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.




Dindraithou = Dundry (Dundry hill in Somerset, near Bristol)

Dundry = Dindraithou

I recently visited Dundry. Dundry is just outside the city of Bristol, on the south side. The Dundry hillfort is an impressive defensive site, with a mighty ditch on its eastern side, deeper even today than a man, and extensive outlying walls beyond the inner perimeter. The flat land immediately to the south of the fort could easily be a paddock grazing ground for a king’s horses when he was in residence.

How little they know of South Cadbury who only South Cadbury know. The South Cadbury hillfort, (‘Cadbury-Camelot’) has been excavated, was evidently a major royal residence of the late fifth and early sixth centuries, and was indeed probably often used as a kaer (defended citadel, royal residence and feasting-hall) by King Arthur.

Dundry by contrast has never, to the best of my knowledge, been excavated. But it has an obvious strategic value: its views. Places on the Dundry plateau fairly near the hillfort[i] command a vista over the entire city of Bristol, across the estuarial valley of the River Avon westwards to the Severn shore, and to the north-east as far as the hills near Bath which I and others argue was ‘the Badonic region’ where Arthur’s most important battle success was won in 490[ii] and, I think, to Dyrham (site of the disastrous battle in 577 when the prosperous Circencester civitas was lost, along with the cities of Gloucester and Bath, their territories becoming the English-allied Kingdom of Hwicce). No enemy could have advanced on Lindinis from the north by land or water without being seen and heard afar by lookout warriors on the Dundry hill. A less impressive, but still militarily useful, overview of lands to the south – especially the south-west – is possible from a different point on the Dundry plateau.

Cador, the Governor of Lindinis in the mid-fifth century,[iii] had need to guard the northern frontier of Lindinis, primarily from the threat of Irish pirate raiders penetrating up the Bristol Channel and along the Avon, as they had devastatingly done in 398, and also from the possibility of Saxon adventurers intruding from the north-east. Dundry makes great sense as a base from which he would have done so.

Dindraithou, which I regard as the ancient name for Dundry, appears twice in the historical record. The more important reference is in the Life of St. Carantoc, [iv] which names it as the royal residence of both Cador and Arthur which the saint visited. The other reference is in the list of 33 cities given in the Historia Brittonum; the significance of that is that Dundry Dindraithou was a contemporary or remembered important British royal kaer at the (unknown, perhaps seventh century) time of compilation of that list. (Cadbury-Camelot, there called Penselwood, is also on the list.)

In my post on Cador (9-3-13), I mentioned several places which were fortified in the fifth century for which name and/or date evidence point to his being the commander responsible. Dundry should be added to that list. So too, its name suggests, should Cadbury Heath. Cadbury Heath is now a decidedly ordinary suburb of Bristol, but its location is above the Avon, just a mile to the north of the river. It is a little surprising to find the Cad- name on the north side of the Avon, since the river itself would have been the natural boundary between Lindinis and the Cirencester civitas. But Cador was a military man with a genius for strategic defensive planning, and it is easy to suppose that he would have wanted to ensure that his men could keep watch over the Avon water-transport route from both sides, and that he had the force to take command of Cadbury Heath – with or without the approval of his opposite number in charge of Cirencester, about whom nothing is known.


[i] On the road to East Dundry.

[ii] For the basis for identifying 490 as the battle’s date, see my post here of 22nd Sep 2013.

[iii] See my post here of 9th March 2013.

[iv] See my post here of 4th March 2013.

Map of King Arthur’s Lindinis (Somerset) Kingdom

This map is great – except that, the Google I can use obviously takes the line representing KingArthur’s Lindinis kingdom’s boundary along today’s roads rather than along hilltops where in reality it must have been. Also, accuracy is limited by the number of reference points I can use. In particular, the line from Beaminster (marked M on the map) to Iwerne Minster (marked N) should be along the N Dorset Downs watershed, not dipping southwards to Dorchester.

The Real King Arthur

This blog piece has taken five hours / fifty years to make. Five hours to compose – and, behind that, fifty years of study and love, visits and maps, intellect and intuition. I have been in pursuit of the real King Arthur since I first visited Glastonbury, and then South Cadbury, in the 1960s.

As a schoolboy in Taunton, I believed that he was one of ours – a man of what we knew as The Westcountry, a land that included Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. Now I am confident. The pieces fit together. All the indicative evidence points in one direction. Arthur was King of Lindinis Civitas. This was northern Devon, most of Somerset, northern Dorset, and much of western Wiltshire.

