British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book VIII > chapter 8.3

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Chapter 8.3: The contamination of historical features with mythological material

Fabio P. Barbieri

As I argued from the moment when I identified its influence in Gildas (who wrote only a few decades after), we have to see L as a historical, contemporary document; but there is plenty of evidence that the Arthur of Geoffrey has suffered severe contamination from purely legendary sources. He carries the great sword Caliburnus, Welsh Caledfulch, Excalibur, which has the same name as the great sword of Irish epic, Caledbolg; he is married to Guinevere, Geoffrey’s Ganhumara, the Gwennhwyvar of the Welsh – whose name turns up in the same Irish epic cycle as that of Caledbolg, worn by another femme fatale, Findabair.

The legend or legends of King Arthur, qua legend, is too enormous a subject to tackle even in the vast confines of this study; I intend to deal with it in a future series of studies about Indo-European epic traditions. I can, however, dedicate some pages to pointing out the most obvious similarities between the great king and another great king, part of the other great Celtic epic: to demonstrating that Arthur of Britain, taking his legends as a whole, has a great deal of points in common with Fergus mac Roich, the exiled king of Ulster from the legend-cycle of CuChulainn.

1) Fergus is the rightful king of Ulster in the greatest epic legend-cycle of Ireland. 1) Arthur is the rightful king of Britain in the greatest epic legend-cycle of Britain.
2) Fergus carries the famous sword Caledbolg. 2) Arthur carries the famous sword Caledfwlch, or Excalibur[1].
3) The great war of the Tain has two aspects: the clash between Ulster and the other four Fifths of Ireland, and the exile and revenge of Fergus, who lost his throne to Conchobar, through the treachery of Fergus' own bride Ness and with the consent of the men of the province, and was then driven out altogether by the treason of Conchobar with respect to Deirdre (a woman whom Conchobar violently claims) and the sons of Noisiu, whose safety involves Fergus' honour. 3) At the dramatic climax of his career, Arthur is involved in two clashes at once: the great war with the empire of Rome, which dominates all Europe except for his kingdom, and the treacherous revolt of Medrawt/Mordred, who takes over Britain while Arthur is away from his kingdom with the consent of the barons and people left in the island[2], and then violently claims Arthur's wife Gwennhwyvar-Guinevere[3].
4) When Fergus re-enters Ulster in pursuit of his vengeance against Conchobar, he is at the head of all the armies of Ireland. 4) When Arthur re-enters Britain in pursuit of his vengeance against Mordred, he is in command of the whole Roman Empire.
5) The greatest champion of the opposite side, CuChulainn, is bound to Fergus by a deep bond of personal affection and loyalty as foster-son. 5) The greatest of Arthur's enemies, Lancelot, is bound to him by a deep bond of personal affection and loyalty as vassal.[4]
6) CuChulainn’s youth is stressed; he is a wonder, the most terrible warrior in the world at the age of a mere boy. His son Connla - the product of a casual relationship with the warrior sage Aife - is however even greater than himself at an even younger age. 6) Lancelot’s youth is sometimes stressed, and more so that of his son Galahad - the product of a casual relationship with Elen, the daughter of the sage king Pelles - who, as I have argued elsewhere[5], is in effect another self of his, even "his better self", the greatest of all heroes, and who soon dies.
7) CuChulainn is the son, or even the avatar, of Lug, the Celtic supreme god. 7) Lancelot has been authoritatively identified with Lug[6].
8) While others seem blind to the menace of Cu Chulainn, Fergus makes grim and accurate forecasts about his power, and laments the war between them. 8) Arthur makes grim and accurate forecasts about Lancelot's power and menace, and laments the need for war between them.
9) Findabair daughter of Medb, a major figure in the war and the reason why many Irish warriors go to their deaths against CuChulainn[7], is connected by her name[8] to... 9)...Guinevere, Welsh Gwennhwyvar, Galfridian Latin Ganhumara, a major figure in the war and the reason why many British warriors go to their deaths against Lancelot and again against Mordred.
10) Though offered with their parents' approval to many heroes, Findabair is never legitimately offered to CuChulainn; her father pretends to, but in fact sends a clown dressed in her clothes to make sure that no real promise is given. CuChulainn has no right to her; when he finds that out, he returns the maiden to her parents, sexually untouched but humiliated. The war then goes on with increased fury. 10) Lancelot (who has Guinevere with himself at the start of the war) returns her to her legitimate husband Arthur, untouched if humiliated, recognizing that he has no right to her, and swearing that he has not laid a finger on her. The oath is certified by the Pope and must be regarded as truthful. Nevertheless, the war continues with increased fury.
11) CuChulainn has a peculiarly hostile relationship with the Morrigan, whose attentions he scorned, and who causes him great damage in return[9]. All this happens in the first part of the war (the part equivalent to Arthur’s war against Lancelot), as CuChulainn is singly fighting champions seduced by the promise of Findabair. 11) Lancelot has a peculiarly hostile relationship with Morgaine le Fay, whose attentions he scorned and who causes him great harm in return: she captures him – inconceivable that anyone else could - and causes King Arthur to find out about his love for Guinevere[10]. This is one of the antefacts to the war for Guinevere.
12) After CuChulainn has returned Findabair, her stage of the war has its climax in the most horrendous and awesome duel by far, between CuChulainn and his former friend Fer Diad, who has magic powers of his own, and who disastrously insists on fighting him, even though CuChulainn would bend over backwards not to. Fer Diad is older than CuChulainn, who was his follower when they studied fighting with Scathach. The struggle ends with CuChulainn's agonized victory, but he laments the loss of the noblest warrior and best friend he knew. 12) After Lancelot has returned Guinevere, his former friend Gawain (who is considerably older than him, and whose liegeman he offers to become) insists on continuing the war; climaxing in a horrendous and awesome duel between them, by far the greatest ever seen, which Lancelot bends over backwards to avoid. Gawain is overcome and mortally wounded in spite of his own magic powers, which put Lancelot in great danger. Lancelot laments his own victory and the loss of the noblest knight and best friend he knew.
13) Considering the distinction pointed out above between the two strands of the great war (the rest of Ireland vs.Ulster, and Fergus vs.Conchobar), it is significant that the story is so arranged as not to allow any real clash between Ulster and the other provinces until CuChulainn has ignominously returned Findabair and fought the great duel. 13) The story is so arranged as not to allow the rebellion of Mordred to happen until Guinevere has been returned to Arthur and Lancelot and Gawain have fought their great duel: Mordred has to possess her for an effective claim to the throne[11]. Therefore the highly personal struggle between Arthur and Lancelot, though practically contiguous in time…
14) It is only after this that the agonizing birth-pains leave the men of Ulster, and they are able to fight., turning the lonely struggle of CuChulainn into a war of provinces. 14)… is separate from the struggle between Arthur and Mordred, when Arthur returns from the Continent with a great army and fights a war of nations.
15) Findabair dies of a broken heart because of the massacre she has caused. 15) Guinevere dies in a cloister, lamenting and repenting the massacre she has caused.

