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

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book VIII > chapter 8.7

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Chapter 8.7: The character of the Celticizing revolution

Fabio P. Barbieri

Zosimus 6.5.3 does not separate the revolt against ius Romanum from the invasion of Gaul and the war – in both Gaul and Britain – against “the barbarians settled over the Rhine”. It seems clear that the original motivating force of Arthur’s invasion of Gaul must have been his revolt against Romano-British institutions. Both Geoffrey and Pa Gur emphasize the struggle against the “Romans” or against the “servants/lords of Emreis”. And as I pointed out elsewhere, “It is only when the struggle against the barbarians spreads to Gaul, that we hear of Roman magistrates - as opposed to that abstract entity, Roman arche, ‘principles’ or ’government’ - being expelled; and… this marks a clear chronological and territorial stage of the struggle”[1]. Once, however, the British king with his highland armies had reached Gaul, the mere presence of such northern “heroes”, people whose presence anywhere would not be conducive to peace, would probably expand the range of the war and draw in the Franks.

None of this can be drawn from British documents.  We have no word whatever from what must have been the other side, the Roman party in Britain and Armorica.  The silence begins with the death of Ambrosius and ends with Arthur’s invasion of Gaul.  No piece of British history between the death of Ambrosius and Mount Badon – a literate period with a Catholic church structure and a pretender Roman administration - can be reconstructed even by inference; they are not present in the Lives of Saints, in Irish writings, in any kind of clue.  I would dearly love to be proven wrong about this, but I doubt that I will.  My point is that whether or not I am right in my historical reconstruction of the Mild King, Vitalinus/Vortigern, Ambrosius and his brother, Aelle, and Icel, these names, and the legends clustered around them, represent beyond doubt the echo, however confused, of a memory of events that actually did take place on British soil between 425 or so and 470 or so.  It is from the death of Ambrosius that these confused, legendary echoes are replaced by complete silence; which lasts until the siege of Mons Badonicus.

I am inclined to guess this sudden deep silence is not casual.  Arthur’s revolution has done what revolutions often do, and erased the past – especially the recent past.  It is not clear whether Gildas knew anything about the period between Ambrosius and Mount Badon; later writers certainly did not.  Already by 630, the author of N had no idea of the relationship between Ambrosius and Arthur.  The story of the great deeds of Ambrosius himself had survived, probably because the Celticizing party could make use of it in an anti-Saxon direction; but it cannot be a coincidence that nothing whatever survives from the decades preceding Mount Badon.  The vanishing of later Ambrosian heritage must be connected with its being the vehicle of Ambrosian propaganda and not neutral.  Without a doubt, much of it will have consisted of panegyrics for the succeeding Ambrosiad Emperors, in the grovelling style typical of later Roman praise, and will not have pleased men who – in the case of Cai – may actually have been pursuing “revenge”, according to Pa Gur, against the “lords of Emreis”.

If we let them speak for themselves, the characteristics of the various sources identified can tell some stories.  Gildas obviously regards L as being a contemporary eyewitness account; L reached probably to something like 537, and was therefore written in his lifetime.  We have to conclude that it was written, Arthuro uiuente, as a summation and praise of his achievements.  The bardic song of praise that underlies Nennius’ ch.56 only relates to the first period of Arthur’s career, reaching its climax with Badon Hill; and the conclusion has to be that it, too, was written in his lifetime, to praise victories thus far won.  That is, it was an earlier document than L.  Though translated into Latin, it was certainly originally either in British Old Celtic or in Old Welsh; while we are certain, from the famous solecism magna discrimina, that L was written in Latin.  Arthur, it seems, was a leader peculiarly prone to being praised; and in fact, more than one strand of tradition presents him as a generous patron of bards[2].  He obviously wanted his achievements known.

The different characteristics of the bardic song of ch.56 and of L bespeak different stages and ambitions.  A bardic song was directed exclusively to members of the same culture, Celts of North Britain.  It would reach at best as far as the Celtic combroges military colonies in the rest of the Ambrosiad “Roman Empire”, but not across the cultural divide to the Romani proper, whose innate sense of racial superiority to military barbarians would lead them to ignore their songs - the Roman attitude is consistent across the centuries, from Ovid complaining that he had even gone as far as writing poetry in the barbarous language of Tomis[3] to Sidonius Apollinaris cheerfully patronizing the poor ignorant Burgundians.  Bardic praise was meant to raise Arthur’s renown among his neighbours and members of his community.  L, on the other hand, was a Latin enough, and historical enough, piece of writing, to be regarded as a literary classic by Gildas and received by Zosimus as a reasonable historical account.  Never mind that Zosimus misread it good and hard; never mind that Zosimus was one of the worst of late-classical historians: he was part enough of Classical culture that any historical account that satisfied him must have been cast in an acceptable literary form.  He would not have used a bardic praise-song as a source.

It follows that, between the redaction of the bardic poem and that of L, the direction of Arthur’s ambitions and policies had changed, from wanting praise among his fellow North Britons to wanting his achievements understood and praised by the heirs of Latin culture.  This could be held to confirm that the centre of his ambitions and activities had shifted to the Roman world, and specifically to Gaul.  Zosimus’ report especially suggests that he was conscious of a common Celtic heritage; he may have seen Gaul as no different from Britain, as proper a field for Celticizing, anti-Roman and anti-barbarian activities.

The other thing this suggests is that, like many conquerors, he was highly committed to propaganda and self-explanation.  Both L and the bardic song of ch.56 are deliberate political propaganda; for, if I am right in thinking that Geoffrey drew part of his account directly and indirectly from L, we cannot doubt that L was partisan and loaded.  Hueil, the enemy whom Arthur rejoiced at having killed - and killed in Scotland or in Man - turns up in Geoffrey as Howel, king of Brittany and one of Arthur’s staunchest and most loyal allies!  That is: Geoffrey is completely unaware of the feud, and only seems to know that Howel/Hueil came from across the sea.  If we disregard Brittany, this agrees with Caradoc’s Life of Gildas, where Hueil harassed Arthur’s kingdom from the sea[4]; and with the Life of St.Cadoc, in which it is his father Caw who did so[5].  Not unlike Gildas glossing over inconvenient or irrelevant facts, the author of L simply did not bother to mention the small matter of a royal feud which threatened Arthur’s primacy.  It is however interesting that Geoffrey’s Howel is most prominent in Arthur’s early wars, when he actually gets Arthur out of trouble.  The real events, if any, are unfortunately quite impossible to recover, since Geoffrey has done horrible things with geography, locating Arthur’s enemies in York and he himself in London; even though as soon as Arthur and “Howel” join forces the war suddenly shifts to the Forest of Caledon – funny, that[6].

The next thing we hear is that “Howel” could not be with Arthur at his great victory of Badon, because he was ill in Alclud (Dumbarton); immediately after, we find Arthur having to free him from a siege.  Knowing what we know, the apologetic meaning of this is beyond doubt: it is arguing, apparently against surviving sympathizers of Hueil, first, that Hueil actually had no part in the greatest of Arthur’s early victories (and the implication is, obviously, that he had a large part in others), and, second, that however much help he might have received from Arthur, Arthur too had occasion to help him when he was both ill and besieged.  Hueil/ Howel’s help is actually acknowledged in the text: it is Arthur who calls Howel from across the sea[7].

There is another piece of literature that might carry a similar significance: A, which, as we have seen, can be read as a manifesto for the Celticizing revolution, including even an analytical Celtic theory of royalty in its tale of the three Roman invasions.  However, as the progress of the revolution developped, it seems clear that Arthur and his followers were no long satisfied with the still ultimately imperial role that A attributed to Rome; for another piece of writing preserved by Geoffrey shows a radically changed ideology, which might be said to relate to A roughly as the Latin propaganda of L related to the bardic propaganda of the source of Nennius ch.56.

I have shown in appendix 1 and (tangentially) 6, that the character of Brān son of Llyr is the mythological representative of a class of failed kingship, of chieftains who do not become kings or of kings who die without issue; and that Beli Mawr is connected to him as the picture of an actually existing kingship, a kingship which did not fail to be born nor die without issue.  A third term in this comparison, I argued, was the Welsh legendary version of Caesar, seen as the supreme king, king over other kings, displacing Beli because it is part of his nature to be victorious, just as it is part of the teyrnedd represented by Beli to be defeated.

Now Geoffrey reports a version of the legend of Brān which seems to me to contain deliberate and significant ideological variations.  This is a summary of the legend of Brān as told by the Mabinogi:

Brān, king of Britain, is approached by an unknown fleet who turn out to be the retinue of King Matholwch of Ireland, come to ask his sister Branwen for his bride.  The wedding is agreed, but Brān’s councillor and nephew Evnissien, angry at being left out of the debate, mortally insults Matholwch by mutilating his horses.  Brān tries to appease Matholwch by colossal gifts, but while Matholwch seems placated, once he goes back to Ireland the pressure of his court - which considers he has been disgraced by Evnissien - lead him to order a disgraceful treatment for Branwen, who is to be confined to the kitchen and slapped daily.  By means of a trained bird, Branwen lets her brother know of her plight, and Brān, using his colossal size to carry his minstrels, wades across the sea to Ireland, followed by his army.  The Irish retreat across a magic river, but the colossal Brān lays himself across and functions as a bridge for his men.

