The Future of History

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Finding Arthur

Back in the first quarter of the ninth century, a monk in Wales gathered together a pile of scrolls and manuscripts, from which he cherrypicked the material for his Historia Brittonum - a 'History of the Britons'.  One of his sources comprised a list of twelve battles won by Arthur, the dux bellorum or 'duke of battles' who led his allies to a string of victories.

Nothing took me longer than pinning down the locations and rough dates of those twelve battles (the list does not include Arthur's final battle campaign, but there's a separate poem about that).  Some weren't too difficult; others were a real problem.  But I tended to feel that I was on the right lines when coincidences began to crop up.

Put it this way - when several different pieces of information appeared in connection with one particular location, I began to feel that I'd found another of the battle sites.  And that's the key thing.  You see, it's a common thing in Arthurian studies for someone to suggest such-and-such a place on the grounds that the name is a bit similar.  But that's not enough.  It's like triangulation: I need several pointers to indicate a place before I'm prepared to accept it.  A similar-sounding name isn't enough.

Now, there's been an interesting discussion on Arthurnet lately concerning the eleventh battle fought and won by Arthur.  Different versions of the Historia Brittonum have different names for this battle.  It was fought either on the 'mountain which is called Agned', or at a place called 'Breguoin' or 'Bregion', or was perhaps known as Agned Catbregomion - the 'Agned Battle of Bregomion'.

A few blogposts back I referred to the 'Professor Schoenbaum Said' phenomenon, and something along the PSS lines has been happening on Arthurnet.  Somebody has decided that there was no such place as Agned.  It was one of those pesky scribal errors (a familiar resort of the historian who hasn't yet dug up the right information).  Strangely, that theory is being pushed quite forcefully on Arthurnet.  There was no 'mountain which is called Agned'.  It was a misprint.  It meant something else altogether.

In fact, Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century, indicated that there was city on Mount Agned - one of three created by a mythical British king, the others being York and Dumbarton.  In the fourteenth century, John of Fordun explicitly stated that Agned was an old name for Edinburgh.

Arthur's family, on his mother's side, were Edinburgh-based.  The obvious 'mountain' of Edinburgh is the volcanic plug we know as Arthur's Seat.

An old Welsh poem known as Pa Gwr ('What Man is the Porter?') has Arthur and his foster-brother Cai pleading for entry at the gates to the Otherworldly hall of heroes.  The poem acknowledges that Arthur and his comrades fought at Mynydd Eidyn - the 'Mountain of Edinburgh'.  So it's a reasonable assumption that the eleventh battle, fought on the 'mountain which is called Agned', took place somewhere near Edinburgh.

Not a clerical error at all.

Just south-west of Arthur's Seat rise the Braid Hills, their name coming from braghaid, the dative form of the Gaelic braigh, meaning the 'upper part'.  The equivalent of braigh in Welsh is brig - 'top' or 'summit'.  This would appear to have been the root of 'Bregion' or 'Bregmion'.  The battle known as Agned Catbregomion would therefore have been the Edinburgh Battle of the Braid Hills.

Right by the Braid Hills, in the Edinburgh suburb of Fairmilehead, there stands a great standing stone, three metres tall, known as the Caiy Stone or 'General Kay's Monument'.  Doesn't that sound like Arthur's foster-brother, Cai?

A little further up the shore of the Firth of Forth, the headland of Bo'ness juts out into the sea.  It first appears on a map of 1335 as Berwardeston - the 'Town of the Bear Guardian'.  Arthur was named after the bright star and red giant Arcturus, the 'Bear-Guardian'.

It would be one thing simply to state that Arthur's eleventh battle was fought in the Edinburgh district.  The nay-sayers would simply respond with the bizarre assertion that there never was such a place as "Agned".  But add to that the presence of the Braid Hills, the Caiy Stone, Arthur's Seat, the 'Town of the Bear Guardian' and the reference in the Pa Gwr poem to Arthur and Cai having fought in the region of Edinburgh (Mynydd Eidyn), and things begin to look pretty convincing.  At least, that's what I think.

Ultimately, though, I guess it's up to the individual.  Do you accept the theory, based on little or no evidence, that "Agned" was a misinterpretation of something else, or do you acknowledge the likelihood that Arthur and his warriors fought in the Edinburgh region, given the various clues we have touched on?

It probably all depends on whether or not you're prepared to accept that the historical Arthur of the North was the genuine, original 'King Arthur'.  If you refuse to accept that the real Arthur had anything to do with North Britain, then you have to make up reasons not to allow the "Agned" battle to be counted.

But then, there are eleven other battles mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, and Arthur's later battle campaigns on top of those.  You can't dismiss all of them simply because they don't suit your theories.

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