Annales Cambriae: real evidence?

Arthur in the Annales Cambriae

Did King Arthur exist? Two references to him in a source known as the “Annales Cambriae” affirm that he did. The significance of them, however, is controversial. There is evidence that the Annales Cambriae (AC) were written as such in 953CE. The AC is a compilation of brief notes of historical events over the previous half-millennium, drawn from earlier sources. It does not date them to the CE calendar; rather, it uses its own, unique, counting from its year 1 (which I will endeavour to show here in another post is 446CE) to its year 533.

The first Arthurian entry is dated to AC year 72. In translation from the Latin, it says: “The battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were the victors.” The other entry is dated to AC year 93. In translation from its mix of Welsh and Latin, it says: “The strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut were slain. And there was mortality in Britain and in Ireland.”

Some historians, most notably David Dumville, assert that King Arthur never ruled anywhere. They say that his purported existence is the result of a story-making process of historicisation of a mythical figure. They dismiss the AC references as a mere consequence of that story-making. The necessary implication is that the Arthur references were added to the sources from which the AC was compiled several centuries after the dates they are marked against.

The difficulty with this is that it cannot be disproved. Manuscripts were often amended by copyists and their originals sometimes lost. Indeed, a clear example of this is the manuscript of the AC that historians call the “B” text (in contrast to the extant copy of the 953CE version regarded as pure, which they call the “A” text). The B text contains most but not all of the words of the A text – set against a different, and also unique, year count – plus a substantial number of additional entries. The B text’s first entry with Arthur – the Badon entry – contains most of the same words as the A text. However, it omits “the Britons were the victors” and it adds “king” before Arthur. The second Arthur entry – the Camlan record – is more substantially different. It says “the famous [inclitus] Arthur, king of the Britons and the traitor Modred” were killed. The differences undoubtedly indicate that the copyist who created the B text was influenced in his choice of words by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century book “the history of the kings of the Britons”, a book now known to be a fabulous tale of British history rather than a historical account. The copyist probably thought he was improving the AC (as indeed with some entries he was), innocently unaware of the gay abandon with which Geoffrey invented stories and reshuffled names, dates, and places to formulate his creative masterpiece.

However, there is nothing textual to hint at any comparable copyist’s addition to the original sources of the A text. The Badon entry is in pure grammatical Latin just like the ones that precede it. The Camlan entry is in a mix of Welsh and Latin similar to some of the entries that follow it.

Nor is there any other evidence to suggest that the Arthur entries in the A text might be corrupt.

Significantly, there is nothing to honour Arthur above other district kings named in later sixth-century AC entries such as Maelgwn, Gabran, and Peretur. The AC entries are in this regard fully consistent with the “Arthur, king of Lindinis” hypothesis, provided that the battles of Badon and Camlann were fought in or near to the Lindinis territory. In earlier posts, I have given reasons for believing that indeed both were so located, Badon being probably Bath or possibly in NE Wiltshire – in either case, just outside Lindinis; and identifying Camlan as Queen Camel in SE Somerset.

 

Sources of the Annales Cambriae

Historians have customarily given little credibility to the AC as evidence on the history of the fifth and sixth centuries, because its pre-953 origins cannot be traced. What appears to have happened, though, is that around 950 King Rhodri commissioned some monks to compile a British historical record as a counterforce to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle published half a century earlier, to demonstrate that the British, not just the English, had an honourable and long history. The monks gathered the data from several different monasteries which had kept records.

Both the language and the content of the AC change from one time period to another. These changes are signposts for changes of sources. The first eight entries, those for before the 530s CE, are all in grammatically correct classical Latin with British and Irish names Latinized, with case endings.

One of these entries is about the Battle of Badon. The other seven all concern matters of interest only to Christians. Six of them record the births and deaths of Christians famous in Ireland; the seventh records a papal decision about the dating of Easter.

The second period runs from the 530s until the mid-610s. There is an important linguistic change. Many of the entries in this phase show distinct Welsh traits: Welsh names of people and places without Latin endings, such as ‘mailcun’ and ‘armterid’; Welsh words, such as ‘gueith’ (battle) and ‘map’ (son of); Welsh variants of Irish names such as ‘gabran’ and ‘byror’.