When compared with the analogous points in the British epic, the reasons for points 14 and 15 in the Tain Bo Cuailnge appear flagrantly contrived. The birth-pangs of the men of Ulster do not appear in any other story, and seem designed for the purpose of forcing CuChulainn to fight alone until the great duel with Fer Diad. Likewise, to make Findabair - who, unlike Guinevere, had certainly not caused the main war - die of heartbreak, a never-before-heard-from Ulaid love of hers, one Reochaid, must be wheeled out, to make nine kings of Munster, in true farce style, realize that they have been fooled, and start a civil war within Medb's camp. This, not the big war - let alone the many heroes individually sent to their deaths out of desire for her - is "the slaughter she has caused" and which breaks her heart. How consistent is this with the heartless, doll-like beauty regularly wheeled out to make hero after hero go and make a victim of himself under CuChulainn's terrible arms? The sequence of events concerning Guinevere, on the other hand, is comparatively clear and logical, and always sticks close to the main issues. It is clear that the character of Findabair has lost a great deal of ground in Ireland, being quite secondary to her formidable mother and treated, throughout, as no more than a disastrous trap for heroes; compared to the Arthurian Guinevere, she is neither tragic nor interesting.

The very evidence for Findabair's decline, however, underlines the fact that their common prototype must have been a very important character indeed.  One passage in the Vulgate Lancelot suggests that Guinevere was in fact defined as something like a standard or even spirit of beauty.  "The queen was so beautiful that everyone marvelled at her, for at that time she was at least fifty years old, but... her equal could not be found anywhere in the world.  Because of this, and since her beauty never failed her, certain knights said that she was the fountain of all beauty[12]."

Fountain of all beauty, eh?  This sort of anonymous but authoritative definition often hints at an original view of the nature of a person or thing, toned down in view of Christian and rationalistic presumptions; in fact, it reminds me of such disaster-making beauties as the Indian Draupadi in the Mahabharata and Helen of Troy, who are the most beautiful women in the world - and fated, indeed created, to cause gigantic wars that put an end to whole heroic ages.  If Arthur is married to such a figure, it must be because he is envisaged as being the same kind of hero as their husbands, the bridegroom of the terrible beauty, the protagonist of the greatest epic of the culture, and of the greatest war the world will ever see, the greatest and final struggle of the Age of Heroes.

So far, so good.  There can be no doubt that the Arthur of the romances is exactly that, that the battle of Camlann has the same resonance as the war of Troy and the great struggle of Kuruksetra - the climax and end of a golden world of heroes.  King Arthur may, like Charlemagne and Roland, have become the protagonist of the greatest epic cycle of his culture, but we have already seen several undeniably historical figures - Magnus Clemens Maximus, Vitalinus, St.Patrick, St.Germanus, Loegaire, Taliesin; also, perhaps, Catellus of Powys, Conn Hundred-battles and Art mac Conn - similarly inserted in largely pre-existent legendary schemes.  Just as Vitalinus/Vortigern became the protagonist of the saga of the seduced and ruined king - a saga that pertains to Art mac Conn in Ireland - so, no doubt, Arthur was married to the ancient legendary figure Findabair/ Gwennhwyvar/Guinevere: a variation on the favourite Celtic theme of the sovereignty marriage.

