The Future of History

Friday, 20 December 2013

Five Facts About Arthur

Barry Hill, just north of Alyth in Angus, photographed by Richard Webb.  Arthur's last battle was fought near here.

I've written quite a lot about prejudice, lately.  This comes partly from my work on the final chapter for The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion, in which I analyse what makes people believe certain things - irrespective of, and often in direct contradiction of, the evidence.

Because the fact is that where a lot of history is concerned, prejudice dictates what we believe.  Hence, the revelation that Arthur was Scottish (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say North British) is either ignored or derided by people who prefer to cling to the notion that he was, in some strange, anachronistic sort of way, essentially English.

A couple of posts back, I flirted with the idea of posting a handful of facts, none of which is in any way speculative, about Arthur.  These indisputable facts point to one conclusion only - that the "King Arthur" we read about so often is a manufactured legend.  The real Arthur was not a "king".  He had no connection with southern Britain and was active somewhat later than the timeframe asserted by so many "experts".

So, here goes:

1. The earliest Arthur on record was northern.

Long before we encounter any English references to Arthur, a princely "Arthur" was written about.  He was Artur mac Aedain ("Arthur son of Aedan"), whose father, Aedan mac Gabrain, was ordained as King of the Scots by St Columba in AD 574.  The Life of Columba, written by Adomnan of Iona in about 697, drawing on earlier accounts written by previous abbots of Iona, suggests that Artur was present when his father Aedan was ordained.  St Columba predicted that this Artur would never be king but would "fall in battle, slain by enemies".  The Life of Columba goes on to confirm that Artur did indeed die in a "battle of the Miathi", the tribal name referring to the southern or Lowland Picts of central Scotland.

The Irish annals similarly indicate that Artur mac Aedain died fighting the Picts - his death in a "battle of Circenn" being dated to 594 (Annals of Tigernach).  Circenn was the old Pictish province which corresponds with today's Angus and the Mearns, just north of the Tay estuary in Scotland.

Like Adomnan's Life of Columba, the Irish annals ultimately derived from the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Argyll in western Scotland.  Key events were listed alongside the Easter Tables which allowed early monasteries to calculate the date of Easter each year; these events were later transcribed into the chronicles known as "annals".  The source of the information regarding Artur's death in a battle against the Miathi Picts, fought in Circenn (Angus) in about 594, was therefore the monastery on Iona which had been established by St Columba - the very man who "ordained" Artur's father Aedan in 574.

Most accounts of Arthur's life avoid mentioning the Irish annals or the Life of Columba because they reveal that, long before there was any mention of Arthur in a southern or "English" context, the Irish or Scots had already established that an Arthur died fighting against the Picts in Angus.  There are no surviving references to anyone named Arthur before these Irish accounts, which drew on contemporary references.  Some scholars insist that Artur mac Aedain could not have been the "real" Arthur but must have been named after an earlier hero called Arthur.  But the point needs to be made that no evidence whatsoever exists for anyone named Arthur before Artur mac Aedain.

2. The early British sources associate Arthur with the North.

No contemporary British accounts of Arthur survive, although we do have transcriptions of ancient poems and stories which were copied out in the Middle Ages.  They all point to Arthur having been a northerner, who associated with northern princes of the late-6th century (that is, the lifetime of Artur mac Aedain).

Starting with Taliesin, who proudly called himself the "Primary Chief Bard" of Britain and who flourished in the late-6th century, we find repeated references to Arthur as a contemporary figure.  For a while, at least, Taliesin was attached to the court of Urien, a king of North Rheged (Cumbria) who died in 590.  By his own admission, Taliesin was also based at Edinburgh for some time.  In addition to composing poems and elegies for Urien and his son Owain, Taliesin also praised Lleenog of Lennox (Loch Lomond) and his son Gwallog.  He also sang a death-song for "Uthyr Pen" ("Uther the Chief") and an extraordinary account of Arthur's funeral (Preiddeu Annwn).

Equally, Aneirin - a princely bard of the North who flourished in the late-6th century - made mention of Arthur.  Aneirin's masterpiece is known as Y Gododdin and sang of the warriors of Edinburgh and Lothian who perished in a military disaster fought shortly before the year 600.  The earliest surviving version of Y Gododdin, written in an archaic form of Welsh, includes a direct reference to Arthur (we will return to this).

Moving onto the British stories of Arthur and his heroes, although these were transcribed by medieval monks during the Middle Ages, there is no good reason to presume that they were made up during that same period; rather, they almost certainly preserved a record which had been passed down orally by bards and storytellers.  In these stories (some of which were edited and translated in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest and published as the Mabinogion or "Tales of the Early Age"), Arthur is consistently presented in the company of northern individuals of the late-6th century.

Such individuals include Taliesin, Urien of North Rheged and his son Owain, Cynon son of Clydno of Edinburgh and Peredur of York (Taliesin, Owain and Cynon are among those named alongside Arthur in Aneirin's Y Gododdin poem of a northern battle fought in the late-6th century).  These historical figures were later romanticised (Urien - Uriens; Owain = Yvain; Peredur = Perceval - compare Lleenog and Gwallog, who became the legendary father and son duo, Lancelot of the Lake and Galahad).

Others who appear to have accompanied Arthur on his forays "into the North" include St Cadog, one of Arthur's "four-and-twenty horsemen", who founded a monastery in central Scotland, and whose hagiography features several encounters with Arthur and other contemporary figures, such as Rhydderch of Dumbarton (died circa 614).  Rhydderch, meanwhile, is repeatedly associated with the Merlin-figure, Myrddin Wyllt, who "went mad" at a battle fought in the Scottish Borders in 573 and then spent much of his time in the "Caledonian forest", where at least one of Arthur's battles was fought, according to a list compiled in about 829 by a Welsh monk commonly known as Nennius.

3. The early romances associate Arthur - and the Grail - with the North.

As early as 1120, Lambert, the canon of St Omer in Brittany, wrote of the "palace of the warrior Arthur" as being "in the land of the Picts" - or Scotland, as we would now know it.  Lambert wrote in Latin, but used a Gaelic name for Arthur (Artuir militis).

Most mainstream accounts of "King Arthur" do not mention Lambert's testimony because it draws us away from the myth of the southern Arthur.  That myth was forged by Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose account of Arthur's life and career formed part of his Historia Regum Britanniae or "History of the Kings of Britain", which he completed in about 1137.  Geoffrey appears singlehandedly to have invented the legend of Arthur's birth at Tintagel in Cornwall.  He also claimed that Merlin transported the "Giant's Dance" from Ireland by magic, bringing it to England where it became known as Stonehenge.  Very few people take that claim seriously, and yet a surprising number are eager to take the equally unfounded story about Tintagel as Gospel.  (In a later account, Geoffrey placed Merlin in the company of Taliesin, correctly identifying Myrddin Wyllt as the origin of the Merlin legend and a contemporary of the late-6th-century "Primary Chief Bard", but by then the damage had been done - those who wanted Arthur to have been "English" had the Tintagel myth to turn to, even though nobody before Geoffrey of Monmouth had mentioned it.)

Still, writers in Britain and on the Continent continued to link Arthur and his exploits with the North.  Beroul, for example, whose verse romance of Tristan was composed in about 1200, stated unequivocally that Arthur and his Round Table were located at Stirling, on the River Forth in central Scotland.  There was indeed a "Tristan" who was contemporary with Artur mac Aedain.  His name was originally Pictish - Drust - but the Scots came to think of him as "St Drostan" and placed him in the company of St Columba (as "Drosten", he is named on a 9th-century Pictish stone at St Vigeans in Angus, not far from the scene of Artur's last battle; an early British account has "Drystan" fleeing with his lover, Esyllt, into the "Caledonian forest").

In Chretien de Troyes's version of the Peredur story - Perceval ou le conte du graal - the sword presented to the Grail knight by his uncle, the Fisher King, could only be "rehammered, retempered and repaired" at a lake beyond the River Forth.  The Estoire del Saint Graal, composed in about 1230, stated that both Joseph of Arimathea, who supposedly brought the "Holy Grail" to Britain, and his son Josephus were buried in Scotland.  At about the same time, one Guillaume le Clerc wrote his romance of Fergus, in which a young would-be knight encounters Arthur and his men in Galloway and then goes on a quest across much of Scotland.  The Queste del Saint Graal (circa 1230) remarked that Celydoine, an ancestor of the knights Lancelot and Galahad, was "the first Christian king to hold sway over Scotland".

An oral tradition concerning Arthur continued in Scotland - and especially in the islands of the Hebrides - until the tales were finally written down in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In one of these, which was recorded on the Isle of Tiree, very close to Iona, Arthur is "Chief Arthur son of Iuthar".

4. Arthur's enemies were northern.

Traditionally, Arthur fought against the Saxons, who colonised much of southern Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.  The term "Saxon" is still used in Welsh (Sais) and Scottish Gaelic (Sasunn) to designate an "Englishman" and "England" respectively.  The term "England", however, derives not from the Saxons but from the Angles, who formed Engla land some time after they had established their kingdom of Northumberland.

The Angles did not lay claim to their first northern kingdom (Bryneich - or Bernicia, as the Angles called it) until about AD 547.  They later added the kingdom of Deira (British Deywr) in 559, and together these adjacent territories on the coast of north-east England formed the Anglian kingdom of Northumberland.  Forays were made into central Scotland (thus, Artur and his contemporaries fought them in Lennox, near Loch Lomomd, and at Craigmaddie Muir, north of Glasgow).  By 590, though, an alliance of British and Irish chieftains had pretty much driven the Angles back into the sea.  Only the treachery of a British petty-king, Morgan the Wealthy, whose power base was at the Edinburgh, caused the British resistance to collapse after the assassination of Urien of North Rheged.

Just five years later, the resurgent Angles overran much of the North.  They finally conquered Edinburgh and Lothian in 638.

Between 590 and 595, or thereabouts, the invading "English" underwent an astonishing change of fortune - from being all-but wiped out in 590 to taking control of much of North Britain in 595.

Artur mac Aedain, we should remember, died in a battle fought in Angus in 594.  During his lifetime, the Anglian threat had been contained, and almost eradicated, before an act of treachery led to the death of Arthur's companion, Urien, and then his own death opened the floodgates to the conquest of North Britain by the Angles.  The historical circumstances therefore square with the later legends of Arthur: he sought to hold back the English, and was remarkably successful in doing so, until treachery struck.  And with the death of Arthur, Britain was finished.

But the Angles were not his sole enemies.  Geoffrey of Monmouth - who acknowledged that Arthur had fought battles around Dumbarton and Loch Lomond, a very long way from his supposed base in the south - also noted that there had been "Scots, Picts and Irish" ranged against Arthur in his final conflict, and that the various factions who had been brought into alliance by a treacherous British chieftain included both pagans and Christians.  Geoffrey specifically stated that the "Saxons" were to be awarded with the land between the River Humber and Scotland - that is, Northumberland, the land of the Angles - in return for joining forces against Arthur.

5. Arthur's last battle was fought in the North.

We think of it as the "Battle of Camlann", and yet no contemporary references to any such battle survive.  The last battle of Arthur doesn't appear to have been referred to as "Camlann" until the Middle Ages, when it was entered into the Annals of Wales as Gueith cam lann, the "Strife of Camlann".

It is usually assumed that "Camlann" is, and could only be, a Welsh place-name.  This is not a reasonable assumption: the old Roman fort at Camelon, near Falkirk (just south of Stirling), is known as Camlan in Gaelic (Kemlin in Scots), and so we shouldn't suppose that cam lann was an authentic British (i.e. Brittonic) place-name.

In fact, the term cam lann translates via Anglo-Saxon - and via Lowland Scots, a derivative of the Old Germanic tongue spoken by the Angles, which had been established in southern Scotland by the 7th century - as "comb land".

Artur mac Aedain, we recall, died in 594 at a "battle of Circenn".  The term circenn combines two Old Irish words, cir  - meaning "comb" or "crest" - and cenn, meaning "heads".  The Angus region, which was then known as Circenn, appears to have been the capital of the Miathi Picts, who seem to have modelled their appearance on the boar (Galam, a chief of the southern Picts who was almost certainly killed by Arthur in 580, bore two epithets: Cennaleth, or "Chief of Alyth", and Cennfaeladh, meaning "Shaved-Head"; he was also known as "Little-Boar", Welsh Baeddan, or "Little Tufted One", Gaelic Badan, since his head was shaved to represent the tuft, crest or "comb" of a boar).

So, Artur mac Aedain died in 594 in a battle in Circenn, the land of the "Comb-heads" or the boar-crested warriors of the Miathi Picts.  His death more or less put an end to the British resistance to Anglian invasion.

The Arthur of legend died in a battle in "Comb land" or cam lann.  His death more or less put an end to the British resistance to the "Saxons", or the English as they are now known.

With this in mind, we might return to the Y Gododdin poem of Aneirin, which sang of the heroes (many of them resident fixtures of the Arthurian legends) who fought so valiantly in a disastrous encounter with the Northumbrian Angles which took place not long before the year 600 and not all that far from Edinburgh.  Indeed, Aneirin tells us where it happened:

Again they came into view around the Allaid,
The battle-horses and the bloody armour,
Still steadfast, still united ...

The "Allaid" (Gaelic Ailt) was the Hill of Alyth, above the River Isla in Strathmore, the great valley of Angus.

As previously stated, the earliest surviving version of Y Gododdin includes a reference to Arthur.  This reference has been repeatedly mistranslated by scholars who do not want to think of Arthur as a northerner or to consider the possibility that Arthur might have been present at this disastrous battle between the Gododdin warriors of Lothian and the massed ranks of Angles, Scots, Irish and Picts.  Here's the passage which mentions Arthur:

Gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur ...

We can now translate this passage thus:

"Black ravens sang in praise of the hero
of Circenn.  He blamed Arthur;
the dogs cursed in return for our wailing ..."

The "hero" (Welsh arwr) of "Circenn" (corrupted to caer and the genitive ceni in the transcription) was probably Arthur, who was blamed for his own death by his principle enemy whilst his black raven warriors sang their dirges over him.

As St Columba had predicted, he had "fallen in battle, slain by enemies".  This battle was fought against a motley bunch of Angles, Scots, Picts and Irish, and it took place in the "comb land" (cam lann) of the "Comb-heads" (Circenn), where Arthur - surrounded by those very princes of North Britain who would follow him into the legends - was fatally wounded near the Allaid or "Hill of Alyth", the chief seat of Galam, the onetime boar-king of the Miathi. 

This region is also known as Gowrie, after Gabran, the grandfather of Artur mac Aedain, who had annexed the territory in about 525.  The place where Artur fell is known to this day as Arthurbank, the precise spot still being known as Arthurstone.

Southern Britain never had an Arthur, nor even a figure remotely like Artur mac Aedain. 

The myth of the southern Arthur is exactly that - a myth. 

The real Arthur, as all the available evidence indicates, was a northerner, active in the second half of the 6th century, and only blind prejudice stands in the way of our recognition of Artur mac Aedain as the hero he was.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for that! I always thought that Arthur was one of us.