Friday, 19 October 2012
Dating Arthur's Battles
To recap: in my more recent posts, I've suggested that "Camlann" was not a place-name. Rather, it meant "Broken Sword". The battle was remembered, not for where it was fought, but for its relevance: when Arthur's sword - and Arthur himself - was broken, the world of the Britons collapsed.
The place of the battle was, however, recalled in the popular memory. Aneirin, writing about the battle almost immediately after it had happened, referred to a specific landmark - "the Alledd", or the Hill of Alyth in Perthshire.
Separately, the British refugees who fled to Brittany remembered that the battle had been fought around "Kerlouan"- the "Castle of Luan" - and they named a whole district of Brittany in honour of that terrible disaster. St Luan, as we noted yesterday, is commemorated solely at Alyth in Perthshire, where this contemporary of Artuir mac Aedain was the local patron saint.
There is also the ancient tradition that Arthur's wife was held captive by the "Pictish" king Mordred at Barry Hill (above), which is adjacent to the Hill of Alyth, and that she was punished for her treachery and buried at Meigle, four miles to the south (and next to the spot where Arthur was betrayed).
Arthur hacked his way across the Mains (farmland) of Camno to Arthurbank, just south of the River Isla. The place where he suffered his mortal wound was, until the 1790s, marked by a standing stone known as the Arthurstone.
So - when did this happen?
The Irish Annals of Tigernach indicate that "Artur" was one of four sons of Aedan mac Gabrain, King of the Scots, who died in a battle in Angus in AD 594 (another source, written a hundred years later, noted that the battle was fought against the southern Picts). The Annals of Ulster date the same battle to 596 and tells us that it was not Arthur but Bran who died there (Bran is, of course, the name of the stricken lord and knight in the Breton poem, analysed in yesterday's blogpost; he was, in reality, Arthur).
Ah, but ... those who like to pretend that they know all that there is to know about Arthur invariably protest that Artuir mac Aedain (the first Arthur to appear in any historical records) can't have been the historical Arthur. There must have been another Arthur, earlier and decidedly more "English", after whom the northern Arthur was named.
Going back a few blogposts, I endeavoured to explain why the entries in the Annals of Wales (Annales Cambriae) pertaining to Arthur were misleading. The dates they give for his battles are wrong. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the dates appear to be wrong (they are, in fact, fairly accurate, but we need to adjust them to account for variations in the dating system being used).
The Annals of Wales include an entry for circa AD 664:
The first celebration of Easter among the Saxons. The second battle of Badon. Morgan dies.
As previously explained, the battle of Badon is one of the main sticking-points when it comes to identifying the real Arthur. This "second" battle of Badon is seldom taken into consideration. But it's important, because (as I show in The King Arthur Conspiracy) Arthur's main rival at his final battle was Morgan the Wealthy, who had been accepted by the southern Picts as their "Chief-Boar" or pseudo-king.
The entry in the Welsh Annals for the "second battle of Badon" and the death of Morgan appears to relate to Arthur's last battle. But the given date is wrong.
What I suggested in a recent post is that the date given in the Welsh Annals for this long-forgotten battle was the result of confusion over the Easter cycle used by the early Church. The calculations for when Easter would be celebrated each year were complex, but there was an 84-year cycle which the early Christians were able to follow. In other words, rather than trying to figure out each year when Easter should fall, the early monasteries kept a table of the 84-year Easter cycle. As each year passed, they just moved to the next date in their table. The various annals of Wales, Ireland and elsewhere were eventually compiled using notes made in the margins of these Easter tables. As each year passed, any major event of the previous year was entered alongside the relevant date in the Easter cycle.
But this system was prone to confusion. The date of AD 664 for Arthur's "second battle of Badon" is wrong. It was linked to the wrong Easter cycle. Take away 84 years, and you arrive at AD 580: not the date of Arthur's last battle (at which Morgan died), but the date of another decisive battle fought by the real Arthur - his first battle of Badon.
Now, it's one thing to claim that a date relating to the military career of Artuir mac Aedain - the original "King Arthur" - got muddled thanks to confusion over the 84-year Easter cycle. It's another thing altogether to prove that this sort of mistake actually happened.
Well, hold onto your hats, because I'm about to prove that this sort of blunder did take place.
Bruide son of Maelgwn was the High-King of the Picts from about AD 553. He was contemporary with Artuir mac Aedain. They were, in fact, related: Bruide's daughter, Domelch, had married Arthur's father, Aedan. Domelch ferch Bruide was the mother of Arthur's half-sister, Muirgein, and his half-brother, Gartnait, who became King of the Picts after the death of his uncle Bruide.
The Annals of Ulster indicate that Bruide, King of the Picts, died in AD 584, which fits in with the known facts. The Annals of Tigernach, however, tell a different story. They state that the year 752 saw a "Battle of Asreth in the land of Circinn between Picts on both sides, and in it Bruide son of Maelchon fell."
So, two sets of Irish annals (both ultimately deriving from notes made in the Easter tables maintained on the Isle of Iona) contain information regarding the same battle, fought in Angus between warring Pictish factions, which resulted in the death of King Bruide. But one - the Annals of Ulster - give the date of that battle as 584, which is correct. The other - the Annals of Tigernach - give the date as 752, which is way out.
The difference between the two dates is 168 years. That is, of course, 84 years times 2. The Tigernach annalist based his record on the same Easter tables entry as the Ulster annalist did, but he mistook the Easter cycle. In fact, he skipped two full Easter cycles. Bruide son of Maelgwn died in AD 584, but one annalist mistakenly ascribed this to a date which was two full Easter cycles later.
Evidently, then, it could happen. The same note in the margins of an Easter table could be interpreted accurately, or it could be attached to another date altogether - 84 or 168 years later, depending on which Easter cycle the annalist mistakenly plumped for.
The date of circa AD 664 given in the Welsh Annals for the "second battle of Badon" and the death of Arthur's treacherous antagonist, Morgan the Wealthy, was the victim of a similar error. It was out to the tune of 84 years. Artuir mac Aedain fought his first "battle of Badon" at Badandun Hill in Glen Isla in 580, overcoming the "Chief-Boar" of the southern Picts, Galam Cennaleth (whose epithet meant "Chief of Alyth").
The so-called "second battle of Badon" was fought nearby, in the valley of the same River Isla, against a new "Chief-Boar" of the southern Picts. His name was Morgan Mwynfawr: "Morgan the Wealthy".
If you look at the map, you'll see that seven miles from the Arthurstone on the south bank of the River Isla in Perthshire, there is a Morganstone, a few miles west of the Hill of Alyth. The cataclysmic Battle of the Broken Sword (Camlann) was fought between those two landmarks.
The year was AD 594. For the Britons, it was the end of the world as they knew it.