The content also changes. Content concerning Britain rather than, or occasionally along with, Ireland predominates; and political events such as battles and deaths of kings are recorded as well as matters only of interest to Christians.

The change is not total. Some of the entries for the second period have the same style and content focus as those for the first period. This makes sense if the second period entries were drawn from two or more sources, one of which was the same source as the first-period entries and the other(s) were new sources.

The language, and more especially the content, change again after 613. In particular, the content becomes politico-military rather than Christian, and it includes several events in the English kingdom of Northumbria as well as ones in and affecting Welsh kingdoms. Clearly the AC compilers had another additional new source for this period.

 

Source of Earliest AC Entries: Glastonbury Abbey

It is striking that six of the eight entries in the first period concern people with links to Glastonbury Abbey. Glastonbury is the only abbey that existed during most of that period in the regions covered by the AC (now Wales, Herefordshire, and the south-west peninsula). Also, it still existed in the 950s, albeit under English control. It is therefore the most credible source for monks working in the 950s to have obtained pre-530 historical information from. [1]

The book by L.S. Lewis, ‘Glastonbury – Her Saints’, includes chapters with these titles:

4. ST. PATRICK

5. ST. BENIGNUS

7. ST. BRIDE

8. ST. COLUMBA

10. KING ARTHUR [2]

These five people are the focus of six of the eight first-period AC entries; a seventh, the decision to keep Easter on Sundays, has no personal or geographical provenance; the only missing link is Bishop Ebur. According to William of Malmesbury, Sts. Patrick and Benignus were abbots of Glastonbury, and Sts. Bride and Columba were among its famous visitors. King Arthur is well known to have supposedly been buried there. Even Bishop Ebur could well have been in Glastonbury’s awareness, via its connection with St. Bride, for he founded a monastery called Beg Erin on an island in Wexford harbour that St. Bride visited before coming to Glastonbury. [3]

 

Later AC Entries from Welsh Abbeys

The change in the second period of the AC, from the 530s to 613, is that more than half the entries contain Welsh words, such as gueith (strife) and map (son of), or Welsh forms of names of persons and places, such as Gabran and Armterid, or have Welsh geographical provenance.

Close analysis shows that these entries are linked to one family, that of King Pabo Post Prydein (‘Pabo sturdy defender of Britain’). Pabo, or Peibio, appears to have been a king of Ergyng (part of Herefordshire plus the Forest of Dean). Among the people featured in second-period AC entries with Welsh markers, Dunaut was Pabo’s son. Dibric and Deiniol, who was Dunaut’s son, were cousins, both being grandsons of Pabo. Bishop Dibric founded Hentland Abbey in Ergyng. Bishop Cinauc was Dibric’s probable successor there; both bishops still have a church named after them near Hentland. According to the Bonedd y Gwyr Gogledd  (‘Descent of the Men of the North’) [4] Guurci and Peretur were cousins of Dunaut with a common grandfather Arthwys. These two warriors were among the victors at the Battle of Armterid, which accounts for this geographically unexpected battle being recorded in this part of the AC. In the mid-sixth century, St. Deiniol founded the abbeys of the two Bangors – Bangor-is-Coed, which apparently was abandoned after the Battle of Chester in 611, and Bangor Fawr, which later became Bangor Cathedral. King Maelgwn was the royal benefactor who granted the land for the founding of Bangor Fawr.

It is therefore a reasonable inference that a habit of recording brief historical notes was initiated by Sts Deiniol and Dibric at the three abbeys they founded. Records from Hentland were carried by fleeing monks to Llandaff Cathedral during later wartime, and would, we can presume, have been available there to the compilers of the AC. They would also have drawn on records at Bangor Fawr, perhaps including ones from Bangor-is-Coed likewise transferred there after 611.

There are specific word-forms in a few of these second-period AC entries that support the view that the original source from which the compilers copied them was contemporary or nearly so to the events they record. Mailcun is one: the sixth- and perhaps seventh-century form of this king of Gwynedd’s name, rather than the form ‘Maelgwn’ used in the ninth and later centuries. [5]

The –mail name-component also occurs elsewhere in the sixth century: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries for Brittonic kings killed by Saxons at the Battle of Dyrham in 577 include Farinmail and Commail. The form of their names can be taken as sixth century, as it will surely have been ossified in transmission by English writers between 577 and the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for these copyists would not have been influenced to update it by the natural modernising tendencies of Welsh-speakers and writers using their own language.

