Myths and Legends which Obscure the View

In order to see clearly the real King Arthur, the historical man behind the myth and magic, it is necessary to shine the questing lamp through a haze of tales that have left a variety of images of King Arthur in the collective imagination of British (and indeed Euro-American) culture, the centuries of creative storytelling without which the question “who was Arthur?” would be of interest only to the narrow circle of Dark Ages experts and enthusiasts such as those who study Vortigern or Taliesin.

Some non-factual tales about Arthur are easy to identify as such because their original creative source can be observed.

The “Bardic Chair” in this hall of fame and fable belongs indisputably to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey’s bestseller “The History of the Kings of the Britons”, published in c1130, transformed King Arthur from the slightly familiar hero of stories told in song by wandering Breton minstrels into the prime heroic archetype of west European Christendom. Geoffrey, however, was no more interested in clinging to historical accuracy than the average Hollywood director, and any resemblance of characters in his book to persons living or dead is only coincidental. Geoffrey’s King Arthur is no more ‘real’ than the titular heroes of Shakespeare’s plays drawn from ancient Britain, Cymbeline and King Lear.

Geoffrey took some of the names on his cast-list from history. Places such as Caerleon and Tintagel, London and Colchester, had associations that resonated for Geoffrey to provide settings for the deeds of his characters. St. Dubricius and Merlin, historical persons from the century after Arthur, each recorded with one line in the Annales Cambriae, were abracadabra’d by the Norman master storyteller into, respectively, an archbishop and a wizard. There is not a speck of genuine linkage between the real King Arthur and any of these people and places; nor, of course, was he emperor of any or all of Gaul, Rome, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.

Soon after Geoffrey, the Templars rather less openly created a legend of the Knights of the Round Table and their Quest for the Holy Grail. For this substantial enterprise they took advantage of their ownership of large tracts of land in Somerset, and their infiltration of the county’s other principal landowner – Glastonbury Abbey – to reshape the field boundaries, contours and names of its geography to create a design matching the celestial zodiac. The Zodiac is of course the real Round Table. (In so doing they left a distinctively Templar signature in the twelfth-century equivalent of invisible ink: this esoteric organisation that sourced its name, its mythology, and much of its sacred architectural design schemes, from King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem replaced the crab of Cancer in the Glastonbury Zodiac with King Solomon’s ship.) The Templars made a kind of game, an adult Easter-egg-hunt, in which the discovering of this landscape zodiac represented succeeding in the quest for the Holy Grail (purported relics of Jesus’s crucifixion they said had been brought to Britain and hidden in Chalice Well by Joseph of Arimathea).

On the back of this legend, medieval creativity constructed an image of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table in the Troubador code of honour: chivalrous protectors of damsels in distress and loyal upholders of Christian order and Roman civilization against barbarous invaders.

Yarns of Arthurian legend continue to be spun in modern times. Tennyson, who supplied love affairs and jousting tournaments; Hollywood, which brought a Yankee to the court of King Arthur; Marion Zimmer Bradley, who surrounded him with feminine magic: each has fertilised images in minds that bring an imaginary Arthur freshly idealised to the dreams of a new age to their contemporary generations.

The newest fabrication about King Arthur is the presentation by Ken Dark of Arthur as the historicisation of a mythological character. There is nothing in Welsh mythology to substantiate this 21st-century fantasy. Arthur is not interwoven among Bran, Pwyll, Rhiannon and Branwen in any of the Four Branches of the Mabinogion; he does not feature in royal genealogies such as those of Cerdic which include the mythological beings Woden and Bran; nor is he found in the Hanes Taliesin myth cycle which features genuine fifth- and sixth-century people engaging in events of deeply symbolic meaning that are not to be heard as literal, factual experiences: Seithenyn, wise Druid-guided Kings Gwyddno Garanhir and Elffin of Ceredigion, the great bard Taliesin, and the rapist, murderer, warlord, bully, and Christian, King Maelgwn of Gwynedd.

The Arthur who is mentioned in passing in the poems Y Gododdin and Preiddeu Annwn – once in each poem – is simply a praiseworthy, exemplary, warrior hero. In Marwnat Geraint he is the remembered warrior hero specifically of people who were fighting with King Geraint at the Battle of Llongborth. There is no sense in any of these three poems of Arthur as a mythological character, not even in the wondrously mystical Preiddeu Annwn.