Everything, every story or notice that has a geographical element and is maybe derived from a source in the fifth or sixth centuries, has a certain or probable Lindinis provenance. Modern writers placing Arthur in the north, Scotland, Lincolnshire, or the third century, base their thinking on no more than the odd piece of etymology (such as Camboglanna on Hadrian’s Wall as a claimant for Camlan, or Lincoln – Lindum in Latin – as a claimant for Linnuis), and bypass the inconvenient total absence of Arthur’s name from the Bonedd y gwyr gogledd (“Descent of the men of the north”), a document of genuine antiquity in which the names of the actual kings of the various regions of northern Britannia are given in several genealogical compilations; and any connecting of Arthur to Tintagel, Caerleon, Colchester or London is derivative of the fanciful imaginings of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The earliest historical source on Arthur pointing in part away from Lindinis is the list of twelve battles in the Historia Britonnum, an eighth- or ninth-century compilation; however, all the battles there listed which are identifiably far from Lindinis are also identifiably ones that were unconnected to King Arthur (Chester; Wallop; Armterid – now called Arthuret, north of Carlisle; etc): they were fought by other warriors at dates spread across the quarter of a millennium after the British overthrew their Roman governors.

It is a lost cause to attempt to convince academic historians that there even was a real King Arthur, let alone that anything specific can be said about him. Such historians allow as evidence only documents that are beyond doubt contemporary to the events they attest, or copied unaltered from ones that were so, and physical archaeology and artefacts. In an era when very few people could write, when the main method of culture transmission was oral storytelling – primarily by bards in poetic song – and when even the most imposing residences and strongholds of the social elite were built in wood, evidence that attains academics’ thresholds is virtually non-existent. It is not only for King Arthur that this type of evidence is lacking: even the reality of (piecemeal) conquest of England by Englishmen (the “Anglo-Saxons”) is questioned for lack of such ultra-hard proof.

But the indications for King Arthur are diverse and consistent. What happened has often come down to us as told in allegory and story, a culturally natural form for the fifth and sixth centuries, rather than as the dry facts beloved of modern scholarship.

The one dry source is the Annales Cambriae, which names him as a Christian and as the victor of the Battle of Badon – at a date that has to be corrected to 490 – and as being killed in 538 at the Battle of Camlan. The other sources, which I have discussed in previous posts here, are oral traditions later written down, saints’ Lives, and an eighth-century battle list that straddles the border between eulogy and record-keeping.

In probable chronological sequence, the life of King Arthur thereby conveyed is this:-

  • As a youth when Cador was Governor of Lindinis Civitas, Prince Arthur met St. Carantoc at the mouth of the Doniford Brook, near Watchet in Somerset. They travelled to see Cador in his kaer (citadel) at Dundry (Somerset). Cador chose Christianity to be the official religion of Lindinis. He granted St. Carantoc a land charter to build a church at the commercially significant town of Carhampton (Somerset).
  • Arthur as the new man in charge of Lindinis had a culturally essential duty to fight and win raids on his borders. He won one such at Glein (possibly Clannaborough, in the Lindinis part of Devon), and four more skirmishes on the hills above the River Divelish (near Ibberton, on the border of the Lindinis part of Dorset).
  • He won a battle on the Bristol Channel coast (Somerset); and then another that may have been near Beaminster (on the border of the Lindinis part of Dorset) or near Mere (near the border of the Lindinis part of Wiltshire).
  • He was given Divine protection from death by a Christian Mystery initiation at Beckery on what was then the Glastonbury peninsula (Somerset).
  • He defeated English aggressors at the stunningly successful Battle of the Badonic Hill near Bath (Somerset) in 490.
  • He ruled Lindinis for half a century and became known as King Arthur (rather than Roman-style Governor). During the long peacetime that followed his Badonic victory, his largest citadel which he used often to host feasts for kings of other British kingdoms, was the Cadbury-Camelot hillfort at South Cadbury (Somerset).
  • He was killed at the Battle of Camlan at Queen Camel (Somerset) in 538.
  • He was buried by monks of Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset), most likely at Nyland, the island in the marshes (now the Somerset Levels) held sacred as the Gate to the Otherworld, rather than by the Old Church at Glastonbury itself.

