The Future of History

Monday, 26 September 2011


There's a poem of Arthur's last battle.  But, shhh-! don't tell anyone about this, because it's not very widely known.

Yes, there's an authentic, eye-witness account of that dreadful battle, composed by a man who was there.  Two versions of this poem survive, one slightly longer (and probably older) than the other.  It gives quite a bit of detail with regard to where the battle was fought, who was there and what happened.

It's one of the most important pieces of early British literature.

No one, it seems, has noticed that it deals with Arthur's last battle, and there are two reasons for this.  They are, sadly, rather familiar reasons.

Firstly, so many scholars have refused to acknowledge any connection between Arthur and the North (Scotland, especially) that they just won't countenance the idea.

Secondly, the poem refers to a place called Catraeth.

In Welsh, Catraeth is the name of the Roman fort of Cataractonum, which became the North Yorkshire town of Catterick.  So, of course, everyone assumes that the poem deals with a disastrous raid on Catterick, sometime roundabout the year 600.  A British war-band left Edinburgh, went south in to the territory of the Northumbrian Angles, and came to grief.  There were very few survivors.

There are problems with this analysis, though.  The main one being that the Anglo-Saxons, who quickly forgot their defeats, sure liked to remember their victories.  The resounding defeat of a British army of Lothian would have been remembered by the Angles, and yet with uncharacteristic reserve they chose not to mention this one.

That is not the only problem with the assumption that Aneirin's Y Gododdin poem concerned a disastrous battle at Catterick.  For example, one of the British heroes mourned in the poem is 'Gereint from the south'.  We know from another contemporary poem that Gereint son of Erbin from Cornwall died at another battle, which the Britons knew as Llongborth ('Harbour').  He can't have died at two different battles, can he?

The poem refers to several places which just happen to have been at or near the site of Arthur's last battle, which was nowhere near Catterick.  Among those mentioned in the poem we find several names which recur side-by-side with Arthur in the early literature - Cynon, Owain, Caradog, Taliesin, etc.

Even where a part of the poem turns out to have been added in later, there is a clear link with Arthur (one extra stanza concerns a battle fought by Arthur's nephew, Domnall the Speckled, in Strathcarron in 642).

But one of the biggest problems with the notion that Y Gododdin relates a battle fought at Catterick is the fact that the poet refers to a 'tempest of pilgrims' and a 'raucous pilgrim army' which attacked the British position from the rear.  There weren't any pilgrims in Anglian territory at that time.

And yet, following on from the last blogpost, we find that recurrent problem: somebody, once upon a time, said - "Oh, look!  Catraeth means Catterick in Welsh.  So that's where the battle happened."  And it has become heresy to point out that this really doesn't make sense.  After all, Catraeth probably meant 'battle-shore', so it could refer to a lot of places, especially the one where Arthur made his last stand, and this is confirmed by other references to specific places in the poem.

But because the Word of the Lord is that Catraeth is Catterick and nowhere else no one has been allowed to know that there is a contemporary poem of Arthur's last battle - a poem which tells us much about how he was betrayed, which confirms the location of the battle and indicates just how many close family members fought and died there with Arthur.

It's typical of history, or rather historians, that is.  A wonderful piece of evidence, a genuine British treasure, totally misunderstood and largely ignored because one person once picked up on a coincidence (Catraeth, Catterick) and nobody since has had the imagination to ask whether there really was a battle at Catterick (evidence?), why those who fought at this battle also died somewhere else, and why the place-names mentioned in the poem don't refer to the Catterick region.

You get into trouble for raising these questions.  There will be those (who probably haven't read the poem) who will scream and shout IT WAS CATTERICK because that's what they've been told.

Their loss.  It's a great poem.  And it helped me to reconstruct Arthur's last battle.  Which did not happen at Camlan.  The place is properly known as Camno.

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