There is a mythological Arthur in medieval Welsh literature. He features notably in the poem Pa gur yv y porthaur and in the prose tale Culhwch ac Olwen (philologically considered to be tenth century), as well as in later works influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth or the earliest “Arthurian”/Grail Romances, the Bruts of Chrétien de Troyes, Layamon, Wace and others. If Dark could show that Culhwch ac Olwen was told in or before the 4th century CE with Arthur as a principal character, or that landscape features such as Arthur’s Seat carried his name in remote antiquity, he would at least have a case to answer. I find traces of Bran and of Brigit on Ptolemy’s map of Britain; but not of Arthur.

Other modern historians and commentators find a real Arthur in their study of the fifth century, but mislocate him. John Morris[1] examined archaeological evidence of fifth century warfare and deduced a nationwide campaign of British fighters against English aggressors. He plausibly inferred that Arthur was the British commander; but more-recent archaeologists, such as Roger White[2], have shown up Morris’s united-front war as imaginary. By contrast, Phillips and Keatman are reported by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews as identifying Arthur as the ruler of one civitas, the only writer I am aware of to have done so before me; but they place him in Wroxeter-based Powys. Fitzpatrick-Matthews himself[3] maps his interpretation of the locations of Arthur’s twelve battles as listed in the Historia Brittonum and deduces that Arthur was a man of the Midlands. Others, differently interpreting this list, have located Arthur in the North, despite the fact that his name does not appear in any of the many northern royal genealogies preserved in Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd (“The Descent of the Men of the North”) which consistently feature Coel Hen (“Old King Cole”), Keneu, and Arthwys (who linguistically cannot be Arthur).

If the Historia Brittonum list be a factual record of Arthur’s battles, he would indeed have to have been a general who waged warfare widely geographically. Everyone except Fitzpatrick-Matthews agrees that the location of one of the battles there listed, Badon, is towards the south-west (if not Somerset, then Dorset or Wiltshire); another, Guinnion, is usually identified with Winchester; but two others are indisputably northern: the City of the Legions being Chester; and Cat Coit Celidon being the forest including the headwaters of the Clyde and Tweed that covered much of central southern Scotland.

It has, however, been noticed that the locations of four or five of the battles named in places six to eleven in the Historia Brittonum list closely match those of battles known to have been fought by other warriors in the centuries between Britain’s regaining independence from Rome and the writing of the Historia Brittonum. The battle of Arfderydd, fought in 571 just north of Carlisle, a dynastic conflict for the kingship of Strathclyde, could accurately have been called Cat Coit Celidon, the Battle in the Caledonian Forest. The Battle of Wallop, fought probably in 428, a power struggle for command of southern Britain won by Vortigern, was within the civitas of Winchester and so may also have been remembered as Gueith Caer Guinnion, the Strife of Winchester. English, Irish and Welsh records and archaeological remains all testify to a very real Battle of Chester – but not in Arthurian times. It was fought between Powys and Northumbria in 611. Bassas is the region of the Kingdom of Ergyng laid waste by English invaders and later reclaimed, its churches restored to the Diocese of Llandaff after British reconquest in the early eighth century.

There are two credible interpretations of the name of the eleventh battle in the list, Breguoin. One is to translate it as “White Hill”, which could frankly be anywhere. It is the kind of name an eighth-century Welsh-speaker could have used had he needed to invent an entirely spurious battle to make a list of battles up to the sacred number 12. However, conveniently for the “King Arthur: King of Lindinis” argument, if Breguoin be a genuine and otherwise unknown battle won by King Arthur, there is a White Sheet Hill above Mere in Wiltshire, a mere 11 miles into Lindinis from the Anglo-Arthurian border with the, by his time English-controlled, former civitas of Winchester. There is also another White Sheet Hill NE of Beaminster, exactly on the North Dorset Downs watershed running east from Broadwindsor that I identify as the southern boundary of King Arthur’s Lindinis (see my post here of 28th February 2013). A Battle of Breguoin there could realistically have been another of Arthur’s border skirmishes, comparable with those above the River Divelish I discussed in that post, which occupy places 2 to 5 in the Historia Brittonum Arthurian battle-list.