After his death he was remembered as a great warrior hero by Celtic bards of the later sixth century (Aneurin, Taliesin), and as their own past warrior hero by the bard who eulogised a battle lost in the eighth century at Langport (Somerset). He was remembered in song particularly by minstrels of Brittany (culturally descended from immigrants from the Westcountry).

From them, his fame entered mainstream European literature as the fictionalised hero of “Arthurian legend”. The real King Arthur, successful Brittonic warrior leader, commander of a hillfort in SE Somerset beside the River Cam later known as Camelot, Christian ruler of one of the ten former Roman civitates of Britannia Prima, Lindinis, a name after his time corrupted to Lyonesse…. became transformed into the wizard-guided idealised model English (!) king, born at Tintagel, and governing the whole island of Britain (and then some) with the help of the Knights of the Round Table – voided in the public imagination of all lifetime connection to his true home among the hills, coasts, forests, and extensive brackish marshes of Somerset.

Dating the Battle of Badon


The Date of the Battle of Badon Controversy

The The date of the battle of Badon has long been the subject of controversy among students of the period. The uncertainty is due to the ambiguity of Gildas’s words in his book De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. He refers in the context of Badon to “the 44th year with one month elapsed”, i.e. a period of 43 years and one month. But it is not linguistically clear whether the period was before the Battle of Badon – between a previous event mentioned in his book and the battle – or after it, between the battle and the date of writing.


How to Interpret Gildas

A major difficulty with interpreting this as the period between the battle and the time of writing is: how could Gildas while he was still writing have known to the month at what date his work would be finished? The alternative that the 43 years and one month ended with the battle (which of course did have an exact date) leads to the question: which of three events Gildas discussed in the preceding chapters of De Excidio he intended as the starting point. It could reasonably be any of: the letter to Aetius (Chapter 20); the council of Britain deciding to invite some Saxons to fight for Britain (Chapter 23); or the coming to power of Ambrosius (Chapter 25).

Gildas could reasonably have known the month and year of any of these. But the coming to power of Ambrosius should be ruled out, because Gildas indicates that it happened after and in consequence of the Great Raid of 473. This would require the date of Badon to be 516 or up to a few years later. A date as late as this is inconsistent with Gildas’s saying that the people who were in positions of responsibility during the warring that culminated at Badon, including kings, officials and priests, had all died by the time of writing. De Excidio was published during the lifetime of King Maelgwn (Mailcun in the older spelling used in the Annales Cambriae [AC]), so not later than 548CE.[1] A period of thirty years or so is not sufficient for this to be true. Fifty years at least would be necessary.

Also, Gildas records that he was born in the year of the battle of Badon. Hagiographical writings record that he gave or sent a bell to St. Bride. (It is presumed that he was a bell-maker.) If true, this has to have been before her death in 524, and therefore Gildas’s birth can hardly have been later than, at a squeeze, 510. There is also the tradition that he founded Rhuys Abbey in the 520s. This date is not as assured as that of St. Bride’s death – but even if the foundation date were in the 530s it would speak in favour of a date of Gildas’s birth earlier than 516.


43 Years after Aetius or Hengist

It is much more probable therefore that Gildas intended us to understand his period of 43 years and 1 month to begin with one of the other two seminal events he reports, the letter to Aetius or the invitation to Hengist. The letter to Aetius is the most probable, as it is the only one of the three events in writing, and therefore with an exact date on its face. It is figured to have been sent in 446 because that was the year of his third consulship, to which the letter refers.

In any case though, if the council of Britain was meant it makes little difference to the calculation for the date of Badon. The council cannot have been long after the letter, for response to the emergency prompting the request to Aetius for military aid was urgent. It makes logical sense to postulate that the council convened late in 446 or early in 447, the year when according to Mageoghagan’s Irish annals Hengist actually arrived with his English warriors in response to that council’s request. On either basis, the resulting calculation is that the Battle of Badon was fought in 489 or 490.


Badon in 490 CE Makes Sense

This date for Badon and therefore for Gildas’s birth fits the information about Gildas’s life excellently. It is also fully consistent with the archaeological record, which shows a break in the English penetration of Britain approximately comprising the first half of the sixth century; and with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which gives no battles other than in Wessex between 490 and 550. Its supposed battles in Wessex have been interpreted as an ‘origin myth’ for the Gewissae dynasty, rather than factual truth.


