Was Arthur a king?

This question is raised from time to time. That Arthur was not a king during all or most of the period of his twelve battles is confirmed by HB which gives him the title “dux bellorum” in the following passage:

“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror.”

This is not surprising since during these campaigns he may well have been in his early to mid-twenties. That he eventually became king of Dyfed is shown by his entry in HG 2.

The Annals of Ulster has the following statement under the year 467:

“Death of Uter Pendragon, king of England, to whom succeeded his son, King Arthur, who instituted the Round Table.”

Hennessy pointed out that this comes from only version B of the annals and was done in a later hand.[1] This explains the anachronistic reference to an English king and a Round Table. The date for Arthur’s coronation is, clearly, incorrect and may have been the result of a copyist mistaking the date cccccxuii to be cccclxuii. This is close to that given by the AC for Badon as opposed to being much earlier providing evidence that Arthur attained kingship towards the end or soon after his twelve battles.

[1] Hennessy, W. M., 1887.

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Paganism in the Arthurian age

It is unlikely that paganism had disappeared by the 6th and maybe 7th C. O.J. Padel refers to a probably early 10th C text in the Vatican library listing between twenty-four and thirty-two names of saints revered in Cornwall.[1] Another text lists the twenty-four saintly children of Brychan Brycheiniog, the Cornish version of which is in The V. Nectani. Both lists are in the vernacular and the names are partly geographically arranged. Padel states that these lists demonstrate the existence in Cornwall of local dedications, many of which are unique to particular parish churches. The explanations he gives for the dedications is usually in terms of the conversion of the area by the local saint. The Vatican list dedications includes a number of 6th C saints, such as St. Levan, St. Just and St. Gerrans.

The AC records for the year 589 AD ‘The conversion of Constantine to the Lord’. This event is also recorded in the AT and AU. He may well have been Constantine, the king of Damnonia, the one rebuked by Gildas.

There is a description of communal worshiping in the V. Samsonis where the saint comes across in Tricurium (The Cornish Hundred of Trigg) a group worshipping an idol with music and dance.

St. Collen banishing the court of Gwyn ap Nudd may be a reference to him abolishing pagan belief in the Glastonbury area, see St. Collen.

[1] Thacker, A., Sharpe, R., 2002, 316-319

The Adventus Saxonum

The manuscript BL Cotton Tiberius A. iii states:

“Then succeeded Alfred, their brother, to the government. And then had elapsed of his age three and twenty winters, and three hundred and ninety-six winters from the time when his kindred first gained the land of Wessex from the Welsh.”[1]

396 years prior to the start of Alfred’s reign, in the year 871, suggests an Adventus Saxonum in the year 475. This, of course, was not the first arrival of Germanic peoples to Britain. However, there was an influx of Saxon invaders around this time as indicated by the chronicle entry for the year 477:

“This year Ælla, and his three sons, Cymen, and Wlencing, and Cissa, came to the land of Britain with three ships, at a place which is named Cymenesora, …”[2]

It would thus seem that the West Saxons and the South Saxons arrived at around the same time. They also appear to have landed in areas that are in close proximity, namely Cerdicesora (Southampton area) and Cymenesora (Selsey area) and then went on to expand their kingdoms westwards and eastwards respectively. Alternatively, it may be that there was no seperate South Saxon invasion and that the 477 entry refers to the West Saxon invasion. A discrepancy of two years in the Chronicles is nothing unusual. An explanation of this idea will be given in a later article entitled “The emergence of Wessex”.

I suggest that when Bede wrote:

“From that day, sometimes the natives, and sometimes their enemies, prevailed, till the year of the siege of Badon hill, when they made no small slaughter of those invaders, about forty-four years after their arrival in Britain.”[3]

his source for this information, the DEB, was referring to this later Adventus, not the one traditionally dated to the year 449. Bede’s version of the DEB is likely to have been closer to Gildas’s original text than any of our later surviving copies. Gildas was a little more precise than Bede with regards to the time interval between the Adventus and Badon when he stated:

“And this commences, a fact I know, as the forty-fourth year, with one month now elapsed; it is also the year of my birth.”[4]

The first year being 475 implies the forty-fourth year is 518, the traditional date for Badon. The battle occurred one month into that year. He states that year is when he was born. The AC tells us that Gildas died in the year 572, giving a plausible life-span of 54 years.