Similarly, the name-forms Selim (killed at the Battle of Chester) and Dibric belong to Selim and Dibric’s lifetime; the bishop’s name was later written Dyfrig while the king’s shifted to Selyf. (The mid-word letter b always became f in later orthography, for example with dybris becoming dyfrys[6] The earlier b and the later f both represent the sound for which a v is used in English. Likewise, m also became f.)

 

Conclusion: The Annales Cambriae Deserve Respect

So the words of the AC entries for the period before 613CE do deserve respect. It is realistically probable, though of course not provable, that they were copied from contemporary or near-contemporary sources, those from before the 530s, and also the later ones of similar language and provenance, being from Glastonbury Abbey, and those after 530 with Welsh language or provenance being from one of the abbeys founded in or soon after the 530s by St. Deiniol and St. Dibric. The calibration of the AC and the accuracy of its dates is a separate topic which I shall address here in another post.

 


[1] The conventional assumption is that the AC relied for its earliest years on Irish annals. For example, D.P.McCarthy, in his Chronological Synchronisation of the Irish Annals (Dublin 2005), says, giving no evidence, “it is clear that AC has taken these entries from an Irish source”.
Seven of the AC’s eight pre-530CE entries are for events also mentioned in those annals. Of these, five report births and deaths of Irish Christians (Bride, Benignus, Ebur and Columba), a sixth reports the death of Patrick, the Christian leader whose primary work was in Ireland, and the seventh records a church decision to always celebrate Easter on a Sunday, which mattered to all Christians. However, there are several problems with supposing an Irish source. Firstly, the words in the text of the AC do not match those of any of the several extant Irish annals. In itself this is not disproof of the hypothesis, as the existence of lost Irish annals (such ass the Liber Cuanach) is certain; but it does cast doubt on it. Secondly, it does not explain the one entry for an event that is not recorded in Irish annals, that for the Battle of Badon. The entry shows no obvious stylistic difference from the other seven, except for being twice as long as the longest of them. Thirdly, one of the entries notes the death of a bishop Ebur. This man’s name is spelt Iubair or Ibar in Irish annals; Ebur occurs only in the AC. It can be figured to be a Brittonic variant, like the variants of Irish names in the second AC period such as ‘Byror’ for ‘Birr’, rather than a word that would have been in any text copied from an Irish source. Fourthly, if these entries were copied from Irish annals, why were only these few selected? The Irish annals were all much more copious in their entries than the AC. The Annals of Ulster, for example, record the deaths of nearly forty people during the years corresponding to the first 84 years of the AC. The Annals of Tigernach, which only start half way through the period, and the Chronicon Scotorum, each record more than two dozen. The AC by contrast, records four.

[2] L.S. Lewis, Glastonbury: Her Saints (Orpington, 1985), p. ix. Chapter 6 is titled ‘St. Indract’. Indract lived centuries later than the people among whom Lewis places him and is not mentioned in the AC. Chapters 9 and 11 are titled, respectively, ‘St. David’ and ‘St. Gildas’. Both these Christians are mentioned in the second period of the AC.

[3] ‘The Monastery of St Ibhair [Ebur], Begerin, Wexford – Saint Brìghde, and other Celtic saints, sailed from here to [Glastonbury].’ P. David, Bride’s Mound. http://bridesmound.com

[4] The Bonedd is part of the manuscript Peniarth 45, fos.291v-292r; the Harleian genealogies are preserved in Harl.3859 written in about 1100CE.

[5] ‘The Welsh name Mailcun, later Maelgwn’ – Sir E. Anwyl. Quoted in Taliesin, section 27, by Sir J. Morris-Jones. Y Cymmrodor (London, 1918), vol 28.

[6] J.E.C. Williams, The Poems of Taliesin (Dublin, 1987), p. 21, top line; and p. 56, ‘dybris’.

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