King Arthur of Somerset: early battles above the River Divelish

     King Arthur of Somerset. King Arthur of Lyonesse. Was Somerset the land that King Arthur ruled? Was Somerset the true Lyonesse, the legendary lost kingdom beyond the western sunset? A striking, yet un-noticed, fact is that all the events of King Arthur’s life in sources whose roots are contemporary to his time, or nearly so, took place definitely, or at any rate perhaps, in or adjacent to Somerset.

Over time I will explore here the real King Arthur, Somerset, Lyonesse, and other aspects of fifth and sixth century Celtic Britain. I will write of the life of Taliesin, the great sixth-century bard, and decode his spiritual masterpiece Preiddeu Annwn. I will identify the antiquity of Glastonbury Abbey, and the rather lesser antiquity of the semi-mysterious Glastonbury Zodiac. I will feature the Somerset birth and death of St. Patrick, and the emergence of Saxon, down-to-earth, Somerset from the ancient Celtic sacred otherworldly summerland.

I begin though, almost as King Arthur did, with a little skirmish on a Somerset border; or, to be more accurate, on the border of Lindinis, the Roman civitas that included nearly all of what we now call Somerset. I say ‘almost’ as King Arthur did, because my focus is the “second, third, fourth and fifth battles” which Arthur fought according to the battle list in the Historia Brittonum – and not his first battle, which I will look at in due course.

King Arthur’s battles: in regione linnuis

The Historia Brittonum (HB) says Arthur fought his second, third, fourth, and fifth battles “in regione linnuis”. In language resembling that of arrogant climate-change believers and dogmatic environmentalist ‘we have to change our ways’ fundamentalists, the historian Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews has recently [“The Arthurian Battle-List of the Historia Britonnum”: 2010] asserted that the often-suggested derivation of linnuis from Lindinis is “untenable”. He says that Lindinis “would have produced the form *lindinenses” – itself undisturbing, for it is pretty compatible with the genitive singular lendiniensis attested from inscriptions on Hadrian’s Wall – “which could not have developed into the attested linnuis”. Linnuis he says requires a prior *lindenses.

Perhaps this assertion would be sustainable if there had been a smooth transmission by precise scribes between the c600CE Welsh poem which Fitzpatrick-Matthews detects as the origin of the battle list and the ninth-century Latin of the HB. However, scholars regularly discover copying errors in Latin manuscripts. Indeed, Fitzpatrick-Matthews identifies some himself in a version of the HB, including a mistranscription of glein, the site of Arthur’s first battle, as glem. The obvious mistake was that the scribe mislinked the i and n into an m. Letters comprised only of loops and vertical lines are particularly vulnerable to copying errors of this kind, leading to confusions among the letters n, m, u, v, and i. There is therefore no solid assurance that linnuis is a true rendition of the word in the original composition.

Further, in the sixth and seventh centuries, Welsh poems were invariably transmitted orally. The culture rejoiced in bardic singing of poems from memory. It is not until the eighth century, at the earliest, that they come to be written down. It is easily possible that an actual fifth-century lindinenses became shortened to lindenses during the three centuries between Arthur fighting the battle and the record of it being written in the HB, especially as the HB has a north Welsh provenance and the city and civitas/kingdom of Lindinis were not only far away geographically but also had long since disappeared, metamorphosing into a Saxon-ruled Somerset.

Besides, even the putative modest elision from lindinenses to lindenses is unnecessary. There is a more direct route by which Lindinis may have elided by error into linnuis. Lindinenses means: the citizens of Lindinis. Grammatically, a battle site would more sensibly have been described as in regione lindinis than as in regione lindinenses. All that is required for a  genitive lindinis to have become linnuis over centuries is its direct miscopying; and it is easy to see that i n i s in handwriting could have been misread by a copyist as n u  i s. The evaporation of the d is less obvious, but as Fitzpatrick-Matthews himself indicates that philologically linnuis can or should be derived from a prior lindo– word, presumably the loss of the d is not in fact surprising. 