Seeing there is no escape for it, the Irish offer to build Brān a house, the first he has ever had - he was too colossal to fit in one - and to turn the kingdom of Ireland over to Gwern, son of Branwen and Matholwch.  However, Evnissien discovers a deadly trap in the new palace; he destroys it, but then he throws Gwern into the fire, and battle starts.  All the Irish are killed, save five pregnant women (who are later to repopulate the island); as for the British, only seven men survive.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Casswallawn (acting, as I suggested in Appendix 1, the role of Beli) has killed Brān’s governors and become king of the island.

Brān is beheaded, and his head accompanies his seven heroes on their journey back.  He takes them to a magic palace in the island of Gwales (actually a sterile outcrop off Pembroke), where they feast amidst peace, plenty and the music of magical birds, for eighty years.  Eventually, however, one of them looks out of a forbidden window, and they remember the battle and their loss.  They take the now silent head with them, to bury it in London and provide the island with magical protection from invasions; and they offer their allegiance to Casswallawn as lord of the island.  (Casswallawn, in his turn, is one day soon to face Caesar and accept his overlordship.)


 This, on the other hand, is a summary of Geoffrey’s account:


Belinus and Brennius are the sons of a great founder-king, the lawgiver Dunvallo Molmutius.  After an inconclusive war for the kingdom, they decide to partition it; Belinus will receive the land south of the Humber and the title of king.  Brennius’ ill-disposed courtiers suggest that he should marry the daughter of Elsingius, king of Norway, and use this dynastic alliance to overthrow his brother.  He does so, but Belinus, realizing that this act is aimed against him - and was illegal in not having his assent as high king and head of the family - invades and conquers Brennius’ half of the kingdom.  Brennius hurries back, but his fleet is waylaid by that of the Danish king Gingthalacus, who loves Brennius’ bride.  Gingthalacus seizes the girl, but a storm throws him on a British coast and into Belinus’ waiting hands.  Brennius reaches Britain with a Norwegian army and demands his kingdom and bride back; Belinus tells him to get lost, and there is war.  Belinus wins, and gives the girl to Gingthalacus, under obligation to be his tribute-paying vassal from now on.  Thus the king of Britain defeats the armies of the king of Norway and secures the homage of the king of Denmark.

Brennius flees to Gaul.  While Belinus busies himself building roads across Britain and enforcing the laws of his father Dunvallo Molmutius, Brennius insinuates himself into the favour of Duke Segnius of the Allobrogi, gains his people’s favour by generosity and great banquets, and marries his daughter.  Shortly after, the Duke dies and Brennius succeeds him.  Making a treaty with the other Gallic states to be allowed to cross in peace, he leads his army to invade Britain again.

However, as the armies are about to clash, Tonuuenna, mother of Belinus and Brennius, intercedes, and manages to make peace between them.  This agreement has a sinister side: as reward for letting him pass freely on his way to Britain, Brennius, leading his brother’s army as well as his own, invades and devastates all the realms of Gaul, and enters Italy.  The Romans first make a treaty offering the British tribute in gold and silver, then break it, allying themselves with the Germans against them.  Belinus and Brennius divide forces: Belinus engages the Germans, while Brennius races for Rome, intercepting the Roman army and destroying it.  Belinus joins him and, after much fighting, they take and loot Rome.  This is the sack of Rome of 387BC, and Brennius is the Brennius who was remembered as the Celtic leader.  Eventually, Brennius dies in Italy, while Belinus returns to his empire of Gaul and Britain, with its Scandinavian tributaries, continuing his work of builder of roads and cities.  He was imitated by his son Gurguit Barbtruc, who invaded Denmark to enforce his father’s tribute, and established the ancestors of the Irish, under Partholon, in Ireland.


A number of common features are of course visible.


Brān is deprived of his kingdom while he is abroad (fighting to insure his sister’s honour and marriage and his nephew’s succession) Brennius is deprived of his kingdom while he is abroad (trying to win a wife and permanent royal power for himself)
Brān dies abroad and has no children or successors; Casswallawn (standing in for Beli) dies within the borders of his kingdom and is the ancestor of all succeeding kings Brennius dies abroad and has no children or successors; Belinus dies within the borders of his kingdom and is the ancestor of all succeeding kings
Casswallawn deprives Brān of his kingdom of Britain. Belinus deprives Brennius of his kingdom within Britain.
Brān is famous for his great banquet; his magic banquet at Gwales is the prototype of every nobleman’s hospitality, as is shown by its archetypal name, yspadawt urdaul benn, “the hospitality of a noble leader”.  (Pen, “head”, is Welsh for any kind of leader, king, or pre-eminent person.) Brennius is famous for his great banquets; it is his banquets that make him a king
The great banquet takes place outside Britain, in Gwales His their great banquets take place outside Britain, among the Allobroges
Brān’s banquet represents the preliminary stage for the entry of his heroic followers into Britain; Brān’s followers go from Gwales to Britain. The banquets of Brennius represent the preliminary stage for the entry of his heroic followers into Britain; Brennius’ Allobroges follow him to the island.
This potentially dangerous arrival of supporters of Brān into a country that has been taken from him by force is resolved peacefully: Brān’s seven heroes recognize Casswallawn as king of the island. This potentially dangerous arrival of supporters of Brennius into a country that has been taken from him by force is resolved peacefully: Brennius with his Allobroges recognize Belinus as king of the island.


But when we look to the whole outline of the story, the differences are colossal.  Genealogically, Brān and Casswallawn are cousins, not brothers.  There is no direct clash between them in the Mabinogi, no evidence for any marriage of Brān[8] - not even in his “guest appearances” in Arthurian legend, documented by Helaine Newstead[9]- and no two or three successive enterprises of Brān, let alone Beli, abroad: Brān goes abroad once and dies there.  (The legend as we have it identifies his field of conquest as Ireland, but my view is that any other foreign region would have done just as well, since the point of the “failed” sovereignty of Brān is the coincidence between foreign countries and inability to turn military aggression into territorial dominion.)  No other version of the legend gives Belinus the civilizing mission this one does, separates him from Casswallawn, or makes him a conqueror of Napoleonic status.  What we have is not only an alternative version of the story, but one that carries deep ideological differences from the Mabinogi account.

But there is no evidence whatsoever that this narrative was popular or widespread.  The numerous appearances of Bran-like characters in later Arthurian epic all depend, without exception, on the figure of the Mabinogi, and can be explained in terms of it alone; Helaine Newstead’s old but still excellent survey never even felt the need to refer to Geoffrey at all.  That is, the many roots of Arthurian legend in Brittany and perhaps Wales all knew Brān exclusively as the figure of the Mabinogi.  In other words, the Galfridian picture is one that occurs only once, at a definite point in the history of the mythology; and as stories are not born by themselves, but written by actual human beings (especially when it can be shown that they exist to make a poing), it follows that someone, at a definite point in time, felt the need to modify the traditional, enduring ideas about Brān and Beli.  It was not a matter of an alternative tradition, but of a single author’s decision.  And if we take a look at its implicit ideology, we shall understand why.

Brān and Beli, I repeat, form two images of an ideology of leadership and history, in which Brān represents failed leadership, leadership which establishes monarchy only by its own fall and death (it is after his own death that Brān comes, like a proper king, to have a Big House and give banquets); and Beli the ordinary, common or garden living king.  But we have seen that there is a third term to this picture: the one king of the world, Caesar, who relates to Beli as the One to the Many, vortamo rix, rex inter omnes reges.  Casswallawn is bound to win against Brān, but to lose against Caesar[10]

Now what does the Galfridian story do with Caesar, or rather with his tribe?  He makes them the ultimate targets of Belinus and Brennius’ aggression; he shows them not only defeated, but defeated in a war they started after having first surrendered without battle and offered tribute.  In other words, the Romans of Brennius and Belinus are guilty of that very Celtic kind of high treason, “denial after recognition”, whose significance we have encountered again and again.  In effect, the author of this story reverses the charge which A and Gildas lay against he ancestors of the British tyranni or teyrnedd; it is not the British kinglets, descendants of Beli Mawr, who have committed the sin of “denial after recognition” against their natural lords the Romans, whose highest representative was Caesar; it was the Romans who, long before the days of Caesar, had committed it against Belinus himself, highest representative of the  

The author of this version of the story was familiar with Roman pseudo-history.  He lifted from the legend of Coriolanus the scene of the hero’s mother interceding with him as he is coming back with an alien army to take revenge on the country which had exiled him.  I know of no Celtic in which a mother plays a similar part, but it turns up as the climax of Brennius and Belinus’ clash.  More important still is the fact that, although he has made the Romans guilty of “denial after recognition”, he does not inflict on them the annihilating and enslaving punishment that other legends demand.  Everywhere else, the punishment for “denial after recognition” is enslavement or destruction; here, however, Brennius despoils Rome of her treasure and leaves, hanging around in central Italy until he dies.  In other words, his behaviour is that of the more-or-less historical Brennius who was said to have sacked Rome in 387BC.  Clearly, then, if his treatment of the Romans is more lenient than Celtic precedent demands - and in a story in which he has deliberately been set up to suffer “denial after recognition” - the only possible reason is that the fiction’s author wished it to square with the Roman historical picture.

