Anglo-Saxon (500-1000)

Arthur and the Celtic Decline

The writer Nennius lists the twelve battles and there has been much research carried out to place their location. Nennius lists the battles as follows, “the first was on the River Glein, the second, third, fourth and fifth on the River Dubglas, the sixth on the River Bassas. The seventh was in the Caledonian forest that is, Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was in Fort Guinnon where Arthur “carried the image of the image of St Mary on his shoulders and that day the pagans were turned to flight and a great slaughter was made on them”. The ninth battle took place in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was on the shores of the River Tribuit, the eleventh on the mountain called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Mount Baydon in which nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day from one attack by Arthur and no one killed them but him alone”. Despite the apparent detail,  the list seems to have been lifted from an earlier Welsh battle poem and used to lionise Arthur, the figure of 960 could therefore be a romantic Welsh construct of “three three hundreds and three score”, written to liven up the rather bald original?

It is interesting to note however that efforts to locate the battle sites take us not westward, but to the north. The reference to the Caledonian forest is clearly northern as is Mount Agned, now identified as Brenemium the Roman fort at High Rochester in the Cheviots. Other sources confirm that battles did indeed take place at these sites, but often many years apart. There was a battle at Mount Agned fought by the King of Solway, Uriel of Rheged, but this took place some fifty years after Arthur’s supposed existence.

That many battles were fought against the invaders in this period is not in doubt, but the balance of opinion would indicate that Arthur was an amalgam of many heroic leaders, his exploits growing with every telling until he becomes the romantic, chivalrous, courtly knight that we know today. If he existed at all it is far more likely that he was a northern ruler or battle leader and not the West Country lord of Avalon and Camelot fame.

The legend tells that Arthur fell at the Battle of Camlann, killed by his brother Mordred. The Welsh Annals of 573AD provides part of the scant written evidence and relates, “The strife at Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell”. There exists another passing reference to the battle in the “Ystrad Fflur Chronicle” recording the death of one Derfei Gadarn at Camlann in 550AD. Alternatively,  there is a battle recorded  in the Annals of Ulster between Aedan, king of Dalriada and the Picts of Miathi, (an ancient kingdom centred around the Forth) which is recorded as the Battle of Manann, fought in 582AD, and in which Artur son of Aedan was killed .

The Annals of Tigernach also refer to the Battle of Circinn in 596AD in which an Artur was killed. Some think this was the Camlann battle and that Mordred was a Pictish chief.  Geoffrey of Monmouth states that Arthur was killed at the Battle of Camelford at the other end of the country. Perhaps all these battles were one and the same despite the difference in dates and places. It was certainly a time of violent struggles and many battles would have been woven into songs and stories.  Truth or legend, may he rest in peace, he provided a rallying point when hope was needed and later provided the basis of legends of the Round Table and knightly chivalry beloved by generations of schoolboys.

As to the actual truth of Arthur’s existence, I leave it to the twelfth century writer, Ranulf Higden to have the last word, “Many men wonder about this Arthur, for it is only Geoffrey among all the chroniclers who praises him so much, and they ask how it is possible to know the truth about the things which are said of him. For according to Geoffrey he conquered thirty kingdoms and it is very strange that the chroniclers of Rome or France, or of the Saxons say nothing about such a great man in their histories, when they talk about the lesser deeds of more humble men. Geoffrey says that he is surprised that Gildas and Bede do not mention Arthur in their works, but I find it much more surprising that Geoffrey praises him so much when other, older writers, true and famous historians, do not mention him at all. Nevertheless, it seems that the custom is for each nation to extol beyond reason one of their own people, as the Greeks did with their Alexander the Great, the Romans with their Octavian, the English with their King Richard the Lionheart and the French with their Charlemagne. Thus did the Britons extol Arthur; and they do this, as Josephus explains, partly to enjoy a good story, partly to please their readers, and partly to exalt their own blood”.

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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