Indeed, the description is inadequate: we should speak not of a sovereignty, but of a destiny marriage.  Patriarchs marry female figures who pertain to their particular areas of power or activity, to their destiny.  Cunedda may marry Stradwawl, incarnation of the Roman roads that lead to and beyond the Wall; Niall may lie with the Sovereignty of Ireland; but what Vortigern and Muirchertach mac Ercae marry is not their sovereignty, but their death, their destiny of violence and ruin.  The ancestor of a famous medical family in Myddvai married a fairy who bestowed on his descent their destiny as healers; and fairy-stolen figures such as Connla or Lanval marry destinies so high and mysterious – the power of Connla’s fairy is greater even than that of Conn’s court druid, and the beauty of Lanval’s bride is greater even than that of Guinevere, Fountain of All Beauty - that no mortal ever sees them again.  And so Arthur, like Vortigern but in a different way, has been married to the goddess or spirit who defines his destiny: the irresistible, ruinously beautiful allure of the destiny and doom of the greatest of warrior kings.  It is no coincidence that there is a doubt whether there is one, two or even three Guineveres, good or bad, faithful or destructive: the same is true of Helen of Troy, ultimate beauty, who was perhaps – but only perhaps – a divine spirit made of clouds and sent to bewilder and drive the heroes to their doom, while the real Helen, good and faithful and true, remained hidden in Egypt (the sacred and ancient land) waiting for her one true bridegroom.  Guinevere is the frightful, dazzling allure of glory and doom – and it is quite possible that that allure may be deceptive.

In other words, Guinevere/Gwennhwyvar existed independently of Arthur, a legendary presence waiting to be attached to whoever drew to himself the name of the greatest, most dazzling of warrior kings, the one of highest doom[13].  Even in Welsh tradition, she is not always connected with the hero: in at least one poem, surviving in two widely divergent versions, she is nothing to do with Arthur (though he is mistakenly mentioned in the traditional title, Ymddiddan Gwennhwyvar ac Arthur, “the dialogue of Guinevere and Arthur”), but is the teasing, provoking object of a violent contention between Cei and Melwas.  Cei is a hero who, in Welsh accounts – but not in Continental romances – has a peculiar position at Arthur’s court and is ranked the greatest of his heroes; Melwas is, in many versions of the Gwennhwyvar/Guinevere legend, the dark, abducting lover from distant regions (one or two fourteenth-century love poems suggest that he had the powers of a love wizard), who comes to claim the Fountain of All Beauty from Cei, Arthur, even Lancelot[14].  But in this poem, it is Cei, not Arthur, who is the legal husband from whom Melwas takes Gwennhwyvar.

Nor was Arthur always known as Gwennhwyvar/Guinevere’s husband: both a wife and a great love are known.  The burlesque Arthurian tale Cullhwch and Olwen[15],which contains a great deal of very ancient lore, suggests that Arthur was legally married to one Eleirch daughter of Iaen, whose brothers Caradoc and Siawn are (according to the tale’s editors, Rachel Bromwich and D.Simon Evans) his in-laws.  Cullhwch and Olwen is not very clear about this, et pour cause, since it also shows Gwennhwyvar ensconced as Arthur’s queen; clearly its author was in receipt of two contradictory traditions.  Another (poetic) source[16] speaks of a great love affair with a woman called Creirwy daughter of Garwy Hir[17].

Another feature which places this poem in the earliest, possibly historical layer of Arthurian tradition is that it describes Arthur as coming from “the highlands of Pictland”.  The evidence connecting any possible historical Arthur to the North, to present-day Scotland, has been rehearsed time and again.  His supposed cousin Cullhwch is the grandson of Celiddon Wledig, “Caledon the High King”, obviously a figure of the Caledonians, who were Picts.  All his feuds which can be placed geographically pertain to the North.  Arthur is the enemy of Hueil, son Caw of Prytdyn or Pictland; Arthur is opposed to the house of Edern, a dynasty of the British Old North.  Likewise, the only recognizable one of Arthur’s battles in Nennius took place in “the wood of Caledon”, where Geoffrey also places one of Arthur’s important early campaigns.  Other northern items, not related to Pictland, include the Arthurian allusion in the Gododdin, which Rachel Bromwich[18] suspected meant that the Gododdin heroes saw themselves as Arthur’s successors: “The oldest allusions to Arthur associate him with North Britain.  It is claimed of one of the warriors in the Gododdin that he performed great deeds of valour ceni bei ef Arthur, “though he was not Arthur”.  Even if this line did not belong to the original composition, it formed part of the written text of the poem by the ninth century[19]”.  Finally, the name of Camlann cries out to be recognized as Camboglanna, Birdoswald, a fortress on Hadrian’s Wall[20].