Gildas may have started formulating his ideas concerning the DEB around the age of 20, that is c. 538. Camlan occurred in 539 and could well have been as a result of an internecine feud amongst the Britons, since triad 84 tells us it was one of the Futile Battles of the Island of Britain[5]. Indeed, it may have been one of the triggers that set Gildas on the path to writing the DEB 10 years later, around the year 548.

The Chronicon Britannicum derived Gildas’s birthdate incorrectly by adding 43 years to the Adventus Anglorum:

CCCCXLVII. Angli in majorem Britanniam venerunt, & Britones inde ejecerunt
CCCCXC. Natus est S. Gildas. Hiis diebus fuit Arturus fortis.

[1] Adapted from Ingram, J., 1823, 20.
[2] Adapted from Giles, J.A., 1914, 8.
[3] Adapted from Giles, J.A., 1859, 26.
[4] Adapted from Williams, H., 1899, 63.
[5] Bromwich, R., 2006, 217.

Why Bartrum’s dating of the Demetian Arthur is wrong

To understand why there is a problem with the birthdate of Arthur son of Pedr given by Bartrum, i.e. 560, we need to look at a manuscript that mentions this individual. The names in the tables below are in the same order as they occur in HG 2a, namely progressing from the most recent to later individuals. My allocation of the generation numbers are in the first column and they are based on the principle that the generation number of an offspring should be one greater than that of the parent. The generation number in the fourth column are those given by Bartrum. The first table shows the first segment of the Demetian pedigree. The obits shown in the 3rd column are those stated by Bartrum and originate from the AC.

Gen. HG 2a Obit acc. Bartrum Gen. acc. Bartrum Birthdate acc. Bartrum
13 Owain 18 900
12 Elen 929 18
11 Llywarch 904 17
10 Hyfaidd 893 16
9 Tangwystl 15? 790
8 Owain 811 14?
7 Maredudd 796 13
6 Tewdws 12 700
5 Rhain 11 675
4 Cadwgon 11 650
3 Cathen 10 625
2 Gwlyddien 9 600
1 Nowy 9 580
0 Arthur 8 560
-1 Pedr 7 535
-2 Cyngar 6 510

Using my generation numbers, regression analysis of the five obits in the above table give a generation step-size of 28 years. On the basis of this statistical technique and on the assumption that the average life expectancy was 60 years, it follows that an estimate of Arthur’s birthdate is 536, not 560.

Using a much larger database of obits the step-size is 32 years. Indeed, Bartrum states a male generation (the period between the birth of a father and that of his child) is about 33 years whereas a female generation (the period between the birth of a mother and that of her child) is about 20 years. The vast majority of generations in my database are male ones.

The larger database gives Arthur’s birth as occuring c. 487, this being the mid-value in the range for gen. 0. The Demetian Arthur’s birthdate is in the period that one would expect for the individual around whom the Arthurian cycle was built.

Using my generation numbering, Bartum’s estimates for the birthdates from Owain to Cyngar in the above table has an average step-size of 26 years, which is far too small. To achieve a more realistic step-size, he has given a number of parents and offsprings the same generation number, viz. Elen/Owain, Cadwgon/Rhain and Nowy/Gwlyddien. This results in a more satisfactory step-size of 33 years, but at the cost of artificially giving parents and offsprings the same generation number.

The reason why Bartrum’s analysis went astray may have been because he believed that HG 2 was a single pedigree list, whereas in reality it consists of four seperate segments. In the second segment, shown below, he made use of two dateable events, namely the birth of Gwerthefyr and that of Macsen Wledig. In the Harleian document itself there names take the form Guortepir and Maxim gulecic respectively.

Gen. HG 2b Obit acc. Bartrum Gen. acc. Bartrum Birthdate acc. Bartrum
0 Gwerthefyr 6 480
-1 Aergol Lawhir 5 460
-2 Tryffin 4 430
-3 Clodri 4? 440?
-4 Clydwyn 3 410
-5 Nyfed 2 380
-6 Annun Dyfed 2 355
-7 Macsen Wledig 388 1 330

Gildas writing in the 540s in the DE describes Gwerthefyr, whose name takes the form Vortipor, with the words “… though thy head is now becoming grey … though the end of life is gradually drawing near …”. So, Bartrum’s birthdate for him of 480 cannot be too wrong. He errs when he identifies the Macsen Wledig with the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus who died in 388. This forces him to use an average generational step-size for the second segment of 21 years, which is not credible. Again, he circumvents this problem by giving Clodri/Tryffin and Annun Dyfed/Nyfed the same generation number, resulting in a step-size of 30 years.

In this instance the name Macsen Wledig was a reference to the emperor Constantius Chlorus, who died in 306, for the following reasons. He was born in the year 250 and this date falls into the period of my gen -7. His wife was Helena. This tallies with the first part of the Mabinogion tale entitled the Dream of Macsen Wledig  in which  Macsen came to Britain and married Elen Luyddog, the daughter of Eudaf.

It will be noted that there is an anomaly in that Bartrum’s tentative birthdate given to Clodri is 10 years after that of Tryffin who Bartrum believed was his nephew.

The third segment, HG 2c, contains only two names, Protec and Protector. The full pedigree can be seen in JC 13b.

The fourth and last segment, HG 2d, is shown below. Note, the missing names that have been inserted, i.e. Custennin and Macsen Wledig, can be seen in JC 13b.

Gen. HG 2: 3rd seg.
1 Eifudd
0 Eiludd
-1 Stater
-2 Pincr misser
-3 [Custennin]
-4 [Macsen Wledig]
-5 Constans
-6 Constantinus magnus
-7 Constantius Elen Luyddog

This segment confirms the identification of the first Macsen with Constantius, as his wife St. Helena has been given the cognomen of Eudaf’s daughter, namely Luyddog.

Dating the Arthurian age

If we are to place Arthur in a historical context the first task needs be to identify the period in which he lived. This is given in the AC by the dates of his two most significant battles: the victory at Badon in the year 518 and the defeat at Camlan in 539.

Is it possible to verify this time period? The chronicle of his enemy, the ASC, makes no mention of these battles. This is not surprising as far as Badon is concerned since the Saxons would have preferred their defeats to be forgotten but it is surprising that Camlan is not mentioned, unless this was an internecine battle between the Britons.

Nennius, in his HB provides a clue for the dating of Badon:

“Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [“dux bellorum”].”[1]

After the above quote Nennius lists Arthur’s 12 battles, culminating in Badon, and following that the reign of Ida. The ASC states Aesc succeeded Hengist in 488 and so Arthur’s battles occurred sometime after that date. Gildas speaks of a period of relative peace after Badon and says that the interval was of such length that the generation that had known the turmoils had passed away. The ASC indicates after 547, the start of Ida’s reign, there was no state of peace. If we now deduct 30 years, an approximate length of one generation, from the start of Ida’s reign we arrive at a date close to that given by the AC for Badon, namely 518.

Bede in his HE when giving Ethelbert’s genealogy indicates Octa was a son of Oisc and a grandson of Hengist. This contradiction with the HB may be explained by an earlier reference in that document which says that Hengist sends for his son Octa and Octa’s brother Ebissa. I believe the latter person may have been Oisc who was in reality, as Bede states, Octa’s father.

The GRA gives additional information concerning Oisc that he reigned for 24 years. We may, therefore, conclude Octa succeeded him in the year 512. It follows that Arthur’s 12 battles occurred between the years 512 and 518. The Saxons’ catastrophic defeat in the latter year may explain Octa’s absence from the ASC.

[1] Halsall, P., 1998.