The Future of History

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Badon Conundrum

The King Arthur Conspiracy has a Facebook page which gives occasional updates on the book.  Someone went on there recently to leave a comment:

"King Arthur was never Scottish!!!!"

The only real answer to that confident, though unsupported, assertion was that Arthur's father was Scottish, but his mother and paternal grandmother were British - making him three-parts "Welsh".

But the insistence that "King Arthur was never Scottish" is an interesting one.  It keeps coming back in various forms.  One I've heard several times is: "There's no evidence that Artuir mac Aedain was the original Arthur."  In fact, there's no evidence for lots of things ... until you look.  Then the claim gets modified, becoming: "Artuir mac Aedain has been thoroughly investigated and there's no evidence that he was the original Arthur."  Well, that one's rather more dishonest.  I spent eight years investigating Artuir mac Aedain and came across very little evidence indeed that he had been "thoroughly investigated" by anybody.  What is more, those I discovered who had looked into his candidacy tended to have formed the opinion that he probably was the original Arthur.

It so happens that the earliest references to a man named Arthur (Gaelic Artuir) in the historical records belong to what we now call Scotland (specifically, those references occur in the Irish Annals and Adomnan's Life of St Columba, both of which ultimately originated on the Isle of Iona).  The earliest references to Arthur in early British poetry were made by sixth-century poets specifically associated with the North (Taliesin and Aneirin).  The early Welsh tales of the Mabinogion consistently associate Arthur with historical princes of sixth-century North Britain (Owain, Cynon, Caw, Peredur, etc.).  In Arthur's day, Edinburgh, Stirling and Dumbarton were all British, and it is in those places that we find Arthur fighting.

By way of contrast, the ideas that Arthur was born at Tintagel in Cornwall and was buried at Glastonbury in Somerset didn't come along until five or six hundred years after he died.  And yet, there are those who insist that we should be looking for Arthur in those areas, rather than in the region where Arthur was first mentioned.  Because no Arthur has actually been discovered in the south, a whole list of candidates have been put forward for the coveted role of the "original" Arthur.  These candidates are all known by names other than Arthur and most of them did not originate in the British Isles.  Not one of them can be associated with any of the other heroes who accompanied Arthur into the legends.  They have been nominated, not because they are realistic candidates for the original Arthur, but because too many people stubbornly refuse to examine the credentials of Artuir mac Aedain, the historical prince of the North who also happens to have been the first Arthur on record.

There is only one piece of "evidence" which appears to link Arthur with the south.  This is his famous victory at the Battle of Badon.  We first hear of the "siege of Badon Hill" from St Gildas, who was writing in the middle of the sixth century.  He did not mention Arthur.  The next reference to a "Battle of Mount Badon" comes from Nennius, a Welsh monk writing early in the ninth century.  This battle was the twelfth of Arthur's epic victories.  There is nothing in Nennius's work to indicate that the "Battle of Mount Badon" was the same as the "siege of Badon Hill" mentioned by Gildas.

Next, scholars point to a couple of entries in the Welsh Annals.  The first of these purports to record the "Battle of Badon in which Arthur carries the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were victors" as having taken place in the year 518.  There are several problems with this entry.  First of all, it was obviously interpolated at a much later date.  Secondly, the date it gives for the battle - 518 - doesn't square with the testimony of St Gildas.  Gildas wrote that the battle had taken place 44 years before he was born.  If the entry in the Welsh Annals was correct, then Gildas would have been writing his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae in about 562.  But St Gildas went on to chastise a number of his contemporary British princes, including Maelgwyn of Gwynedd, who died in 547 (or 549).  So somebody got their dates wrong, and the balance of probabilities would suggest that it was the annalist who retrospectively added the entry for the "Battle of Badon" to the Welsh Annals who made it all up.