But although he was more familiar with Roman classics than the likes of Gildas or Nennius, this author thought like a Celt.  It is not only the matter of “denial after recognition”, nor even his clear familiarity with the mythological meaning of Brennius/Brān and Belinus/Beli, but what this story is doing, that is highly Celtic.  We have seen that Celtic families or ecclesial groups who wished to supersede or even contradict a legitimate, pre-existing claim, tended to place an even higher claim, earlier in time.  When the Vortigernids wished to overcome the claims made against their ancestor by the author of N1, who placed him at the head of every evil in Britain, they concocted an Archbishop Guithelinus who had called and consecrated the first king of Britain, Constantine II.  When the successors of St.Patrick, acting as the patrons of the Dal Fiatach, found the isle of Man already claimed by a founding bishop (Maughold) consecrated by two British bishops, they placed Maughold in a relation of dependency on St.Patrick that was both deeper, and earlier in time, than the Britons’ consecration.  In the same way, the British claim to have sacked Rome and made her tributary comes before in time, and ahead in honour, of the later claim of the Romans to Britain - Geoffrey actually gives much the fullest and most profoundly legendary account of the Welsh legend of Ulkessar and Casswallawn.  The mechanism is unmistakable.

We have therefore someone who stands, much more than the thoroughly Celtic Gildas, at the crossroads between a Roman and a Celtic culture, who is learned enough in Roman tradition to know about Brennius and about Coriolanus, but who writes in an unmistakably Celtic mode, using Celtic categories and in the service of a thoroughly anti-Roman cause.  His purpose is to show that, in the face of all written history, the Roman mode of sovereignty - which A, Gildas, the legend of the Seven Emperors, and Nennius, not to mention the whole continental tradition, regarded as ultimate and supreme - is in fact inferior to a native British kingship incarnate in Belinus, since, long before Caesar conquered the world, his British brother Nennius had made the Roman Republic pay tribute.

The tempting thought that Geoffrey himself, with his great learning and knowledge of classical and biblical history, could be the author, dissolves upon examination.  Geoffrey did not speak Welsh and, more than once, made serious errors of interpretation due to his misunderstanding of native categories - e.g. his misunderstanding of the Roman “thirst for gold and silver” in Cassivellaunus’ response to Julius Caesar.  On the other hand, not only is the story of Brennius and Belinus built on entirely Celtic categories, but it contains unmistakable allusions to versions and ideas which only entered the written tradition in Welsh, and which, we have seen, Geoffrey did not know.

In particular, there is his insistence on Belinus’ road- and city-building activities.  Taking those cities to be a Galfridian - or even pre-Galfridian - transposition of the early Welsh idea of urbs, meaning, as in Nennius, a royal fortress; what can this be but an appropriation, on Beli’s behalf, of the road- and fortress-building activity of Beli’s enemy Elen?  We have seen that the fact that Elen built roads and fortresses to unify the island is not only essential to her mythical personality, but also to the mythical significance of Roman rule in Britain, established through her marriage with a Roman emperor.  The tale of Brennius and Belinus erases Elen from the map and attributes the roads of Britain to Belinus, at the same time as he makes him - in the person of his subject brother Brennius - the conqueror of Rome.  The point cannot possibly be mistaken.  The unknown author not only attacks the moral character of the Romans - which more than one author, whether late-classical, Dark Age, or medieval, did - but denies their civilizing mission and their imperial nature; which went against every late-classical, Dark Age, or medieval conception.  He even went beyond other Dark Age British documents such as A, who, though he asserted that the time of the Romans was over, never denied their imperial role, let alone charge them with “denial after recognition”.

I will say more about the ideological and ethnic content of this extraordinary story in a short while; but, having got to this point, I want to underline a few facts.  The first is that this story exists.  We cannot pretend that it means anything else than what it does; it elaborately humiliates the Roman past, claims for British sovereigns of the tigernos rank, through their ancestor Beli, a higher rank than any other document dreams of, deliberately rewrites an ancestral legend of the foundation of monarchy which is thoroughly different in every other source we have (not only in the Mabinogi, but also in the Arthurian accounts studied by Helaine Newstead), and does so by deliberately adding features borrowed from other stories.  In other words, though thinking - as I have shown - in Celtic terms, he turns the ancestral Celtic legends upside down, and did so for a clear political purpose.  If we say that Geoffrey indulges elsewhere in anti-Roman sentiments - for instance in the letter of Cassivellaunus to Caesar and in the speech of Aldroenus as he sends Constantine to rescue the island - we have to remember that the picture he actually presents is one of feudal submission of the realms of Britain to the Roman empire of the world.  The kings of Britain are loyal - at their own terms - to the Emperor of the world, until the Empire itself collapses, as a contemporary king of, say, Bohemia, would be loyal - at his own terms - to the Holy Roman Emperor.  This is more than the contemporary situation would warrant, for the Holy Roman Emperor of Geoffrey’s time was not in any clear way the overlord of the king of England.  Whatever Geoffrey’s rather affected shows of anti-Roman feeling, then, there is nothing in his other narratives to warrant the extraordinary attitudes in this tale; nor does its clearly Celtic mentality agree with his twelfth-century-modern, international Latin culture.

The ethnic-geographical setting of the story is telling beyond argument, and agrees with conclusions drawn from entirely different premises.  The first stage of Brennius’ career brings about the feudal submission of Norway and Denmark to Belinus, king of Britain; and to drive the message further home, a son of Belinus is made to re-assert this suzerainty over the rebellious Danes, thus showing that it was not a personal appanage of Belinus, but a legitimate entitlement of all succeeding British kings.  What can this mean but a legendary premise for a similar claim over the two kingdoms - a claim which, if it needed legendary confirmation, must have been all too real?  But while several Danish and Norwegian kings have laid claim to large parts of Britain, no British king has ever been known to claim either of these two kingdoms - except the Arthur of Geoffrey, of The dream of Rhonawbwy, and of Cullhwch and Olwen.  And as in the career of Arthur, the submission of these two countries is the first great foreign conquest of Belinus.  This is not enough: if we understand Belinus as representing Arthur’s understanding of his own status, we realize that Belinus conquers the two kingdoms as a side-effect of his struggle to defend his legitimate royal rule over Britain.  I have explained the invasion of Norway as part of Arthur’s struggle to defend and extends what he regarded as his rights as a British king[11].  The fact that this is presented as a stage in the struggle between the naturally victorious Belinus, legitimate British king, and the naturally defeated Brennius, indicates that Arthur’s writers were casting the British supporters of ius Romanum in the role of Brennius, everlastingly defeated and yet a necessary part of the Celtic British body politic.

Equally telling is the account of the two Britons’ continental wars.  The charge of “denial after acceptance” against the Romans we have already noticed; but that, after accepting Belinus’ overlordship, the Romans should then revolt against it and seek the alliance of the Germans can allude to no situation known to recorded history.  What can the author be trying to say?  That the Romans had called in the Saxons to oppress the British?  No: I suggest that he is trying to say exactly what he says: that a party defined as Roman, whose reputed ancestors were the Romans of 387BC, had made common cause with a party defined as Germanic, in order to resist the aggression of a party identified with that of Belinus - ancestor and type of British kings.  He may even be saying that there had been some sort of accommodation between the parties, understood as the submission of Romani to Combroges, before the Romani took the opportunity of allying themselves with the Teutons beyond the Rhine and revolting against British power on the continent.

Recorded history has no event which can even remotely be compared to this.  At no point from the beginnings of written history do we find a party which can be in any way be identified as Roman allying itself with a party which can in any way be identified as Germanic - especially as comprehensively Germanic, rather than representing this or that tribe of Germania - against a party that can in any way be identified as British Celtic.  And if this is Geoffrey’s intention, can anyone explain what, exactly, it was meant to achieve?  The alliance of Romans and Germans is a fleeting thing, hardly mentioned in his account except to justify the presence of two British hosts on the Continent - one, under Belinus, taking care of the Germans, the other, under Brennius, looting Rome and occupying central Italy.  It complicates the story unnecessarily, detracting from the climactic effect of the capture of Rome; it is completely unnecessary to aligning the legend with Roman history, indeed very clumsy - for any reader of Livy will know that the Romans did not come into contact with any Germanic race until the time of the Cimbri and Teutones, 280 years after Brennius - and it does not reflect the realities of Geoffrey’s own day, in which the Holy Roman Emperor was, if anything, rather friendly with the king of England because of their common opponent in France.

The only story that can account for the geography, chronology and ideology of the Galfridian legend of Brennius is the one which I have been laboriously reconstructing from many sources, but the chief part of which reaches us from other parts of Geoffrey.  Arthur’s conquests began in North Britain; they included a good deal of fratricidal Highland feuding; he then stretched his hand, perhaps following some dynastic claim, to Scandinavia, where he used the savage techniques perfected in Highland fighting to good effect; finally, he revolted against his nominal overlord, the pretender Roman Emperor in Britain and Armorica, and drove him out of the island and into Gaul, where he had to face Frankish opposition led probably by Clothochar or Lothar (who may well be the King Claudas of Arthurian legend).  One detail I suspected, the story confirms: just as I thought it likely that Arthur’s invasion of Gaul would draw the Franks into the fight against him, the story features the otherwise incomprehensible alliance of Germans and Romans against a British invasion of Gaul.  In the sixth century - but not earlier or later - it was a frequent usage to identify “Franks” and “Germans”[12].

