MARCH 22, 2017 BY
For those of you looking for something Celtic to read this spring, author Martin Wall brings us Warriors and Kings: The 1500-Year Battle for Celtic Britain. For centuries, the Celtic peoples of Britain stood fast against invasion, oppression and war. Theirs is a fascinating and exciting story which birthed some of the most tenacious and heroic leaders in history: from Caractacus and Boudicca, to William Wallace, Owain Glyndwr and the legendary King Arthur. What was it that gave first the Britons, and the then the Welsh, this fanatical will to hold out against overwhelming odds, over so many centuries? Following the British Museum’s popular ‘Celts: Art and Identity’ exhibition and ‘The Celts’, a major BBC TV series, Martin Wall explores the mythology and psychology of this unyielding and insular people: their devotion to charismatic leaders they believed to be sent from God, and their stubborn determination ‘ne’er to yield’ to oppression and injustice, whether Roman, Saxon, Norman or Viking, or the ravages of soulless industrialism. This fascinating book explores Celtic Britain, from before the onslaught of the Roman Empire, through rebellion and open war, to the Act of Union passed under the Tudor monarchs and on to the unforgiving industrialisation of the Victorian era. 304 pages, packed with over 40 illustrations.
The historian J. N. L Myers in his The English Settlements (Oxford, 1986) thought that more time had been spent by academics delving into the issue of ‘Arthur’ than enough, and that serious analysis of the Anglo-Saxon intrusions in the fifth century had been obfuscated by these pointless researches. Another serious scholar, John Morris, published a groundbreaking study in 1973 called The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350–650 AD, which took quite the opposite view. It was an attempt to reconstruct the jigsaw puzzle of source information that was indisputably legitimate around a ‘missing-piece’, which the reader was invited to infer must have been Arthur, the last of the sub-Roman pretenders to the imperial tradition to have emerged from Britain. In effect, he posited an ‘Arthur shaped-hole’, which he proceeded to fill with cleverly argued connections between historical fact and legend. Myers is quite correct to say that no really convincing archaeological or reliable documentary evidence exists for ‘Arthur’, but, as they say, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. John Morris, though he wrote with a convincing passion and adduced material from primary Celtic sources rarely considered in more Anglo-centric scholarship, came across as an advocate for an Arthur who was perhaps even more heroic than the man presented by Geoffrey of Monmouth. We will see later on how the folk legends about Arthur were recycled in the post-Anglo-Saxon period. However, the question we have to consider is whether he existed at all, and, if so, why is there such a dearth of evidence about him? If not, why was such a personage invented, what consolation or incitement was intended by the promotion of such a story? But most crucially, was he the mastermind behind a crushing defeat of the Saxons, at a place known as Mons Badonicus, or ‘Mount Badon’ – and if so, what were the implications of this Romano-Celtic victory?
The name Artorius, ‘Arthur’ is the Brythonic version, while it is not very common did have a precedent in Britain, and perhaps he was descended from one Artorius Justus, who served in the legions in the province in the third century. Curiously though, the name becomes more popular in the sixth century, which may have come about because of a desire to preserve the memory of the popular saviour – in the same way ‘Winston’ became briefly popular after the Second World War in Britain and its former colonies. Considering the cataclysm that had befallen the Britons, it is unsurprising that little material or documentary evidence was left behind for Arthur’s existence, but folk legends and bardic poetry were already referring to him early on. A Welsh poem mentions him, which may have been translated from an original contemporary Brythonic source:
At Llongborth I saw Arthur’s heroes who cut with steel The Emperor ruler of our labour
In Llongborth Gereint was slain, heroes of the land of Dyfneint Before they were slain they slew.
The use of the word ameraudur in Welsh, meaning ‘emperor’, may well be some garbled recollection of an authority superior to the petty tribal chieftains, rather like Cassivellaunus, Cunobelinus, and Caratacus in pre-Roman times – someone like a Celtic high king. There is also a connotation of it meaning a commander chosen according to respect or merit rather than hereditary entitlement. Llongborth may be Langport in Somerset, an area rich in folklore about Arthur. Dyfneint is Dumnonia, Devon and Cornwall. Again the peninsula is saturated in Arthurian folklore, as we will see. Gereint or Gerontius may be the same person as a noble of the Cornovii of the Midlands, elements of whose royal house seem to have been transplanted to the south-west at this time. Another early poem may mention Arthur too, called the ‘Canu Heledd’. It is a poem of mourning or keening, allegedly composed by the surviving sister of a band of brothers who rode into battle against Anglo-Saxon forces in the 650s and who were all killed in a counter-raid:
My heart is aflame like a rebrand … Brothers I had, better it was when they lived, The whelps of Arthur, our mighty fortress Before Caer Luitcoit they triumphed.
It has been objected that the line in the Canu Heledd may have been mistranslated, but there are other early references too, including one by Aneirin, a north-country Brythonic bard, who says that a warrior, although famously strong and brave, ‘does not compare to Arthur’. I think those who try to suggest that the entire corpus of material adduced to support Arthur’s early literary existence at least, is too weak or suspect, have not fairly considered these poetic references. Whether or not they referred to a real flesh-and-blood person or a fictional folk hero is quite another matter.
Our first real historical documentary encounter with Arthur comes in Welsh annals dating from the ninth century onwards, considerably after the events they purport to record.
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About the Author
Martin Wall inherited his passionate interest in local history and folklore from his father and has been writing about these subjects for ten years. He lectures historical groups on a variety of subjects and acts as a gallery interpreter in his spare time.
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