The Annales Cambriae Date for Badon can be Amended to 490

It can be reconciled with the AC on a straightforward hypothesis: that the original Christian source said the Battle of Badon was “490 years after the Incarnation of Christ”, and that an early copyist mis-transcribed that as “490 years after the Passion of Christ’. Scribes before the introduction of the AD calendar sometimes expressed dates anno passio, and 27 needs to be subtracted from the number thus given to give the corresponding CE year.[2] The AC date for the Battle of Badon on a +445 calibration is 517CE, and 517 minus 27 is 490.

490CE as the date of the Battle of Badon fits well with all the evidence. It does not require the AC compilers to have made a complex derivation of the date of Badon, such as by interpreting De Excidio and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle while not using other dates also found in the same sources. It is compatible with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, the archaeological evidence, the floruit of Ambrosius, the Irish annals, De Excidio, the events of Gildas’s life, and the other entries in the AC.

The 27-year Passion/Incarnation mistake does nothing to diminish the likelihood of authenticity of the AC entry. On the contrary, it enhances it, for the error is much more probable with a source that was originally written before the invention of the AD calendar in 529.

[1] On the calibration of the AC to the CE calendar by adding 445 to the AC’s internal year ticker count, which I advocate for its pre-565 entries (see my previous post here of 21 September 2013).

[2] The Historia Brittonum demonstrates that such mistakes happened: Chapters 16 and 66 show a similar mistake in reverse, 405 and 400 years after the Incarnation, respectively, being written when “years after the Passion” should have been written.

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:






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.

[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’.

King Arthur: Buried at Glastonbury Abbey?

The Fiction Show of c1191

In c1191, monks of Glastonbury Abbey dug up remains purporting to be the earthly remains of King Arthur and his wife Guinevere. Experts on the twelfth century are, I understand, agreed that the dig happened alright, but that the connection between what was dug up and King Arthur was wholly fictional.

For one thing, Guinevere was invented in the twelfth century: no early source about Arthur names his wife. Besides, the story put out in the 1190s was that the woman’s body was seen with a lock of golden hair – as might have been on the head of an English queen; but not one of sixth-century Celtic Britain. Thirdly, the inscribed cross found in 1191 below ground at a layer above the bones asserted that there lay King Arthur “in insula avalonis” – on the Isle of Avalon. The Isle of Avalon was also invented in the twelfth century: it was one of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s realms of fable.[1] Besides, there is no basis for supposing that anyone of the sixth century was buried with an inscribed cross; no other such crosses have turned up despite the considerable number of sixth-century graves that have been discovered.

Until recently, historians thought that the inscription was tenth century, and that it might have been added when the Abbey cemetery was raised by Abbot St. Dunstan. They now say that the appearance of tenth-century writing is itself phoney; the inscription was recent at the time it was “found”.[2]


Signs and Wonders: Not Disbarred

The next question, though, is: however phoney the show in c1191, why King Arthur there – Glastonbury? Certainly, the fact that the monks said that King Arthur was buried there does not, in its cultural context, mean by itself that there was any factual basis for their so saying. They said that Joseph of Arimathea came to live and die at Glastonbury, and this has zero basis in fact.

In what James Carley calls the official version of the events of c1191, Geraldus Cambrensis said that the site of King Arthur’s burial was “revealed by strange and almost miraculous signs…. Certain indications in their [the Abbey’s] writings, and others in the letters engraven on the pyramids…. Others again were given in visions and relations vouchsafed to good men and religious, yet it was above all King Henry II of England that most clearly informed the monks, as he himself heard from an ancient Welsh bard”.[3]

Carley’s own close review of William of Malmesbury’s record of what was on the Abbey’s pyramids is sufficient to show that this element of Geraldus’s “signs” adds up to nothing. Like the “Artognou” stone inscription excavated at Tintagel, Glastonbury Abbey’s pyramids are, in the story of Arthur, a red herring.

Geraldus’s reference to “indications in the… writings” can be set alongside William of Malmesbury’s words of c1125 in his book “The Deeds of the Kings of England”, where he calls Arthur “a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables, but to be proclaimed in veracious histories as one who long sustained his tottering country and gave the shattered minds of his fellow citizens an edge for war”[4]. The implication is that something about a real Arthur was recorded in the Abbey library, but not much – not at any rate, anything William found substantial enough to write up in either of his books. This record could well have included the words which formed the Battle of Badon entry in the Annales Cambriae, telling of Arthur’s victory and his the carrying the image of the Cross on his shoulders; and maybe little, perhaps nothing, more. William’s words after “histories” are a paraphrase of the words of praise that Gildas gave to Ambrosius Aurelianus in his book “De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae”, immediately prior to his report of the Battle of Badon that, infamously, does not name its victor. Perhaps William read both Gildas and the Annales Cambriae words and deduced, not without good cause, that in regional military resistance to English advances, Arthur successfully carried on where Ambrosius left off. All of which is relevant to an understanding of who the real King Arthur was, but says nothing about whether he was buried at Glastonbury.  