I think that the existence of the Galfridian Brennius story is the strongest piece of evidence for my account of events[13].  For there are, at present, only two explanations for it: one bad, and one good.  The bad one goes as follows: someone - possibly Geoffrey himself - created, out of the odds and ends of Celtic mythology, a bizarre, rambling account of wars fought across half Europe, with no possible connection with historical reality, and which is, in terms narrative form, considerably worse than the “folkloric” form which we find in The Mabinogi, and which extensive correspondences in Arthurian legend suggest is traditional.  By some coincidence, the story managed to incorporate one or two Celtic legal ideas - especially the wickedness of “denial after acceptance” - which are not found in The Mabinogi, and seems to argue for a superiority of Celtic Britain over Rome in a typically Celtic way (by intruding a claim for superiority which is earlier in time and higher in quality than the existing claim for the opposite party), although it is clearly based on impossible premises.  The good one is: the Galfridian tale of Brennius is a cool and deliberate attempt to construct a mythological precedent for Arthur’s conquering activities.  And I have to insist that the story as we have it exists.  We cannot pretend that it has no significance and can safely be ignored, only because the significance it does have is one that does not fit in with our preconceptions.

Arthur’s movement can only be called revolutionary: a nativist revolution with a definite ideology rooted in the ancient Celtic culture which had survived Roman penetration in the north.  I have already emphasized the role of bards in creating a comprehensive and attractive social ideology.  The fact that we have been able to trace a literature of Arthurian propaganda, two items of which (A, and the praise poem underlying Nennius ch.56) are of clear Celtic and almost certainly bardic origin, shows that bardic education had something to do with the nativist revolution.  At the very least, bards must have been part of it.  Arthur, according to T.Gwynn Jones, was remembered down the centuries as one of the kings who were generous to bards; and that is not exactly a surprise.  Throughout this study I have emphasized the role of propaganda, of party views whether Ambrosian or Vortigernid or Maglocunian, Roman, Celticizing or Catholic; and never does it seem more important than in dealing with this king.  It is not coincidental that Arthur became a subject for legend[14].  There is nothing surprising about a historical personage becoming completely overlain with legend, even to the extent of vanishing from sight; Pythagoras lived in the sunshine of a well-documented age and in the middle of high politics, taking part in such important events as the destruction of the city of Sybaris; and, nevertheless, managed to draw on himself so much of the aura of a legendary sage – with the help of what seems to have been a group with all the characteristics of a cult – that it is extremely difficult to reach any firm view as to who he was and what, exactly, he taught.  In the same way, the fame of Arthur was being spread, even as he was still alive, by devoted adherents.

Arthur’s adherents sought more than conquest and self-aggrandizement.  There must no doubt have been plenty of that, as shown by the sudden sprouting of a whole Celtic aristocracy in Armorica, far different from what little Celtic power we can see in the case of Lovocatus and Catihernus; the followers of Arthur had evidently established a comprehensive political settlement, they had put their own aristocracy into place.  Political revolutions always feature, what the study of history has paid insufficient attention to, job-seeking on the grand scale, with the eyes of all party members always on the next office to be formed or staffed, and it is only self-deceiving idealists who complain about this sort of thing as being against the spirit of the Revolution.  But what is always in everyone’s mind is that they have a task to carry out; the self-seeking, if it is there, is always seen as in the service of a greater goal.  In the case of Arthur, they had their own idea of a just and sane political settlement: one that extended over all Britain and Gaul – and why not, the rest of the world – the political realities of the Borders, idealized and ennobled by the poetry of Taliesin and Aneirin’s predecessors.

Not all revolutions have a Leader.  The United States of America won their independence under a coven of squabbling and uncertain provincial politicians and harassed military leaders, of whom Washington was more notable for courage and persistency than for any pretensions to genius.  France devoured Leaders like fish fry, until the last and greatest of her Leaders devoured her and her Revolution both.  But there have been cases in which people have been motivated, consistently and to almost insane recklessness, by the will of a single man.  Chesterton had it right, after all: Say, have you thought what manner of man it is/ Of whom men say, He could strike giants down?/ Or what strong memories, over time's abyss/ Bore up the pomp of Camelot and the crown?/ And why one banner all the background fills/ Beyond the pageants of so many spears,/ And by what witchery in the western hills/ A throne stands empty for a thousand years?

Chesterton appreciated such men, writing positively not only of Napoleon, but even of Mussolini; I don’t.  (Though I love Chesterton himself!)  I think that the cruel, self-serving, hypocritical, relentlessly aggressive side of Arthur, which had survived in memory nearly as long as his being the manner of man… of whom men say, He could strike giants down, is absolutely typical of the revolutionary Leader.  There are exceptions –Giuseppe Garibaldi, Henry IV of France, Julius Caesar[15]– but most conquerors and Leaders, Alexander of Macedon, the Henries IV and V of England, Oliver Cromwell, John Calvin, Frederick II of Prussia, Robespierre, Napoleon, Vladimir Ilic Ulianov, have something of Hitler in them: of the self-pity, self-regard, vanity, immaturity that makes men into monsters.  And that is not a coincidence: it is exactly these qualities – the eagerness dictated by the need to smash resistance to the all-conquering Self, the impatience with the compromises and accommodations of ordinary life, the self-regard that says that we are too good for the evils that our enemies accept – that can reach out from them to their men, forming a collective fury of self-righteousness.  Leaders are rarely responsible persons; they often specialize in emotional blackmail, with show trials and the production of scapegoats to evade their own responsibilities.  They are often, like Ropesbierre or Stalin, intriguers who will not confront an opponent face to face, even when their power is supreme, but prefer to ruin him from behind.  Their efficacy is not in responsible decision, but in serving as a focus for their followers' self-indulgence, validating and reinforcing their impulses, serving as justifiers of group vainglory, group egotism, group paranoia and group lust for destruction.

“Hitler responds to the vibration of the human heart with the delicacy of a seismograph, or perhaps of a wireless receiving set, enabling him, with a certainty with which no conscious gift could endow him, to act as a loudspeaker proclaiming the most secret desires, the least admissible instincts, the sufferings and personal revolts of an entire people… uncanny intuition, which infallibly diagnoses the ills from which his audience is suffering.  If he tries to bolster up his argument with theories or quotations from books he has only imperfectly understood, he scarcely rises above a very poor mediocrity.  But let him throw away his crutches and step out boldly, speaking as the spirit moves him, and he is promptly transformed into one of the greatest speakers of the century… Hitler enters a hall.  He sniffs the air.  For a minute he gropes, feels his way, senses the atmosphere.  Suddenly he bursts forth.  His words go like an arrow to their target, he touches each private wound on the raw, liberating the mass unconscious, expressing its innermost aspirations, telling it what it most wants to hear[16].”  Ultimately, the Leader is in a sense a scapegoat, a crutch for all his followers to hang all their dissatisfaction in one lot, in the expectation of an apocalyptic cleansing, a pseudo-Redeemer Christ to take away all our failings.

On the other hand, some of these men have genius that cannot be gainsaid.  In their own way, they see further than others.  We have looked at the immediate, contingent historical picture in which Arthur had to operate; let us now look at the broader historical picture.

Arthur and his court theorists were largely right in seeing in Roman ius nothing more than a decaying iugum.  Not only was there no future in it, but its corpse was going to be a largely destructive presence in European history for more than a millennium to come.  (I am thinking of the Europe-wide prestige of Roman law, which gave us such institutions as institutionalized serfdom, torture as a regular feature of juridical enquiry, and the exclusion of women from public office.  It was probably because Roman law denied women access to any public office whatever, that the Western Church rejected the institution of women deacons, found, as I have shown above, in the New Testament, with consequences that stretch into our century.)

The decline of the Roman Empire, a process that lasted for centuries, began with an effective strategic deadlock, in which the Empire’s professional army found itself unable to concentrate its efforts on any single one of its enemies long enough to defang it.  After Trajan, the Empire lost the strategic initiative: by building the Wall, his successor Hadrian decided in effect that the Empire could not even afford the comparatively minute effort it would have taken to subdue the scanty and backwards tribes of Scotland and Ireland.  From this moment on, the Empire was bound hand and foot by its own frontier[17]: instead of the enemy having to fear the arrival of the legions, the loss of independence, Roman occupation and Roman taxation, it was Rome which, by denying itself the option of annexation, effectively stood back and allowed the barbarians to take swipes at her.  From now on, the Romans would only enter enemy territory in punitive expeditions which, however fearsome each of them individually might be, would do nothing to weaken permanently the capacity of the Northern barbarians and the Persian Empire to make war.

