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

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Chapter 8.4: The lost document "L": the character of the protagonists

Fabio P. Barbieri

The core of Arthur’s legend is the greatness of his court.  Arthurian item after Arthurian item repeats that his court was so renowned that no knight in the world thought himself worth anything unless he went there.  This is found in Geoffrey, in a Welsh life of St.Illtud in which the saint, then still a “great warrior” visits the court in order to gain honour and is duly honoured[1], and in many other Arthurian texts.  The most interesting variation is in one of the finest, Perslevaus, a superb piece of writing and clearly the product of a clear and well-educated mind, which reverses the notion.  At the very opening of the story, King Arthur sins through meanness and his court loses its lustre, which is part of the overall picture of disaster and aimless blind struggle which the Good Knight - who, in this version of the story, is not Galahad but Perslevaus - is to heal by asking the holy question.  In other words, King Arthur’s contribution to the order, sanity and holiness of the world is to keep a generous and magnificent court for heroic knights.  When he fails to offer the deserved gift to good Lanval – alone of all his court – he and his queen are publicly humiliated.  Rachel Bromwich observes that successive redactions of the Triads of Britain tend to replace the term teir…ynis Prydein (three [items[2]] of the Island of Britain)with teir …llys Arthur, (three [items] of Arthur’s Court) as if Arthur’s court were the equivalent of the whole great island – or at least, of anything valuable or worth remembering in it.  Indeed, the extraordinary lustre that shines around Camelot to this day comes from the fact that it is the home or the resort of not one, but an enormous number of magnificent heroes.  That is the nature of the legendary cycle, and the reason why it outshone all others; more people in the West are aware of Arthur, Lancelot, Perceval and Gawain than they are of Charlemagne and Roland, Siegfried, Dietrich of Bern, and even of Aeneas and Latinus, Agamemnon and Odysseus, or the heroes of the Old Testament.

Even the chivalrous and courtly atmosphere of Arthurian romance, which we associate with the refined courts of the Continental later Middle Ages, may be found in the seventh-century “Old North” from which Arthur himself, in all likelihood, came.  Of the two ancient poetic cycles of the North, there is a significant difference in atmosphere between that of the historical Taliesin and the Gododdin of Aneirin.  In Taliesin’s poems, especially those in praise of Urien and Owein, there is no question of more than one man.  The court of Urien is a mere background to the one gigantic figure to whom Taliesin always points, whom he sets up as an example even to his own followers.  Urien has no peers, no equals; Taliesin, it seems to me, turns to artistic advantage the lack of background and ancestors of a hero whom I strongly suspect of being a bandit self-raised to eminence, by making him something altogether unique, a solitary splendour.

Far different is the court of Mynyddawg Mwyvawr in Aneirin.  Mynyddawg himself is all but hidden by the varied yet uniform splendour of his heroes.  Not that they outface him: Aneirin makes it quite clear that the king is the father of his men, and that part of his paternity is to feed his war-band or comitatus, his true foster-children, not with milk, but with wine and mead[3].  Everything this glorious band do redounds to his honour.  But it is the character of the society they create that is of the greatest interest.  Far from the braggartry and barbarism one would imagine in a hall of Celtic warriors, drunk with ale and wine, a premium is placed on courtliness, gentleness, even shyness.  “Several verses of the A version make powerful use of an antithesis between gentleness at home and ferocity in battle.  It is common to both versions that the comitatus leads a life of aristocratic ease and plenty in the king’s hall and must therefore fight to the death in battle, but the A version makes more ambitious use of the contrast between hall and battlefield.  It is a part of the moral requirement of an eillt, so the A version has it, to be gentle and even bashful[4] in the king’s hall, but to be fierce like a boar, an eagle or a wolf in battle.  The B version makes ample reference to the ferocity of the warrior in battle, but is hardly interested at all in his gentleness at home.  [However] the contrast occurs in the B version at 1093-94 = 1070-71 A[5]”.  And to quote myself: “We may be certain, from Gildas, that L was at least in part a contemporary, perhaps eyewitness account, and that it concerned the struggles of valiant heroes against terrible odds; in other words, that its picture of the Saxon war was heavily personalistic, centred on the activities of a number of named individual heroes.  (This is oddly reminiscent of the Gododdin in the emphasis on the enormous odds faced against a numerically superior Saxon enemy, its claim to be eyewitness material, and its praises and descriptions of individual heroes.)

The emphasis on courtly behaviour is actually closer to the expected behaviour of the Arthurian court in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century continental romance than the latter is to that of the Carolingian legends of the Chansons de geste, where we find some remarkable instances of bad manners (take for instance the spat between Roland and Ganelon in the Chanson de Roland, in the middle of an assembled High Council yet!) which would surprise one greatly in Lancelot or Gawain.  All it lacks is the emphasis on fair ladies and love affairs, to which there are only a few references.

What is more, the story that underlies the elegies of Aneirin has a very similar colouring to the overall idea of Arthurian glory and doom.  A splendid court of young heroes come together from many lands under the paternal eye of a generous hero-king, going to war in a magnificent company against the Saxons, and finally falling together, in one body, keeping their truth to their lord to the last; after which there will be no defence for the land against Saxon barbarians, for the best have died.  Only a golden memory remains.  Patrick Sims-Williams sums up the point of the Arthurian poem Pa Gur as follows: “While Arthur’s time was a glorious high point, it doomed subsequent ages to mediocrity”[6]; the poem (or at least a part of it) presents the king himself nostalgically remembering his best, fallen, men, almost like Aneirin remembering the heroes of Catraeth.