Neither Fitzpatrick-Matthews nor any other scholar I am aware of has closely examined the immediate previous words in regione. They indicate, or implicitly assume, the meaning “in the region or district of”. Latin dictionaries, however, give another meaning for regio: boundary, or boundary-line. In regione can therefore equally validly mean “on the boundary of”. Culturally, this meaning makes excellent sense for the location of the early battles of a future warrior leader. An aspirant warrior king needed to prove his credentials by attacking a neighbouring kingdom and proving his war skills in a raid for cattle or other booty. A clear example of this practice is the raid by King Cynan of Powys on Gwent eulogised by the sixth-century bard Taliesin [Trawsganu Cynan Garwyn – see J E Caerwyn Williams: 1987. The Poems of Taliesin, p 1, and p xviii ff].

A linguistically and culturally coherent interpretation of in regione linnuis, therefore, is that Arthur earned his spurs as a warrior leader at the beginning of his period in power by fighting and winning four skirmishes on the boundary of the civitas of Lindinis.

The Boundaries of Lindinis

Where, then, were the fifth-century boundaries of Lindinis? These are not known exactly – Roman sources are not that good – but can be pretty closely surmised from knowledge of the Roman political structure of Britain at the start of the century and application of military geographical common sense. The civitates in the southwest peninsula were: Dumnonia, with its capital city at Exeter; Durotriges, capital Dorchester; Lindinis, capital Ilchester; and Corinium, capital Cirencester. Roger White [Britannia Prima: 2007] shows that after Emperor Diocletian’s reforms in 296CE, these civitates were all part of the Roman Province of Britannia Prima, as also were the special-status cities of Gloucester and Bath [map 38, p98]. To the east, in the Province of Maxima Caesariensis, lay the civitates whose capitals were Winchester and Silchester.

The eastern boundary of Lindinis must have been part of the eastern boundary of Britannia Prima. White’s map shows this running through Wiltshire in an arc which places Mere and its White Sheet Hill, and the modern towns Warminster, Westbury, Trowbridge and Melksham, on the Lindinis side of the line; but not Salisbury Plain or Market Lavington. The name Devizes is known to mean ‘at the division’. It is wholly sensible to assume Devizes was the triple border point between Lindinis, the Corinium civitas to the north, and the Silchester civitas to the east.

Military geographical common sense says that civitas boundaries will where possible have been along defensible frontiers. In the first instance, the dividing lines between tribal territories before the Roman conquest will have usually been decided by warfare, and inherited by the Romans. Secondly, it is likely that if there were any indefensible civitas boundaries when the Britons overthrew their Roman imperial governors in 409CE, such boundaries would have been shifted by warfare during the turbulent fifth century.

For Lindinis, therefore, the western boundary could have been substantially similar to the present Devon/Somerset border, along the Blackdown Hills and across Exmoor. However, the places named for Cador in north Devon, Cadbury Castle and Cadbury Barton, imply that the north-western boundary of King Arthur’s Lindinis was further west, along the River Taw. The boundary below CAdbury Castle could have run across the hills to the north of Crediton and Silverton and up the western escarpment of the Culm Valley to follow the present Somerset-Devon border south-estwards from Hockworthy. The southern border will have been further south than the arbitrary line across lowland that currently marks the austral limit of Somerset. The most defensible boundary runs along the North Dorset Downs from approximately Broadwindsor to Hod Hill and thence along the Wiltshire/Dorset border. Lindinis’s most likely northern boundary will have been along the River Avon from Avonmouth to Melksham, and from there across just six miles to the Britannia Prima border at Devizes – except for an excision to provide for the spa town of Bath. The size of similar excisions for Lincoln and Buxton, attested by Roman mileposts, suggests the Bath district boundary might have run south away from the Avon somewhere in the Keynsham area to the Cam Brook, perhaps near Dunkerton, and then along the Cam back to the Avon at Bradford-on-Avon.

