to write another book. It will be a series of loosely connected essays on topics in post-Roman Britain, sort of like my usual post only more fully researched and with footnotes. And since you are the people most interested in Arthuriana I thought I would ask if there was something you would like to see. So far this is what I have, divided loosely by subjects. It should come to a little more than 100 pages.
-Arthur and Nationalism
-Did Arthur Exist? Where and When?
-What does Dux Brittanorum mean?
-Sword and the Stone
-The Story behind the Abduction
-The Story behind Owain’s Adventure
-Badon’s Importance, date, and placement
-The 12 Battles
-What is the grail?
Knights of the Round Table
-Members of his war-band; historical and literary
-Cei, the Grumbler
-So how many knights did he have at one time?
-What was the Round Table?
-The Round Table at Winchester
-Who were the Picts?
-Who were the Anglo-Saxons?
-What was Logres?
-How did the legends become romances?
-The story of Marie de Champagne
-The Story of Chretien de Troyes
-The story of Philip of Flanders
-Geoffrey of Monmouth
Four chapters ago Gwrtheyrn was briefly mentioned as an example of evolving British kingship during the sixth century. Eleven chapters before that, his development as a literary character was examined as a part of The Kentish Source’s development. To understand his career better, it will be simplest to focus on his progression as a character in British history and then critically examine that against what we have already learned.
Gwrtheyrn first appears in Gildas as superbus tyrannus – “Overking”. There he is credited with inviting the first Germanic tribes over to Britain. In the Late Roman tradition, he settled them in the troubled areas of the island and promised to feed and house them in return for their services as mercenaries against the Picts and their fellow Germanic tribesmen.
This story is all wrong though. As we have seen, there is no evidence that a single king controlled Britain during the fifth century. In fact, from the break down of Roman provincial government, to the settlements of the Irish, the known activities of the fifth century kings, and into the sixth century alliances demonstrates a consistent trend of emerging and developing kingships beginning in the late fifth century. As we will see in the pages below, these kingdoms continued to increase in size and complexity until they became the medieval kingdoms that would survive remain in place for most of the Middle Ages.
We have also seen that the Romans had been bringing Germanic tribes as foederati to Britain from the fourth century; they were already on the island when Gildas had his superbus tyrannus inviting them in the fifth century. Realizing that, we can see why Gildas had to include an over-king in his history; he needed one to explain why the Germanic peoples were on the island.
Knowing what we know now we can empathize with Gildas. He saw the Romans as the instruments of God’s forgiveness and because of that could nbg nbot imagine them ever making the mistake of bringing the Germanic peoples to the island. What made more sense to him was that a Briton king had been at fault, someone who must have ruled Britain so that he had the necessary power. That was why he placed the introduction of the foederati after Aetius, that and a probably weak oral memory of the time between Aetius and Badon.
Following him was Bede, a man who was no fool by his exquisite Latin and careful scholarship. He was locked into the story though. By the time he wrote two hundred years later Gildas was already remembered as a great scholar and his history as the history of post-Roman Britain.
Even if he had been willing to challenge Gildas, his ecclesiastical superiors had given him The Kentish Source as the official history and it confirmed everything Gildas had written. Bede really had no other choice but to write the story he had in front of him. We know he expanded the Gildasian history, probably using The Kentish Source, adding the names of the two Germanic chieftains, Hengest and Horsa, and along with a brief biography. Because we know that he was so strongly Northumbrian, it was probably he who had added a snippet about two additional chieftains who fought in the north but were related to Hengest. His contribution to the history strengthened Northumbria’s claim to power in his century by connecting the kingdom’s earliest leaders with the most famous the man who had outwitted the British over-king and legally been given possession of Kent.
When the Historia Brittonum was originally written during the ninth century, most of that story was probably ignored. After all, it was written in Powys by the son-in-law of the Powysian king, and Rhodri had the history written to help him unite the British kingdoms under his kingdom’s leadership.
It was rewritten in the tenth century, though, and the purpose of the Dyfed revision was to undermine Powys’ authority by attacking one of its most revered kings. At the time, Hywel Dda ruled the kingdom and he was firmly allied with Æthelstan, so Hywel probably had access to The Kentish Source through him. He made use of it, for the first time blending the British memory of Gwrtheyrn’s power and dynastic importance with Vortigern’s control of Britain, flaws, and chronology through the suggestion of their name similarity – Vortigern was the Latin form of Welsh Gwrtheyrn.
In this new version of history, Gwrtheyrn had emerged as the leader of all Britain after 410 but was still being attacked by the Picts and Germanic peoples. Hoping for a solution he took counsel with his nobles and decided to invite Anglo-Saxon mercenaries onto the island to help him. These foederati performed their jobs well, but then their leaders fooled him into allowing more and more warriors from the continent. They fooled him again when they introduced him to a Germanic woman who seduced him. He insisted on marrying her, and Hengest insisted on Kent as a dowry. That was when he had lost control.
His son Vortimer (properly Gwrthefyr if the information had come from a Briton source) now emerged to beat the Anglo-Saxons nearly back to the eastern coast but was killed in the fighting. At that point, old Gwrtheyrn returned to the story. He was captured when all of his nobles were killed and ransomed for more territory. When the ransom was agreed upon, he spent his remaining days hidden inside a fortress only to be burned alive when two dragons emerged from its foundations.
Alfred, or whoever commissioned The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, happily made use of the story about the cunning Germanic chieftains and the fool they had stolen Britain from. Besides cutting back the story to fit into a chronicle form, the editor(s) only made two changes to the tale. The first was that Gwrtheyrn’s son was never mentioned because the English probably had no memory of one. The second was that they reversed the order of the battles so that it looked like the Anglo-Saxons were conquering territory instead of losing it.
Without a doubt, what we know about Gwrtheyrn comes mainly from Gildas and the mistaken association between his superbus tyrannus and the historical Gwrtheyrn. Sorting through the information gaps, personal, religious, and political motivations there is very little else to be learned about Gwrtheyrn. Very little, but there is something of value.
First of all there are the names. The interchangeability of roles between the superbus tyrannus, Vortigern, and Gwrtheyrn have been widely accepted as showing they were considered the same people in the historical tradition. The Historia Brittonum also names an Outigern as roughly contemporary to Maelgwn, Ida, and the five bards and imples that all eight men were important in their time – the bards for their abilities and the kings for their successes; Koch has even suggested that the here implies that the first named poet, Talhaearn, was attached to Outigern. Yet we know nothing whatsoever about this king otherwise. In Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, the author proposed a simple scribal error; dyslexia might have switched Votigern to Outigern, and Votigern is a close form of Vortigern.
Finally there is Gwrthefyr son of Gwrtheyrn. His name translates as “great prince” while his “father” ’s name translates as “over-king”; similar but not identical. He also only appears in Historia Brittonum, and only so that he can fight Hengest in four battles – Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone. Bede says there was fighting between Vortigern and Hengest, but names no battles making it possible that he had simply eliminated British victories from his history.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also says the battles were fought between Vortigern and Hengest but names them; ÆgelesÞrep (Aylesford), Crecganford (Crayford), Wippedesfleot (near Ebbsfleet), and a fourth unknown site. Historia Brittonum names them too; Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone.
None of the seven sites match which means that the information was probably not taken from the same source. However, Epsford is probably Aylesford, and all seven sites are usually located in Kent. That at least suggests that both the British and the English had a memory of a series of four battles fought by Hengest. The fact that Gwrthefyr shows up nowhere else but replaces Gwrtheyrn for them suggests that Gwrthefyr is yet another doublet, a seam in the blending.
As aspects of Gwrtheyrn’s career that were apparently uninfluenced by the Gildas/Kentish Source tradition Outigern and Gwrthefyr might just allow us to see something historical about the Gwrtheyrn; he was a king recognized as Maelgwn’s equal who fought several battles in or at least near Kent.
That is really not much. However, there are two other details to consider which will throw some light on the mysterious Gwrtheyrn; we know almost nothing about Iurminric the father of Æthelberht and the northern British kings seem to have dominated the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria during the same time frame. Let me explain.
It has not really bothered anyone that we know nothing about Iurminric, and that strikes this scholar as odd. Consider, Æthelberht allowed the Christian mission into his kingdom in 597, along with its ability to write and the potential power that gave the king. A fifty-five year old man at that time could easily be expected to remember back to 557. Æthelberht may have married his Frankish wife (who brought her priest) around 580, meaning that oral memory might have gone back to 540 – 530 if a fifty-five year old at the time had remembered any events back when he or she was five. On the other hand, Iurminric was born in the range 523-560. No matter how you work the numbers, he spent his entire adult career within the limits of oral memory, yet the only two details we have about him are that his name is Frankish, implying a relationship with the Franks back another generation, and that he was the father of Æthelberht. Very odd.
Next piece of information; the northern British kings. As we have seen above, there were at least five different alliances over the last half of the sixth century, at least two of which took tribute from Germanic-held territories. This was a period of British revival and expanding political awareness because the British had already developed kingship and with it access to a stronger political organization along with more warriors under one king. The only southern king we have seen was active during this period outside of Wales and Cornwall is Gwrtheyrn.
Take those unrelated facts and add that to a question about the Hengest battles against Vortigern/Gwrthefyr. We know they could not have been remembered if they had taken place in the fifth century; that and neither Hengest, Vortigern, or Gwrthefyr would have been around to fight them. So why were they remembered in both traditions? What would have been the point of remembering them before they were made a part of The Kentish Source and attached to the Historia Brittonum?
To answer that, we return to the fact that Iurminric would have been active during the middle of the sixth century, roughly the same era as Gwrtheyrn himself. Gwrtheyrn, as we have seen, was remembered in the north for being a powerful king. In the north, the powerful men of his era controlled land all the way to the eastern coast. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that he might have as well?
It would make sense. The Kentish Source was focused on showing the legitimacy of Kent’s rule by demonstrating that its early kings had been smarter and better warriors than their British counterparts. Its writer(s) had not made up the initial landing and the outwitting of Vortigern, so why would they have started making things up with the battles? It seems more likely, at least to the present scholar, that those battles would have been taken from oral memory, and oral memory would only have extended back to the middle sixth century, suggesting that Iurminric might have been the man fighting the battles against Gwrtheyrn.
Why was Iurminric not connected to them? As they are used in Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they are battles of conquest on an island that the Germanic people had just come to. However, if Iurminric was fighting them they would have been battles for independence. Independence might have a certain attraction, but it would also mean that at some point the royal house of Kent had willingly submitted to British authority and that would have gone against the basic purpose of The Kentish Source.
So, instead of deleting the battles altogether, they did what any good medieval historian seems to have done, they repurposed and redated them. The decision demonstrated Hengest’s superior leadership and eliminated the potentially embarrassing fact that as late as the middle sixth century Kent had been paying tribute to the Britons. When in the tenth century Dyfed eliminated the pro-Gwrtheyrn version of the Historia Brittonum and rewrote British history it was an unhoped-for stroke of luck for Kent.
Of course even if the above theory is right there is no way to know who won what battle, or even the campaign. Probably our safest source for that is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle because of its writer’s habit of explicitly saying when the English won and being vague when they did not. It states that Hengest and his son Æsc won Ægelsþrep (probably Aylesford) and another battle and implies that they won at Crecganford (probably Crayford), while it is mute on the victor at Wippedesfleot.
Who was Gwrtheyrn? He was a powerful king who lived at the climax and the twilight of British power. It seems reasonable that Gwrtheyrn claimed sort of tribute over many of the Germanic clans in the south. The author’s appraisal would be that there was a revolt late in his career. Maybe it was led by Iurminric but Ælle, Bede’s first Bretwalda, is a more likely possibility; it would explain his place in Bede’s list and fit in well with the chronology of events that has been worked out above.
More probable still would be that several leaders emerged among them Ælle, Ceawlin, and Iurminric. In that scheme the former two could have been contemporary Bretwaldas, bringing dozens of villages under one ruler in imitation of the early British kings.
Growing more theoretical as the sources give less information, the fighting was indecisive in Gwrtheyrn’s lifetime, but after he died (probably not in battle as Vortigern’s end has nothing to do with the invaders in either the British or the Germanic versions) the Germanic tribes claimed their independence.
In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Vortigern is not mentioned after the first battle. It is also possible that he lost it and died, and whoever followed him could do no better. Again though, we may never know.
1 De Excidio Britanniae, trans. Michael Winterbottom, (Chichester, 1978), 23.1
2 The author has elsewhere suggested that he may have taken advantage of this gap in his knowledge to blame Arthur for the Germanic presence because of a family feud involving the death of his brother. There is no better evidence for that theory now than there was then, but it would explain his choice of using an over-king to explain the Germanic presence instead of a simple invasion of Britain; Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2012), 42-9.
3 The Late Roman Empire included many powerful men who were able to carve small kingdoms out of the Roman Empire for decades at a time. If Gildas was well read, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, he may have known this and applied that knowledge to what he did not know about fifth-century Britain.
4 It has been pointed out that Aetius was the far extent of his oral knowledge, but that is no guarantee that he had access to an unbroken sequence of events from that famous letter to his present day.
5 Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 86.
6 Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013), 27.
7 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 89; Sims-Williams, “The Settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle”, ASE 12 (London, 1983b), 16.
8 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. George Norman Garmonsway, (London, 1953), years 455, 456, 465, and 473.
9 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), chapter 44.
10 Brooks places the marriage between the mid-570s and 581; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 50; Stafford, Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages, (Athens, GA, 1983), 35-6, 67-8, 73-4.
11 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 222. Brooks places him in the second quarter of the sixth century because his parents must have been influenced by the Franks to have given him that name; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 46-7.
12 Rhun’s primary concern seems to have been the north, and legend does say he was gone for a long period of time which would have left a void of power in Wales. Even if he had remained in Gwynedd for the relevant part of his career, Gwrtheyrn’s genealogy includes Gloiu, or Gloucester, suggesting that his base was along the Wye River. Their spheres of influence may have never overlapped.
13 It has already been suggested that overlordship probably meant control over less area for the earlier Bretwaldas; Campbell, “The Lost Centuries 400-600”, The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald, (London, 1982), 53-4.
The author has elsewhere given a point-by-point rebuttal of Professor Dumville’s and Professor Padel’s papers about Arthur not existing. They can be summed up as follows: The sources for the period are not impossible to make use of, they just require a strong understanding of the materials used in their creation and the biases of all the authors involved – a lot of research into what has been discovered and a strict adherence to those findings.
Of course Arthur is not mentioned much and of course where he is mentioned he is often connected to the supernatural – he lived in an heroic age period where oral literature dominated. As anyone who knows oral literature can tell you, stories in an oral society change a lot like a message in the telephone game. Even two generations can make a huge difference; Urien was remembered in oral literature too, but since he lived just a little later his legend did not grow as much as Arthur’s.
Arthur bears no reasonable comparison to Fion macCumhail. None! Not by his activities, the linguistics, or his introduction into the historical sources.
Despite the contrary claims the earliest sources – Y Gododdin and the Northern Memorandum as found in the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae – all name Arthur in an historical context.
Adjusting for the known biases, all the historical and even literary sources are consistent in where and when they place Arthur. He lived right around 500 in the Carlisle/Old Carlisle region.
To this the question “If he is a northern historical figure why is he not listed in the “Men of the North” genealogy?” Simply put, the genealogy was a political tool; it deepened the alliance of British kings by giving them a common ancestor. By that time, neither Arthur nor his descendants were active so there was no reason to insert him.
Speaking of historical sources, the Historia Brittonum says that Arthur was present at twelve battles while Annales Cambriae confirms his presence at Badon and adds Camlann. Both sources took their Arthurian information from the Northern Memorandum, whose information might extend back to the late sixth century with Rhun son of Urien even if the writing in its present form only goes back to around 750. All this has made those thirteen battles a hot topic for Arthurian enthusiasts hoping to prove Arthur existed. No theory has ever gained much traction though. It may not even be possible to place all the battles in one area. Battle lists are notorious for being composites of participants and regions. The Arthurian battles have two problems on top of that. The Historia Brittonum battles are twelve in number and are located at nine sites; both numbers were symbolically important for the Celts. There are also indications of rhyme in the list that suggests the author found it in a poem that included the battles of several kings.
To make a comparison pretend for a moment that we live in an oral society. Now accept that MacArthur and Rommel were the two best generals of World War II. In a battle list drawn up a hundred years from now we might find that they had fought each other on D-Day, at the Battle of the Bulge, El Alamein, Midway, and the Philippines. This despite the fact that neither man was at several of those battles and that they never met each other. With that in mind, the only battles with any historical value are Camlann and possibly Badon.
When did Arthur live? By mid-century, every known British king is consistently placed in one kingdom and most of them are associated with contemporaries. Arthur is connected with no one site and his associations are with kings and saints from all over Britain. Some scholars have believed this makes him less historical, but as has been seen in the pages above the fifth century was a period of transition between Roman and British cultures. The first British bards we know of were active no earlier than about 470, so naturally the first generation or so of rulers they spoke of would be a little shrouded in legend. For these reasons and several more, Arthur was probably active somewhere between roughly 480 and 520.
Where did he live? Old Carlisle seems the most likely guess. It would explain his predilection with things Roman in Historia Brittonum and would fit roughly in the center of the geographical area from which Arthurian figures seem to come from. Oddly enough, when the present scholar listed all the sites associated with Arthur’s hall in the literature and history and eliminated every entry that was used for a clear literary, political, or personal reason, Carlisle was far and away the most commonly named location. We also know that Old Carlisle was a consistently occupied city during the period in question.
Old Carlisle may also have been the command quarters for Hadrian’s Wall. In an era when the Roman Empire was tearing itself apart that may not mean anything. However, according to the archeological record the years around 500 were when several former Hadrian’s Wall forts were reoccupied. That is all the stranger because Roman forts throughout the rest of the island were vacant.
What it has suggested to Professor Dark, Koch, and the present scholar is that some powerful force (a single king or alliance) might have controlled the entire area and initiated the reoccupation. If that force was Arthur, it would help to explain why he was remembered more vividly than any other king of the period; it would have made him the leading person on the island in a very real way.
Politically, he would have taken tribute from more people than any other person on the island. Holding an entire east-west stretch of land might have allowed him to limit communications between the North and the South. Actually, he might have been able to limit the movement of traders, bards, and craftsman to and from the North. Hadrian’s Wall would have also given him a psychological edge. Old Carlisle had been a Roman fort, and Hadrian’s Wall a Roman system of fortresses. Reoccupy them would have helped him claim a little more of Rome’s lingering mystique.
A reoccupation of Hadrian’s Wall could also have served a military purpose. During the Roman occupation, it had served as a blockade against the Picts, a bulwark against the constant attacks on the British people. In the hands of a Briton, Hadrian’s Wall might have been used to give the British people a sense of unity. In previous centuries it has been argued that could have come together against the Germanic peoples who had already settled a good portion of eastern England, but it could equally have served against the Picts or the Irish.
Which raises another question; who were Arthur’s enemies? According to Gildas, the Battle of Mount Badon was fought between British and Germanic tribes, and the principles may have been exactly that. We cannot believe that the lines were that simple, though. As has been seen above, several Irish dynasties would eventually intermarry with local kingships in Wales. It has long been noted that Cerdic, traditional founder of the Wessex dynasty, has a British name. The court-list in Culhwch ac Olwen contains several Anglo-Saxon figures who were roughly contemporary with Arthur. As we shall see below, the most famous poem of the period, Y Gododdin, is about two mostly British armies fighting each other, both with several Anglo-Saxons. The Mercian king Penda was allies with British Gwynedd for most of his career. Arthur may very well have fought against the Irish, Picts, and Anglo-Saxons during his kingship. Just as likely, Arthur may have had an Irishman, a Pict, and an Anglo-Saxon in his personal war-band.
With that in mind, it is not really important what culture his enemies were a part of. Nor does it matter what language his neighbors spoke; he would have been just as willing to make raids on Anglo-Saxons, Picts, and Irish just as he would have on Britons. He would have been just as likely to ally with another culture group, too. We must always keep in mind that Arthur did not live in an environment where fighting was based on national identity. None of the kings from this period – Urien, Maelgwn, Rhun, Gwrtheyrn, or the mysterious king of Gododdin did. There was no need in Arthur’s time, because the Germanic people were not a threat. Arthur spent his career working to enhance his fame, wealth, and the number of warriors in his war band.
1 Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014); Dumville, “Sub-Roman Britain: history and legend”, History 62 (London, 1977a), 173-192; Padel, “The Nature of Arthur”, CMCS 27 (Cardiff, Summer 1994), 1-31.
2 Bromwich, “Concepts of Arthur”, SC 10/11 (Cardiff, 1976), 175-6; Thurneysen, “Zimmer, Nennius vindicatus”, ZDP 28 (Halle, 1896), 85, 87; Bruce, The Evolution of Arthurian Romance, from the Beginnings Down to the Year 1300, (Gottingen, 1923), 9. Jackson opposed the inclusion of this text in the Northern History on the basis of Beulon’s request that the Anglo-Saxon genaeologies (meaning also the Northern History apparently) be omitted from his copy. The task was done to his satisfaction and the Arthuriana information was not included. Therefore, so the reasoning goes, Arthuriana is not a part of the Northern History because Beulon knew it was not a part of the Northern History. The author believes it more accurate to say that Beulon believed that Arthuriana was a part of the Northern History, but his opinion carries no more weight than a modern historian’s. It is a good bet that he knew even less about the Northern Memorandum or the Northern History than we do.
3 The Gododdin of Aneirin, ed. and trans. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), cxxiii.
4 The most notable have been Alcock and Jackson. Most recently, Andrew Breeze has located all the battles in the north and placed Arthur in Glasgow; Alcock, Arthur’s Britain, (New York, 1971); Jackson, “Once Again Arthur’s Battles”, MP 43 (Chicago, 1945), 44-57; Breeze, “The Arthurian Battle of Badon and Braydon Forest, Wiltshire”, Journal of Literary Onomastics 4.1 (Brockport, 2015), 20-30; Breeze, “The Historical Arthur and Sixth-Century Scotland”, Northern History 52.2 (Leeds, 2015), 158-81.
5 Lloyd, The History of Wales, (Cardiff, 1912), 126 fn. 6; Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, (Cambridge, 1932), 155; Crawford, “Arthur and his Battles”, Antiq 9 (Gloucester, 1935), 279; Jackson, “The Arthur of History”, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed. Roger S. Loomis, (Chicago, 1959), 78; Bromwich, “Concepts”, SC 10/11 (Cardiff, 1976), 169.
6 The present author had long thought that Badon was an artificially attached battle as well, but Christopher Gidlow has pointed out that few people who have not studied military strategy know about Napoleon’s greatest victory at Borodino even though everyone seems to know about his final defeat at Waterloo. It makes sense that Badon is not heavily referenced in Welsh literature. Badon is also the only other Arthurian battle named in Annales Cambriae.
7 Professor Koch has suggested that chapter 65 of the Historia Brittonum implies Talhaearn was Outigern’s bard, that Outigern was contemporary to Ida, and that the other four bards mentioned – Taliesin, Aneirin, Cian, and Bluchbeirdd – were contemporary with Ida, meaning that their relative chronology was three times removed from their placement there (Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch. (Cardiff, 2013), 27-9). The floruits of these and the other bards of the period are more thoroughly explored in Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 54-61.
8 For a more detailed series of arguments please see Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 87-125.
9 Dark, From Civitas to Kingdom, (Leicester, 1994), 112.
10 Koch, “Marwnad Cunedda a diwedd y Brydain Rufeinig”, Yr Hen Iaith: Studies in Early Welsh, ed. Paul Russell, (Cardiff, 2003), 176-82; Dark, “A Sub-Roman Defense of Hadrian’s Wall?”, Brit 18 (Stroud, 1992), 111-120; Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 126-32.
11 The Picts may have had a couple of larger kingdoms, but a much less dense population.
12 Myres, The English Settlements, (Oxford, 1989), 146-7; Koch, “Cerdic”, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encylopedia, ed. John T. Koch, (Santa Barbara, 2006), 392-3. The name is from British “Caratacus”. It was clearly not a fluke, either. Ceawlin, from an opposing dynasty, also had a British name (Ward-Perkins, “Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become more British?” HER 115 (Oxford, 2000), 513), as did Cædwalla (York, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1989), 138-9).
13 For a complete list of characters and an explanation of their origins see now Culhwch ac Olwen: An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale, eds. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, (Cardiff, 1992).
14 Higham, An English Empire, (Manchester, 1995), 218-240; The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xxxv-xlii.
As has been seen, Roman Empire’s administration had been exemplary. Rome’s founders had erected a stable bureaucracy that possessed an intelligent set of checks and balances which adapted over time and changing circumstances. As it had transitioned into an empire another group of far-sighted lawmakers had adapted the government so that it could integrate new provinces and cultures. By 400, every local government from Britain to India had a variation of the Roman model.
Through foreign and domestic wars, its income had also been stable. Taxes had been individually assessed based on personal holdings and then collected in the form of coins. Tradition had made the wealthy elite responsible for local administration as well as local project funding; forums, baths, public buildings, and roads had all been a part of their normal responsibility.
At the provincial level, money had been used to pay for the hospices along the highways that were used by official travelers as well as craftsmen, artists, and traders. Reserves were left alone in case of emergency. The empire paid the military and the officials who had been publically educated, but the senators came from wealthy families and had been given nothing for their public service by tradition.
Then Constantine had displaced the Roman governor and his bureaucracy and installed his own. When the Romano-British citizens revolted and overthrew Constantine’s government, the provincial government collapsed. Severing the connection with Rome meant no more income, no military support, and only limited contact with the empire. Dismantling the provincial government meant no local military or political order.
The local governments had remained intact and functioning through all that. However, throughout the last half-century of Roman rule the wealthy had been either immigrating to the continent or their country villas in Britannia where they had stopped performing public service. By 410, most of them were no longer contributing their resources to the villages and towns.
The departure of the wealthy from public life was just as catastrophic as the loss of provincial government. The wealthy had maintained local buildings and roads throughout Britain. Without them, all of these things fell into disrepair. Their business relations had kept them connected to other settlements and to the greater empire. Without them, villages were suddenly isolated.
As we have seen, the core of Roman civilization was education. Teaching a single language and mythology united the upper class in a common culture that spanned across the empire while educating the most talented among the poor at the public’s expense and then pushing them toward government positions had ensured a high level of competency at all levels of government. It had also made government employees unusually loyal to Rome.
However, the grammatici and the rhetorici that had done the teaching had been funded by the education of the rich, so without them the teachers would have had no patrons in Britain. Probably, some of them remained behind and found work where they could (Gildas’ education is proof of that), but those who insisted on their traditional income were forced to leave for the continent.
Along with the political changes came economic adaptations. Coins had been coming to Britain for centuries as pay to government officials and soldiers. They had then spent their money on the island and dispersed the new money. But as of 410 Britain was no longer part of the empire and received no more shipments of coin.
Judging by the wear of later Roman coins, money was used for a long time after the last shipments – we think it was still in circulation until maybe 430 or 440. They were used until no one could read them any more. After that, the Britons drifted into a bartering system as it was practiced among the Irish and had been among the pre-Roman British – with a female slave, a milk-producing cow, and an ounce of silver as equal standards of exchange.[i] Bartering meant that trade would be more limited from that point on; artwork, specialists, and weapons were still easily transportable, but cattle were the most convenient unit of exchange and they were more difficult.
For centuries Britannia had been protected by the Roman military, but the military had been paid by Roman coins and those were no longer free flowing after about 407, which means that whatever official military forces Constantine had left behind had probably dispersed long before 420.
During the last few decades of Roman Britain, the foederati had been protecting the eastern and southern coast from pirating and raids. They had been paid by food and supplies as well as coins, and probably by more and more trade items after 407. As we have seen, even these protectors would eventually revolt and conquer the very lands they had been protecting. That would leave the Britons on their own to protect themselves with homemade spears, bows designed and used for hunting, and any sharp household objects they could find.
The new economic system was local in the extreme – with a bartering system in place it had to be. It also ensured that the social, military, and even political aspects of post-Roman Britain were also local. Public buildings and roads crumbled from no maintenance. Local governments went from a well-educated bureaucracy to an informal group of town elders. The effect was as significant to them as the sudden loss of internet would be to us in the modern world.
[i] The exact equivalencies seem to have varied by region and time but the basic exchange, the bartering dollar, was the female slave/milking cow/ounce of silver.
British kingship seems to have been a reaction to Germanic migration and settlement – the timing is right and the motivation makes sense. The historical fact is that the British had developed primitive kingships by the end of the century. If they had not, they might have all been speaking Anglo-Saxon in another hundred years.
There was much more to Celtic kingship than just a military leader who lived in a hall. A king not only had to be a good warrior and leader, he had to come from a long line of strong kings; which is why lineages often consisted of famous heroes of the area as well as the actual royal ancestors of a dynasty. The Irish law texts say he had to make consistently correct judgments in legal matters for his people. He could never turn his back in battle. He could not lie or tolerate bardic satire. His body could have no blemishes.
Kings had to be all these things because of their connections to the supernatural. A Celtic king did not just rule his kingdom; during his inauguration he literally married the land in the form of a woman, and legend had it that for the rest of his reign she would reflect his rule by her appearance. He married a young and beautiful woman because he had demonstrated to his clan and the people that he was the best candidate for the position. As long as he behaved like a king she would remain youthful and attractive, but if he ever lost his kingly virtue she would become an old hag until he was replaced with a worthy king.
This connection to the land as symbolized by a woman gave the king an authority beyond the question of normal humans, putting their kingship and by extension their clan above question as rulers in the eyes of peasants. When Celtic kingship developed, though, it had taken time to develop. Bards had gradually added people and stories, of actual ancestors and adopted ones, to each kingdom’s official history along the way. The mystical elements probably developed after dynasties were long established. As Vansina has demonstrated, anything beyond living memory can be easily changed and rechanged as local politics and events occur.
The Britons of the Post-Roman era did not have the luxury of time as they reestablished their original culture, though. The Germanic tribes began migrating onto and controlling villages from around 441. The result was that the British kingships that did emerge did not have the solid foundations necessary. It would not have mattered how good their bards were at creating impressive genealogies and personal histories for their first generation kings or reinvigorating the mystique behind kingship. The simple fact was that in the late fifth century people still remembered a time without kings.
And because kingship was such a new establishment for the Romano-Britons, fifth-century kingships would have been based almost solely on the personal chemistry between the chieftain and his men. When he died, or even when he lost too many battles, that chemistry could dissolve and any person who was able to generate a new bond might succeed him. A son, brother, or cousin might have succeeded him but that was only one of several possibilities. A nearby king might absorb the teulu or a former champion might assert himself. It may never be possible to list all the petty chieftainships that arose in the late fifth century, or the ways in which most of them disappeared from history.
On the other hand, the fact that none of the early kingships were stable is probably one of the main reasons why the early British kingdoms grew so quickly; without a strong tradition there would have been no kingdom identity among villages and therefore no resistance to changing kings. The unique situation of the fifth century would have allowed a ruler to simply absorb a chieftainless teulu just as easily as a victorious king could absorb his dead enemy’s villages.
1 Corpus Iuris Hibernici, ed. David A. Binchy, (Dublin, 1978), 219.17-18.
2 Ibid, 15.2-3.
3 O’Rahilly, “On the Origin of the Names Érain and Ériu”, Ériu 35 (Dublin, 1946b), 11-13.
4 Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, (Madison, 1985).
In 1912, Hector Chadwick dubbed the period between Alaric’s sack of Rome and the Cadwallon’s campaign of 632 the “British Heroic Age”.[i] He then compared it and the Anglo-Saxon Heroic Age to the Greek Heroic Age. When a scholar studies the literature of both insular cultures of the time it is hard to deny that many of their values and attitudes are identical to those found in the Iliad and other Greek literature from the same era.
However, an heroic age is more than simply a consistent philosophy about life and death, it is a complete political and economic system. At the center of the heroic age is the king. It is his personality and personal charisma that bonds the warriors together in the first place. His reputation and the confidence inspires villages to pay tribute. His successes in battle and the loot he acquires raids are what attract new warriors to him and allow for his fame and his band of warriors to grow from a handful of warriors to dozens.
The cult of a specific individual is what allows for kingship to develop initially, but a king who rules solely by the force of his personality can only survive for so long. In the modern world many leaders have had personal charisma, but many have not. Leaders are able to lead because of two key elements – tradition and the moral authority to rule.
The British chieftains that emerged after Roman rule had neither a tradition nor a moral authority over the people. They had authority over villages only because they had an army and the villages needed protection. They controlled their army because they had the money pay them and the warriors’ respect. When any element in that chain faltered, their ability to rule disintegrated.
Which is why bards among the Britons, Irish, and Picts and skops among the Germanic tribes were an invaluable element of society for kingship – they gave the illusion of moral authority and tradition to the early kingships.
We have no direct knowledge of what both groups were taught as part of their educations but they were probably similar. They were probably taught all of the essential myths and legends of their people as well as hundreds of lesser stories. They probably also picked up as many current events as they could – battles, raids, generous and stingy kings, silver-tongued and ugly warriors, anything that might prove useful in the king’s hall. We can be confident that both groups were also taught how to create extemporaneous poetry quickly using hundreds of motifs and pneumonic devices. They were shown techniques that helped them adjust to different audiences, time limits, and even values.
Any person who completed their formal education would have had all the tools to become an excellent entertainer. He, or she, could tell myths and legends in many different ways, keeping the old stories fresh by stressing different themes and perspectives. They could create new stories and poems to praise their patrons as events occurred.[ii]
We have to keep in mind, though, that the bard and the skop were much more than just entertainers. Their ability to innovate gave them an almost mystical reputation among their people – what they said was the truth and the power of their words made what they predicted inevitable.[iii] The education also made them natural historians; ancient peoples who kept no written records made little or no distinction between mythology, legend, and history.
In the late fifth century among the Britons and the mid-sixth century among the Germanic peoples, their significance was magnified. Both culture groups had not needed kings for at least three generations and were only just beginning to reintroduce them. In that context, the historians infuse the new group of chieftains with a respectable lineage several generations deep. This was possible because of the relatively short life-span of the average person at the time,[iv] and the fact that any history beyond the lifetime of the oldest member of society was extremely flexible.[v]
Asked to construct a lineage for his king, a bard would begin with the information that was widely known – probably all of the current king’s accomplishments and his father’s name. Beyond that, a bard was free to insert famous local kings into his king’s geneology. This gave the king’s warriors and the villages under his protection a sense of consistency by reinforcing the belief that their leader was not only an excellent war-leader but that he came from a long and rich tradition of legendary ancestors.
Bards and skops were also responsible for creating the illusion of a kingship’s sanctity. Family history was part of that role because it demonstrated a king’s right to rule. However, the office of king itself was sacred. The two cultures did this in different ways, but the common denominators were that the clan from which kings were chosen had divine favor and the man chosen as king was believed to be the most favored.[vi] Secondly, part of the inauguration ritual included marriage to the land. Among the British the land was symbolized by an old hag who transformed into a beautiful young woman when married to the right king.[vii] For the English the king married a deity, Freyja, and so there was no transformation.[viii]
Among the Celts legend had it that the wife, and the land she symbolized, would remain youthful and beautiful for as long as the king ruled well. Knowing that, a peasant only needed to look at his own fields to be reassured his king had divine grace.
Marriage to the land made for an effective image. However, daily reminders like praise poems were also useful because they could approach the same subjects from different angles and served many different purposes: To reinforce the king’s stature as a generous and successful leader, to point out the unique talents of his men, to support the bond between a king and his warriors.
Warriors were an essential part of the equation. While a king’s personality might attract warriors and win tribute it was the warriors’ willingness to stand beside their leader and often die in battle that made kingship successful. Achilles was once offered the choice of living a long life and being forgotten when his children died or dying young but enjoying eternal fame; he made the same choice as every other heroic age warrior. Their numbers made it possible for the king to defend villages from raiders and eventually to make their own raids. The warriors’ presence helped to enforce the agreement between king and villages for food and supplies. Without them, the king had nothing.
These villages, and the villagers who populated them, were the foundation of every kingdom. Each year they produced the grains, honey, bragawt, livestock, labor, and smiths that kept the king, his warriors, and his servants fed, sheltered, and armed. Without their support British kingship could not exist. The mutual need of all four groups – king, bards, warriors, and villages – is what made the system work.
One other element was absolutely necessary for British kingship to survive – an enemy. The original reason for kingships was the raiding and settling of the Germanic tribes and Irish princes. Both groups were real threats in the middle and late fifth century. But, as has been seen, the Irish had lost interest in Britain by 500 and evidence will be produced that Germanic tribes had stopped migrating into Britain by then. Both groups probably still conducted raids into the sixth century, but by then they had likely settled into a pattern of stealing livestock and defending their own cattle from other villages.
As has been seen, the British chieftains also took part in raiding British as well as Irish, Germanic, and probably Pictish targets. Raiding helped a king develop a reputation as a battle leader and a man who was able to take booty. What is normally overlooked is that the act of raiding also served the raided kingdom. If foreign kings could be beaten off it would enhance the defender’s reputation, but whether he was successful or not, raiding parties could be portrayed as the new enemy; without the king to defend the peasants those raiding parties would have attacked the villages themselves.
Every element in the heroic age system was a necessary one. The king’s charisma and leadership ability bonded the warriors to him and made the villages believe he could protect them. Bards lived on kings’ largesse but provided them with a geneology of famous local kings and tapped the divine nature of their position while using their skills to entertain. The warriors were attracted to kings because of their abilities and their wealth. In return they went into battle with them, putting their lords’ lives before their own.
All three groups were fed, clothed, and paid by the villages. In return for a small portion of their annual crops as well as some livestock and labor they had a king who was sworn to protect them. That protection might not have been as secure as it had been under the Romans but it gave them more safety than they had enjoyed since the Romans while demanding fewer resources than raiders took.
Despite the interdependence of the different groups the system was still fragile. It might have been based on ancient traditions, but it was new. Bards were invaluable in making the political shifts an accepted part of British culture. But changing attitudes took time.
That may have been one of the reasons for the witch hunts of around 500.[ix] We know that they existed because we know that “witches” existed. Samson killed one in the Vita Samsoni.[x] Arthur killed a great one in Culhwch ac Olwen,[xi] and he and his men attack nine in “Preiddeu Annwn”.[xii] St. Martin initiated the movement in the old empire during the fourth century with attacks on pagan temples and groups of non-Christians.[xiii] Later on bishops, priests, and occasionally secular rulers led campaigns against them for their own reasons.
[i] Chadwick, The Heroic Age, (Cambridge, 1912), 105-9.
[ii] West, Indo-European poetry and myth, (Oxford, 2007), 30.
[iii] The bard’s power was considered so potent they could predict the manner and time of death. This made a displeased bard one of the most fearsome things in the Celtic world; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, (Dublin, 1988), 49-51.
[iv] Wells, Bones, Bodies and Disease, (London, 1964), 179.
[v] Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, (Madison, 1985).
[vi] Binchy, “Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Kingship”, (Oxford, 1970); Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, (Manchester, 1970), 174-220.
[vii] Bugge, “Fertility myth and female sovereignty in the weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell”, CR 39.2 (University Park, 2004), 198-218.
[viii] Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, (Manchester, 1970), 27; Chadwick, Origins of the English Nation, (Cambridge, 1907), 237-8.
[ix] Johnson, Origins of Arthurian Romances, (Madison, 2012), 100-36.
[x] The Life of St. Samson of Dol, trans. Thomas Taylor, (Llanerch, rep. 1991), books 26 and 27.
[xi] Culhwch ac Olwen: An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale, ed. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, (Cardiff, 1992), 1206-1227.
[xii] “ ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ and the figure of Taliesin”, ed. and trans. Marged Haycock, SC 14/15 (Cardiff, 1984), ln. 14.
[xiii] Stancliffe, Clare, St. Martin and his Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus, (Oxford, 1983); Vitae Martini, 13.9, 14.1, 14.3-7, 15.1, and 15.4.
Hey, sorry I have been away for awhile. Many changes going on at the moment, and hanging over my head a deadline; I am supposed to hand in a finished draft for a readable history of Britain from 367-664. The outline is written, most of it is on paper I have a little research to do before it is. My big problem at this point is a lot of tedious editing. I thought, maybe, anyone interested in the topic might get a kick out of me putting up chapters as I complete them. So, don’t expect them regularly, but I will start putting them on my blog. Today, an introduction:
In a way, our understanding of British history has developed a lot like a person as he or she matures from a small child into adulthood. During the nineteenth century everything about Britain during the Dark Ages was understandable and most issues were seen as black or white. Gildas had provided a list of events from the Late Roman occupation up to his birth in about 527. Bede had added accurate details for that period and continued the history up to the seventh century. Nennius’ Historia Brittonum filled in what few blanks there were of the period along with many British events and names while The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gave a detailed history of the English kingdoms’ development. Geoffrey of Monmouth provided an overview – themes and fluidity. There were of course discrepancies between all these sources, but it was believed they were nothing more than simple and honest misunderstandings between honest historians of the distant past.
The focus of historical studies then was to find better ways of understanding the materials so that all of them made sense together. With that in mind, scholars spent their careers pouring over the same four basic sources. Meanwhile, archeologists continued to improve their methods for uncovering the past. The revelation that Carbon disintegrated at a steady rate helped with dating as did the study of tree rings. Progressively more careful ways of digging and recording information helped as well.
The trouble was that the more scholars learned about history and archeology, the more obvious it became that the four traditional sources of the period were related to and inspired by each other. Once that was recognized their agreement really did not mean anything positive. In fact, it just meant that Gildas was the only one who knew anything about the fifth century unless it could be proven that Bede, Historia Brittonum, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had used other sources.
Optimistic caution followed their revelation; experts claimed to know less and their studies became more specific as they made in-depth studies on each of the basic four, learning about their sources and eventually the motivations for their writing. The studies revealed more and more bias and less and less real knowledge of the period.
Dr. Dumville brought post-Roman studies to an extreme during the 1970s with a series of articles pointing out the basic oversights in the most-used sources. It was Ninnius, not Nennius, who claimed to have written the Historia Brittonum. His authorship was debated. The work had been written and rewritten for very political reasons and was not necessarily accurate. Similar accusations were thrown at Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Dumville flatly stated that any events which occurred between the departure of Roman troops in 409 and the beginnings of contemporary recordkeeping in the mid-sixth century were irrecoverable.
Historical and archeological scholars had largely pulled away from Dumville’s stance by the 1990s. Several literary experts began studying the individual sources at length. Professor Koch even attempted to reconstruct several sixth-century poems, Y Gododdin, “Marwnad Cunedda”, “Trawsganu Cynan Garwyn”, “Moliant Cadwallon”, and “Marwnad Cynddylan”. Professors Rowland Haycock and Jenny Rowland have studied many other poems in-depth to provide context and meanings for them line by line. The important recent works of Thomas Charles-Edwards and a new generation of historians have revealed new ways of looking at the sources and the period.
The modern era of Arthurian studies began on shaky foundations as well. Arthur and his twelve battles had after all been named in the Historia Brittonum. Studies by Jessie Weston and Alfred Nutt speculated that the Holy Grail was based on Romanian and Turkish religious observances or alternatively Celtic mythology. Nutt’s work continued with Roger Loomis, who connected Arthur to a sun god and his war-band with various figures in Irish Mythology. His thoughts held the field until the 1960s, promoting translations of Arthurian works from medieval Welsh, English, French, German, Italian, Danish, and Spanish with his popularity.
The 1960s saw scholars trained in Celtic literature approaching Arthurian studies with different and more disciplined approaches to the subject. Rachel Bromwich ended all doubt about the origins of Arthur’s name while continuing work by her and other experts researched how and when the materials had transferred to the continent. John Morris’ Age of Arthur was a book written by a widely knowledgeable expert in the area, but its unestablished theories were in the short term viewed as a step back in the area.
Since then, Arthuriana really continued on in two veins. One group of scholars and good capitalists have written book after book finding different ways of saying the same things about Gildas, Historia Brittonum, the Annales Cambriae, Bede, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with varying levels of academic knowledge and economic success.
At the highest levels, the work of distentangling sources, influences on Arthurian literature, and character name histories has been at the forefront. Intensive studies have been accomplished on the continental romances, the Welsh stories, and their relationships. Peredur, Lancelot, and Gawain have been the subjects of several papers as well.
Several changes have occurred on both fronts over the last few years. As Professor Koch recently pointed out, the last of Professor Ifor Williams’ students died. Williams was a brilliant scholar but his reputation and charisma stifled the growth of an entire generation of scholars. With their decline and deaths progress has come in leaps and bounds; new and innovative work has been done on every major work of literature from this period. This has led to new approaches in the way historians have interpreted the period. It has also guided new methodologies. In 2012, the present author developed a new and more accurate means of extracting historical information from historical, pseudo-historical, and literary sources through intensive studies of the materials followed by a strict application of the results. The immediate results were a better understanding of the traditional Guinevere abduction and the Holy Grail legend. More far-reaching uses were found in a study of Arthur’s historicity and an exploration of Hengest and Gwrtheyrn’s place in history. It was found that, stripping away all the materials we know to be biased, the history of Britain between 410 and the end of the sixth century is very different from any picture we have yet developed.
In a very real way, what is laid out below is simply a continuation of the author’s previous work in context supplemented with the latest scholarly works. Approached from another perspective, the present monolith is a summary and rationalization of everything that has been accomplished in the subject of post-Roman Britain up to this point.
What follows below has several goals. First, to demonstrate a pattern of disintegration in Roman Britain that reached a climax in the decades after the Britons overthrew Constantine’s government and were refused Roman rule. In addition, I will demonstrate that the breakdown of Roman social, political, and economic order occurred with the re-emergence of the British social structure.
Second, the Britannia section will demonstrate the continuation of political and linguistic romanitas at the local level. Third, historical and archeological evidence will show the nature of Romano-Germanic culture. This evidence will be used to demonstrate how the Germanic tribes were divided during their service as foederati. The same evidence will show that they continued to function as separate entities after Rome had left Rome, during their initial revolt, and throughout the rest of the fifth century.
Fourth, several chapters will be devoted to explaining how the Picts and Irish immigrants to Britain had the political stability and military strength to overwhelm the Britons wherever they attacked. Concurrently, they will demonstrate why both culture groups were unable or unwilling to exploit their advantage through a permanent conquest. Fifth, chapters devoted to the sub-Roman period will walk through the process by which both the Germanic tribes and the British villages developed from isolated groups into full and integrated kingships in less than two centuries.
Sixth, evidence will be presented that demonstrates Christianity was not a thriving religion among all the Britons. Instead, evidence will be presented to show that it survived the fifth century along the borders of the old Roman province of Britannia and only developed into the dominant religion after all semblance of Roman culture had dissipated from everyday life. It is also hoped that the data will present Anglo-Saxon Christianity as a product of economic pressure which was used for the spread of political power. Finally, the author hopes to explore the fact that the Germanic conquest of British lands was inevitable.
A great deal has been learned and unlearned since the modern study of post-Roman Britain began in the nineteenth century. However, as complex as the sources and a study of the history has become there is still much that can be understood about the period, many underlying themes and controlling factors to understand, and new ways and more useful methods of looking at the few historical sources at our disposal. Post-Roman Britain is no longer as easy as Geoffrey of Monmouth portrayed the subject in his famous 1136 work, but neither is beyond our understanding, either.
1 Dumville, “ ‘Nennius’ and the Historia Brittonum”, SC 11 (Cardiff, 1976), 78-95.
2 Chadwick, “Early Culture and Learning in North Wales”, Studies in the Early British Church, ed. Nora K. Chadwick, (Cambridge, 1958), 29-36; Dumville, “Historia Brittonum: An Insular History from the Carolingian Age”; Historiographie im frühen Mittelalter, eds. A Scharer and G. Scheibelreiter, (Munich, 1994), 411; Higham, King Arthur: Mythmaking and History, (New York, 2002), 130.
3 Kirby, “Bede and Northumbrian Chronology”, EHR 78 (London, 1963), 514-527; “Bede’s Native Sources for the Historia Ecclesiastica”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 48 (London, 1965-1966), 341-371; “Problems of early West Saxon history”, EHR 80 (London, 1965), 10-29; “Vortigern”, BBCS 23 (Cardiff, 1970), 37-59; “Northumbria in the time of Bede”, St. Wilfrid at Hexham, ed. David Kirby, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1974), 2-4.
4 Dumville, “Sub-Roman Britain: history and legend”, History 62 (London, 1977a), 173-192.
5 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997); Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, ed. and trans. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013).
6 Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, trans. and ed. Marged Haycock, (Cardiff, 2007); Early Welsh Saga Poetry, trans. and ed. Jenny Rowland, (Cambridge, 1990).
7 Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (London, 1988); Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (Leicester, 1989); Leslie Abrams and James P. Carley (eds.) The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey. Essays in Honour of the Ninetieth Birthday of C.A. Ralegh Radford, (Woodbridge, 1991); Higham, Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons, (London, 1992); Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800, (Leicester, 1994); Higham, An English Empire, (Manchester, 1995); King Arthur: Mythmaking and History, (New York, 2002); Scott DeGregorio (ed.) Innovation and Tradition in the Writings of the Venerable Bede, (Morgantown, 2006).
8 Weston, The Legend of Sir Gawain, (London, 1897); The Quest of the Holy Grail, (London, 1913); From Ritual to Romance, (London, 1920) Nutt, Alfred. Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail. (London, 1888).
9 Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, (New York, 1927); Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien, (New York, 1949); Wales and the Arthurian Legend, (Cardiff, 1956); The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, (Cardiff, 1963).
10 Bromwich, “First Transmission from England to France”, The Arthur of the Welsh, Rachel Bromwich, Brynley F. Roberts, and Alfred O.H. Jarman (eds.) (Cardiff, 1991), 273-298; Bullock-Davies, Professional Interpreters and the Matter of Britain, (Cardiff, 1966).
11 Nothing is to be gained by listing individuals or their works. The simple fact that a physics professor has written as an equal to experts in this field is telling enough about the state of its integrity.
12 Charles-Edwards, “The Date of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi”, THSC (London, 1971), 263-98; Laurie, Two Studies in Chrétien de Troyes, (Geneva, 1972); Buschinger and Zink (eds.), Lancelot-Lanzelet: Hier et Aujourdhui, (Reineke, 1995); W.H. Jackson and Sylvia A. Ranawake (eds.), The Tristan of the Germans, (Cardiff, 2000); Karen Pratt and Glynn Burgess (eds.) The Arthur of the French: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature, (Cardiff, 2006).
13 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, ed. and trans. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978); Brouland, “Peredur ab Efrawg”, Perceval-Parzival; Hier et Aujourdhui, ed. Danielle Buschinger and Wolfgang Spiewok, (Reineke, 1994), 59-70; Bugge, “Fertility myth and female sovereignty in the weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell”, CR 39.2 (University Park, 2004), 198-218.
14 Goetinck, Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, (Cardiff, 1975); Busby, Gauvain in Old French Literature, (Amsterdam, 1980); Gowans, Cei and the Arthurian Legend, (Cambridge, 1988).
15 Johnson, Origins of Arthurian Romances, (Madison, 2012); Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014); Hengest, Gwrtheyrn and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014).