There can be little doubt that a "siege of Badon Hill" took place towards the end of the fifth century AD, probably in southern Britain.  The Welsh name for the city of Bath is Caerfaddon (from baddon, a 'bath'), and so that would seem a likely place for the siege mentioned by St Gildas.  This, though, was not the battle at which Arthur fought.  He had not even been born when that siege took place.

The "battle of Mount Badon" must have been a different battle.  Only the similarity of the names creates confusion.  It is as if somebody muddled up the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 with the Battle of Yorktown in 1862.  They sound alike, but they were completely different battles fought in completely different wars.

For Arthur's Mount Badon, we need to remember that the Gaelic bad is a common element in place-names.  It is easily confused with the Welsh bad or baddon - a 'bath' - but it means something else entirely: a grove or a thicket, a plain or a 'spot'.  The Irish records indicate that a battle was fought in 580 in the Angus region of Scotland, and that the loser was Galam Cennaleth, the leader of the southern Picts.  These same southern Picts were the sworn enemies of Arthur, and in the account left by Adomnan of Iona we find Arthur losing his life in 594 fighting against these very Picts.

The Picts in question inhabited the 'land of Circinn', a Pictish province designated by the term cir - a crest or a 'comb'.  The spearmen of this territory distinguished themselves by adopting the appearance of a boar, either by wearing their hair in Mohican style or donning the 'crest' of a boar.  One of the earliest Arthurian tales - Culhwch and Olwen - features a major boar-hunt at which one of Arthur's comrades comes to grief, being poisoned by the bristles of a dangerous boar.  The same legend is told of a valley in Angus, Scotland, where a great warrior is poisoned by a boar he has just killed.  Adjacent to that very valley is a hill called Badandun.  Badandun - or "Mount Badon" in English - reveals in its topography the name of the warrior who died while attacking the boar-warriors of Galam Cennaleth: his name was Fergus, and he was the constant companion of Arthur's nephew Drystan (St Drostan to the Scots, Sir Tristan to the medieval romancers).

The date of Arthur's battle at Badandun Hill - 580 - is rather revealing.  According to the Welsh Annals, Peredur of York (later to evolve into the romantic Sir Perceval) died in 580 (in fact, he died several years later).  The Spanish Anales Toledanos, meanwhile, state that the infamous Battle of Camlan was fought in 580.  Though this, too, is somewhat inaccurate, it does suggest that a memorable Arthurian battle was fought in 580 - and, second only to Camlan, the most memorable of all his battles was that of "Mount Badon".

Politically, the Battle of Badandun was fought to relieve pressure on Bruide son of Maelgwyn, a kinsman of Arthur's who was also the king of the northern Picts.  Arthur's half-brother Gartnait was poised to succeed Bruide as the High-King of the Highlands, and so by destroying the rebellious southern Picts and their boar-like chieftain Galam Cennaleth, Arthur was effectively securing the Highland throne for his half-brother.

The "siege of Badon Hill" in the south, meanwhile, continues to pose problems.  No one knows for sure when it was fought or even where.  The only near-contemporary reference to it fails to mention Arthur.  But the myth that King Arthur was a warlord of southern Britain is founded almost entirely on the assumption that this rather difficult-to-pin-down battle was also the "Battle of Mount Badon" at which Arthur fought.

As usual, the Scottish Arthur yields a great deal of information about the "Battle of Badon" while the "English" Arthur creates nothing but confusion and disagreement.  Still, we are continually being told that "King Arthur was never Scottish!!!!" and that there's "no evidence that Artuir mac Aedain was the original Arthur".  Yeah - and if you believe that, you'll believe anything.


  1. well, to be pedantic, he was never Scottish because Scotland didn't exist at the time... :p

    (it's a bit like saying Boudica was English..)

  2. You're absolutely right, Al, that Scotland didn't exist at the time. The Scots did, though, and were expanding out from their base in Argyll (the 'Coastland of the Gael', the Gaels being an alternative name for the Scots). So it is fair to say that Arthur was Scottish on his father's side, and that his father was King of the Scots.