The HB says Arthur’s four battles on the borders of Lindinis were “above the river which is called Dubglas.” Linguists inform us that the name Divelish can have derived from Dubglas. The River Divelish rises on the N Dorset Downs south of Ibberton and flows north until it joins the Stour close to the rich, and therefore well worth defending, Roman Villa at Hinton St Mary, the villa well-known today for its early evidence of British Christian practices.

The area above the Divelish is an utterly credible location for a young Arthur to have battled “on the boundary line of Lindinis” between his Lindinis warriors and the men of the Dorchester-based Durotriges civitas. The HB‘s super aliud flumen quod dicitur dubglas in regione linnuis is one piece of evidence that the warrior leader who came to be known as King Arthur was, at least as a youth, a man of Lindinis/Somerset.


One comment on “King Arthur of Somerset: early battles above the River Divelish

  1. grdtobin says:

    Fascinating. I have some ancestors (Legge and Bryant) from Kilmersdon in Somerset, who described themselves in official records as “English and Welsh”. “Kil” might be the Brythonic word for a hermit’s cell, though the Wikipedia page on the village and parish claims that its name means “Cynemaer’s Hill”, so perhaps another Saxon mishearing?

    Perusing some of William the Conqueror’s public charters that were published in both Latin and English, I observe that in the north-east of England, the English resembles both Danish and Anglo-Saxon. Whereas in the south the English text reads very like Late Middle or Early Modern English (Olde spellings of easily recognisable words); indeed I’d say, as a modern Anglophone, that it’s much more readable than Chaucer or even John Donne.

    This suggests that the vernacular Anglo-Saxon of southern England was already greatly transformed by the early 11th century. Perhaps this is evidence of its use as a lingua franca between the Saxon rulers and the British inhabitants?

    It’s an odd thing that the House of Wessex claimed that its founder was named Cerdic, a British name, a feature in common with several of their early kings. Cerdic is supposed to have landed on the shore opposite Portsmouth. What strikes me is that Portsmouth and Southampton were common landing places for ships from Brittany. A near-contemporary of Cerdic was Budic, ruler of Brittany. Moreover, the Kingdom of Wessex had much territory in common with the old British kingdom of Dumnonia (which gives us the county name Devon), which actually stretched from Devon (and maybe Cornwell) through Somerset and Dorset to Hampshire (and perhaps beyond). Wessex retained the Dumnonian capital of Winchester, inland from Southampton.

    The Britons of Dumnonia sent settlers to Brittany with the legendary Conan Meriadoc in 383. The year can be fixed because Magnus Maximus brought many of the legions from Britain to the mouth of the Rhine in that year, in his successful tilt at deposing Gratian to become Western Emperor. Magnus directed Conan to lead soldiers from south-west Britain to Armorica to oust Gratian’s garrisons there.

    (That Conan may have been historical is indicated by the view of the 11th century Counts of Anjou who claimed descent from one of the common soldiers that Conan Meriadoc (whom they named) had ejected from (what became) Lower Brittany: this man went to Rennes (in Upper Brittany), where the family remained until the 800s; one of them committed a crime and was exiled and became a forester near Anjou; then, in a successful return to their roots, they became soldiers for the Franks against the Viking incursions, and were rewarded with a series of promotions.)

    In northern Brittany, the Dumnonians founded a sister realm, which they unimaginatively gave the same name to: it’s now spelt Domnonea. The same pattern was applied by settlers to Kernev (from Cornwall) and Gwened (from Gwent). Sea trade had been extensive between Ireland, Britain, Gaul and even Spain since pre-Roman times, as Julius Caesar attested in his journal on the “Gallic Wars”, so it may be that in each case the same person was at least nominal ruler of the twin regions on both sides of the Channel from 383 until well into the 500s: this would seem particularly probable for Dumnonia and Domnonea which face each other across what the Britons called “the Narrow Sea”.