The other is to identify it, as Jackson does,[4] as Brewyn (Latin, Bremenium; English, High Rochester) in Northumberland, another location where a genuine battle fought by other warriors is known to history: in this case, the famous King Urien of Rheged. Kat gellawr brewyn, the “Battle of the Cells of Bremenium”, is celebrated by Taliesin in his poem Ardwyre Reget (“Rheged, Arise!”).

Fitzpatrick-Matthews shows that the best texts locate the remaining battle (the tenth) at Traith Tribruit, which he translates as “the very pierced shore”. The overall wording of the location means something like “on the shore of a river where the coast is very pierced”. On a map of Britain, two places stand out as locations where the coast is very pierced, the Firth of Forth and the Bristol Channel.[5] If one accepts Fitzpatrick-Matthews’s arguments, there is no textual basis for selecting between these two possibilities. I will note only that one of these was the principal external access to Lindinis, and that Cador, Arthur’s immediate predecessor in charge of that civitas, had at least six fortified defences close to this shore – from west to east: Cannington, Worlebury Hill, two Cadburys, the western Wansdyke, and Dundry (Dindraithou). It would hardly be eyebrow-raising to figure that at some point in the 480s Arthur had to use one or more of these forts to defend his kingdom against Irish raiders on his Lindinis north coast.

In sum, the battles attributed to Arthur in the Historia Brittonum can be divided neatly into two groups: seven (possibly eight) located close to the frontiers of Lindinis, which he may well have fought; and five (possibly four) located far from Lindinis, which he had nothing to do with. Thoroughly dissected, the Historia Brittonum therefore adds support to, rather than challenges, the identification of the original, actual King Arthur as King of Lindinis.

I find multiple strands of evidence for a fifth-into- sixth-century warrior hero Arthur, ruler of Lindinis. Each strand is thin and to the sceptical mind questionable, but they all point in the same direction. Collectively they add up to a coherent and creditable accumulation. By contrast, the evidence for Dark’s “historicisation of a mythical personage” hypothesis is zero. It is, rather, a “god of the gaps” construct, an undisprovable conjecture designed in his imagination for the purpose of reconciling his commitment to asserting the non-existence of any historical Arthur warrior leader with the presence of an Arthur warrior leader in Y Gododdin, Marwnat Geraint, Preiddeu Annwn, the Historia Brittonum, and the Annales Cambriae.[6]



[1]The Age of Arthur”: 1995

[2]Britannia Prima”: 2007

[3]The Arthurian Battle-List of the Historia Britonnum“: 2010

[4] Jackson (1959), quoted by Fitzpatrick-Matthews (2010).

[5] At a pinch, a case could also be made for the Humber.

[6] These five ancient sources, three poems and two documents purporting to be historical records, all indisputably safely predate Geoffrey of Monmouth by at least 170 years. Y Gododdin is attributed to the bard Aneirin. It was composed approximately 60 years after Arthur’s death. Preiddeu Annwn is attributed to Aneirin’s contemporary, the bard Taliesin, who was two years old when Arthur was killed. Philologists assert that it cannot be older than the eighth century because of the spellings in the written text; however, this does not dispose of the possibility that the poem was transmitted orally from the sixth century until the eighth or ninth before it was ever written down. Marwnat Geraint is apparently of eighth century origin. The relevant part of the Historia Britonnum, the list of Arthur’s twelve battles, is not later than the early ninth century in compilation; it claims to have been copied from a much earlier source. The Annales Cambriae is figured to have been compiled in 954; sceptics presume from this that the content was created in the 950s, but close textual analysis points instead to its content having been gathered from several monastic sources, and a real (though, of course, not provable) possibility that its two Arthur references – to his victory at the battle of Badon and to his death at the battle of Camlan – originate from the time of the events they report.


One comment on “Myths and Legends which Obscure the View

  1. Eddo says:

    Interesting reading. A thought of mine regarding the 10th battle – Traith Tribruit. The Roman crossing point at the narrowest part of the Severn,just below where the Wye joins the Severn was called the Tribularius,as I recollect.

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