According to Rachel Bromwich, Gwennhwyvar as bride of Arthur is unknown to the gogynfeirdd, the Welsh “poets of the second-earliest age”, about 900 to 1200, whom the wise old scholar T.Gwynn Jones thought were in receipt of ancient and basically historical accounts of the king.  In view of Gwennhwyvar/Guinevere/ Ganhumara/Findabair’s admittedly legendary nature, the fact that these Welsh traditions did not regard her as his wife suggest, at least, that they might have a better rooting in actual history than Geoffrey, where, in view of her admittedly mythological nature, her presence is a clear symptom of contamination from purely romantic/epic/ mythological material.

Geoffrey, we have seen, did not speak Welsh; but there is evidence, in his own work, for the existence of an account of the legend of Arthur – as opposed to a historical account such as L - written in Latin by someone who understood Welsh or Breton, and earlier than anything we have. According to the linguistic authority of Bromwich and Evans, “Geoffrey of Monmouth must have derived [the form Caliburnus for Caledfwlch/ Excalibur] from a written text earlier than any which has survived, since must have been one in which [the second half of the name] bulch was as yet unlenited”, that is its –b- had not yet turned into a –f-.  However, it is not quite as easy as that: Evans and Bromwich themselves point out that the still higher authority of Joseph Vendryes, a great historical linguist, argues that the Galfridian name Ganhumara for Guinevere suggests “a written misinterpretation of Old Welsh Guenhuiuar”, meaning that its author misunderstood the middle –w- of the heroine’s name as coming, like many Welsh –w- sounds, from an earlier –m- (e.g. Rhuuein from Roma and Rhufawn from Romanus).  But it was a misunderstanding, as the parallel of Findabair shows.  The name Ganhumara, therefore, come from someone who knew it in Welsh and tried to artificially archaize it.

Both Gwennhwyvar and Caledfulch are features of the legendary rather than historical account of Arthur, shared with Irish epic.  Therefore they go together; their evidence goes together.  In this case, it proves that the author of this one among Geoffrey’s sources spoke Old Welsh rather than an earlier, unlenited Old Celtic language; but that he knew just enough to apply the historical lenition to the ancient names, in reverse, to achieve more archaic forms – even where they do not apply.

Caliburnus/Excalibur appears, along with other weapons mentioned in Welsh Arthurian material, at the battle of Badon and elsewhere in Geoffrey; being only a weapon, with no personality of its own, it may be easily intruded at any point in the story of a warrior king.  Queen Guinevere, however, is another matter; and it is notable that, until Arthur’s last wars, she never does anything at any time except to look decorative at a court function whose details are certainly Geoffrey’s own intention.  This is in marked contrast with the epic/ romance material, in most of which, from short Breton lais to titanic compilations such as Perslevaus and the Vulgate cycle, Guinevere is a visible presence, active in some way in almost every episode, sometimes at the centre of the action.  But as for Geoffrey, it is only in his long and elaborate concluding cycle of wars that Guinevere comes into her own.  She affects the action in the most dramatic and decisive way possible, by deserting Arthur for Mordred, and precipitating the latter’s usurpation.

The centre of Ganhumara’s being is her capricious and truly fateful (femme fatale) motion from one to another lover, taking with her that dazzling beauty that drives men to fight and die for her; therefore, where that centre can be found, that is where she must have come from.  It was from the account of Arthur’s final wars that the Fountain of All Beauty entered Geoffrey’s composite account of the hero.  And it follows that this account, which I have called Group 3 and seen reason to separate from the notice about the date of Camlann (Group 2), is at the very least heavily dependent on the epic tradition rather than on any historically based notice.  It is easy enough to point out the ways in which Geoffrey’s account of the war with the Romans is partly based on the war which the legendary Arthur and Gawain fight against Lancelot, and that it is connected to the war with Mordred in the same way.


1)- The war with the Romans is a war de imperio, about whether Arthur or the Romans are ultimate sovereigns over Britain and Gaul. 1)- The war with Lancelot is about Guinevere, who is however clearly connected with the sovereignty of Britain. According to the Vulgate Death of King Arthur, the elders of Britain tell her that she must marry Mordred (Arthur being supposed dead) "...because the man to whom God gives the honour of this kingdom must certainly marry you".
2)- King Arthur crosses the sea to fight the Romans in Armorica. 2)- King Arthur crosses the sea to fight Lancelot in Benwick, a land recognizable as part of Armorica.
3)- Arthur’s opponent in the war is the Roman emperor Leo, but the enemy hero, commander of the army and apparently invincible, is Lucius Hiberus, whose name is oddly similar to… 3)- …Irish Lug, Welsh Lleu, the name of the Celtic supreme god who has been identified both with Lancelot and with his Irish equivalent Cu Chulainn. In the Irish epic, CuChulainn is not the true enemy (that is Conchobar) but rather his champion and foremost hero, and, if not the commander of the army, at least its first fighter.
4)- Lucius Hiberus fights a great duel with Gawain, which he does not lose; Gawain dies shortly after, though the story claims that it was at Mordred’s hands that he died. 4)- Lancelot fights and wins a great duel with Gawain.
5)- As Arthur is about to conquer the whole Empire (but has not yet conquered it), he is called back home by news of Mordred and Guinevere’s treachery. 5)- Although the Vulgate Death of King Arthur interpolates a Roman invasion in deference to Geoffrey, it is clear that the war against Mordred actually interrupts Arthur’s wars against Lancelot.