We have seen that the author of N was a rough contemporary of the events of the Gododdin, and possibly of the poet who first sang of them; and it follows that already in their time, Arthur was a legend and a name to conjure with.  Therefore, if echoes of Arthurian mood and doom can be found in the Gododdin, that means that they are there because the poet meant them to be.  He envisaged the doomed war-band of Mynyddawg Mwynvawr as latter-day Arthurian heroes.  The famous reference to Arthur in the elegy for the like-named Gwarddur would therefore be in the nature of a reminder to the audience, bringing to the forefront the name that had been at the back of all their minds when hearing of courtly, gentle, noble heroes from many parts, coming to gratify a most generous king, and falling together.  Rachel Bromwich had the same suspicion: “The Gododdin reference may possibly imply that Arthur was regarded as the adversary in a previous generation of the same enemies as those who opposed Mynyddawg’s force at Catraeth about 600.[7]

Indeed, indeed.  And if we take Geoffrey’s description of Arthur’s early years seriously, it is not only the enemies but the kind of war practised by the Gododdin heroes which coincide with his: “...he made up his mind to harry the Saxons, so that by their wealth he might reward the retainers who served his own household.” The emphasis on plundering the enemy, which is part of the climax of A, returns in Geoffrey’s description of Arthur’s activities, and again in the unfulfilled expectations of the Gododdin.  Arthur and the Gododdin both went on plundering expeditions, taking the wealth of an already established and prosperous Saxon enemy.

The political ambitions that led this young man (no more than 15, according to Geoffrey) to bankrupt his kingdom could not be made much clearer.  When he nearly bankrupts himself, it is by his generosity to renowned heroes, and it is his practice throughout his reign to always be “generous”, in other words, to pay with his public and ceremonial gift-giving the accession of power given him by the arrival of more and more champions, to gather a large army of milites - Geoffrey is clear that his wealth went not to churchmen, bards, or the poor, but to men of arms whom he defines by the ancient Roman name of the regular army man.  In the world of Celtic ideas, this is highly practical politics, and Geoffrey makes the point very clearly: valiant and generous kings will not be without substance for long. How many people have noticed Geoffrey’s astonishing, brutal clarity about Arthur’s reasons to fight the Saxons?  “Arthur... was... of outstanding generosity... Once he had been invested with the royal insignia, he observed the normal custom of giving gifts freely to everyone.  Such a crowd of soldiers came to him that he came to an end of what he had to distribute.  However, the man to whom open-handedness and bravery come naturally may indeed find himself momentarily in need, but poverty will never harass him for long  ...he made up his mind to harry the Saxons, so that by their wealth he might reward the retainers who served his own household.”  It is clear that the young monarch nearly bankrupted himself with his hospitality to renowned heroes, and went to war with the Saxons to recoup his losses.

By the same token, if he did not have enough wealth to pay them except by raiding the Saxons, so too one imagines that regular tribute to the emperor of Britain would not be very welcome.  In Geoffrey, the issue which leads to war between Arthur and Leo is the same which is at the centre of A, the charter of the Celticist rebellion against the unsupportable burden, iugum, of ius Romanum: tribute (census); Roman envoys appear at Arthur’s court, demanding reparation for Arthur’s first invasion of Gaul, and the tribute long that Arthur had not paid for years.  Arthur answers with his army.

This is related to a question that recurs in the life of the Galfridian Arthur - and of no other Arthur, except where Galfridian influence is manifest: namely, the wholly realistic and unromantic matter of the disparity between Arthur’s ambition, which leads him, from the beginning, to invite every hero of note to his court, and the narrowness of his means.  In Zosimus, it is the dire straits to which the “British” are reduced – supposedly by the pressure of barbarians – that forces them to reject ius Romanum and to revert to “their own customs”; in other words, it is a matter of money – the “British” do not have enough wealth left to sustain ius Romanum, or so they claim.  And it is true that one of the characteristics of late Roman law was its relentless fiscal pressure; if the heirs of Ambrosius insisted on the full application of imperial law, parts of Britain might well have found the ius an intolerable iugum – especially the ever-impoverished far north.

One part of the contemptuous answer of Geoffrey’s Arthur to the emperor’s demand for tribute may well have historical roots: he points out that the tribute had not been claimed for years.  This is a typical reaction of those who have let an obligation fail and don’t want to be reminded of it; and, like Arthur’s reckless generosity to all renowned warriors, not legend, not even villainous legend, but highly practical politics.

I think we have reached the centre of the labyrinth.  Arthur was an outstanding military leader, perhaps not of very high rank, who rebelled against the successors of Ambrosius over a matter of taxes.  Is there any direct evidence for a clash between Arthur and his followers, and the heirs of Ambrosius?  Indeed there is.  The Arthurian poem Pa Gur (Black Book of Carmarthen 31, verses 63-64) has Arthur say in so many words that his ally Cei had fought “the servants (in other translations, “the lords”) of Emrais”, in other words, that he had gone to war against soldiers of Emrys/Ambrosius or against lords of his blood.

Pa Gur is, so far as I can see, the fusion of several Arthurian traditions, some legendary, some historical, and of two separate poems – a humorous piece about Arthur being refused entrance to a court by Glewlwyd Mighty-Grip, a bloody-minded porter of a kind found elsewhere in Celtic legend; and a marwnad or lament for Cai, Arthur’s finest hero.  The picture of Cai “before the lords of Emrys” is, exactly, the climax of Cai’s greatness and deeds in this poem, followed by a passionate description of Cai as the ideal warrior, a tall man, bitter in vengeance (this hints that Cai had some reason to want revenge against the lords of Emrys – a lost story, alas), a man who could drink from the horn like four men, but kill like a hundred.  A bad guess has been made that he was in fact fighting men of Gwynedd, because of a single and much later poetic reference to Gwynedd as the land of Emrys; but in fact, Cai’s great battle in the same poem, the battle of Tryfrwyd, was fought across the sea[8].  The poem says that Cai fought “the lords/servants of Emrais” furiously, but it does not say that he won or that he came back alive, and in fact it ends with mention of his death and that of Arthur’s son Llacheu; the section ends by saying that “unless God had willed it, Cai’s death would not have been possible”.  Is it a coincidence that the Cai of Geoffrey died in victorious battle against the Romans – those Romans whom we are seeing reason to believe are in fact the British Roman party of the Ambrosiad succession?