It is the “Welsh bard” component of the “signs” that makes political sense. King Henry had a clear political motivation to “prove” to the Welsh that King Arthur was dead, because the “once and future king” legend had by this time become attached to his name and Henry wished to curb its risk of fomenting rebellion. Henry would therefore have had motivation to bribe, cajole, threaten or force anyone his informants led him to believe knew the truth to reveal the whereabouts of King Arthur’s grave. But he would have cared little where the answer was. What mattered was that the Welsh would believe it to be genuine. If there had been any counter-tradition in circulation, this could have been hard to squash. There are only two credible possibilities for Geraldus saying that a bard named Glastonbury as the burial site. One is that it was, behind the vows of bardic secrecy, the true answer. The other is that nobody knew, that the answer (and maybe the bard, too) were fictitious, and that Glastonbury was picked out of thin air – one might imagine, by Abbot Blois, as a favour to King Henry II. It at least had the merits of being a Christian site of great, but unknown, antiquity; and with a cemetery to match.

“Visions and relations vouchsafed to good men and religious” is, as in other Abbey contexts, code for “the oral knowledge within the Abbey secretly passed down the generations”.

The combination of the “bard”, the “visions and relations vouchsafed”, and the “indications in the writings”, while not to the modern mind proof of anything, is stronger than the components individually in indicating that the burial of Arthur at Glastonbury, in contrast to the identification therewith of the bones and inscription that were dug up in c1191, is genuine. It is also to be noted that, in the age of veneration of relics, disputes arose about Glastonbury’s claims to those of St. Patrick, St. Dunstan, Sts. Aidan, Bede, Hilda and other Northumbrian saints,[5] but no other claimants ever came forward asserting that they and not Glastonbury had King Arthur.

I offer a basis for the claim that the Abbey buried King Arthur to have been true and yet for the man’s bones not to have been there in 1191. The most sacred thing to have done in 538 if the Abbey did bury King Arthur would not have been to sink his coffin to the south of the Old Church.[6] It would have been to take it by silent water craft through the meres that are now the drained Somerset levels[7], to a final resting place at Nyland, one of the Abbey’s “Seven Holy Islands” – Nyland’s other name is Andrewsey, a portmanteau word meaning “the isle (ey) of the door (drws) of the Queen of Heaven (An)”, i.e. the door to the Otherworld (Annwn).[8]





[1] As with so many of his imaginative creations, Geoffrey did not invent Avalon out of totally thin air. There is a poem titled Avallenau attributed to Myrddin, a bard who lived about 100 years after Arthur. (Geoffrey Latinised his name to Merlinus and used it for a major character in his story.) The author indicates within the Avallenau poem that he composed it in c620. The English for avallenau is “apple trees”. The poem is an esoteric work delighting in the chakras. For Geoffrey to use the word for an imaginary otherworldly place of healing, filled with apple trees, was therefore far from silly.

[2] Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury, 2009: p 59 report the similarity of the inscription writing to one of known twelfth century date at Stoke-sub-Hamdon.

[3] James Carley, Glastonbury Abbey, 1996: p148.

[4] ibid, p154.

[5] ibid, Chapter 5

[6] The earliest person named on the Abbey cemetery’s pyramids is Abbot Bregored, the last Celtic British abbot, who died in c670. All the names on the pyramids other than Bregored appear to be English. (ibid, pp150-151). Archaeologists found evidence of “two mausolea dating from the Celtic period” (ibid, p150; Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury: 2009, p111). Despite these, however, Rahtz and Watts (p109) date the origin of the cemetery to “the seventh to eighth centuries”. The burial of kings and abbots there may not pre-date Bregored.

[7] Tennyson, author of the imaginative and beautiful fiction poem Morte d’Arthur,  presumably knew this.

[8] See previous blog post (26 July 2013) on the Seven Holy Islands.