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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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.

St. Carantoc

An interesting source for the quest for the real King Arthur is the “Life of St. Carantoc” (Vita Sancti Carantoci).

The Life says that St. Carantoc was the eldest son of King Ceredig, the eponymous founder of the Kingdom of Ceredigion, the fifth son of Cunedda. After some time promoting Christianity in Ireland, he became a Christian leader in Ceredigion. There, “Christ gave him an honourable altar from on high, the colour of which no person could comprehend; and afterwards when he came to the Severn to sail over it, he cast the altar into the sea, and it went before him where God wished him to go.”

In old age, King Ceredig wanted St. Carantoc to take the kingship in his place and fight the Irish who were occupying his kingdom. St. Carantoc avoided so doing by fleeing to “the river-mouth of Guellit” or “Guerit”, led there by God’s guidance of his travel-altar. This name has been identified as from the same root as Williton, so the river is the Doniford, whose mouth is a mile east of Watchet in west Somerset, on the Exmoor coast.

Arthur was looking for “a very powerful, large and terrible serpent that had laid waste” the Carhampton area, and had picked up the saint’s altar. (Carhampton is five miles from the Doniford River.) St. Carantoc met and blessed Arthur, and asked him if he knew where his altar was. Arthur instructed St. Carantoc to first prove that he was a man of God by taming the serpent, and then he would tell him where the altar was.

Soon enough, St. Carantoc and Arthur came to the “enclosure” (i.e. hillfort) of Dindraithou, serpent in tow. “They went together to the castle, that they might salute Cador[1]; and they were well received by him.” When St. Carantoc first met Arthur, the story relates that “Cador and Arthur” were both living at Dindraithou and “were ruling” the country at that time. But as Arthur, as well as St. Carantoc, is described as saluting Cador, Cador must have been the master – the Governor in Roman terms, or king in medieval ones – with Arthur as his number two and heir apparent. This would be rational if Cador was an old man at that time with overall responsibility as Governor of Lindinis, and Arthur the young man doing most of the actual work of governing the civitas.

Dindraithou has commonly been identified as Dunster; but for no clear reason, other than that a castle was built at Dunster around 1000CE – more than five centuries after St. Carantoc’s time – and that it is very near Carhampton. There is nothing in the Life of St. Carantoc to indicate that the castle was close to his landing-place. The text implies only that it was in the same kingdom. Rather, the name Dindraithou appears to be a forerunner of the modern name Dundry. Linguistically, the similarity between both syllables, dun-dry and din-drai, is close in pronunciation, more so than in writing. The resemblance is so obvious that the abnormality of my suggesting they are the same place is astounding.

Dundry hillfort is naturally placed to control the lower Bristol Avon, which I have identified as the probable northern boundary of Lindinis. It is immediately outside the modern south-western border of the City of Bristol, on the way to Bristol Airport.

St. Carantoc, the Life says, put the serpent in the middle of the kings’ hall (i.e. their feasting hall for state business). The kings wanted to kill it, but St. Carantoc insisted that they let him take it out of the hall and send it away, commanding it to neither return nor hurt anyone again. It obeyed. The altar was produced. Arthur wanted to use it as a table, “but whatever was put on it was thrown off to some distance”, so presumably Arthur returned the altar to St. Carantoc. Cador gave St. Carantoc land at Carhampton, on which he built his church and lived there for some time. Carhampton became sufficiently prosperous over the following four centuries for Vikings to raid and sack it in 836.

St. Carantoc casting his altar into the sea and being guided by it as to where to seek refuge bears a family resemblance to other hagiographic tales, such as St. Piran crossing the sea from Ireland to Cornwall seated on a millstone, and Theneva, the mother of St. Kentigern, being forced to cross the Firth of Forth on a boat without oars or sail. St. Carantoc’s Life provides the bridge to understanding the real meaning of all Celtic hagiography’s fantastic sea-crossings. St. Carantoc sailed – he used the normal down-to-earth means of transport. But, being a saint, he surrendered his will to God’s will. He “went where God wished him to go”. His casting into the sea the altar given him by Christ is to be understood symbolically rather than literally. It represents that surrender, that worldly-reckless God-trusting letting go of control and of personal desire for his destiny, for God to guide him to wherever God wanted him to work. The place he chose to land, Doniford at the mouth of the Doniford Stream, has been proven by archaeology to have had a  small Roman settlement. So a fully rational, down-to-earth reason for St. Carantoc’s choice of landing-place would have been that he had a friend living there.