    Perhaps, then, Cerdic was an ambitious Briton from the southern shore of the Channel who crossed over and promised that he would lead a minor Saxon tribe, the Gewisse in the region of Dorchester on Thames, to greatness, if they would only make him their king and conscientiously follow his training methods, his goal being to make Dumnonia his own.

    When King Alan I of Brittany died in 907, his children were brushed aside by Gourmaelon of Kernev, causing a civil conflict. In 914 the Loire Vikings, too used to being paid well for their services against the Franks, took advantage of the situation, killed Gourmaelon in battle and overran Brittany. Exiled aristocrats and their retinues fled to the court of King Edward the Elder in Winchester. Alan I’s grandson Alan II was baptised there; his godfather was Athelstan. As it happens, Edward’s daughter Eadgifu of Wessex had married a king of France and their son was Louis IV, but she and her son were exiled due to court intrigues related to the Franks’ weakened position. Evidently, Wessex had maintained close ties, of trade and diplomacy, with its neighbours to the south.

    In 936 King Athelstan sent Alan II back to Brittany to fight the Vikings, who had used their bases in Brittany to harass France and presumably England as well. Athelstan also sent his nephew Louis IV to claim France. By their efforts, Alan and Louis attacked the Vikings so energetically that William Longsword (son of Rollo) met potential allies in Flanders, only to be assassinated. Normandy then collapsed and France claimed its former territory until William’s son Richard I was rescued by local nobles and astutely recovered his inheritance, an achievement reinforced when the next generation intermarried with the Breton ducal family.

    In the early 11th century, Duke Alan III’s wife Bertha of Blois was a descendant of Louis IV and thus of Eadgifu of Wessex. Another Eadgifu married Harold Godwinson, in the Danish fashion, around the time that King Edward “the Confessor” married Harold’s sister Ealdgyth (23 January 1045) and made Harold the Earl of East Anglia. Upon Edward’s death and Harold’s election as king, he promptly dumped Eadgifu for another Ealdgyth, sister of the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar. Perhaps Eadgifu was a relative of Edward’s?

    A brother of Alan III, and thus a claimant to the Breton ducal throne, Eudon, Count of Penteur (Head of the Clan), was a maternal first cousin of Edward the Confessor (their mothers were the sisters Hawise (“la bonne Normande”) and Queen Emma). Eudon’s sons Alan Rufus and Brian were among William the Conqueror’s army commanders. In 1069 Brian fought incursions by Harold’s sons in the south-west of England, defeating them in a series of battles, e.g. the battle of the river Taw. Learning of a rebellion by Edric the Wild further north, Brian then hastened up to Staffordshire and met William’s army heading west; combined, they defeated their Welsh and English opponents in the Battle of Stafford, but accounts say it was a very bloody and close battle. Brian disappears from records after this time, resurfacing in a charter dated 1084 in Brittany; historians say he had become an invalid.

    Alan Rufus, meanwhile, received most of Eadgifu’s properties, including all but one in Cambridgeshire. In 1093-1094, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote two harsh letters to Gunhild, daughter of Harold and Eadgifu, for leaving Wilton Abbey to take up with Alan Rufus, who had died on 4 August 1093, and then with his brother Alan Niger. Anselm later removed those letters from his archive, so I suspect he discovered himself in error on an important point. Maybe Gunhild was following the time-honoured custom of a young girl being protected by nuns until she came of age to marry her betrothed (a concept that Lanfranc understood and approved of, but Anselm apparently hadn’t considered). Or perhaps Eadgifu was indeed related to King Edward, and to Alan Rufus who after the Battle of Hastings, as a newly powerful blood relative, became her daughter’s guardian, a responsibility that naturally devolved to his brother and successor Alan Niger. A third possibility is that Eadgifu was not related to Edward’s mother Emma, and thus not to Alan, which allowed her to marry Alan, explaining why he received so many of her lands: Alan’s relationship to Gunhild would then have been as stepfather.

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