Glastonbury Abbey: St. Pol and St. Patrick

I have this week updated my 2013 piece “on the antiquity of the church of Glastonbury Abbey”,  after finding that at other Celtic Christian abbeys of the fourth to sixth centuries in Gaul, Ireland, and western Britain, the church and the founder’s cell were the first structures to be built, and the founder was invariably remembered and highly honoured in much the same way as Glastonbury remembered and highly honoured St. Patrick as its founder. Examples include, in approximate date order, Legugé and Marmoutiers (St. Martin), Whithorn (St. Ninian), Kildare (St. Bride), Bangor Fawr (St. Deiniol), and of course St. David’s (St. David).

I also took a fresh look at what William of Malmesbury wrote about St. Patrick at Glastonbury in his History of the Kings of England. So I’ve changed and extended the St. Patrick section of that post. The estmated date for St. Patrick’s building of the Old Church (the vetusta ecclesia) and with it founding of the Abbey is c450CE.

I’ve also expanded the section on St. Pol de Leon, and narrowed the indicative date range for his improvements to the Old Church at Glastonbury (the vetusta ecclesia) to 520CE, plus or minus at the outside 15 years. This takes better account of what the church dedicated to him at Staverton, Devon, says about itself, and the indications I could glean about when he lived and worked in Brittany.


William of Malmesbury and King Arthur

In the contemporary discussion of British history around the turn of the sixth century, Dumville and Dark have made it the dominant line among academic historians that King Arthur never existed.

He is not mentioned by Gildas in his book De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, generally accepted as the only relevant near-contemporary primary source; for some students of the period, this is itself sufficient evidence to declare that there never was a great warrior Arthur, king or otherwise.

There are Arthur references in such relatively early works as Aneurin’s poem Y Gododdin (c600CE); the Elegy for Geraint (c710CE); the Historia Britonnum, the poem Preiddeu Annwn, and the Annales Cambriae (the first two, early ninth century in written form; the third, mid-tenth century, but all three apparently derived from earlier sources), and five relatively early Lives of saints. To explain away these references, sceptical historians say that Arthur’s purported actual life is merely the historicisation of a mytholgical character – despite the complete absence of evidence for any pre-sixth-century ‘Arthur myth’.

Historians mostly dismiss the Annales Cambriae as a significant source – necessarily, since it contains two crisp down-to-earth references to Arthur. (I disagree. The Annales Cambriae deserve respect. [i] It is a compilation; the sources from which it was compiled could be reliable, but they have been lost. Any assessment of their accuracy is necessarily indirect.)

The Arthur debate has, however, paid little attention to William of Malmesbury. William wrote a History of the Kings of England in 1125, second edition 1127. (The title of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fabulous History of the Kings of Britain, completed a decade later, suggests that he intended it to counter the impact of William’s erudite book.) William wrote:- [ii]

“Vortimer, who had been the instigator of the war, and differed far from the indolence of his father, perished prematurely, or he would have governed the kingdom in a noble manner, had God permitted. When he died, the British strength decayed, and all hope fled from them; and they would soon have perished altogether, had not Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans, who became monarch after Vortigern, quelled the presumptuous barbarians by the powerful aid of warlike Arthur. It is of this Arthur that the Britons fondly tell so many fables, even to the present day; a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but by authentic history. He long upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war. Finally, at the siege of Mount Badon, relying on an image of the Virgin, which he had affixed to his armor, he engaged nine hundred of the enemy, single-handed, and dispersed them with incredible slaughter.” [iii]

It is readily apparent that William had copies of both De Excidio and Historia Britonnum to hand (and also the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – though not the Annales Cambriae). So why did William say that Ambrosius “quelled the presumptuous barbarians by the powerful aid of warlike Arthur”? This statement is not in those sources – and William wrote it without any of the words he used when he presented a speculation and hoping that readers will hear between the lines words to the effect of ‘the Abbey, or someone powerful it desires to please, wants me to say this, but I don’t believe it’s true’.

William is, as far as I know, the only pre-modern writer to link Ambrosius and Arthur in any such way. He must have trusted sources that we do not have. He has let us know that, writing as he was at Glastonbury Abbey, he had two such sources: the written records of the abbey; and the abbey’s secrets which were passed down the generations, known only to two or three monks at any one time unless disclosed via someone such as himself.

He reckoned Arthur deserved the credit of “authentic history” that Gildas had not given him. Glastonbury is the only plausible source for him to have stated so clearly what he does about Arthur as a real warrior leader, while simultaneously distinguishing acutely between this man who rallied the Britons during Ambrosius’s time and then was the victor in the siege of Badon, and the Arthur of whom tall tales were being told in his time – even before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book appeared.

It is of course all the more probable that the abbey would have had a correct understanding of Arthur if, as I maintain, it was both in existence during Arthur’s time iv] and within his kingdom. [v]

It is a reasonable interpretation of Gildas that Ambrosius became a principal leader of the Britons soon after the severe Saxon plunder raid dated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to 473, which can be figured as the raid that according to Gildas touched the western ocean – working its destructive force unprecedentedly far westward. Curiously there is, incidentally, an entry “Ambrosius Duc” in the Irish Annals of Roscrea and of Connacht which on McCarthy’s synchronisation belongs to the year 479. [vi]  It means that these two Annals say Ambrosius came to power in that year – ‘Duc’ meaning ‘Dux’, Latin for the general in command of a battle or a war.

If this is correct, Ambrosius’s warring with Saxon enemies began in 479 and continued until the Siege of the Badonic Hill a decade later, [vii] strengthened before the end of that period by Arthur’s “powerful aid”.

If Arthur died at Camlann in 538, as the Annales Cambriae state, there is a simple probable reason for Ambrosius being ‘dux’ on his own in 479 but being ‘aided’ by Arthur in the late 480s: Arthur’s age. A person who was even 15 years old in 479 would be 74 in 538, an improbably old age for a warrior (and near the upper end of possibility for the times, altogether). But a person who was 18 in 490, the prime of youth, well capable physically of being a strong and inspirational warrior would have been only seven years old in 479 – and a rather more acceptable 66 in 538.

The possibility recently promulgated by Jensen[viii] that Arthur and Ambrosius Aurelianus were two names for the same man, the former a Welsh title (“Bear”) and the other his Latin name (which would be a translation from Emrys Aurelian in Welsh), has the merit of reconciling the otherwise conflicting evidence about the leadership of the Britons on the Badonic Hill. But William’s paragraph is clearly incompatible with it, and provides an at least equally satisfactory reconciliation.

William’s summary is all the more coherent on the hypothesis that Ambrosius was the de-facto Governor and military commander of Britannia Prima Province, [ix] and Arthur was the de-facto ruler (in Latin tyrannus, meaning de-facto dictator), of the Lindinis civitas – and especially so if Badon was on or close to the borders of Lindinis. [x] Retrospectively, though perhaps not at the time, such a person would come to be called the area’s ‘king’.

William of Malmesbury’s paragraph in his History of the Kings of England, as quoted above in translation, by naming Arthur as giving Ambrosius ‘aid’, and by making clear that he was the main warrior leader of the Britons’ victory on the Badonic Hill, yet without claiming that he was the general in charge of the battle, is as good a reconciliation as there could be between Gildas and the existence and significance of Arthur and the celebration of him – by Welsh poets of the next few centuries and Breton minstrels – as the most exemplary battle victor.[xi]

Elsewhere on this blog, I have noted that the Life of St Carantoc writes of Arthur as ruling jointly with Cador when they met Carantoc, [xii] and that Cador was effective and astute in leading the elite of Lindinis civitas to prioritise its defence over their personal luxuries and lifestyle, devoting its resources, severely limited though they were by the economic conditions of the mid-fifth century, to constructing a network of fortifications around the borders and seaward approaches of Lindinis. These proved sufficient both to see off the Irish raiders that had previously destroyed its villas and enslaved its rich citizens, and to prevent it from being over-run by Saxons, despite their many successes elsewhere in Britain, for the next two centuries![xiii] A warrior who ruled alongside such a brilliant and persuasive warlord when young was surely thereby well schooled to become a man able to rally his people to fight as necessary for their country. 


[ii] Gesta Regum Anglorum Book 1, Chapter 1. Translation at

[iii] There are elsewhere references to Arthur which are clearly derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and therefore are interpolations, not genuine words of William’s, and are of little or no historical worth.

[iv]  The monastic community’s existence during Arthur’s lifetime does not, of course, require it to have been founded as early as the time of St. Patrick (d.458) as William says it was: a date as late as the first third of the sixth century would be sufficient.

[v] For my sense of the boundaries of Arthur’s kingdom, see

[vi] See ~  specifically,


[viii] Jensen, S.R. Ambrosius Arturus. ARRC Publishing, Narrabeen, NSW, Australia. 2018.

[ix] Britannia Prima was, following Emperor Diocletian’s reforms, the west and south-west of Roman Britannia: roughly corresponding to the Westcountry, Wales, Cheshire and most of the West Midlands.

[x] Bath, the probable location of Badon, was very close to the border of Lindinis with the Cirencester civitas (the area called Hwicce in the seventh century). If the eastern boundary of Britannia Prima was where Roger White’s list of villas (Britannia Prima: Tempus, 2007, pp220-1) reveals that he reckons it was – from Devizes to Membury (both place names mean ‘on the border’) via to the east of Ramsbury – the other plausible candidate for Badon, Badbury near Swindon, was on the Province’s border; it’s about 25 miles from the nearest part of Lindinis.

[xi] William’s paragraph is one of very few such constructs that meets these criteria:

Any construct about Arthur’s existence, dates, role in battles, or geographical location, should be compatible with facts such as:

  • Songs about Arthur were sung by Breton minstrels.
  • The word Arthur is in the poems Y Gododdin, Elegy for Geraint, and Preiddeu Annwn.
  • The five vitae of saints mentioning Arthur that preceded Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.
  • In De Excidio, Gildas gives thanks to God for the Britons’ victory in the ‘siege of the Badonic Hill’, and he does not name Arthur in this context, or at all.
  • In the Historia Britonnum, Arthur is said to have fought 12 battles, including that at Mount Badon.
  • The Annales Cambriae name Arthur as the victor of Mount Badon and as losing his life at the Battle of Camlann in 538.

On these criteria, where William’s message is not a support, as for example with the vitae, it is not a problem either – it is neutral.  



Aurelian family

The Aurelian family had a large role in King Arthur’s time and over previous centuries. It began in the 270s. K.O. Morgan, writing in the Oxford Mini-History of Britain, vol 1, said “In 274, Britain was brought back under the [Roman] central government when the Emperor Aurelian eliminated the Gallic Empire.” (‘The Gallic Empire’ was Iberia, Gaul, Britain, and the part of Germany west of the Rhine which had separated and been independently ruled.)

The link from Emperor Aurelian to the British Aurelians is the ancient reference* to a fifth-century leader called Ambrosius as a man “whose father wore the purple”. Only Roman Emperors were said to have “worn the purple”; but the word ‘father’ can be heard as meaning ‘forefather’.

This Ambrosius is the rival whom Vortigern defeated, according to a record included in the Historia Brittonum, at the Battle of Wallop in 428.

You could say he was walloped. However, another reference there is to Vortigern restraining his ambitions from “fear of Ambrosius”. So evidently he was walloped only partially. I have said in another post that Vortigern was de-facto Governor of Maxima Caesariensis, the Roman Province comprising south-east England. Wallop was in the Winchester civitas and quite close to the Province’s border with the western province called Britannia Prima. I reckon this Ambrosius may well have been Governor of Britannia Prima in the second quarter of the fifth century.

But what has this to do with the Aurelian name? The answer is that his son is known to history, thanks to Gildas, as Ambrosius Aurelianus. His floruit was around 480. In legend, this second Ambrosius is described as “the boy without a father” – obviously because his father, the first Ambrosius, was dead, most likely having been killed in battle; equally obviously, a fatherless boy who stood out from the crowd of such boys by virtue of his aristocratic lineage. This Aurelian Ambrosius is known in Celtic stories as Emrys Wledig: Emrys being his Celtic name that was Latinised to Ambros (+ the grammatical ending ‘ius’); ‘Wledig’ being a title denoting a great ruler. Perhaps he too was Governor of Britannia Prima…. though the distribution of Ambros-derived place-names suggests he may have carried the fight against Saxon raiders/invaders well to the east. John Morris’s map, on page 101 of “The Age of Arthur” (2001 edition), shows five such places in Britannia Prima – but eleven in Maxima Caesariensis, seven of them in or just outside Essex in a cluster suggesting that Ambrosius held a frontier to keep the Saxons of Essex out of ‘Calchfynydd’, the Kingdom whose name means ‘Chalk Hills’ centred on the chalk hills now called The Chilterns. **

Two later Aurelians are known to have been prominent. One is King Cynan Aurelian of Powys, who ruled that large kingdom in the west Midlands and mid-Wales in the early-middle part of the sixth century. He is known both from a Taliesin poem praising his warrior achievements and from a section of Gildas’s diatribe which attacks him as grossly degenerated morally from his illustrious grandfather Ambrosius Aurelianus. The other is St. Pol Aurelian, a contemporary of King Arthur, who was the benefactor who commissioned the strengthening of the old wattle church (the vetusta ecclesia) of Glastonbury Abbey with wood, and who worked as a Christian leader in Brittany.



* I think it’s in the Historia Brittonum.

** There is also one Ambros- placename in Oxfordshire, which was not in Maxima Caesariensis in Roman times. But this place had probably been acquired by the Silchester civitas soon after Ambrosius Aurelianus’s time by Cerdic, the governor/king who, as I have shown in my post on Cerdic, made conquests in Oxfordshire in c500CE to secure the left bank of the Thames for his kingdom which already included a large stretch of the right bank.

King Arthur’s 2nd to 5th Battles – Bulbarrow Hill Site Visit

This month, February 2017, I visited the area I had identified four years ago as where King Arthur fought his second to fifth battles. In my post “King Arthur of Somerset: early battles above the River Divelish”, I explained that the Historia Brittonum “says Arthur’s four battles on the borders of Lindinis were ‘above the river which is called Dubglas’,” and that “linguists inform us that the name Divelish can have derived from Dubglas. The River Divelish rises on the N Dorset Downs south of Ibberton.”

The location is far more spectacularly credible than I had imagined as the site of Arthur’s early skirmishes to prove his worthiness to rule the Kingdom of Lindinis by defending its southern border.

In what is now deeply rural north Dorset, two miles south of Ibberton, the rim of Bulbarrow Hill gives large vistas to southward over the valleys below. Any general who had command of south Somerset but needed to guard against enemies from his south would want to control and defend Bulbarrow Hill. Correspondingly, Bulbarrow defended would be extremely difficult to conquer from the south with anything less than overwhelming force.

Today there is a sign informing us that this scenic location is on the “Wessex Ridgeway” long-distance footpath. The footpath is a recent creation; but the ridge, one can truthfully say, is as old as the hills, and the sign tells us that it was “used by traders and invaders”.

There is even an Iron Age fort on the ridge, called Rawlsbury Camp (a mile west of the sign), about 500 metres from one of the sources of the River Divelish. King Arthur’s base for his second to fifth battles? The pieces of the jigsaw fit together: credible purpose, credible strategically, credible linguistically[1]. One can’t prove it, of course, but it would certainly make sense.


[1] Equally so, incidentally, if the anciently Dubglas-named river be the stream flowing from Higher Ansty (below Rawlsbury) southwards through Dewlish, as others have suggested.



Glastonbury Abbey’s Twelve Hides

What is the origin of Glastonbury Abbey’s unique “Twelve Hides”? From earlier in its existence than there are records of, Glastonbury Abbey claimed to own “twelve hides” of land that were excluded from the king’s jurisdiction and land taxes.

Why? What was special and different about Glastonbury as distinct from any other Abbey that had manorial judicial privileges?

I have shown here earlier that the original church on the present Abbey site was most probably built in the  440s CE, though due to twelfth century reconstruction in situ this cannot be proved scientifically.

Archaeology indicates that the earliest colony of monks was also in the fifth century, butnot next to the church; it was on the Tor. So why were the people in one place and the church in another?

In the same blog post, I gave reasons for reckoning that the church came first. In another posting  I explored the esoteric symbolism of the Seven Holy Islands, of which Glastonbury was one, and the line from the northernmost, Nyland (also called Andrewsey), to Glastonbury Abbey. It is a pretty safe bet that the Abbey church was built where it was because the location was already a holy place.

St. Patrick, who was very probably Abbot in the 450s, arrived in Glastonbury already a master craftsman at the insidious art of occupying and Christianising the most sacred sites of the Druids, such as the Hill of Tara and Ard Macha (Armagh) in Ireland. He would surely have been well aware of the sanctity of the Tor, which is venerated by Pagans and other native tradition derived faith groups to this day. And, being the son of a Roman high official of Lindinis (the Roman civitas that included Glastonbury), Patrick would have had ready access to the area’s King (or civitas Governor – de-facto ruler, anyway) Cador. One suspects that Patrick bent Cador’s ear to secure the Tor for his Christian monastics.

Glastonbury in the fifth century was a peninsula; Rahtz and Watts (as referenced in my Seven Holy Islands post) say the dry land limit was approximately today’s 10-metre contour. The narrows that define the peninsula were at Havyatt (see Note 2 of that post), a place-name whose combination of Celtic (hav) and Saxon (yatt) elements demonstrates its antiquity (in contrast to the all-English names that are entertaining treasure-hunt-clues to the Templars’ “Somerset Zodiac”).

It is an intelligent guess, which accommodates both the ancient legends and modernly identified ley lines, that the whole Glastonbury peninsula delineated by that 10-metre contour and Ponters Ball, plus the other six of the Seven Holy Islands, comprised the Druids’ sacred Summerland, the symbolic outer representation of Annwn, the Otherworld to which we go at death and where we live between lives on Earth; and that Abbot Patrick was eager to secure this special sacred area for Christ’s church and therefore obtained the ownership of both the peninsula and the other six Holy Islands for his monastic community, that this was the whole of the original land they had, and that these lands, because they were the symbolic Annwn, were already exempt from royal jurisdiction when under Druid control, and the exemption simply transferred, along with the sanctity, to Patrick’s Christians – the mundane basis for their mystique-wrapped special status centuries later.

It is also reasonable to suppose that the Saxon conquerors heard the sacred territory’s name translated to them as “Summer Land” and applied this to the whole surrounding district also, calling it Somersaeta – the land settled (saeta) by the Summer, or Somer, people.

Could the Glastonbury peninsula itself, then,  be the “Twelve Hides”? The measurement is strikingly credible. A “hide” is the main Saxon unit of land. It was supposed to be the amount of land that would support one self-sufficient household. The Celtic “tref” is equivalent. Its area therefore varies with land quality. The Isle of Wight, which is 381 square kilometres, is the most precisely measurable of the districts whose number of hides is recorded in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of c672CE; it was assessed as 600 hides: so on that island, which has few barren or unfarmable areas, the average hide was 63.5 hectares. Rahtz and Watts’s suggested fifth-century Glastonbury peninsula measures between eight and nine square kilometres, so if it comprised twelve hides its average hide size would have been slightly larger: about 70 hectares. As the peninsula included the steep-sided Tor, Wearyall Hill, Stone Down Hill, and Edmund Hill, it seems fully realistic to figure that the average hide size would have been larger than on Wight[1] – although in any case, if 12 was already regarded by Christians as a holy number when the peninsula was chartered as “12 hides”, even if the peninsula was by mundane calculation 13 or 14 hides, its number could have been adjusted to twelve for symbolic elegance.


[1] Wight has high hills too, but is proportionately much less hilly.

Taliesin, royal bard and spiritual master

Taliesin, the Shakespeare of his day. Taliesin, Britain’s best-known, best-loved person in the sixth century. Taliesin, almost the last of the Druids, for their honour, status and influence was being destroyed by the Christian ascendancy before his eyes, and he left no successor. Taliesin, almost unknown today save to literature-loving Welsh speakers and us few long in pursuit of knowledge of sixth century Britain.

Two strands wrap around the figure of Taliesin like a caduceus: poems; and magical myth. Taliesin was a bard; more specifically a “primary bard”, meaning – in the culture of sixth century Britons – a composer of original poetry, who also set it to music, and at royal diplomatic banquets sang it, accompanying himself on the harp, to the king in whose service he was dedicated, with a duty to lionise his king’s conquests. More than a mere poet laureate, he was the king’s spiritual adviser; with power, in special circumstances, to command his actions.

And not just a bard but the bard: Taliesin won the title “chief bard of Britain”.

He was also, esoterically, a master yogi. The name, or rather title, ‘Taliesin’ can be translated “radiant brow”, but its inner meaning is that his wisdom eye (which is between the eye brows) is radiant with Christ (iesin, like Iesus) Consciousness.

Some of his poems survive, and have been translated into English too. 200 years after his time, many were written down, probably in the scriptoria of Christian monks; and naturally in the orthography of the scribe’s time – which provides latitude for scholarly assertions of inauthenticity, for some scholars would have us believe that the date of writing is the date of composition.

Poppycock. The culture at the kaer (castle, fort, royal residence) of sixth-century kings in Britain was oral. Taliesin composed and memorised his poems; likewise any “secondary bard”, a bard who would re-cant those poems later, learned them by heart. Memory, not writing, was the means by which culture was transmitted in early-medieval Celtic Britain; much wisdom in that, in an age before printing or paper when the means of writing was expensive and written documents could only be copied laboriously one copy at a time in longhand, and therefore were easy to forge, to doctor, to accidentally miscopy, and also all too easy to destroy through fire, acts of war, or casual indifference. Taliesin’s poems will have been passed down through the generations by secondary bards, their rhythms, alliterations and part-repeated lines facilitating their memorisation.

True, not everything attributed to Taliesin is his. Other poems were written in later centuries in his name by people who it seems were accepted as belonging to his school. But there are poems extant only in sixteenth century form whose genuineness is more credible than some that betray evidence of ninth century orthography. I consider the content and style, and the inner meaning, to be more reliable guides to the authenticity of a ‘Taliesin’ poem than the apparent date it was first written down.


The magical story of Taliesin – Hanes Taliesin – begins with the goddess Ceridwen stirring her Cauldron over her cooking fire. Ceridwen is the triple-goddess in her form as elder or ‘crone’. Her Cauldron is the source of everything, for she is God in the aspect of Creator.[1] At this point, the Cauldron is the source of poetic inspiration (awen in Welsh) and of all wisdom and knowledge. She has her son Gwion Bach (which might be translated “Little Man-ling”) stir and watch the pot. Accidentally, three drops fall from the Cauldron onto Gwion’s thumb, and he sucks his thumb. With this act he becomes filled with all knowledge – and, seeing danger ahead for himself, scurries.

There follows a magic hunt, in which Ceridwen chases Gwion, Gwion shape-shifts into a hare, then an otter, then a bird, and Ceridwen shape-shifts in pursuit. Gwion then becomes an ear of grain and Ceridwen turns herself into a hen and eats him. The symbolic meaning is fairly transparent: Gwion, archetypal Human Person, acquiring a little wisdom, flees from fire (the cauldron) via earth (hare), water (otter) and air (bird), all of them changing forms within the great cosmic delusion of Creation (hence, “shape shifting”); but the Divine Mother is in constant pursuit, ever coaxing Her child back to Herself. Eventually, the Human becomes totally humble, submitting himself into a state of being (one grain) in which he can be wholly absorbed into the Divine Consciousness[2]…….

…..and, as often happens in story when grain is a symbol, he is reborn. The Hanes Taliesin tells us that Gwion now spends nine months in the womb of Ceridwen and is then reborn as Taliesin. Ceridwen wills neither to keep him nor to kill him, so she leaves him in a basket by Gwyddno’s royal salmon weir.[3] There he is found by Prince Elffin, son of King Gwyddno Garanhir of Ceredigion.

Elffin is frustrated. He was there, allowed to fish for salmon for the first time in his life, and instead of catching any he caught this darned baby. The baby Taliesin immediately sings Elffin a poem, in which he proclaims himself “loquacious though not yet able to speak” (reminiscent of Krishna’s comparably surprising day-of-birth speech to his father), informs him “I was once little Gwion Bach but now I am Taliesin”, and promises the young prince that he will one day be worth more to him than even as inconceivably big a day’s catch as three hundred salmon.

Surely, what this is describing symbolically is an initiation rite for Elffin. Gwyddno’s title Garanhir – “Crane Legs” reveals that he was a Druidic esoteric initiate; his personal ‘royal salmon weir’ makes sense as an inner means in his consciousness to capture wisdom rather than a convenient barrier across the River Dyfi; and Prince Elffin being allowed to fish there for the first time symbolises the Druids’ secret techniques for developing deepest mystical wisdom being revealed to him at a ritual initiation – a water ‘baptism’[4]. Elffin’s finding there this person who has the supreme state of Christ/Taliesin consciousness, but catching no salmon, expresses, as ever in symbols, that Elffin on the one hand has, as yet, no wisdom of his own, but on the other hand has been given a gift far greater than just the initiation he was expecting: he has been introduced to his Guru – the spiritual master who will lead him to his own Enlightenment ~ notwithstanding the earthly role Elffin must first perform: with Gwyddno’s blessing, Elffin brings Taliesin up as his foster-child.[5]

The Hanes Taliesin legend ‘explains’ Taliesin’s genuine precocious gifts as a bard and spiritual giant.

At this turn, the Hanes Taliesin legend merges into the life of the historical Taliesin, for there is no evidence to contradict the statement that the future Chief Bard of Britain indeed grew up under Elffin’s guardianship at the royal kaer in Aberdyfi.

Taliesin made his first mark on history as a 12-year-old boy, in “The Contention of the Bards”, where he rescued Elffin from prison and knocked off his pedestal the brutal, egotistical, and all-too-real King Maelgwn of Gwynedd[6]. As the best ‘boy outsmarts man’ story since David and Goliath, the Contention of the Bards requires a separate article on this blog.

Since Taliesin accurately prophesies the manner and imminence of Maelgwn’s death, which the Annales Cambriae record as occurring in 548[7], it is fair to date the Contention of the Bards to (more-or-less) 547CE.

By coincidence (for those who believe in coincidence), 547 is also the calculated date of the reference to Taliesin, as a bard ‘coming to prominence’, in a side-note made by some Celt on his copy of a document otherwise comprising a list of the regnal lengths of the first few Anglian kings of Bernicia, a document which was later copied into the Historia Brittonum.

So we have Taliesin’s birth year, give or take a small margin of error: 535. Significantly, the Annales Cambriae date for the death of King Arthur is 538. There is therefore a straightforward explanation for the at first sight odd fact that there is no early legendary enmeshment between Taliesin and King Arthur: the two lived in different regions – Taliesin was to serve in three or four kingdoms, but never in Lindinis – and different time periods.

And Geoffrey of Monmouth never muddied those waters. Taliesin does not appear in Geoffrey’s (so-called) History of the Kings of the Britons.

Taliesin grew up in Ceredigion and maybe spent a few years serving King Elffin there after the Contention as well. Soon enough, though, he emigrated to the much larger kingdom of Powys (to which, indeed, Ceredigion may have had to pay cattle tribute as a ‘client’ kingdom). He became bard to King Brochwel, whom he called “my muse”, and afterwards to his successor King Cynan Garwyn.

Then, probably in the 560s and on Cynan Garwyn’s death, he moved north. One poem in praise of King Gwallawc of Elmet, undisputedly Taliesin’s, has survived, so it may be that his first northern home was Elmet, a kingdom whose capital was York and which included at least the old West Riding of Yorkshire, and maybe also across to the coast around Scarborough and southwards to Derby.

Long-term, though, his home was to be Rheged, a kingdom which comprised SW Scotland, Cumbria, and NW Yorkshire. He could well have lived over two decades in Rheged, as court bard to King Urien. The largest number of poems undisputedly his are those celebrating Urien: as for example victor in a Battle of Wensleydale (ystrad gwen), and as Lord of Catraeth (seemingly a major conquest of his off another king). Celebrating Urien’s lordship, he refers to the delights below his Catraeth kaer of doleu defwy, the Swale’s meanders; the Swale’s loop and twists by Reeth fit the description, as of course does the name Reeth; and the complex site on the hillside a mile to the SW of those meanders, called Maiden Castle, was any or all of kaer, metalworkers’ town, shrine, and fort. Brigantes Nation[8] has identified seven dykes which defended Maiden Castle in addition to its own ramparts, mostly from the east but also two on High Harker Hill to protect it from attack from above.

A story of Urien’s death tells of his being killed by a rival on his own side while besieging Lindisfarne in 590. This is difficult to believe as there was nothing on Lindisfarne at that date. Besides, if it had been so, cultural custom means there would be a Taliesin lament in Urien’s honour. The date, 590, is more credible than the supposed manner of death.

The last reference to Taliesin as a living person is by Aneirin in about 594. In his famous poem Y Gododdin, the phrase ‘Taliesin understands’ implies that he was still alive. Perhaps he died shortly after that disaster at Catraeth, at the – for the times ripe old age of – about sixty. Ceredigion tradition says he was buried at bedd Taliesin, near the coast road south of Machynlleth. The site lacks evidence of any sixth-century burial; Ceredigion, though, is undoubtedly where in the imagination a memorial to Taliesin most properly belongs.


[1] She is also the patron goddess of Cirencester, Caer Ceri, the capital of the Province of Britannia Prima in the fourth and fifth centuries which comprised Wales, the South-West peninsula, and western parts of the Midlands.

[2] There are parallels with the Garden of Eden story and, more directly, with the similar (but less masked) allegorical story of the poem Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson.

[3] Salmon is a symbol of wisdom in the culture of sixth-century Britain. Salmon seasonally swim upstream against the current; this, for the Druids, was a neat outer symbol for the need of the spiritually advancing initiate to reverse the normally downward flow of chi (subtle life energy) in the body and cause it to flow upwards towards the higher chakras in the brain.

[4] The Welsh word for baptism, bedyd, meant initiation before the Christians adapted it.

[5] There is also a myth cycle featuring Gwyddno and Elffin set in Gwaelod, a supposed district of Ceredigion. Its hero is Seithenyn, an outwardly foolish, esoterically wise, servant of King Gwyddno. I intend to write a commentary on it here in due course.

[6] The earliest spelling of the name of this king is Mailcun, but he is nowadays usually referred to by the later name-form Maelgwn.

[7] On my calibration: see my post here on calibrating the Annales Cambriae, 21st September 2013

[8] A group interested in northern England’s Celtic past.

Vortigern, Hengist, and 446 and all that

Vortigern’s deal with Hengist – you give me soldiers to fight my enemies and I’ll give you Thanet to settle in – was not the crazy and disastrous choice Gildas has us believe. In NW Europe in the 440s, such deals were normal.

As warlord of SE Britannia, Vortigern had no better choice. Aetius, Rome’s powerful man in western Europe, had done just such a deal with the Alans in 440-442 and another with the Burgundians in 443. A few years later he made a similar agreement with Attila the Hun.

In 446, Rome under Aetius was fighting on three fronts – NW Iberia, Brittany, and Belgium. He hadn’t got men to spare for Britain. Rome didn’t have an army other than its foederati, hired warriors like the Alans – and Hengist. Aetius could even have advocated Hengist to Vortigern as an ally. Rome-lover Gildas would not have published that even if he knew it to be true.

Attila the Hun changed sides in 451 and attacked Gaul. Hengist followed Attila’s example, expanding his power in Britain by fair means and foul at Vortigern’s expense.

However, the Historia Britonnum records that Vortigern’s son Vortimer regained all of Kent. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of course does not mention this, but its dates of what is in there suggest that Vortimer’s successes were in the 460s, his final driving of the Saxons out of Kent most likely happening in c465-468. So the results of Vortigern’s deal in 446 were not perdurable; it was events after 468 that came to gradually determine the future of what, centuries later, would be England.

In symbolic language typical of the culture of fifth century Britons, it is reported that when he died, five years after his last victory, Vortimer instructed that his head be displayed facing the ocean at Richborough; and that this was not done. Decoded, the meaning is, at minimum, that the Saxons came back: Vortimer’s successes, alas, were also ephemeral. His severed head should have been a talisman threatening any Saxon who dared to attack Kent, but it (symbolically), or more literally the Kentish defences militarily, was inadequate.

Only in outline is the next stage of British history clear. The exact political structure is not known, but it is almost safe to say that eastern coastal districts remained under Anglo-Saxon control from Deira (East Yorkshire) south as far as East Anglia, and probably Essex too. In 473, Saxons were able to slaughter citizens and carry off booty in the largest Saxon raid of the entire fifth century. After that calamity, Ambrosius Aurelianus, presumably Governor of Britannia Prima, perhaps a descendant of the Roman Emperor Aurelianus (270-275), became chief warlord of southern Britain, and led the Britons valiantly against the Saxons, with some measure both of unity and of success.

The presence of a line of Ambrs- place-names running north-east from Amersham suggests that he held a line of defence there against English attackers coming from Essex and East Anglia. The northern Home Counties were successfully defended and became the Kingdom of Calchfynydd (meaning: Chalk Hills i.e. Chliterns).

Two other Ambrs on the South Downs in west Sussex (Ambersham near Midhurst and Amberley to the north of Arundel) and one in Kent (guarding the Medway crossing somewhere near Maidstone) suggest that he also fought effectively in that area. In this context it is significant that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle identifies battles in Sussex in 477, 485, and 490. It implies that the Saxon side won, though not decisively in 477; silently hints at the probability that they lost in 485; and claims a decisive victory in 490.

490 (or possibly early 491) of course was also the year of the famous British victory at Mount Badon, attributed to King Arthur. Gildas implies that there was when he wrote his “Ruin and Conquest of Britain” (c530) an agreed frontier between the Britons and “our enemies in the east”. It is credible to suppose that the fall of the fort of Pevensey resulted in this frontier being negotiated in c491 as a cease-fire line with Sussex on the Saxon side and Calchfynydd on the Britons’ side.

One can only speculate about the possibility of a Briton-ruled salient between the North Downs and the Thames. The place-name Eccles is elsewhere associated with sixth-century Christian presence under Briton control; there is an Eccles north of Maidstone. Other Christian-suggestive place-names further west in this putative salient include Esher, Godstone, and Godalming.

In any case, the frontier kept its stability for 60 years. But it began to frazzle about 550; and the definitive English conquest of Britain came in the 570s when four calamitous battles (571, Bedford; 577, Dyrham, above Bath; 578, York; and 580, Weedon Bec, Northants) pulled many rich lands of what was once Britannia into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Before 570, Britain was an essentially Celtic-ruled island, despite the presence of English-ruled kingdoms around the eastern and southern coasts. After 580, whatever remained under Celtic control would never again be more than a “Celtic fringe”. The fruits of battle victories in the fifth century were ever precarious and temporary; it was those Angle and Saxon victories in the 570s that were decisive, setting Britain on the never-reversed course for its English future.