The Future of History

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Second Battle of Badon

Even though the first Arthur to appear in the historical records was Artuir mac Aedain (Arthur son of Aedan), there seem to be two main reasons why some people refuse to accept that he was the original Arthur.

The first reason is emotional.  Quite simply, a lot of people want Arthur to fit in with some imperialistic paradigm.  We know he can't have been English (although it could be said that plenty of Arthur enthusiasts would like to imagine that he was), so we'll plump for the next best thing: he was Roman.  Certainly southern British.  And absolutely NOT a Scot of Irish heritage.  No, anything but.

However, it's fairly obvious that this emotional attachment to a sort of prototype-Englishman Arthur has no historical support.  It's little more than a nationalistic impulse, insisting that Arthur was anything but Scottish.  So, in order to advance the claim that Arthur son of Aedan must have been named after an unknown earlier Arthur, scholars point to the Annales Cambriae or Annals of Wales.

The Annals of Wales were compiled in the 10th century.  They start in about the year AD 447, which in the Annales Cambriae is designated "Year 1".

The entry for "Year 72" reads "The battle of Badon in which Arthur bore the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights, and the Britons were the victors."

The entry for "Year 93" reads "Gueith [Battle of] Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished; and there was plague in Britain and Ireland."

Taking the year 447 as the starting point, these entries are usually adjusted to read AD 518 for "Year 72", the "battle of Badon", and AD 539 for "Year 93", the "Battle of Camlann".

Arthur son of Aedan was, by my reckoning, born in 559.  He fought his last battle in 594.  So, evidently, he can't have been the original Arthur, right?  Because the Annals of Wales clearly date Arthur's battles to AD 518 and 539.

But here's the thing.  My researches, published as The King Arthur Conspiracy, led me to the conclusion that Arthur's first battle was fought in AD 573.  The gap between his first battle and his last, fought in 594, was 21 years - which is exactly the same as the gap between the two battles ascribed to Arthur in the Annals of Wales.

In fact, the year of Arthur's first battle (573) is given as "Year 72" in the Annales Cambriae, while the date of Arthur's last battle (594) is given as "Year 93").  It's as if the chroniclers of Wales were 501 years out.  Indeed, just place the digit 5 before both years given in the Annals of Wales, and you arrive at pretty much the exact dates of Arthur's first and last battles.

Still, there's a discrepancy.  For Arthur's battle of Badon, the Welsh annalists indicate the year 518; for his catastrophic Camlan conflict, they indicate 539.  The dates, according to my scheme, were actually 573 and 594 respectively.  The actual difference between my dates and those given in the Welsh Annals is 55 years.

Now, we know that the Welsh annalists were not working with the Anno Domini system, although that dating system was already in existence.  But they did draw much of their information from the work of the Anglian historian, Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People was written in AD 731.  And Bede did use a version of the Anno Domini dating system.

The problem with the Anno Domini dating system is that you have to agree where to start.  Let us suppose that a Welsh annalist, many years after the events, wished to record the dates of Arthur's first and last battles, which he knew had been fought in 573 and 594 (i.e., 21 years apart).  The said annalist is working with a chronicle which actually uses the year 447 as its starting point, probably because that was the year in which the Anglo-Saxons first invaded Britain.  However, the annalist also knows that Bede used a different dating system, and so he wishes to convert the dates for Arthur's battles into something which fits both Bede's Anno Domini system and the system used by the Welsh annalists, working forwards from AD 447.

The first chapter of Bede's magnum opus comprises a geographical description of the Island of Britain.  The second chapter provides the first date:

Britain remained unknown and unvisited by the Romans until the time of Gaius Julius Caesar ...

Julius Caesar led the first abortive Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC.  This - as far as Bede, the Church, and many others since were concerned - was the beginning of British history.  Nothing really happened before that date.  55 BC was Britain's Year Zero.

So let's say that the Welsh annalist, working in the tenth century, chose the year 55 BC as the start of British history.  He knew that the Annals of Wales began in 447 AD ("Year 1"), but if he was starting his count from 55 BC, that would actually be designated 502.

Following the same logic, the annalist worked forwards from his revised starting date, adjusted to account for the beginnings of British history in 55 BC.  "Year 72" would therefore be AD 573 - the date of the historical Arthur's first battle.  And his last battle would have been fought in AD 594 - or "Year 93" in the annalist's system.

Only by assuming that all of the dates given in the Annals of Wales should be dated from AD 447 - the year of the Saxon invasion - do we arrive at the familiar dates of 518 and 539 for Arthur's battles.  But if the interpolations, made more than 300 years after those battles were fought, were based on a misunderstanding of Bede's AD dating system (the mistaken belief that 55 BC was the start of British history) then the dates given in the Annales Cambriae perfectly match my dates for Arthur's first and last battles, which were (as the Annals of Wales indicate) fought 21 years apart, in 573 and 594.

The Annals of Wales also indicate that there was a second battle of Badon.  This is dated to about the year AD 666.  The entry reads:

The first celebration of Easter among the Saxons.  The second battle of Badon.  Morgan dies.

The important point here is the last statement: "Morgan dies".  As I show in The King Arthur Conspiracy, Arthur's main rival in his last battle was Morgan Mwynfawr - "Morgan the Wealthy".  He was a Man of the North and is also mentioned in a medieval list of the "Four-and-Twenty Horsemen at the Court of Arthur".

But two things stand out, here.  The first is the date.  AD 666, or thereabouts, is way out.  What went wrong, though, is suggested by the first part of the entry ("The first celebration of Easter among the Saxons.")  In the Celtic Church, Easter was calculated on the basis of an 84-year cycle.

At the Synod of Whitby (AD 664), the Northumbrian (English) Church chose to abandon the Celtic dating system for Easter in favour of the Roman system.  The reference in the Annals of Wales, then, is to the adoption of the Roman dating system by the English Church ("the Saxons").  But at this point, a mistake seems to have crept in, probably as a result of confusion over the Easter Annals used by the British (Celtic) Church.  The 84-year Easter cycle, as used by the Celtic Church, indicates that AD 666 was the 33rd year of its cycle.  The 33rd year of the previous cycle was AD 582 - which is the date I give for Arthur's battle of Badon.  The reference in the Annals of Wales to the "second battle of Badon" at which "Morgan dies" would appear to be a mistake, based on a misreading of the 84-year Easter cycle and the first battle of Badon fought by Arthur (at which Morgan didn't die).

So what was this "second battle of Badon" - which was, in fact, a mis-remembered reference to Arthur's last battle?

In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I locate Arthur's battle of Badon (fought in AD 582) at Badandun Hill in Angus, on the edge of the Cairngorm mountains.  Arthur and his men attacked a patrol of Pictish warriors in the valley of the River Isla, in the shadow of Badandun Hill.

Arthur's last battle - commonly known as Camlan - was also fought in Angus, and in the valley of the River Isla.  It was, arguably, the "second battle of Badon", and Arthur's main rival at this battle was Morgan.

The "Badon" term survives to this day in the Highland region of Badenoch.  This area, the boundaries of which have always been rather unspecific, is thought to take its name from the Gaelic Baideanach, meaning "drowned land" (figuratively, "overwhelmed") - from the Old Celtic badio, a "bath".  But I suspect that this derivation is wrong.  "Badon" here actually derives from the Welsh (i.e. British) word baedd, meaning a "boar".  The Pictish warriors against whom Arthur was pitted in both of his "Badon" battles (Badandun Hill in 582 and Strathmore/Arthurbank in 594) were known as "boars".  The Pictish region in which these battles were fought was known as Circenn - from cir, a boar's crest or comb.  In the ancient Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, Arthur has to hunt down two terrible boars, and these two boar-hunts correspond to his first and second "Badon" battles, the one against Galam Cennaleth of the southern Picts in 582, the second against Morgan the Wealthy, nominal leader of the southern Picts, in 584.

Both of these battles were fought in Circenn, the "land of the boars", which was remembered as "Badon" (from the Welsh baedd, which became the Gaelic Baideanach - "Place of Boars").

So - up to a point, the Annals of Wales are right.  Arthur's first and last battles were fought 21 years apart, in 573 and 594.  And two "Badon" battles were fought - the latter seemingly resulting in the death of Arthur's enemy, Morgan.  Admittedly, we have to adjust the dates given in the Annals of Wales - the first two to account for a misunderstanding of Bede's Anno Domini dating system and Julius Caesar's first incursion into Britain as the start of British history, and the "second battle of Badon" date to account for the 84-year Easter cycle.

Once we've done that, we find that the Annals of Wales actually square with the dating of Arthur's battles in The King Arthur Conspiracy and the locations of the two major battles fought by Arthur in the Pictish province of Circenn - the Boars' Land, or "Badon".

There was no earlier Arthur.  The real "King Arthur" was Artuir mac Aedain.


  1. interesting theory and I agree with some of the summary points. Gildas doesnt mention Arthur in the early 6th because he doesnt "exist" at that point. Gildas is referring to Ambrosius Aurelianius. Interestingly Gildas attacks all the contempotrary leaders around Wales and the SW apart from Gwent. We can tentatively assume that he is protected by the leader of that area.
    Fast forward to the late 6th and early 7th and resurgent "english" territory incursions throughout Britain. Your Artuir comes into the frame as well as a few others notably Arthrwys of Gwent. It is my opinion that the "historical Arthur" is actually an amalgam of several warrior kings of which Artuis and Arthrwys are part of the story.

    1. Many thanks for your comment. I would agree that, over the years, elements were added to the Arthurian legend which had crept in from many sources. But I do believe that there was an original Arthur who formed the inspiration. One thing that we do know about Artuir mac Aedain is that he died in c. 594 fighting the 'Miathi' Picts in Circenn (Angus). Circenn seems to have signified "Comb-heads" in Gaelic (i.e. the Miathi Picts modelled themselves on the boar and cut their hair to emulate the boar's "comb" or "crest"). Camlann is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent - it means "Comb-land". Other warriors with the name "Arthur" began to appear thereafter, but none shares Artuir's credentials