The borders were part of the problem.  Sitting astride rather than defending Europe’s main arteries, the Danube and the Rhine, Rome’s European borders were – by misfortune rather than miscalculation – just about the longest, least defensible, and most strategically disastrous border line that could possibly have been designed in Europe.  On the other hand, on the Persian border, where an easy and long frontline allowing access to the foe would have been a strategic advantage, the Romans were separated from their most organized and controlled enemies by vast swathes of desert and debatable mountains, meaning that they were never close enough to the core of the Persian Empire to strike an effective blow (another of Hadrian’s disastrous strategic decisions had been to abandon Armenia and Mesopotamia, conquered by Trajan, to the Persians), while the Persians were able to threaten some of the Empire’s most vital provinces – Syria, Asia Minor, Egypt.  Indeed, this was a constant of Roman history: thinly strung out on the shores of an inland sea, with all its most strategic provinces – Italy, North Africa, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria – within no more than a few weeks of the marching feet of invaders, the Empire had formed, long before the beginnings of decay, a most tempting target for raiders (think of the terrifying episode of the Cimbri and Teutones in 108BC).  It is a tragic and awful historical irony that the easiest defensive line for the West, the isthmus of Europe between East Prussia and the mouth of the Danube, would have been easily within the reach of Roman power, had the Romans only understood that it was there.  Less than a third than the foully long Rhine-Danube line, and enveloping twice as much good arable land, including the breadbaskets of the Pannonian and Dacian plains, it would have conferred far greater stability and security to Roman civilization in the West.

But there is another consideration: such a decisive move in the West would inevitably have shifted the balance of the Empire away from its traditional heartlands in the central and eastern Mediterranean.  Conversely, a decisive move against the Persians, commitment to neutralizing their threat by occupying all or most of their heartlands, would have shifted it just as much eastwards.  Either way, a part of the Empire would have lost out.  Each of the various provinces made urgent claims for its own protection; each was not easily persuaded to forgo its own security, however fictitious, for the sake of strategic advantage in “distant countries of which they knew nothing”.  And so, hobbled, bound, impotent, the Empire stumbled from crisis to crisis, unable to do more than defend its territory, while the semi-nomadic barbarian tribes renewed themselves for ever.  If one was destroyed, another stepped into the gap.  Sometimes, as with the Huns, they did not even wait for a gap to be created.

The paralyzed strategic situation bred social deadlock.  Defence of the realm came to be the overwhelming priority, with more and more military expenditure chasing a shrinking tax base.  The population, kept at a delicate balance by the constant exactions of tax required (they were not stupid enough not to understand this) to defend their very lives from barbarian raiders, and which therefore they did not often refuse, was easily damaged by any civil war, foreign invasion, bad harvest, or plague.  The negative demographic growth of the later Empire has been debated as if it was a great mystery, but it does not really seem to me very mysterious at all.

Reform, when it took place, was horrifying.  Diocletian and his successors invented, and then codified in minute detail, the institute of serfdom, depriving the vast majority of the population of the liberty to seek for the most advantageous life for themselves; a disastrous innovation that lasted for more than a thousand years.  The increasingly desperate struggle to preserve, whatever the price, an increasingly indefensible social and political balance, led to laws of frightful severity and inefficacy: it was late Roman law that bequeathed Europe the horror of codified judicial torture (and I take pride in that it was an Italian, Count Cesare Beccaria – and his nephew, the great writer Alessandro Manzoni – who struck the bitterest blows against this revolting “piece of our heritage”).  The last shreds of autonomy were removed from local authorities, transferring all their power to a government-appointed comes, only for the barbarians to step in anyway and take over all the comital offices for themselves, making them into the ancestors of hereditary feudal lords.  As the game was lost at the start, every measure by which the Empire tried to help its own survival worked against it.

Even so, the Empire might have survived; or, at least, it might have re-formed itself, like its spiritual twin, the Chinese Empire at the other end of the Old World belt of civilizations, which repeatedly fell apart into separate and warring kingdoms, and was repeatedly conquered by barbarians from the north, only to recreate itself over and over again; because, quite simply, its cultural model was too prestigious.  The same was true for the Roman ideal; indeed, it was the reason why men accepted so much and struggled so bitterly to preserve a state already beyond rescue.  There was nothing they would not do, nothing they would not suffer, for the sake of continuing to be Romans, citizens of the centre of the world, under a stable and clean law, with one master and one rule.  What was the alternative?  No Roman could contemplate the idea of becoming part of an unstable, petty, warring, primitive and personalistic barbarian lordship with anything but horror; and they were right.  Read, with some attention, the pages of Gregory of Tours, to find out what the alternative to Roman identity really was, and what barbarian rule really amounted to.  And as for Persia, apart that it was not within their power to occupy all the Roman territory, the ancient hatred of tormented border regions which included some of the Empire’s most important areas, and the revulsion at a state that was tyrannical beyond even the late-Roman norm, would not make the other Empire known to Romans an attractive alternative.  The citizens of the late Empire were quite right in thinking that the alternative was between Rome and chaos; only Rome was no longer a real alternative either, and the impersonal powers of geopolitical conditions had already voted for chaos.

Into this infernal cauldron of decay and desperate attempts at stiffening the State, history dropped another, and final, element: the rise of Christianity.  And I write this as a devout and contented member of the Catholic Church; but it was Christianity, more than any other single element, that was the death of the Empire, or rather that it insured that, once it died, it would not rise again.  The Empire, as I said, could have re-formed; indeed, it struggled over and over to do so, in the pathological form of Justinian’s diseased conquests, in the grandiose but fragile one of Charlemagne’s new Western empire, and again and again under his titular successors – Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Charles V Habsburg, even Napoleon: only to collapse again and again, and finally.  What succeeded in China failed, and failed conclusively, in the West.  The Empire was not re-formed.

Now Christianity was not a factor in every one of these collapses – though it certainly was in the cases of Frederick and Napoleon, who tried to eat the Pope and died of it, and in that of Charles V, who was incapable to cope with the forces of unleashed religious emotion – but it was, beyond a doubt, in the first and most decisive instance of them all: the collapse of the original Empire.

The Christian religion demands the formation of a community or Church which is not in any way to be identified with any existing state, and which, indeed, is not and cannot be a state.  Its concerns are entirely spiritual (although it claims the right to condemn laws and actions of the state power which are not in keeping with its own view of morality and justice); it requires moral and therefore organizational unity across the globe, irrespective of boundaries; and while its potential reach is to every living human being, its actual reach is only to the invisible line that separates those in any given society who believe from those who do not.  In other words, it does not and cannot coincide with the reach of the power of a state, which extends to all its citizens or subjects – believing or unbelieving – and stops at its borders.

When the first Roman Emperor became converted to Christianity, on the other hand, he took to it the immemorial tradition that made religious activity a part of the natural work of the state, so that priests were effectively public employees and temples public property; and simply placed the lot in the hands of the Church, identifying the religious institutions of the Roman state with those of the Catholic Church.

This is the beginning of the institution of the state Church, an invention of Hell if ever there was one.  The disastrous misidentification of the community of believers with the community of Roman citizens and subjects led to an immediate and lasting split within the body politic, in which pagans were simply required to enter the Christian community by law, or else find themselves excluded from the Res Publica that their own religious ideas had originally formed.  Even more damaging were the splits within the Christian community itself.  We are demanded, on the Highest Authority, to be of one flock and one Shepherd; but that means that not only are splits simply not accepted, but also that any community that splits from the Catholic community can only justify its own split by regarding itself as the true Catholic Church, that is by denying any legitimacy to any other ecclesiastical community.  It is desperately urgent to retain unity, since the highest reality – the Body of God, consecrated by the priesthood – is involved.

It was the misidentification of Christian Church and Roman Empire that led to the end of Roman unity, as excluded community after excluded community found themselves isolated, threatened, humiliated, oppressed, persecuted.  It is not rarely argued, by inference or by outright statement, that the religious division was the excuse for a resurgent sense of nation or other local interest to assert itself against the dead hand of the centralizing Roman Empire; I think the exact opposite is the case.  It was the excluded communities who identified themselves increasingly with the regions in which they felt safer and further away from the oppressive reality of the Roman centre, a mechanism which then gained its own momentum as the imperial centre began to see all heretics as bound to particular local and rebellious interests, and therefore to treat those provinces worse.

It is perhaps a related matter that the civil wars of the fourth century were far more savage and damaging than those of the third.  Roger Collins observes that in most of the usurpations or contested successions of the 200s, the army of the weaker pretender tended to murder him and align itself with the potential winner, thus avoiding civil war and anarchy.  It seems, he says, that there was something like a common agreement between officers not to push matters to the point of civil war.  The fourth century, on the other hand, is dotted with bloody usurpations and military revolts, most of which ended in fratricidal battles in which thousands of experienced and irreplaceable legionaries were slaughtered - the campaigns of Constantine I (309-327); the revolt of Magnentius (360); the attempted usurpation of Valentinus (367); the five years of Magnus Maximus (383-88), ending in frightful carnage; the revolt of Arbogast and Eugenius (393).  These frequent civil wars are seen as giving a decisive contribution to the collapse of the professional Roman army, which, in the Western empire, had ceased to exist by 411 and was replaced by barbarian drafts brought in for pay.  It may be a coincidence, but this age of civil begins with the first Christian emperor, and sees among its protagonists some of the most vocally devout Christians of the period - for instance, the defeated Magnus Maximus and the victorious Theodosius.

