Anglo-Saxon (500-1000)

Arthur and the Celtic Decline

In 402AD, Constantine’s son, also Constantine, was king having invaded Britain reportedly at the request of Guithelimus, the Archbishop of London, to defend against the growing intrusions of the Anglo Saxons, but was murdered by an unknown Pict in 420AD. His son Constans who had wished to avoid all the perils of kingship had become a monk at Winchester, but was sought out and made High King by the northern leader Vortigern and ruled for seventeen years until, having fallen out with Vortigern, was himself killed and Vortigern assumed the role, thus earning himself the title of “usurper” from Gildas. It was Vortigern who first brought Anglo Saxon mercenaries, led by Hengist and Horsa, into the country to aid him in repelling attacks from Pictish and Scottish raiders in return for promises of land.

It should not be assumed that these titles such as “High King” or “King of the Britons” indicates nationwide acceptance of one sovereign, although Vortigern would seem to have wielded much authority in his time, so much so that he was even able to arrange the migration of an entire tribe, the Votadini under their leader Cunedda, who were forced to leave Lothian and made to resettle in North Wales as a buffer against raiders from Ireland. Cunedda was celebrated as a strong leader and did much to stop the many raids from north of Hadrian’s Wall by the Picts. This relocation on Vortigern’s orders can be seen as part of his attempt to halt the increasing incursions from foreign invaders as well as from his former Saxon allies who had rebelled against his rule. Cunedda married the daughter of Coel Hen, the ruler of Eboracum, the modern York.

He is said to have had nine sons and the early Welsh kingdoms of Ceredigion and Meirionyydd were supposedly named after his two sons, Ceredig and Meirion. Cunedda’s successors went on to establish the kingdom of Gwynedd.  Alliances and mergers were constantly being made and broken as noted by Tacitus many years before, the situation being further muddled by the interference of Rome who would award the title “King of the Britons” to whoever was currently in favour.

By the last years of the fifth century, the formerly prosperous and once orderly Britain had descended into tribalism. Large areas in the South East were in the control of the invading Anglo Saxons from North Germany, driving the natives northward and westward while the Celtic Britons remained preoccupied with appointing and deposing various kings. To make matters worse, the entire empire was hit by an outbreak of plague, similar to the Black Death in medieval times. The plague reached Britain in 446AD, the rising death toll adding to the breakdown in civil order.

In the middle of the sixth century, the monk Gildas wrote of the ruin of Britain by the Anglo Saxons, a race he describes as “hateful to God”. He tells of the destruction wrought by the invaders in haunting detail, “in the middle of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies covered with livid clots of congealed blood looking as though they had been squeezed together in a press, and with no possibility of being buried save in the ruins of their houses or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts”.

If ever the Celts needed a leader it was now and if they did not have one, he would need to be invented. Step forward Arthur, styled “King of the Britons” by some writers, although history mostly records him as a war leader. Some believe that Arthur was an authentic historical figure while others think him a romantic wish fulfilling myth, indeed the very name Arthur can be traced to a number of possible roots such as the Roman Artorius (meaning ploughman) or to the Welsh “Art” meaning “Bear”. Tag this to “Ur”, old Welsh for “Man” and we have Arthur or Bear Man, i.e., man of strength.

The name might even derive from the Saxon “Ar Thur” or the Eagle of Thor. It was not unusual for leaders to be known by a title that indicated strength and power, the name Vortigern has the meaning “Great King”, while both the names Hengist and Horsa have root meanings of “powerful horsemen”. The probable truth is that Arthur was a romantic amalgam of many Celtic leaders involved in the fight against the Anglo Saxons.

It has been pointed out that no reference to Arthur was recorded by Bede, Gildas or the Chronicle and this omission has been used to discount his existence.  It must be remembered however, that these writers wrote from an Anglo Saxon point of view and would not necessarily wish to give him currency.

Much of what we know about Arthur comes from the pen of Geoffrey ap Arthur, later known as Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Historia Regum Britaniae”, written in the twelfth century, but the first reference to him appears in 594AD when the northern monk St Gildas records a character known as “The Bear”. A reference to the name is also found in the writings of the Welsh monk Aneirin, who, in a passage in his poem Y Gododdin, tells of a warrior who “glutted black ravens on the ramparts of the fort though he was no Arthur”. There are later references to him in the “Historia Britonium”written by Nennius in 830AD, although none refer to him as king. He is described as “Dux Bellorum” or Duke of Battle.

The Welsh Easter Annuals, or Annales Cambriae, thought to have been written in the period that they cover, mentions Arthur by name and noted that, in the Battle of Baydon, thought to have taken place in 516AD, “Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were victors”. This passage need not be taken literally, it may be a reference to an amulet of some sort containing a fragment of the True Cross or, more likely, a poor translation of the word shoulder for shield and could indicate an armorial design.

The modern received view of King Arthur is one of round tables, chivalry, Camelot, courtly behaviour and brave and noble knights such as Lancelot and Galahad, arising from tales by the twelfth century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, who claims that his tales were translations of an ancient Celtic document found in Armorica (Britanny) by Walter Mapes, Deacon of Oxford. The first reference to Excaliber and the sword in the stone legend appears in the twelfth century French writer Robert de Boron’s story “Merlin”.

Sir Thomas Malory added his own slant to the legends in his “Le Morte d’Arthur” written three hundred years later, but the reality is rather more mundane. The very word chivalry has changed its meaning many times and originally referred to a company of mounted knights or simply being a knight. In title deeds, reference to land held in chivalry can imply land tenure held in which military service was owed. Other meanings include worthy action in battle. It was to be another 500 years before the modern meaning of moral and knightly conduct came into use.

Arthur is claimed as the King of almost every Celtic kingdom from Cornwall to Scotland and it would be of use to examine his roots a little more carefully.

Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded that Arthur, the son of Uther Pendragon was from Breton stock, his grandfather, Constans, having been sent to Britain by King Aldrien of Britanny who had been asked to help rescue the country from the turmoil created when the Romans left. The name Pendragon, from the Welsh for Head Dragon or Chieftain was often bestowed on a leader and Uther may well have been a composite character similar to his son. Geoffrey believed that Arthur’s grandfather was none other than Constantine, the last self styled Emperor of Britain, who had withdrawn the last of the Roman garrison to Gaul in 407AD, but more of this later.

One of the earliest battles recorded took place in 429AD, somewhere in the mountainous west or north between the native Britons and an alliance of Saxons and Picts, known as the Alleluia Battle. The British forces were led by St Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre who had been sent by the Pope to suppress the Pelagian Heresy, which taught that men could achieve salvation through their own efforts rather than from divine grace. St Germanus was an excellent choice, having had military experience as well as a reputation as a miracle worker. The story is first told in “The Life of the Saints” written by Constantius of Lyon around 480AD and repeated in Bede’s “History of the English Church 200 years later.

The beleaguered Britons sought the help of Germanus to stop this tide of invaders and he promised to direct the battle in person. The historians tell of Germanus placing his newly baptised troops in hiding all around the valley through which the invaders must come.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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