The Future of History

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Close, So Close

There's been a ripple of excitement out there in the twittersphere.  An amateur historian based in Edinburgh reckons he's found the last resting place of King Arthur.

But he hasn't.

Damian Bullen has announced that the Yarrow Stone, which was unearthed many years ago by farmers near the town of Selkirk in the Scottish Borders, marks the grave of Arthur.  He has arrived at this conclusion by re-interpreting the sixth-century Latin inscription on the stone.

The usual translation of this inscription goes something like this:-

Here is an everlasting memorial.  In this place lie the most famous princes Nudus and Dumnogenus.  Here in this tomb lie the two sons of Liberalis.

Bullen translates this, rather freely, to arrive at a different interpretation: 'Here lie two famous and very noble princes of Dumnonia, buried without possessions.'  One of these princes, he argues, was Arthur.

It's not the first time that Arthur has been located in the Scottish Borders, and it won't be the last.  The historical Arthur was indeed active in this area, and this should come as now surprise.  It was border territory even in Arthur's day.  Those forerunners of the English, the Angles, had occupied the east coast territory to the south of this spot.  Arthur's military task was to defend the British kingdom of Lothian, immediately to the north.

The precise area in which the Yarrow Stone was found was then the tribal territory of the Selgovae.  These 'Hunters' formed a sub-kingdom of the Gododdin federation of Lothian, and their tribal capital would appear to have been in the Eildon Hills.

One of the princes named on the stone was a historical chieftain of the Selgovae.  The Britons knew him as Nudd - a name which would have been Latinised as 'Nudus'.  Nudd was one of a group of cousins who ruled in what is now Lowland Scotland and who all belonged to the ruling dynasty of Strathclyde.  The tribal people of Strathclyde were known as the Damnonii.  Related to the Dumnonii of Devon and Cornwall, far away to the south-west, their tribal name suggests that they were 'of the deep'.

Nudd traditionally bore the epithet Hael, meaning 'liberal' or 'generous'.  This appears on the Yarrow Stone as 'Liberalis'.

And so a more likely interpretation of the stone's inscription might be something along the lines of:

Here an eternal memorial in the place of the most noble Nudd, prince of Strathclyde.  Here in this tomb lie the two sons of the Generous One.

No mention of Arthur (but then, there is no actual mention of Arthur in Bullen's translation, which assumes that Nudus meant denuded or stripped of wealth).  Rather, the stone marks the resting place of two sons of the generous Nudd, chief of the Hunters tribe of Selkirkshire.

However, before the excitement dies down completely ("sorry, guys - nothing to see here after all!") it is worth pointing out that Bullen is actually a lot closer than he perhaps realises.  No, the Yarrow Stone does not mark Arthur's grave.  But those buried beneath it were relatives of Arthur.

Nudd Hael was killed in about 559 - the year of Arthur's birth - as was Nudd's cousin, Clydno of Edinburgh, who was Arthur's maternal grandfather.  Arthur would later fight shoulder-to-shoulder with another of Nudd's generous cousins, Rhydderch of Strathclyde.  He received training at the hands of the Chief Bard Taliesin, who appears to have been a son of Nudd and whose poems record some of the activities of Arthur and his fellow heroes.  And there is some evidence that Nudd's daughter, the delightfully-named Tegau Golden-Breast, was the mother of Arthur's wife.

Nudd the Generous, then, was pretty much a grandfather of Arthur, and the two princes buried beneath the Yarrow Stone would have been in-laws of Arthur - effectively, his uncles.

As is so often the case, the announcement that King Arthur, or something to do with him, has been discovered provokes a few headlines and comments, only to fail the credibility test, and the fuss quickly fizzles out.  In this instance, though the central premise of Damian Bullen's claim doesn't really stand up, the fact remains that the Yarrow Stone is a valuable ancient monument with pronounced Arthurian connections.

It may not be Arthur's grave, but the tomb did hold members of his family.

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