“Serpent” is known from other Christian stories as a metaphor for Druids. To fifth-century Celtic Christians, the Druids were the religious arch-enemy, the priests of the old Celtic wisdom religion that the Christians aggressively and successfully sought to displace. To Christians, the serpent was symbolically interchangeable with the Devil. The symbolism is the same as in the well-known declaration that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. Fifth-century Christians arrogantly believed that their faith was the only true religion; any other religion, most relevantly that of the Druids, was of the Devil – as is illustrated by the propaganda story of St. Collen meeting “devils from Annwn” on Glastonbury Tor. (Annwn is actually the Celtic name for Heaven. Glastonbury Tor was the central feature of a sacred Druidic holy land ~ see my post of 26th July 2013 on the Seven Holy Islands.)

The decision in the kings’ hall makes sense when “serpent” is translated as “Druid” (or Druid leader). It conveys in the langauge of fifth-century symbolism, that the Christian ascendancy won religious power in Lindinis that day, and that the Druids were stripped of whatever previous religious rights and responsibilities they had at Cador’s court and over Lindinis’s citizens. It may be that the metaphorical tale was remembered and handed down within the tradition of Christian abbeys long centuries after its symbolic meaning had been lost sight of. Poems such as those by Merlin and Taliesin were similarly transmitted from the sixth and seventh centuries until they were written down in the ninth; the story of Seithenyn seems to have been likewise handed down all the way to the 19th century. I know an example from as far away as Samoa of this kind of oral retention of a story in a culture after culture change had caused its original meaning to be forgotten.

The anecdote that Arthur wanted to use St. Carantoc’s altar as a table, but could not control it, is another symbolic message. It says, in language that would have been more transparent to a fifth-century mind than to a literalist-trained modern, that Christ’s is a powerful magic which was stronger than the temporally powerful warrior Arthur.

The Life of St. Carantoc reveals significant information about King Arthur. It tells us that he ruled a territory jointly with a man called Cador, from a castle – the word castle, used when the Life was written, means what in its own fifth-century period was called a kaer: a defendable Celtic royal residence, often on a hillfort, that included a feasting-hall for state banquets and diplomatic business; that this castle was in the same kingdom as Carhampton, Somerset, and had a name that was probably the forerunner of Dundry, also in Somerset; and that Arthur was a Christian, for he received and was glad of St. Carantoc’s blessing as only a Christian would have.

The Life does not give any dates, but it does give information from which approximate dates can be derived. Early in his life, St. Carantoc was in Ireland and met St. Patrick “annually” (it doesn’t say for how many years). This implies that he was a youth or young man not later than about 450. The last story in his life told is that after his time at Carhampton, he returned to Ireland “in the year that St. David was born”. For reasons that I will explain later, I calculate that St. David was born in or close to 511. These dates allow for St. Carantoc’s arrival in Somerset and meeting with Arthur-not-yet-king to have been in approximately 480.

Sceptical historians argue that the Life has no historical value, because it was written in about 1100CE: a very long time after the events it purports to record. Certainly the document as such is in no way contemporary with Arthur and the events it describes. But the question is: what was the monk who wrote the Life’s source? Hagiographers were capable of both borrowing of stories from one saint to another; and of invention. But when they did so, it was for the purpose of enhancing the sanctity of the saint they were eulogising. They were not writing historical novels for entertainment. The ‘altar is no table’ anecdote could possibly have been a reputation-enhancing invention (though there is no reason to suppose that it was: the ‘symbolic story’ explanation is fully coherent), but St. Caradoc’s meeting and blessing Arthur at Carhampton, their visiting Arthur’s overlord Cador at Dundry together, and Arthur’s living at Dundry are all plain details that would have served no hagiographic purpose to invent. Nor did they serve a propaganda purpose (as “information” in some Lives did) to boost the claims to some rights of this or that abbey or bishop. Also, the content appears to be wholly independent of all Arthurian legend. Cador, Dindraithou, Carhampton, St. Carantoc: none of them feature in any Arthurian romance, French brut, or Breton minstrel’s lay. There is no overlap. The only simple explanation that fits the facts is that the Life must have drawn on written and/or oral records at Christian monasteries, and that its descriptions of encounters of Arthur, St. Carantoc, and Cador in Somerset were representations of unembellished plain and simple truth faithfully handed down through the generations.


[1] Cador is the name modern writers usually use for this ruler, “Cato” in the Life’s Latin.