It is, in other words, quite clear that Geoffrey modelled his account of Arthur’s final wars on the epic template which produced all the “Deaths of King Arthur” including the Vulgate and Malory, and which also gave us the story of Fergus mac Roich. It has no basic relationship with history, and was no part of the original L. We may be sure, from the divergent mentions in Geoffrey and the Annales Kambriae, that Arthur died in battle in a place called Camlann; but the battles of Camlann known to us both from Geoffrey and from the romances are all based on legend.

On the other hand, the theme of a clash between Arthur and Roman ways does seem connected with the contents of L, if we can put any trust in Zosimus.  We may allow that Zosimus' book is unfinished and that what we have is in effect a first draft; certainly the 6.5 passage is astoundingly ill-written, with repetitions and stylistic stutters that even a half-trained heir of classical literary tradition would surely have smoothed out in revision.  "As they advanced, the barbarians [who lived] over the Rhine gained control of everything, and reduced the inhabitants of the British island and some of the peoples who lived among the Celts to the necessity of revolting from the Roman government and managing their own affairs without observing the laws of the Romans.  Consequently, the people of Britain armed themselves and took their lives in their hands in order to rid their poleis of the barbarians who were menacing them, and all Armorica and other provinces of the Gauls followed the example of the Britons and in a similar way made themselves independent, throwing out the Romans' officials and setting up their own independent government."   This could be said in half the space, and, had Zosimus managed to revise it, it probably would have been.  But there seems to be a parallel between the stages of Arthur's career in Geoffrey and Zosimus' description of the British war against the barbarians:

1)- The British arm and run terrible risks to clear their poleis of barbarians. The plural emphasizes that there is a plurality of political powers in Britain. 1)- Crowned – like Constantine II and Ambrosius - in threatening circumstances, the young Arthur takes arms against the Saxons against such terrible odds that he has to call in his relative Hueil from across the sea. This stage of Geoffrey’s hero's career, and this alone, is tied to Nennius' account of Arthur as battle-leader of the kings of Britain, emphasizing a plurality of political powers. The wars are against non-Roman peoples and lands, not only the Saxons, but the outer islands.
2)- The war then spreads to Armorica and unspecified other regions of Gaul. 2)- After twelve years of peace, Arthur invades Norway and Gaul, which he quite subdues in nine years of war. To emphasize his complete and legal control over these countries, he summons a parliament in Paris.
3)- As part or result of the war, the British expel the Roman magistrates and refuse to obey Roman laws and pay Roman taxes, reverting instead to "their own" laws, followed by the Armoricans and other Gauls. Zosimus seems conscious of a Celtic identity common to Britain and Gaul. 3)- After five years of peace, Roman envoys beard the king at a great royal assembly and demand tribute and the return of the invaded Gaul. Arthur refuses, in the name of ancient British heroic deeds in Gaul and even in Italy, where Brennius (whom he takes to be a British king) once seized Rome.

It is clear that if we eliminate the division in time between Arthur’s first invasion and conquest of Gaul, and his clash with the ius Romanum, then the two structures become much closer: first a stage of desperate struggle within the bounds of Britain itself, with stress put on the plurality of British poleis or reges; then expansion into Armorica and unspecified other Gaulish regions (to which Geoffrey adds, surprisingly, Norway); involving at some point a radical break with Rome and Roman things, in the name of a glorious Celtic British past that involved wars in Gaul and Italy. The motor of this is the war against the “barbarians over the Rhine”, who, to judge from Zosimus’ phrasing, occupy both Britain and Gaul: a war, in other words, that transcends the mere struggle against the Saxons whose climax is Mons Badonicus, and reaches out to strike the “barbarians from beyond the Rhine” who had occupied Gaul - that is, the Franks.

My theory is that Geoffrey separated Arthur’s insurrection against ius Romanum, from the first invasion of Gaul, removing it to the second.  Indeed, a second invasion of Gaul seems an entirely unnecessary hypothesis; and if we take Zosimus’ expression to be precise, it seems fairly clear that he not only thought the anti-Roman revolt and the liberation of Armorica and adjacent Gaulish provinces from the “barbarians settled over the Rhine” to be contemporaneous, but that the revolt against Roman law was probably the earlier.

That Geoffrey manipulated the story is at any rate pretty obvious.  Nowhere are his fingerprints more evident; whatever previous account of Arthur's wars existed has been almost wholly overlain with the man's learning, attitudes and points of view.  Geoffrey's literary art is nearly as long-range as that of Gildas.  He prepares his points with care and springs them upon us unexpectedly; and there never are more pay-off lines than in these chapters.  For instance: it is clear that one of his purposes in his redaction of the legend of King Arthur is to trash Gildas' account of the British past and character, as thoroughly and extensively as he can.  So, one of the things he does is to inform us, twice, that the Saxons always arrayed their armies in wedges.  Why insist on such a minor point?  Because, in his account of the battle of Sessia, Arthur's ultimate triumph, he brings crashing on us the fact that the British "always", as a habit, arrayed their own hosts in a central square with a left and a right wing; which is exactly what Gildas said they had not been able to do after the leaena dolosa's murders - nec quadratum agmen neque dextrum cornu aliiue belli apparatus (The Ruin 6).  Geoffrey even corrects - with what inward delight, we can only imagine - an obvious blunder of the Saint, who does not seem to have realized that a quadratum agmen must have not only a dexter cornu but a sinister too.  Gildas, he may have chuckled to himself, may have been a Saint, but a soldier he clearly was not.

Where, however did this quite unhistorical Emperor Leo come from?  His name is a well-known crux.  No Roman Emperor named Leo ever ruled in the West.  Leo I ruled in Constantinople from 457 to 474, but on Geoffrey’s chronology, Arthur is a contemporary of Anastasius I (491-518), Justin I (518-527), and Justinian I (527-565), the latter being contemporary with his Gallic wars, triumph, and death.  The idea of a clash between Arthur and Justinian does indeed tickle the imagination, but that is not what we have here.  And the use of an unchronological name for a Roman emperor is far out of keeping with Geoffrey's very high standard of historical knowledge and chronology; all his strutting of learning for his public's benefit was not just show.

We have seen that there are grounds to suspect that the heroic commander Lucius had a role parallel to that of Lancelot and CuChulainn; he is the main enemy, who, in the first part of the war – or in the first war –fights a great duel with Gawain which he does not lose; but he is the champion of the enemy rather than the king or leader.  There are a few other points which also tend to place him in a category of “heroes of Lug”, representing or even incarnating the great god.  That Lucius dies shortly after, in battle, by an unknown hand, might perhaps represent Geoffrey’s saving of British sensitivities; but I have demonstrated[21], that the swift fall of the hero who incarnates the fighting and avenging aspect of Lug is a structural and necessary part of his career.  The Norman poet Wace adds that Lucius died by a spear-blow; and another thing I have shown is that at least one hero who represents – if in a different fashion – the power of Lug, falls in battle by a spear thrown by no known hand, and that it is necessary that he should[22].  Lucius Hiberus, too, is not himself a sovereign, but the servant and chief champion of one, like Cu Chulainn or Lancelot; this seems to be part of the template for a “Lug” hero; and the fact that he is the champion of the great king’s enemy – as is, if we look at it the right way, CuChulainn – reminds us of the role of the legendary Taliesin – in my interpretation, another “Lug” hero – as champion of Elphin, the otherwise defenceless and defeated opponent of the great king Maelgwn.

Now the ultimate enemy of whom CuChulainn is the champion is Conchobar; and, in my scheme, his equivalent is not Leo but Medrawt/Mordred (whose name, so sinister-sounding in all Romance and Teutonic languages, must have been a positive blessing to French, English, German, Italian and Spanish romancers!).  And in both the Irish and the Welsh legend, this enemy is not of a higher rank than the great king: to the contrary, the presence of the Lug hero by their side seems almost a diagnostic of inferior rank, as with Elphin against Maelgwn.  The legend has no place for an imperial superior to the Great King.

It follows that Leo’s name and character are a free-standing item, with no legendary correspondence or explanation. And this corresponds to a notorious Galfridian crux: the relationship between Leo and Lucius[23] is practically inextricable in Geoffrey’s account, and may indeed reflect confusion or contradiction in his sources. Leo is Emperor in Rome (not Constantinople), and never appears; Lucius, the effective head of Roman forces, is given the unhistorical title of Procurator (perhaps calqued on that of Pontius Pilate in the Vulgate). It is curious, and possibly significant, that the full name of the Procurator is Lucius Hiberus, “L. the Spaniard or Irishman”; it might suggest confusion with some story of Arthur invading Ireland.

It is well to insist that what we are dealing with are two entirely separate entities: L, the historical account of Arthur’s wars; and the epic template in which a Great King of the legendary past battles opposing powers among which – though not as king - there is an incarnation of the god Lug – Lancelot, CuChulainn. The data woven by Geoffrey into his own account come from more than one source. Lucius Hiberus certainly, Frollo probably, belong to a definite, well-structured legendary source; the Emperor Leo does not seem to. But neither does he come from history known to us.