But the most decisive factor, in my view, is that the Christian religion (later imitated by Islam) offered the Roman subject something which had not until then been on offer: a genuine third alternative from the otherwise intolerable dyad of Roman or barbarian.  To be a Christian was an identity which did not stop at the bounds of the Empire, but which, however, had no taint of barbarism: to the contrary, it offered what it claimed to be a higher moral ordnance and a loftier and more intimate membership even than Rome’s.  In other words, it tore up the uniqueness of Roman citizenship, which Romans had so long been willing to die rather than renounce.

It is not clear how far Arthur was aware of all this, but A shows that he was very clear on two central facts: the fact that there was no correspondence between Roman political power and Roman Catholic identity, and the fact that there was no future in Roman law, which was a stifling iugum.  In the name of a new balance, he spread war across half of Europe.  While his contemporary Justinian I was driven by the bookish obsession with the ancient and dead Empire to commit his admittedly enormous forces to the conquest of territories regarded as Roman, attempting to restore that hallowed and ossified border that had for so long held the Roman world in a body cast, Arthur had no problem about establishing his own supremacy anywhere the strategic situation demanded it – in Scotland beyond the Wall, in Ireland, in Scandinavia: all countries beyond the ancient limes, but vital to his political projects.  Justinian, on the other hand, was so hobbled by his unhealthy dreams that he lacked the resources to deal with and resolve the two genuine strategic challenges faced by the Empire in his lifetime, the onslaught of Persians and Avars.  Given the enormous resources invested in the sterile effort to subdue Africa, Italy and Spain, nobody can be surprised that the Empire could not cope with the pressure from Avars and Slavs; conversely, if it had not committed itself to a useless prestige policy of remote conquests, does anyone doubt that it could have coped with the barbarian pressure in its own strategically vital north, and been able to deal with Persia much better than it did?  In every way, the obsession with Roman borders was a death-dealing spectre haunting the century, and Arthur’s policy was successful exactly because it rejected it.

The hatred of the Church for Arthur brings out another matter: that Arthur, whatever his negative sides in terms of disregard of Christian morality and oppression of Church institutions – we have good reason to suspect him of besieging a monastery and poisoning a Bishop – was entirely indifferent to the religious exclusivism that was the most poisonous aspect of the adoption of Christianity as the Roman state religion.  There is reason, as we will see, to believe that his strongest supporter, Cai, was pagan; so, certainly, were the Scandinavian peoples whom he conquered, and whom, without apparently troubling in the least to try to convert them, he hurled at his enemies in Gaul and in Britain.  Justinian, by contrast, was not very clear on what he himself believed, moving capriciously close to or away from the Monophysite heresy according to the fluctuations of his erotic obsession with his Monophysite ex-prostitute Empress; but he was quite clear that, whatever he believed, everybody else had to – or die.  Pagans, Samaritans, heretics other than Monophysites, and uncompromising Catholics – not excluding the Pope himself – were persecuted with varying degrees of savagery, which did nothing to strengthen the Empire.

Arthur’s attitude to Faith and Church, which a modern might call pragmatic but a contemporary would have called faithless, may have something to do with his own roots in the farthest British North, where, according to Adamnan’s Life of Columba, there were pagan kings as late as the time of Columba, a couple of generations after Arthur.  Indeed, if the Brude mac Maelchon whom Columba met was in fact the son of Maglocunus/Maelgwn, it seems highly likely that he had actually given up the Christianity of his own family to assume the Pictish throne; and the fact that the son of Maglocunus, a man who had actually taken vows as a monk early in his life, could become the pagan king of a pagan kingdom, shows that at least some Northern lords, in the generation that followed Arthur, were disposed to compromise with pagan ways.

The same, I suspect, was true of Arthur himself.  The earliest notices place him in, or involve him with, pagan Pictland; and I strongly suspect that at least one of his main allies, the Cei of Pa Gur was meant to be a Pagan.  There is a strange passage early on where he is said to “invoke them/ As he was killing three at a time /… he invoked them/ as he cut [enemies] down”.  Who did he invoke?  Four persons, it seems, mentioned just before him in the poem: Manawydan ab Llyr, Mabon am Melld, Anguas the Winged and Lluch Llauynniauc.  Of them, Manawydan[18] and Mabon are certainly gods; Anwas (No-Home) the Winged, unknown elsewhere, sounds like a god of wind; and Lluch Llauynniac or Wind-Hand sounds a good deal like the supreme god, Lug.  Lug turns up in the Mabinogion with a different name, Lleu rather than Lluch; but this may be due to regional variations, since the Mabinogi god is very much based in Wales, while the Arthurian Lluch of Pa Gur and of Cullhwch and Olwen still shows some signs of North British origin[19].

If there were outright pagans among Arthur’s followers, and if Arthur invaded Ireland – as more than one source says he did – this would explain one puzzling feature of two of Muirchu’s stories: why was Britain twice taken to be a pagan country, in the story of Monesan and in that of Coroticus/Coirtech?  If the Irish had experienced, at some point after their own conversion, a major invasion from a British army some of whose leading members were outright pagans, this might have formed their ideas of Britain in succeeding years.  This might even explain the great terror that British invasion is in the legend of Mag Mucrama, a terror quite unexpected in the light of historical Irish views of the Welsh, and which in fact is in contradiction with the later comical invention of Artśr son of Beine Brit.  Unfortunately, these are only suppositions, since no trace of a British invasion seems to be found in Irish annals.  But again, Irish annals are notoriously unreliable before 550, and very vulnerable to manipulation anyway.

Cai the Tall, notorious for his drinking and his ferocity in the front line, seems particularly associated with the war in Gaul; we do not hear of him in the time of the early wars, when the main figure beside Arthur is Howel/Hueil.  We are deep into guesswork here, but it does seem to me that there is a link between the invasion of Gaul and collaboration, or even fighting side by side, with outright pagans.  It is perhaps too much for coincidence that, of the few details we can recover of this epic enterprise, two seem to hint at the presence of pagan hosts or leaders among Arthur’s army – Cai’s probable paganism, and the possible presence of certainly pagan Scandinavian hosts.  And, of course, if Arthur was seen to openly collaborate with barbarians against Catholic Christians such as the Ambrosiads and the Franks, this would demolish at a stroke the crusading moral world of A.  It would also be utterly typical of the way revolutionary politics evolve, with contortions dictated by power politics but demolishing the ethical grounds of the original revolt.

The answer seems to have been to develop a different moral basis for war.  L seems to have had nothing to say about religion, and to have grouped together all “the barbarians over the Rhine”, Franks and Saxons, as one barbarian entity occupying Britain and Gaul; if it did, this is blatant propaganda; hardly unexpected from a text that seems to have treated Howel/Hueil in the mendacious and misleading way we discussed, ignoring even the small matter of his killing.  Likewise, the tale of Brennius and Belinus shamelessly allied the ancestors of the Romans with the ancestors of Franks and Saxons - the commonly-named “Germans”, in a context in which religion is all but forgotten.  In the decisive matter of religion, which justified going to war in the first place, the Franks, however barbarous they may have been, had been Christian for more than forty years, and, as Gregory’s Vitae patrum make clear, some of them had accepted the fullness of the Christian religion and lived most holy lives; on the other hand, there is no evidence for any Christianity among the Saxons/English until Augustine and Aidan.  To force them together into one entity can only derive from political considerations.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is evidence that the revolution had run out of conquering steam years before Arthur’s death.  The very fact that this conqueror stopped about 537 with his enemy Lothar still active and with two thirds of Gaul (at a conservative guess) in Frankish hands (in fact, the Franks had managed to expand their territory, subduing Burgundy and Thuringia and re-taking the southern half of Aquitaine, while the war with Arthur went on), shows impotence, pure and simple.  Do we doubt that a man of Arthur’s temper would ever have stopped pressing east and south as far as his ships and horses could take him, unless his resources had simply failed him?

This is the picture in Pa Gur,[20] which, apart from the intrusive first few lines, is a consistent depiction of a mournful, ageing Arthur remembering the good men who served him in the past and the fall in battle of his great hero Cai and his own son Llacheu: “I used to have servants/ It was better when they were alive”.  The long list of deeds by Arthur’s heroes may be partly legendary, with its references to dog-heads and a witch; but we are also told that Cai the White went to Mōn (probably Anglesey) to destroy “Lions”, which might be a misunderstanding for the name of the Emperor Leo.  All of these things Arthur looks on with melancholy: his lads were brave, defending their customs from Edinburgh on the border to the shores of Tryfrwyd across the ocean; things were better when they were alive.

The best interpretation of the allusive passage of Pa Gur that speaks of the deaths of Cai and Arthur’s son Llacheu is that they died together in the same battle: “Unless God had compassed it/ Cai’s death would have been impossible./ Cai the White and Llacheu,/ They fulfilled battles/ Before [the time of] the pain of grey spears”; in other words, Cai is such a great warrior that only God, or Fate, could account for his death.  The English preposition before could, here, be misleading: it means before in time rather than before in space, before the presence of.  But what Pa Gur says is that Cai and Llacheu fulfilled battles before the time of the pain of grey spears, not in the presence of the pain of grey spears.  What Arthur means is that even though they died untimely, they had already done everything that a warrior hero should do, they had fulfilled the duty of their rank.  The fact that the Arthur of the poem mentions his own son only after a long and grieving panegyric of Cai means that he feels that it somehow honours Llacheu to have shared Cai’s fate: they, together, “fulfilled battles”, performed everything that a soldier on the battlefield should, “before the pain of grey spears”, before the moment when enemy spears struck them down.  We have to bear in mind that if a son of Arthur died in Gaul together with Cai, he must have been quite a young man, since we have seen that Arthur himself must have been only in his fifties when he died; while Cai was a seasoned warrior.

There is a possible alternative reading, that is that Cai and Llacheu died in battle against each other, which seems, on the face of it, to be supported by the episode in Perslevaus in which Cai finds Arthur’s son Loholt sleeping after having defeated a giant, and kills him, claiming the victory for himself.  This, however, is probably a deliberate slander, typical of the constant hatred and degradation shown by Breton/Continental sources for Cai[21].  We know from Cullhwch and Olwen that Cai was supposed to have found an invincible giant enemy sleeping, captured him and eventually killed him; and that the amused englyn composed by Arthur for the event caused Cai’s primadonna-like withdrawal from the court.  The Cai of Perslevaus also withdraws from the court in high dudgeon when Arthur punctures his pretensions; although, given that in this case it is the murder of his own son that Arthur has discovered, the matter is somewhat more serious than a spat over a fugitive englyn.  This episode must have been known to Breton/Continental sources, since a clear caricature of Cai’s primadonna reaction turns up at the beginning of The knight of the cart; therefore, when we find the same elements (the killing of a giant; the sleep of a victim before Cai secretly catches and kills him, attributed, this time, not to the giant but to its actual slayer; Cai’s arrogant claim to being the best man in Arthur’s court and deserving highest honour; and, later in the story, Cai withdrawing from the court and breaking off with Arthur altogether because Arthur has punctured his pretensions) rearranged to make Cai the most debased kind of villain, I think we can surmise that Breton hostility was at play.

What is left from this episode, once analyzed, is the notion that Cai had something to do with the death of a son of Arthur whose name begins in L or Ll and contains a –h- or –ch- sound[22]; on the other hand, it clearly denies that the Bretons knew of any idea of Cai and Arthur’s son killing each other in battle, since if they had, would the author of Perslevaus, not to mention the dozens of other romance writers with a dislike for Cai, have passed it up?

I have taken some trouble with this issue because the death of Cai and the destiny of Arthur’s son or sons are important points.  Practically every son of Arthur mentioned in any account, however divergent the accounts, vanished or died within his father’s lifetime; Gwydre, during the hunt for Twrch Twyth in Cullhwch and Olwen; Amr, by the hand of Arthur himself in Nennius; Loholt, killed by Cai in Perslevaus; Llacheu, in Pa Gur, in some mysterious battle at which Cai may have been present; Ilinot, in Parzival, stolen by a fairy like Conn’s Connla.  Most or all of these may be simply legendary figures, but they testify to the persistence of a notion that Arthur had had a son or sons who predeceased his/their father.  The fact that Arthur features in no first-rate Welsh pedigree, which has in the past been used to discredit the idea of a historical Arthur, tells in fact the same story; pedigrees were written only of existing dynasties, and even the greatest heroes of the past (e.g. Ambrosius or Mynyddawg Mwynvawr) would not feature in any Welsh pedigree if they were known not to have had descendants.  And the same story, again, is told by the sudden collapse of his empire when he died at Camlann: all the kinglets he had set up on both shores of the Channel turned on each other in doomed pursuit of the throne in the western hills which stands empty for a thousand years.  Nobody can claim a legitimate succession; and the sudden vanishing in the northern mist, without a successor, of the man who incarnated the new res publica of the Britons gives his patient and audacious enemy Lothar his opportunity, while it removes from supporters such as Iniuriosus the corner-stone of resistance.  Perhaps, even before his death, the loss of his son or sons may have deprived him of the will to go on fighting; or even put him in danger from ambitious allies or subjects with sons living; perhaps this accounts for the stopping of the war after 537, and for what seems to have been the recrudescence of Highland feuding in which Arthur met his death fighting a kinsman.

There was no successor to Arthur.  A kingdom set up on rebellion against the most legitimate of legitimate authorities, the Emperor of Rome (as he styled himself, and his enemies did not deny); set up on a structurally fragile base, with a practically infinite number of lordlings all able to claim the title of king and all motivated, probably by the example of the over-promoted kinglet Arthur himself, to seek power for themselves, and impatient of the rule of any of their supposed equals; incapable, for all its military success, of completely defeating its enemies; and tragically deprived of an heir – such a kingdom is inherently unstable; and when the strong hand at the tiller, on which, and on which alone, such stability as there was depended, fell in some Northern skirmish, whatever measures may have been put in place to preserve the unity of the conqueror’s empire would quickly prove inadequate.  That attempts were made to keep the peace, I do not doubt; Arthur’s surviving retainers and followers cannot all have been suicidal.  There is a slight discrepancy between the date of Arthur’s death, 542 in Geoffrey, and the appearance of Lothar and Chlothilde in Tours as king and dowager in 544, which suggests a period of waiting; perhaps Lothar waited until he was sure that no unity could be established or agreement made between the local British leaders – and then pounced.

The decline must have begun in Arthur’s own lifetime.  We cannot believe that, just because he managed to draw apparently huge armies to himself under the banner of Celtic self-assertion, the Roman ideal had suddenly vanished; there must have been, even among Arthur’s own fellow northern lords, those who held by the old values.  For that matter, even Celtic values did not include revolting against one’s own lord, as The dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle makes clear.  I imagine that, from beginning to end, Arthur was not without opposition – open or secret – in his own back yard.  That there were Ambrosiad lords in Britain, apparently claiming the highest royal title, in Gildas’ own day, tells its own story; although they seem to have been in the position diagnosed for Louis XVIII by the brilliant reactionary Joseph De Maistre: “he has not stepped to the throne of France, but to the throne of Napoleon”.  Whatever their claims, Gildas, as we have seen, speaks of them as of Celtic High Kings.  But their presence means that the world of Arthur, and especially of Cai, who sought revenge against “the lords/servants of Emrais”, has passed away.

It is also likely that what seems to have been Arthur’s ruthless politicking, his willingness to change tack and disregard what had previously been taken to be matters of principle, ultimately weakened the cohesion of his party.  The Celto-Britons, to judge from A, must originally have gone to war with the mind of Crusaders or Muslim warriors bent on jihad; but Gildas lived in a world where that crusading consciousness had curdled into internecine conflict and individual ambition.  Arthur had started with wars against Saxons and Picts whose crusading values are probably represented by A; but he had not only stopped fighting the Saxons after Mount Badon, he had gone to war against fellow-Christians, and – to judge by the presence of Danish and Llychlyn/Norwegian divisions in both The dream of Rhonabwy and Geoffrey – had taken unconverted hordes of pagans from darkest Scandinavia into his army to invade a Christian country.  The justification of this is in the Galfridian tale of Brennius and Belinus; but the fact that that tale did not survive except in the learned Latin context in which Geoffrey found it, while Helaine Newstead’s list of legendary characters intruded in later Arthurian legend can be led back entirely to the “Mabinogi” Brānn, tells us that this ideologically-motivated Arthurian court invention, which reversed so many of the traditional (and clearly understood) meanings of the traditional Brān and Beli, did not catch on.

But whatever the contingent elements that sapped any unity that the Celticizing revolution may have had, its collapse must be seen as being, in essence, the inevitable result of the introduction of the Celtic concept of kingship, with its intense localism, jealous guarding of the prescriptive rights of each small kingdom, and at the same time exaltation of warrior values, conquest, and exaction of tribute: the guarantee of a divided and violent society.  I see the reason of the progressive collapse of civilized Britain, roughly, where Gildas saw it: in the spreading heroic-age ethos of struggling little courts, weakening the lowland civilization and imperilling internal peace.  Anyone who reads Taliesin's poems must realize that such a mentality, however impetuous and attractive, cannot be conducive to settled living.

Arthur failed, and could not help but fail.  The Celtic model of royalty which he raised against the outdated and moribund Roman ius was incapable of cohesion, not only tending to break apart, but incapable not to.  Even during his own lifetime, he seems to have spent as much time reducing hostile fellow British kinglets - Hueil, Mil Du, the house of Edern -– as planning and starting the wars against Scandinavia and the Ambrosiads.  Only the prestige of a conqueror of unheard-of power and continuous success, and the momentum of continuing conquest (which insured that even those who had no love for him would stick with him for the sake of constant new rewards) could have held his forces together; and the more lordships he set up in new conquered territories in Britain, Gaul, Spain, the more rods he made for his own back – the more independent, self-regarding, ambitious little kinglets did he plant to compete with each other and bleed each other white in the manner abundantly shown by Gildas and Gregory of Tours. Britain sprang apart into a world of small lordships - of which a few managed to survive English conquest[23].

Though its reasons and development are quite local, however, this is part of a movement towards fragmentation and localization that runs from Strathclyde to Mesopotamia.  With the curious exception of Spain[24], fragmentation is the hallmark of the decades that followed The Ruin.  In 561 the death of our old friend Lothar I, briefly sole king of the Franks, unleashed all the demons of division, family strife, murder and civil war that had already been eating at the Frankish kingdom, resulting in fifty frightful years of blood, suspicion, torture and terror.  The great St.Radegund begged her royal kinsmen and contemporaries to have the common fatherland Francia in mind[25]; but as soon as she died, her own convent itself collapsed into strife motivated by the royal arrogance of some nuns[26].  Frankland only reached some slight stability in 613, when the coincidentally named Lothar II reunified the country.  The Balkans were overrun by pagan Slavs and were not Christianized again for centuries.  Finally and most decisively, the Empire collapsed: in the 580s, a Persian Shah fed with memories of distant Achaemenid glories occupied all the East up to Egypt and Anatolia, while savage faction fighting between pretenders from the Balkans and Carthage (one of whom, Phocas, was a monster who made Justinian look like a saint) bled what was left of it white.  This, not any event before or since, was the true fall of the Roman Empire: by the time when the Carthage pretender, Heraclian, had, by some miracle, managed to drive the Persians back into pre-war borders (605), a generation had grown up in Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Anatolia, which did not know Roman rule; and the ground was laid for the last and greatest of the barbarian invasions - the Arabs - which did not stabilize until what was left was - in spite of name and pretensions - not the Roman Empire, but a Greek successor state, with no more, if no less, real claim to the heritage of Rome, than the barbarians in France or Bagdad.

As heavy with future consequences as any of these developments was the fate of the fallen Empire’s nursery.  The Longobard conquest of Italy, begun in 568 and virtually complete by 580, was not just a change in ownership, but in political culture.  The Ostrogothic kingdom had inherited a functioning Roman government structure, which withered in the flames of the Justinianic catastrophe and was overlaid, rather than absorbed, by a Byzantine military administration which shared the basic principle of unity and top-down guidance.  The Longobards, however, were a federation of powerful semi-independent nobles, whose political structure was centred on forty or so dukedoms, military units which quickly solidified into territorial lordships centred each on a stone-built Roman city.  This was the beginning of the highly divided political order of mediaeval and renaissance Italy, which inherited its first legal institutions directly from Longobard, rather than Roman, law.  By the eleventh century, even cities that had never been in Longobard hands could follow Longobard law, especially - revealingly - in matters of family and marriage[27].

In Britain itself, it is significant that not only the British, but the English political structure collapses.  As I pointed out, indirect Frankish witness shows that we go from a single kingdom with its king - probably of the line of Icel - to a scatter of predatory adventurers such as Ceaulin and kinglets such as Aethelberht of Kent and Aelle of Deira, ruling little kingdoms carved with fire and sword by dynasties of doubtful legitimacy.  Evidently, the demons of division, violence and cupidity that the horrified Gildas saw at work in his country were at large all the way to the Euphrates[28].

Now the new Longobard order has this in common with that of Gildasian Britain, that it was a rejection of Roman ways, probably quite conscious, and probably shared by the native population (which did not raise a finger to defend the Byzantine Empire), resulting from a disgust and weariness with the intolerable burden of taxation. Much of the fragmentation and regionalization that followed, resulted directly or indirectly from the collapse of the unworkable late Roman model of taxation and administration, replaced everywhere by localized powers and warlords; even the Arab invasions, though nominally led by one Caliph, had their strength in individual bands and local lords. It shows how early Arthur had been on the case, that by the end of the century Franks and Byzantines were still struggling to prop up the remains of a collapsed Roman administration. Indeed, the ideal of the Roman Empire as the only legitimate state never quite went away: and the consequences of this ideological overhang would make a subject for a study ten times as large as this one.


[1]Above, bk.2, ch.7

[2]For instance, Meurig ap Iorwerth and Cynddelw - GWYNN JONES, op.cit. 41; see also Arthur’s incomprehensible bards in The dream of Rhonabwy.

[3]There has been a frightful resurgence of this kind of attitude in modern Britain. I read with disbelief the following question, asked not to any idiot but to one of the greatest living writers: “Why did you choose to study foreign languages when you loved English literature so much?”, and the yet more incredible reply: “That was a bit of a mistake… I think I was influenced by [my parents’] belief that languages would be better for finding a job. I don’t regret it hugely, but it was a strange decision for someone who only really wanted to be a writer…” - as though there was nothing for an English writer worth learning outside the English language! LINDSEY FRASER, Telling tales: an interview with J.K.Rowling, London 2000. And this, mind you, in an interview-book aimed mainly at children, as format and type-face make clear. What on Earth kind of message do the justly illustrious interviewee and her interviewer think they are conveying to their readership with this sort of irresponsible outburst? Even if it had actually come up in conversation, it should have been erased, in the name of the desperate and swiftly dwindling prospects of English literacy.

[4]The Welsh translations of Geoffrey, the Bruts, make Geoffrey’s phantom Howel king of Brittany into a son of Emyr Llydaw. The point is obvious: killing two birds with one stone, Howel, to whom Geoffrey had not bothered to ascribe a father, was affiliated to a figure that loomed mysteriously in several Welsh genealogies but had no visible place in the national mythology and whose title Llydaw demanded to identify him as a king of Brittany. However, whether or not Geoffrey kept silent about Howel’s paternity on purpose or was deceived by his sources, the point is that Howel is ultimately none other than Hueil son of Caw from Strathclyde, and the affiliation is not only artificial but later than Geoffrey himself. In other words, Cullhwch and Olwen is later than the first Bruts. This, by itself, makes it significant that it should report absolutely no Galfridian item.

[5]See Appendix X.

[6]As I argued above - bk.8, ch.4, note 11 - the story of Cullhwch and Olwen is probably a mythological account of Arthur imposing a king of his own choosing - Cullhwch himself - on the throne of “Kelyddon”, Caledon, thus starting a new dynasty. The notice that he and Hueil fought a great battle at the “forest of Caledon” and that Arthur ruthlessly and methodically subdued all Pictland, is quite likely a fragment of the same event, remembered from a different viewpoint: they defeated the army of Kelyddon, broke the people’s back by Arthur’s savage methods, and forced one of their own people on the throne.

[7]It is perhaps significant that the siege from which Arthur relieves him has something to do with invaders from Ireland, and that he is occasionally found in Dumbarton, the island heart of Strathclyde. The Vita Cadoci, however, places his father Caw in Pictland, and he is frequently described as “Caw of Pictland”, Prydyn.

[8]Interestingly enough, however, the succession of two royal marriages is found in the Danish legend of Amlœši/Hamlet, with the same meaning, if not exactly the same incidents, as those of Brennius. Amlœši, deprived of his succession and threatened by his uncle Fengi, procures his marriage with the daughter of the king of Britain; but although he manages to destroy his uncle, his bride is actually of slave birth, and does not give him any increase of power - in fact, her father turns against him. (This is comparable to the fact that Brennius’ first marriage avails him nothing and that the girl eventually finds her way to his enemy.) Amlœši then enters another alien kingdom - Scotland - and, like Brennius among the Allobrogi, finds there a bride of his own royal rank, and who makes him a king. Amlœši, like Brennius, has no successors, and the kingdom (along with his second wife) passes to his enemy Wiglaek. There are a number of grounds to suspect a British origin for the legend of Amlœši, and to identify him with a Teutonic version of Ambrosius; and, as we have seen, Welsh stories make Arthur the grandson of one Amlawdd Wledig, who sounds exactly like Amlœši. What this suggests about the legend of Brennius is that its author borrowed the two marriages from another legend, whichever that was; just as he borrowed the legend of the Contending Brothers from some story such as those of Romulus, Eremon, or Hengist, and the reconciliation at their mother’s behest from the Roman story of Coriolanus.

[9]Brān the Blessed in Arthurian romance, New York 1939.

[10]In my view, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi constitute the prelude to a twofold lost epic account. Two figures end up, at the end of the narrative, empowered and on the throne: Lleu and Casswallawn. Now it cannot be a coincidence that the greatest battle in the careers of these two figures are missing from the Mabinogi and are evidently in the future. The greatest clash in Lleu’s life was clearly the Battle of the Trees, the Cad Goddeu, which one Triad compares with the famously horrendous battles of Camlann and Armderydd; and the greatest clash of Casswallawn’s life was not his overthrow of Beli, but his confrontation with Caesar. Both of these are in the future when the Four Branches close. And although it is not clear how conscious the narrators were of this, Lleu and Casswallawn form a dyad as god and man, Lleu as the king of the gods, Casswallawn as the king of Britain and opponent of the king of all men, Caesar. The epic material connected with these figures is almost impossible to reconstruct, unfortunately. The situation is analogous to what we would have if the whole of the Tain Bo Cuailnge had been lost except for the ten preliminary tales.

[11]More vaguely, the two different modes in which the two countries are subdued have an echo in the Galfridian account of Arthur’s invasion of Gaul. In that passage, we remember, Norway was handed over to Arthur’s close kinsman and supporter Loth of Lodonesia, while Denmark received no British king and turned out, in the account of the invasion of Gaul, to have its own king, Askil. