Inspired by seven year-old Matilda Jones, who found her very own Excalibur in a fabled Cornish lake (see Part I) Bohemianmojo decided to unravel historical fact from the mountain of fiction surrounding the legend of King Arthur. The popular wisdom on the subject is that there are no historical facts to back the existence of a King Arthur; he’s just a very romantic but mythical figure. We beg to differ...
We beg to differ and argue there are indeed references, which validate Arthur as a real historical figure and we can find them in poems recited by Celtic bards close to the time Arthur lived. I say recited because these were poems in the oral tradition, to be memorized and then declaimed at the courts of the powerful nobles of the day. Arthur is also mentioned at length and in some detail in a history of Britain written by a Welsh monk a couple of centuries after his time.Just to be clear Bohemianmojo firmly believes Arthur was a real figure not a myth. We think he was a great leader of warriors in the Celtic resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invasion following Rome’s retreat from Britain. Once again, as in Part I, we’re going to try to help the reader with the historical context of the time. To recap, in Arthur’s day Rome had already abandoned their most northern province of Britannia (a Romanized form of the Celtic name Prydain).
Germanic tribes then flooded across the North Sea to fill the vacuum left by the Legions. They came in such numbers the Celts were forced to retreat from the most productive farmlands into the mountains. The country was divided roughly in two with Celts forced to live in the wild West (Wales, Cornwall and the Lake District) and to the North in rugged Scotland.
One very important thing to understand when considering Arthur is the strength of the oral tradition in Celtic society, which had continued for time immemorial among the tribes. This was a Druid tradition and it’s also important to realise Britain was in a transition from a Druid to a Christian culture at the time of Arthur. Druidic ideas were undoubtedly still influential at the time despite the onward march of Christianity.
We know that in the Druid belief matters of history, family tree, knowledge of the heavenly bodies and geometry were all considered too important to be written down. They held that writing these things down would dilute the power of such knowledge. Instead they memorized it all, including their tribal history, and spoke it at gatherings and so, in the Dark Ages, this was the norm. History wasn’t written it was spoken and most often it was recited or declaimed in lyrical or rhyming forms. Basically Celtic history was poetry and poetry was Celtic history. What a wonderful thought to consider.
Scribes and early historians appeared in both Celtic and Anglo Saxon society towards the end of the Dark Ages. Most were Christian monks and they began to write down the oral information they gathered in manuscripts. Sometimes these scribes came a century or two later than the events they recorded and probably did so with varying degrees of accuracy while, at the same time, giving the information some Christian spin and, of course, either Celtic or Saxon spin too.
We are going to focus on poems created by two Bards, Taliesin and Aneirin, because they are the earliest to mention Arthur and the closest to his time. These poems were created during the Dark Ages, a time of upheaval with constant war and raiding between Anglo Saxons, Celts and the Hibernian Irish. There are others but they came later.
The poems were recited in a land where Christianity was starting to take hold but most folk were still pagan so it’s important to know the Bardic poems created by Taliesin and Aneirin, are undoubtedly in the Druidic tradition. In a future article we hope to expand on this when we look at the Druids themselves. At any rate their poems were sung or recited for a couple of centuries and then recorded in writing later on.
The enigmatic Taliesin claimed to be Merlin himself and his poems are the source of the wizard’s link to Arthur which Geoffrey of Monmouth conjured up centuries later. In the Book of Taliesin, and the collection of stories called the Mabinogion, Arthur is named a few times. In a poem called The Spoils of Annwn, written in Taliesin’s own voice, he describes how he accompanied Arthur to the Celtic netherworld called Annwn.
Among the spoils were a wonderful cauldron decorated with pearls and this undoubtedly gave rise to the Grail legend in the Medieval version. Another significant poem is the Stanzas of the Grave lauding dead Welsh warrior heroes. It refers to the difficulty of finding any grave for Arthur as none exists and implies that he will rise again making it the obvious source of the ‘once and future King’ legend.
You have to ask why Taliesin, who was bard to the King of Rheged (the present day Lake District) would recite poems about imaginary heroes in a Royal Court. We say he must certainly have known of Arthur’s existence and to an extent his poems basked in Arthur’s fame. Another of Taliesin’s references was also fed into the Arthurian legend and that’s The Elegy of Uther Pendragon. Our enterprising friend Geoffrey of Monmouth took Uther and moulded him into Arthur’s father.
The second Bard we mention is Aneirin who ‘wrote’ a poem celebrating the heroic warriors of the Gododddin, a clan who ruled the region around Edinburgh. They forayed out to take on an Anglo Saxon army at Caerattic or Catraeth, which is modern day Catterick in Yorkshire. The work praises the qualities and courage of dozens of named heroes in a form known as a ‘battle list poem.’ According to the poem Aneirin himself fought at the battle and was one of only three out of a hundred Welsh warriors to survive the encounter with the triumphant Saxons. There are two eighth century copies of the Gododdin in existence in libraries in Edinburgh and Cardiff. And even without a reference to Arthur the Gododdin has a significance all of it’s own as the oldest known poem of the British Isles. It’s key to the Arthurian legend is the praise Aneirin heaps on one of the main heroes of the battle, which goes like this:
He lanced three hundred, most bold,
He cut down the centre and the wing.
He was worthy before the noblest host,
He gave from his herd horses in winter.
He glutted black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was not Arthur.
This tells us two things. First that Arthur was indeed a great warrior, greater than the hero of that bloody Battle of Cartraeth, and secondly it implies that Arthur was no longer alive at the time of the battle took place. There’s no question mark on the existence of Arthur here and, it seems, he was so famous his name didn’t need any explanation by the Bard. No ifs no buts among the Celtic Bards of the British Isles; Arthur existed and he was a great warrior King.
Now let’s look at the historical references made by the Welsh monk Nennius, based somewhere near Radnor in the Welsh hills. He wrote his Historium Brittonum in the 8th Century, some say the 7th Century, which is only a century, maybe a century and a half, after Arthur would have been alive. The striking thing about Nennius is that, like the Bards, he doesn’t talk about Arthur in terms of a fable. There’s no mention of magical swords, Round Tables or the King’s wizard wing-man called Merlin. Instead he simply lists and names the battles that Arthur fought as ‘Dux Bellorum’ - the War Duke or leader of the Britons – and he does so in some detail.
"The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein" says Nennius. This has been tentatively identified as a site in Lincolnshire.
"The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Dubglas, which is in the region of Linnuis": Generally reckoned to be in the area of the City of Lincoln
"The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas." There appears to be only one contender for this battle site and that’s Cambuslang in the suburbs of Glasgow.
"The seventh battle was in the Caledonian Forest, that is, the Battle of Celidon Coit" The Moffat region of Dumfieshire and Penrith in Cumbria have been suggested.
"The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his shield, and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was great slaughter upon them, through the power of Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother. This probably took place in Winchester, which had been a Roman fortress. We are also asked by the monk to accept Arthur was a Christian and this entry helped Geoffrey legitimise his ‘character’ and make Arthur the Christian icon he became.
"The ninth battle was in the City of the Legion" Probably Chester.
"The tenth battle was on the bank of the river called Tribruit” Some commentators identify this as the River Frew at Stirling in Scotland; others the River Ribble in Lancashire, the Severn at Gloucester or the Eden at Carlisle. We think it was the Eden.
"The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned, Most experts agree this must be the rock where Edinburgh Castle now stands and, from other sources, we think Arthur fought the Gododdin who had rebelled against his rule.
"The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's, and no-one lay them low save he alone." It was Arthur’s most resounding victory and folklore says it’s where the Saxon advance into Western Britain was finally halted. Liddington Castle, near Badbury in Wiltshire, seems to be the favourite location but Welsh tradition backed up by Geoffrey of Monmouth is, however, almost certainly correct in identifying the battle site with Caer Baddon, the Welsh name for Bath. We think it was indeed near the old Roman City of Bath.
Nennius doesn’t mention Arthur’s last battle when he was killed in action. However we learn of it in a later monastic writing, the Annales Cambriae, or the Annals of Wales, which refers to, "The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished.”
There’s no denying however that Nennius provides a detailed list only made obscure by him quite naturally using the original names for places, which were in use at the time. Identifying where they are gives us an interesting conundrum and there is a dedicated band of enthusiasts who spend their hobby time researching and hunting down the modern sites of those ancient battles. For all that it’s clear Nennius doesn’t believe he’s writing about a mythical King. He’s listing the battle honours of a real life, heroic war leader.
Academics argue about the ins and outs of all these references, their timings and their accuracy; but hey that’s what academics have to do. We however have decided to apply Occam’s Razor to the problem and go for the obvious. Why would there be mention of an Arthur in these early elegies? Why would a Bard or indeed a monk simply pluck his name from the air? Why would they invent battles that had never happened? We can imagine that a showman and impresario like Geoffrey of Monmouth would have done just that but he wasn’t around at the time. He came much later and cleverly picked up a great piece of history and ran with it. So at Bohemianmojo the jury is not out. Our verdict is returned and we firmly believe these references to be smoke from the fire of a history and that Arthur was indeed a real person.
In the next two instalments we’ll try to conjure up how Arthur and his warriors would have appeared, the archaeological evidence for his existence and the Druidic threads that run through the Arthurian legend. We’ll also look for the truth of Arthur’s history in an intriguing and inspiring source…the stars in the heavens above.
In case you missed Part I: King Arthur: Busting the Myths
Alun Rees is a freelance journalist and author of bestselling non-fiction titles.