Another piece of stark evidence, glaring for centuries at anyone who cared to notice, has been ignored because of the two least attractive customs of modern scholars: a supine habit of repeating each other’s judgements, and a tendency to shut the mind down as soon as anything of a Christian nature appears.  I can put up with the freaks of judgement of a John Morris or an E.A.Thompson, by-products of probing, independent and committed minds; but to read the same piece of nonsense, repeated almost word for word, in no less than three different scholars, is, as far as I am concerned, more than flesh and blood can stand.

There is a poem called The dialogue of Arthur and the eagle, which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been fully translated into English, and which therefore I can only discuss from summaries; and which, never-theless, is as full of ground-breaking evidence as an egg.  Though its poetic qualities have been condemned by people better able to judge Welsh verse than myself, it starts in fact with a vivid and arresting image: Arthur, apparently alone, is startled to see an eagle looking down at him from the top of a magnificent oak, and smiling.  He remarks on this aloud, and the eagle answers: he has seen Arthur before.  He is in fact Eliwlod son of Arthur’s brother Madawg – which startles Arthur even more, since Eliwlod son of Madawg is dead.

In the common rush to disregard this openly Christian poem on the presumption that Christian equals bad, flat, platitudinous and unintelligent, nobody seems to have noticed the extraordinarily sinister and threatening omen of this image.  Two great Celtic legends feature a supernatural eagle perched on top of an equally supernatural tree, which in at least one of them is an oak: the Welsh legend of Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw Pebyr, and the Breton fable of the bird-child (enfant-oiseau), which has somehow ended up in Germany as the most sombre and impressive of the Brothers Grimm’s collection of fables (The juniper tree).  In both cases, the eagle is a young man or boy, murdered, and come back to take a magical and utterly irresistible revenge.  In The Juniper Tree, the mere presence of the great bird, even when he is not yet seen, separates irresistibly the good from the wicked: the innocent father of the boy, deceived by his murderous second wife, and the devoted little sister who buried his bones – thus insuring his resurrection – are not only caught up in a transport of inexplicable joy, but are completely oblivious to the plight of the murderess, who suffers the agonies of the damned while her own husband and little daughter simply appear not to notice.  Even before she dies, she is isolated from the innocent around her, quite literally damned; the honest and innocent do not know or see her any more, taken up in their presentment of utter joy; and she dies savagely, crushed by a millstone.  In The Mabinogi of Map vab Mathonwy, Lleu the eagle comes back as judge and avenger, dispensing differentiated punishment on all those who have been guilty, in various degrees, of his death, and striking the actual murderer dead with his own hand[9].  In other words, the nature of the bird is to do not only with revenge, but with graded justice, even moral law: he can separate the good and the evil.

It is therefore surely significant that Arthur immediately surmises that this apparition is there to rebuke him for something done wrong; the eagle confirms it, and takes him through a catalogue of his sins.  The least inadequate treatment is in T.Gwynn Jones’ old overview of Welsh Arthurian material[10].  “Ifor Williams suggests that this poem belongs to the second half of the twelfth century.  The metrical form and the non-alliterative character of the verse, in addition to the subject matter, which is so different from that of the official bardic compositions of the period, incline me to the view that it is a monkish composition which may be still earlier.  The stanza form is the tercet, called englyn milwr, not employed by the Court Bards of the Princes, but, in the composition itself, it is described as traeithawt (st.25), a term restricted in the Metrical Codes to the metres of the of the unofficial minstrel class…

“Arthur’s questions exhibit in some cases a suggestive rhetorical repetition.  The eagle informs him that it is sinful to harbour evil and treacherous thoughts; that this may be avoided through prayer; that Christ’s blessing is obtained through the love of God and of justice; that Christ is the lord of all the spirits; that Heaven is merited through repentance and hope; that the worst accompaniment of sin is despair, which brings the soul to eternal torment; that God is the sole might and that He reckons not the might of man; that that which Christ shall do for those who believe in him shall be manifest on the Day of Judgement, when God Himself shall judge; that the most effective means of benefiting the soul are prayers; that idle pride is the cause of suffering; that what is not pure must be cleansed; that that he who commits perjury to obtain land, and is guilty of treason against his own lord, shall repent at the Day of Judgement.”

This series of questions and answers I have seen no less than three separate scholars dismiss as “a standard Christian catechism.”  Am I mad, or are they blind?  Since when does “a standard Christian catechism” disregard such small matters as Trinity, Holy Spirit, Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection, in favour of such central and – of course – exclusively Christian pieces of morality as that that it is sinful to harbour evil and treacherous thoughts, that God, the sole might, reckons not the might of man, that what is not pure must be cleansed, and… that it is wrong to commit perjury to obtain land and betray one’s own lord?

I simply cannot believe that no scholar has seen what is as plain as the nose on their face; that, whatever its poetic quality (on which I yeld to better judges), this is not the piece of bland morality which their obvious prejudice misleads them into misperceiving; but rather a vigorous, point-by-point denunciation of Arthur’s moral character - idly proud, the cause of mischief, arrogant before God and men, contemptuous of justice (the eagle reminds him that “Christ’s blessing is obtained through the love of God and of justice”), sitting long in thought to meditate evil to others, impure, in need of cleansing, committing perjury to obtain land and guilty of treason against his own lord.  These are specific charges, confirmed by the character of Arthur himself in the poem - eager for might and more might, wealth and more wealth.  “Some of the stanzas”, quoth Gwynn Jones, “exhibit the naivety so amply found in Irish material, and may evidence of early origin, reflecting traditional accounts of the Christianization of the Brythons.  For example, stanzas 29-34:

Thou eagle… I ask thee, is anything better than to hope?

Should he desire to possess a portion of land, let the weak trust in God.  (Another allusion to the legitimate or illegitimate eagerness to possess land! – that is what he “hopes” for.)

Do thou not lose God for the sake of wealth (and another!) – the only might is the Highest.

I ask thee, is not the owner of the land mighty? (and another!)

I ask thee in words, am I also not mighty? (Arthur dares to compare his might with God’s!)

Arthur, chief of the hosts of Kernyw, magnificent leader of armies, the highest might is God.

I do not doubt that Gwynn Jones was right in seeing this as evidence of early origin, but to me that is less important than the obvious, indeed obsessive theme, of these stanzas: the ambition to possess more land and more wealth, the pride in Arthur’s own strength, the charge of being both treacherous to his lord and proud before God – and all for the sake of land, and more land, and might, and more might!  The Arthur of the poem is indeed magnificent, and the eagle addresses him again and again as a glorious leader of hosts; but this glory goes with huge sins, in which it is all too easy to recognize the dark side of Geoffrey’s generous giver of gifts to heroes, which he pays for by assaulting the Saxons, and who refuses to pay tribute to the Emperor.  The eagle criticizes Arthur’s treachery against his lord; what lord can we be talking about?  Who did Arthur rebel against?  In all Arthurian literature, except for the vague brag by Ysbadadden[11] that “Arthur is under my power”, there is only one lord who claims a legitimate superiority over Arthur, against whom Arthur rebels, and all for the sake of land (Gaul) and wealth (the tribute demanded and denied): Leo, Emperor of Rome.

In a still important article, Nora K.Chadwick outlined the evidence for a lost North British tradition hostile to Arthur.  She was unable to perceive his hostility to Roman institutions (since she did not have the evidence for surviving Roman institutions in Britain); her approach to literary analysis was somewhat primitive; and she was over-enthusiastic in assembling irrelevant material such as the stories of the Breton St. Euflamm and the Welsh St. Carannog, in which Arthur obtains the help of local saints in blameless feats of monster-slaying.  But many of her insights have stood the test of time, and they prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that a very negative view of Arthur existed, preserved mainly but not exclusively in some Saints’ lives.  In the Life of St.Cadoc, he is in ambiguous moral position, twice stretching his rights much too far: first, when he is shown considering whether to take an eloping bride for himself, which would probably be within his rights as a Celtic high king, but which would fall, as his companions point out, very far below what is expected of him; and second when, claiming wergild for the murder of three of his fighting men from St.Cadoc (who is giving asylum to the murderer), he imposes excessive and onerous methods of payment[12].  In the Life of St.Paternus, he is neither more nor less than a thief, trying to steal the Saint’s beautiful and consecrated tunic, and being sunk into the earth up to his chin for his trouble.  This is a wholly symbolic story, with the Saint’s tunic standing for the sacred status and power of ecclesiastics, and the sinking of the king into the earth - following his coming in wrath, “stamping the earth under his feet” - being a negative image of the king’s relationship with the land; behind it lies a view of Arthur as trying to usurp the sacred power of the clergy[13].  Other items include a gloss in a Sawley manuscript of Nennius, which claims that his title mab Uthr means not son of Uther but something like son of cruelty, because he was a nasty bit of work from his youth, a pueritia sua (this reminds us of Geoffrey’s notice that he reached the throne at fifteen, suggesting that he immediately showed his ambitious and ruthless streak); and the important Triad 37 of the Trioedd Ynis Prydein, in which Arthur’s pride is the long-term ruin of Britain - he unburies the head of Bran from under “the White Hill” in London, thus robbing Britain of magical protection, because he does not think it right that the island should be defended by anyone’s strength but his.

It is perhaps interesting that both the Vita Cadoci and the Vita Paterni show a greedy Arthur, eager to take what pertains to him poorly or not at all, restrained by his associates.  In the Vita Cadoci, he wants to take the maiden Gwladus for himself until Kai and Bedwyr advise him against him - advice which he does not take well.  In the Vita Paterni, he does not take it at all: it is contra comitorum suorum consilia, against the advice of his companions, that he sets out to steal the Saint’s tunic - and gets his well-deserved dunking in the earth.  This really does not agree with the Gildasian view that the king is the moral centre of his court, ultimately responsible for the good or the evil of his commanipulares; Arthur’s comites (Vita Paterni) or consodales (Vita Cadoci) are not corrupted by their king, but, to the contrary, remind him of his duties.  Now, I have argued that the Gildasian view is the traditional view, that the king was taken to be the moral centre and the only moral actor of his court; therefore, this visibly traditional account of followers of Arthur morally independent of their king and capable of reproving him suggests that this moral independence of theirs was a part of the early traditional view of the king.  It also does seem to agree with the immense importance of his court.

All those among these notices which have any narrative form at all are legendary; but their legend contradicts the common portrayal of Arthur - which is positive not only in romance, but in other saints’ lives, in poetry and in folklore - and is consistent.  Arthur is over-ambitious.  He pushes his rights much too far and does not recognize anyone else’s.  (In Pa Gur, Arthur boasts that “my young men were valiant/ defending their rights”, or “their customs”)  He tramples, or tries to, on the rights of the clergy (and we remember that the eagle charged him repeatedly with impiety and contempt for God) and hates the idea that anyone or anything except him should defend Britain; and he is cruel - the Sawley gloss finds its echo in his excessive demands for blood-payments from St.Cadoc[14].  There is, however, one fragmentary account - to do, of all people, with St.Gildas - which does seem rooted in a recognizable historical context.

The Life of St.Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan informs us that Gildas was the son of a known and certainly historical king in the north of Britain, Caw, the remnants of whose once widespread fame may be traced in a number of divergent allusions.  In the Life of St.Cadoc he appears as an ancient giant resurrected to serve the Saint; elsewhere he is named as the ancestor of a number of named Saints in a triad of saintly British lineages. In Cullhwch and Olwen, Caw is present in Arthur’s own court, but a feud between his son Hueil and Arthur is forecast.  Now Caradoc of Llancarfan has the pro-Arthur stance that was normal in his time, when the legend of the great king was already spreading all over Europe[15], but he seems to have unintelligently copied into his book a few descriptions of Arthur which belong to the heart of the negative tradition.  Arthur is twice called rex rebellis, a rebellious king; it is the enemy whom he pursues to destruction, an admirable young man named Hueil son of Caw, whom the people hoped would be king, so that his eventual slaughter at Arthur’s hands - after years of border raiding in which Hueil had apparently proved the better man - represents, in the eyes of “the people”, a real disaster.  Whatever the fact of the matter, the tradition of Hueil’s proud and ambitious character is well established: Cullhwch and Olwen mentions the feud from a pro-Arthur point of view, but it agrees with the Vita Gildae that it was characteristic of Hueil not to obey any king.  Caradoc claims that Gildas forgave Arthur for his beloved brother’s death; but sources known to Gerald of Wales attribute to him a more credibly human detestation for the king[16].

Another enormity ascribed to Arthur is the siege of Glastonbury, again with St.Gildas in it.  Caradoc places this in the context of Queen Guinevere’s well-known habit of being abducted; Melwas, king of “the summer country”, here identified with Somerset, after abducting her, sends her to Glastonbury for safekeeping; as a result, Arthur besieges the monastery until Gildas and the abbot return the queen to him and make peace between him and Melwas.

This is partly pure legend.  Arthur besieging a castle where Guinevere is being held with or without her consent - that is a commonplace of Arthurian legend; and the reconciliation between the king and his enemy thanks to the mediation of eminent ecclesiastics, with Guinevere being returned to Arthur, only transposes the well-known episode in which Lancelot, besieged by Arthur at Joyous Guard, returns Guinevere with the Pope’s mediation, swearing before the Pope that he has not touched her sexually[17].  Melwas, as we have seen, is a mythical character connected with Guinevere, and the identification of his kingdom of the Summer Country with Somerset is a late pun which depends on the English name of Somerset and only works in English.  It is, in fact, a typically Celtic name for a fairy island across the ocean, and at least one Welsh poem tells us that Melwas the enchanter took his lady to the ends of the Earth.  The reason of the identification of this Otherworld isle with Glastonbury is known to any medieval historian; Glastonbury was one of the biggest nests of monastic forgers in the Christian world, gleefully appropriating any Saint, any hero, and any legend they could lay their hands on.  If they had had the nerve to claim the tomb of the great St.Dunstan even while he rested peacefully in his great cathedral of Canterbury across the island, they certainly would not bridle at claiming an Arthurian episode; some time later, they “discovered” the graves of Arthur and Guinevere.  (Those who still try today to assert that these graves may have been historical must explain how, exactly, the grave of an unhistorical pagan goddess, Guinevere/Gwennhwyvar/Findabair, could be found in a Christian cemetery.)

So, Somerset is an intrusion, and Glastonbury is an intrusion, on a legendary pattern that works very well without them.  However, in no other version of the legend known to me does Arthur besiege, not his enemy’s castle, but a neutral place of refuge; and in no version of the legend is the queen moved away from her abductor, Melwas, Lancelot or Mordred[18].  It follows that these features do not belong to the legend; that is, a tradition existed that Arthur had come up in arms against a great monastery, and besieged it - with Gildas being involved - until the abbot had conciliated him; and it follows that it was Caradoc who called on a well-known episode of Arthurian legend to explain away this sacrilege, probably because the best-known siege episodes in Arthurian legend – as opposed to any possible historical account – have to do with the abduction(s) of Guinevere.  In the Latin of this episode, Arthur is again both tyrannus and rex rebellis, and no wonder!

The fact that these are evidently fossile accounts, which Caradoc is not so much concerned with changing as simply incapable of understanding, suggest that the use of tyrannus for Arthur might be in the old-fashioned Gildasian sense of teyrn, under-king.  The Vita Paterni also calls Arthur a tyrannus, and while the moral character ascribed to him there fully justifies the title, it may also depend from a similar idea; after all, we have seen that in Gildas the moral opprobrium of being a tyrannus is not altogether separate from its social inferiority.  The hostile account of Arthur killing Hueil son of Caw, and besieging a monastery with Hueil’s brother St.Gildas in it, may therefore be very early; Nora Chadwick regarded them as part of a lost North-British literature which, except for Strathclyde, cannot date to later than the 640s, when the English overran all the North. Strathclyde recovered her independence in 685, but the other ancient kingdoms, and especially the Gododdin, vanished from history[19].

Some documents suggest that Arthur’s ambitious and violent character was a family trait. Arthur had a brother called Madawg, mentioned in two poems, the father of the already-mentioned Eliwlod. The poems describe Madawg in terms strikingly similar to Arthur himself. One, a fragment of a praise-poem, presents him in terms that might apply to his brother: “Madawg, the rampart of rejoicing/ Madawg, before he was in his grave/ He was a fortress of generosity/ Of feats and play;/ The son of Uther, before [his]death/ Handed over pledges…” The other is of clerical source and as bitter as all those other clerical accounts of Arthur: “He was false, Madawg the famous leader/ And he had great profit; great is the grief!” - Madawg, like Arthur in The dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle, is charged with being false to his own great advantage but to the ultimate grief and misfortune of everything. It is possible, of course, that the image of Madawg was influenced by that of his more famous brother; after all, both poems clearly refer to a hero long since dead - and therefore clearly in the light of the sibling who outlived him for so long and who had so high a doom[20].

If we take – as I take – Arthur to have been an ambitious border kinglet who eventually started a revolution against Roman law in Britain and against the house of Ambrosius, then a conclusion about the nature of his feud with Hueil really seems inevitable. It was a falling-out of allies. It is impossible, from the documents, to do more than guess; but the Life of Gildas says that the people hoped that Hueil would become king; in other words, he had the same ambitions as Arthur himself. Both Life and Cullhwch tell us that it was a characteristic of Hueil not to submit to any king; the result was war. At what point in Arthur’s career it took place it is probably impossible to determine, but the likeliest date seems at some point between the first and second cycle of wars.

In fact, the most persistent negative note in Arthur’s dossier is the number of feuds with former members of his court. Hueil is at Arthur’s court in Cullhwch and Olwen, but the feud is forecast; Cullhwch also speaks of a breach with Kei, and so does Chretien de Troyes’ Le chevalier de la charrette[21].Nennius speaks of a son of Arthur killed by his father. The legend of Yder son of Nut is a story of consistent ingratitude and perfidy on Arthur’s part against a knight who at first fought by his side and wanted nothing more than to be dubbed knight by him. Behind Yder peep ancient North British dynasties: Yder is Edern, ancestor of Cunedda and Maelgwn, and his father Nut is none other than Nudd, divine ancestor of all lesser ranks of kings. Edern is older than Arthur by several generations and cannot have been his enemy; but this seems to hint at a dynastic rivalry set in the Scottish borders[22]. Lanval is treated nearly as shabbily, even violating Arthur’s duty of generosity to heroes; it is perhaps for that that he passes altogether beyond the great king’s ken, in the power of a lady who surpasses Guinevere herself.

And then, of course, there is the feud with his nephew Mordred. The relationship of Arthur and the possible historical original of Mordred/Medrawt has long been an issue, since it has been pointed out that the earliest Welsh poetic references to Medrawt are uniformly positive, representing him as a paragon of courtliness and chivalry; the inference being that such a fine character cannot really have been the rebel against and murderer of the Great King. But the complex character shown in the Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle – a great hero, a magnificent war leader, but treacherous against his lord, greedy for land, impious, unjust – show that the fact that Medrawt bore originally a very good reputation is in no contradiction at all with the fact that he was the Great King’s slayer.

A more obscure dynastic rivalry almost certainly existed; indeed, the losing side may actually have interpreted it as a contention de imperio between themselves and the great king. In Cullhwch and Olwen, Glewlwyd Mighty-Grip, the porter, brags to Arthur of the many wars they have been in together; and it is typical of the way this story mixes genuine tradition and comical nonsense that this list contains both the resounding names of distant lands such as Asia, Africa and Corsica, names probably made-up such as Caer Oeth and Anoeth, and an obscure but credible item such as “I was once there when you killed the retinue of Gleis son of Merin, when you killed Mil Du son of Dugum”. Mil Du can mean either “the Black Animal” or “the Black Soldier” (Latin Miles, and a title of Arthur himself in Nennius). His name seems totally unknown in Wales or Scotland, but it turns up in two significant legends in Brittany: a legend of dynastic hostility and revenge, and one in which his sins are forgiven post mortem, like those of Caw in the Life of St.Cadoc. In Appendix 10 I examine the evidence (whose full analysis would overbalance this chapter, and is not very necessary) to show that the family of Mil Du almost certainly survived the killing of their patriarch at Arthur’s hands, and took refuge in Brittany. This is another piece of evidence suggesting that the British settlement of Armorica took place in the sixth century: the feud against Mil Du took place in Britain, and was remembered to have taken place in Britain, but the dynasty whose memories depended from it existed in Brittany, and in Brittany alone; if it was a feud against Arthur, then it can only have taken place in the early to mid-500s, and its survivors took their memories to Armorica some time after that.

Memories of Arthur were strongest, apparently, at the two opposite ends of the British world. In Wales, he had to compete (until the Norman influence and that of Geoffrey pushed him to the forefront of Welsh mythology) with a true host of Welsh legendary heroes, from Lleu to Llywarch Hen, whose stories may well have been more popular than his, and the disrespectful burlesque of Cullhwch and Olwen suggests that he was not always taken entirely seriously. On the other hand, he occupies most of Nora K.Chadwick article about the lost literature of British Scotland; and he absolutely towers over everyone and everything in the Arthurian literature of the Continent, which must be held to originate in Brittany, and in the related province of Cornwall. It was in Cornwall, not in Wales, that people threatened to lynch someone who had doubted that Arthur was alive and would return; something which the Welsh gogynfeirdd explicitly denied[23].

This is really not too hard to explain. Arthur did actually start from the North, and families and tribes which had had to do with him carried on their traditions of glory or enmity into the light of later history and literature. As for Brittany, Arthur can be regarded as directly or indirectly its founder. Before his impact, Armorica was a Roman country with a few Celtic settlements – not, in themselves, necessarily more potent or with a greater further than those of the Franks, Theifali, Saxons, Alani, Burgundians and other barbarian minorities who eventually melted into the Roman majority of Gaul to form the new Romance-speaking “French” nation; he placed in its peninsula a solid and irremovable Celtic aristocracy from whom the language of Celtic Britain spread downwards to the conquered Gallo-Roman peasantry. As late as the 580s, the Roman population in Brittany is majority enough for Bishop Regalis to distinguish between “we”, the people of the country whom he commends to Frankish protection, and “the British”, the ruling minority who give the orders; but today, Breton is the language of the peasantry.

Legend remembered the founding role of Arthur: Arthurian romance, with its largely Breton roots, often referred to him as “the king who makes knights”, whose power is to consecrate and stabilize titles of nobility. This is particularly clear in the case of Perceval: it is to Arthur that Perceval goes to have his nobility asserted and confirmed. Perceval is a type of the Hidden King, brought up in the forest by a widowed mother like Silvius son of Aeneas was brought up by Lavinia or Yudhisthira and his brothers by Kunti; his blood is that of the Kings of the Grail; but it is Arthur alone who enters him into the aristocratic, and therefore royal, class. I know no parallel from any other Indo-European stories of Hidden Kings for the idea of a Hidden King consecrated by another king. Both Silvius and Yudhisthira are simply made manifest before the assembled people, and if any high-ranking personage is needed to confirm their identity and title, it is not any king, but their mothers and/or a group of sages or other initiatic figures. In India, it is the Brahmins of the royal household who announce the arrival of the hidden sons of King Pandu to the assembled people; in Rome, it is the royal swineherd (royal swineherds, as scholars know, had a special semi-sacred significance among the Celto-Latins). The role of Arthur and his court in recognizing and consecrating Perceval is something peculiar to Breton legend, and we notice that, once again, it is the llys Arthur, that might object of legend, in its corporate character, that is at the forefront.


[1]This is probably quite historical. In the story of Illtud, it has no particular relevance, and Illtud becomes, in fact, the man of a different war-leader, one Paul Penychel. And where we find this sort of small, irrelevant notice, with no connection to the main body of the tale, I think it is a good idea to suppose that they belong to an original body of fact, not reduced to a mere scheme of narration or interpretation.

[2]I mean for instance things like “three useless battles of the Island of Britain” (Cad Goddeu, Armderydd, Camlann), “three generous men of the island of Britain” (Nudd, Mordaf, Rhydderch), “three peers of Arthur’s Court” (Rahawd, Dalldaf, Tristan”, “three skilful bards at Arthur’s Court” (Merlin son of Morfyn, Merlin Ambrosius, Taliesin – sic!!).

[3]T.M.CHARLES-EDWARDS, authenticity op.cit., 58f.

[4]It is even possible that Sidonius Apollinaris’ reference to Rigothamus “blushing” for the misdeeds of others may refer to a similar code of conduct, although his letter also bears the signs of a good Roman education. Rigothamus must certainly have been of Northern origin himself.

[5]CHARLES-EDWARDS, Ibid.58f. and note.

[6]SIMS-WILLIAMS, The early Welsh Arthurian poems, in The Arthur of the Welsh op.cit., 58.

[7]BROMWICH, Trioedd op.cit.275.

[8]In ch.7, below, I argue that Pa Gur presents Cai as a pagan.

[9]This scene, too, involves a heavy stone with a hole through it, like the millstone that crushes the murderous stepmother in The Juniper tree.

[10]Some Arthurian material in Keltic, in Aberystwyth Studies 8 (1926), an admirable article in many ways and one whose clear insights – in particular, about the difference between learned Welsh traditions and Cornish and Breton ones – have not unfortunately been picked up as they deserved.

[11]Which may have some sort of historical content. Behind the name of Ysbadadden, even to someone as starved of Welsh as myself, there clearly peeps some ancient Roman name based on Hospitality - Hospitalis or the like. Now the core of the story of Cullhwch and Olwen is clearly a Northern dynastic account. Cullhwch is the son of Kilydd son of Kelyddon; both names are clearly constructed on the ethnic name Caledon, that is Cullhch is the “son of” the Caledonian nation or tribe - which is fairly typical of a founding hero. As a founding hero, he must be in exile; hence the curse of his step-mother, brought into the story for the purpose, and the ill-omened madness of his mother, that means that he is born in the wild Outside and to a mad woman. The story places him under the auspices of Arthur; hence his original mother is made the sister of Arthur’s, daughter of Amlawdd Wledig - which may be true or not (the fact that his “father” Kelydd is a blatantly unhistorical figure of ethnicity does not inspire confidence). According to the formulae, he must marry a princess who shall incarnate his sovereign destiny; hence his quest for Olwen. But the other characteristic of founding heroes is that their brides are of illustrious birth; hence, if the son of Kelydd son of Kelyddon is in fact the founding hero of some dynasty or ethnic group to do with Caledonia (a part of the great Pictish kingdom, probably centred on modern Dunkeld), then his bride must have been as well born as, say, Gwawl daughter of Coel, wife of Cunedda; or Sevira daughter of Maxen, wife of the Brituid Vortigern. It follows, in turn, that the character of Ysbadadden must originally have had the fame of a king, suited as father-in-law to the founder of a dynasty. It follows in turn that when Ysbadadden claims that “Arthur is under my power”, he may be repeating a very ancient claim. In the story as it is, this makes no sense and is never repeated; but just for that reason, it stands out as an evident survival, intrusive and unassimilated. The very fact that Arthur eventually destroys Ysbadadden (for it is his power that really does it, even though it is Goreu son of Custennin - Carus filius Constantini? - who strikes the final blow) in order to enthrone Cullhwch, does seem to chime with Arthur’s historical hostility to Roman lords and Roman ways, and with the fact that he seems to have set up any amount of Celtic lordships in Britain and Gaul. Cullhwch may originally have been one of his followers, made a local kinglet somewhere at the expense of Roman ius and lordship; his name, as well as the fact that he is apparently a dynastic founder, suggests a low birth. The curious contradiction between the hostile attitude to Ysbadadden, bestowed a clearly traditional image of devil which is found in Ireland among the Fomoire, and the fact that marriage into his blood represented a promotion for Cullhwch, does seem to mirror the ambivalent attitude that people of Arthur’s party must have felt towards Rome and ius Romanum: both the royal tribe, from whose blood the kings of Britain themselves were descended, and an intolerable yoke that had to be thrown off by any means at hand.

[12]The Vita Cadoci, in my view, contains a number of misreadings and misunderstandings of earlier data and legends. Nevertheless, the general tendency of the portrayal of Arthur in the legend of Cadoc seems to be that of someone who stands too fast on his rights and uses claims of right to impose his own will on others and further his own interests.

[13]The Vita Paterni consistently calls him not rex or imperator, but tyrannus. If the notices that underlie it are ancient enough, this just might mean that he was originally regarded - at least by his enemies - as a teyrn.

[14]And perhaps in the Nennian notice that he killed his own son Amr - Historia Brittonum 73. However, we have no story or context for this, and it might just as well go back to a tragic legend such as that of CuChulainn and his son Connla.

[15]The famous archivolt in Modena Cathedral, which I have seen, features Arthur, Kay and Gawain helping Yder to rescue or capture his bride Guenloie (Winlogee in the picture). It is almost certainly earlier than Geoffrey of Monmouth and owes nothing to him. In this earliest of all continental records of Arthurian legend, Arthur is fighting, as he also is in Cullhwch and Olwen, side by side with someone with whom he is later to have a deadly feud; the story of Yder/Edern is in fact the only continental Arthurian legend to feature a consistently negative picture of the great king – even in the tale of Lanval he is thoughtless rather than consistently mean and vindictive. See GERRITSEN & VAN MELLE, A dictionary of medieval heroes, Woodbridge 1998, s.v.Yder.

[16]Descriptio Cambriae 2.2 (The journey through Wales/ Description of Wales, Harmondsworth 1978). Alas, Lewis Thorpe, apparently ignorant of the account of Hueil’s killing, delivered himself of the unfortunate statement that “there is no evidence for any of this” in a footnote!

[17]Which, in turn, is an Indo-European legendary commonplace. Agamemnon, for instance, swears a similar oath to Achilles about Briseis, in equally unlikely circumstances.

[18]Except perhaps for the protection extended to her by King Baudemaguz, father of her abductor, in The knight of the cart. But in that case, the initiative hardly came from the abductor, who was frustrated by his father’s actions; and there was no account of a siege. For another consideration of The knight of the cart, see Appendix X.

[19]The effect of English conquest on historical records is unknown but easy to imagine. Celtic Christian kingdoms preserved what records they had, either at royal courts – in the hands, or more probably the memories, of royal bards – or in monasteries. English conquerors would have no use for British bards, and the evidence suggests that they would put their own people in charge of British monasteries, as certainly happened in Glastonbury and Whithorn; who might show some interest in British saints, but certainly none in British kings. In point of fact, the remaining British/Welsh kingdoms seem to have made a persistent effort to preserve the memory of the Old North, but obviously a great deal would be lost.

[20]SIMS-WILLIAMS, Early Arthurian poems cit., 54-55.

[21]It happens at the beginning, when Kei storms out of the court. In both Cullhwch and The knight of the cart, the breach is due to a primadonna reaction by Kei, who feels that a particular action of Arthur’s slighted him and undermined his role as the chief hero of the court. In both cases, it is to do with facing an invincible enemy: in Chretien, Kei is angry that the king did not even think of letting him challenge the knight from Gorre who claimed to have taken many of Arthur’s men prisoner and to be able to claim even the queen, and in Cullhwch and Olwen he felt that a fugitive rhyme by Arthur insulted his great deed in killing the invincible giant Dillus the Bearded by stealth (Arthur: “if he were alive, he would kill you!”). Chretien’s account is coloured by the general hostility of Breton/Continental narratives to Kei, who is reduced to a contemptible braggart. In fact, the whole point of Le chevalier de la charrette is that, in spite of his claims, he is not even close to being able to do the great deed of conquering Meleagant of Gorre, and that it will be Lancelot, the great Expected Knight, who will - an implicit and contemptuous comparison between Kei, the braggart, and Lancelot, the hero. And that being the case, one wonders whether the general hostility of Continental romance to the figure of Kei has anything to do with further feuds, in which Kei and/or his descendants took what was, in Breton eyes, the wrong side?

[22]The fact that the story seems known only in Brittany hints at the transfer of a branch of the house of Edern in Brittany, according to the mechanism I suggested of settling Celtic tribal groups with their chieftains to defend Roman areas; some of these chieftains would no doubt claim Edernid descent, whether legitimately or not. The same goes for the story of the feud with Mil Du, which only seems to have survived in Brittany, though it was clearly set in Britain – see Appendix X.

[23]Cynddellw (1150-1200) and Llyvarch ap Llywellin (1160-1220) said so quite explicitly, according to Gwynn Jones, op.cit.41f.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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