It is Geoffrey’s known methods that come to our help. Leo was not the only dubious Roman emperor known to Geoffrey; and he had already felt the need to modify the accounts he had received in certain specific ways, I mean in the legend of the Seven Emperors. Nennius regarded the Seven Emperors as sovereigns of Roman race who had ruled Britain, and Britain alone; Geoffrey, fed on Classical historiography and prose, and quite conscious that there was only one Roman Empire and that its core was in Italy, revised the whole legend, drawing a strong line between kings of Britain and Roman emperors. Seven emperors, he says, came to Britain and resided there; but they were still Roman emperors, ruling over the whole Roman Empire. Between them, he fills the spaces with kings of Britain - of British race - and Roman usurpers. He is careful to rule out figures who come to Britain but whom he does not regard as actual emperors, like Carausius, Allectus and Constantius, involved not in the succession of the imperial title, but of the prestigious but vassal kingship of Britain. Nevertheless, careful reading of his "Roman" chapters will show that, after Caesar, there are exactly seven figures who either come to or from Britain, and who are Roman emperors: Claudius, Vespasian, Severus, Geta, Bassianus, Constantine and Maximianus. That he ignores Nennius' "good Maximus" is interesting, but not unexpected, since we have seen that the division of Good Maximus and Bad Maximianus was a deliberate and artificial genealogical fiction which Nennius fully understood; Geoffrey, however, had as little interest in acquiescing to that pretension as in collaborating in Nennius' other little hobby-horse, the whitewashing of Vortigern.

Geoffrey transferred the Seven Emperors from Britain to Rome. He turned their life-spans from superhuman to human: according to Nennius, the Seven Emperors had ruled over Britain for 409 years, which gives an improbable average of more than 58 years of reign, but Geoffrey placed large spaces between their various "visits" to Britain, which he filled with British kings. In short, he made the legend credible and inserted it in a learned framework of Roman history, including byways as obscure as the usurpation of Gratianus municeps and the adventures of Carausius and Allectus.

What if he had done the same with the Roman Emperor defeated by Arthur? What if the unhistorical Emperor Leo was in fact a British Roman emperor, like all the other legendary figures of emperors that lie at the back of his would-be historical sovereigns? What if the story was in fact the struggle of Arthur with a successor to the imperial pretensions of Constantine III - a "Roman emperor" in the line of the Mild King, Vitalinus, and Ambrosius (or his brother)?

I think that the enormous significance of King Arthur in Welsh and Breton legend has to do with this: that he became a culture hero because, with him, the Celtic ways of the North triumphed. He is the head of the Celticizing revolution described by Zosimus’ source, that swept through Britain to Gaul to establish a temporary power remembered only in Procopius’ fable of the Arborychan princess married to a Frankish king, but that left behind, as a permanent monument, the new nation of Brittany. All through this research we have been moving closer to that moment of decision, which produced A as its charter and L as its proud history, when leaders arose who were disposed to rule not as Romans but as Northern chiefs, identifying Northern ways with native British ways in spite of the fact that central and southern Britain was still, not only then but a century after and as late as the English conquest, the home of people who could be defined as Romani or Wealhas.


[1]Although peculiar to Fergus and Arthur, these swords are very occasionally seen in the hands of other warriors, such as Arthur’s supposed follower Llenlleawg the Irishman. This is another point of similarity between them.

[2]The author of the Vulgate Death of King Arthur, otherwise a writer of the highest quality, here contradicts himself within two pages. He starts by making the baronage first prefer Mordred to Arthur, but immediately has the whole country lament the King's reported death, because he was so popular. Malory is far clearer: reporting the disloyalty of "England" to the King, he launches in a brief but truly Gildas-like attack on the "English" vice of disloyalty - timely, since he was writing during the War of the Roses. Apart from sentimental clinging to the idea that a great king will always be loved, this variation is partly due to the influence of Geoffrey, whose Mordred has no support in Britain except for Ganhumara, and builds his strength up by summoning barbarians from Germany and Ireland. This picture chimes with Geoffrey's own preoccupations, placing Mordred in a typically Galfridian line of native traitors such as Vortigern and Assaracus, who admit foreigners into Britain out of personal ambition, and disagrees with the corresponding element in the Irish legend. Therefore it must be regarded as Geoffrey's own contribution.

[3]Arthurian texts are divided on whether Guinevere resisted (Vulgate cycle) or accepted (Geoffrey) Mordred's advances; but what is certain is that his claim on her is an act of violence and disloyalty which dishonours Arthur, as the violent treason of Conchobar dishonours Fergus.

[4]The bond is even closer because in fact the relationship between a Celtic king and a member of his comitatus was seen as the same as that between a father and a son. CHARLES-EDWARDS, Authenticity op.cit., 58f.

[5]Indiges op.cit. pp.56-63.

[6]ROGER SHERMAN LOOMIS, preface to Lanzelet: cf. my Indiges, 54-63 and 109, where I also discuss the relationship between Lug and CuChulainn.

[7]It is curious and possibly significant that the place in which the Irish armies base themselves in their pursuit of the bull is also called Findabair. As with many Irish place-names, it was the spot where the heroine was supposed to have died of heartbreak (at the sight of the massacre she had caused - see point 14 below).

[8]According to the hypothesis favoured by RACHEL BROMWICH, Trioedd Ynis Prydein, Cardiff 1962, 380.

[9]Until the Morrigan causes him three wounds in battle, we never hear of his being either tired or hurt; he fights on like a man of bronze. After his meeting with her, however, his exhaustion and wounds are suddenly a major issue, until his own omnipotent father Lug grants him healing and a three-day sleep.

[10]The death of King Arthur, Harmondsworth 1971, 66-74.

[11]"...because the man to whom God gives the honour of this kingdom must certainly marry you [Guinevere]". The death of King Arthur, Harmondsworth 1971, 162.

[12]The death of King Arthur, Harmondsworth 1971, 25.

[13]Gwennhwyvar/Findabair has, in Arthurian romance, what one might call a lower-class counterpart: Guenloie, or Winlogee, who features in the legend of Yder, which shows Arthur in an unusually unchivalrous and treacherous light. Yder is the type of the upright vassal or lower king, and the fact that Guenloie spurns the great king in favour of Yder shows that she is particularly the destiny of Yder, that is, of a lesser king; she also appears on the famous Arthurian archivolt of the Cathedral of Modena (the first known work of Arthurian art, decades earlier even than Geoffrey), actually in Guinevere’s position, as a victim of abduction held in a castle besieged by Arthur and her beloved Yder. It is also possible that the male character Gwynllyw, father of the great saint Cadoc, whose name seems exactly the same, may depend on a misunderstanding of name and idea; the Vita Cadoci is full of such misunderstandings, and the story, for what it is worth, features Arthur in the role of the high king being churlish and almost usurping towards an upright and unoffending lesser king, Gwynllyw himself.

[14]In the poem Gwennhwyvar taunts Melwas, who has come to Cei’s court in disguise, with not being able to resist Cei, who, when drunk on his wine, can outfight nine men (this is the same description as in another early poem, Pa Gur – see below); Melwas replies that he is perfectly capable of fighting Cei, and that he despises old men incapable of sexual performance – suggesting that he, but not Cei, is capable of satisfying the Fountain of All Beauty. One of the two versions seems to end with the start of a duel between Cei and Melwas - Hwde di! Hwde dithe! – “Perish! You perish!”. JOHN B.COE and SIMON YOUNG, The Celtic sources for the Arthurian legend, Llanerch 1995, 108-115.

[15]The significance of Cullhwch and Olwen, a truly strange tale in the Mabinogion, has been much discussed. I think it is a mockery of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “history”, featuring an implicit criticism of his methods. The editors’ eagle eyes have spotted that it makes Howel a son of Emyr Llydaw, meaning that it was later than the Bruts (Welsh translations of Geoffrey). Its tone is frequently burlesque and heavily sarcastic, and it is compiled with an incompetence that is really out of keeping with other Welsh prose tales. All the material it uses, however, is unknown to Geoffrey, but I would say that much of it is clearly ancient. I think that the absurd clumsiness is deliberate, the use of stories unknown to Geoffrey implicitly condemns him by pointing out of how many things he is ignorant, and the clumsy and disorderly bunching together of separate accounts is an editorial comment on Geoffrey’s way of assembling separate items into one narrative.

[16]T.GWYNN JONES, Some Arthurian material in Keltic, in Aberystwyth Studies 8 (1926), p.42

[17]Whose ancestry seems to have been forgotten by the time of Cullhwch and Olwen, which ridiculously makes him the son of Geraint son of Erbin. In other words, he may have been a very ancient figure.

[18]Trioedd Ynis Prydein, Cardiff 1961, 275.

[19]ulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 17, p.244.

[20]To be sure the name is fairly generic – “crooked glen” – and might, perhaps, be found elsewhere, as there certainly is a modern Camlann in Wales. But “perhaps” is not good enough. The fact is that the only known Camboglanna from the period is Birdoswald, and that a Roman fort is a natural and obvious place to fight.

[21]In my Indiges,54-61.

[22]ibid. Appendix III (129-132) That Wace knew that Lucius died by a spear – a detail unmentioned by Geoffrey –hints at the existence of versions other than Geoffrey’s.

[23]Not to mention the supposed Roman hero Frollo, Arthur’s personal enemy, a giant. Later sources make him an Alaman, and separate him from the larger story of Arthur’s invasion of Gaul. I think Geoffrey inserted him artificially into the Roman war, to give Arthur a duel as great as that of Gawain against Lucius Hiberus and the heroic deaths of Kai and Bedivere, but that he probably belongs to the tradition of Arthur as giant-killer, and that the story of Arthur fighting and killing him on the Seine was originally completely separate from that of Arthur’s larger war. Geoffrey knew other traditions of Arthur as giant-killer, of which the best-known (that of the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel) was also set in Gaul.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

VortigernStudies is copyright Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved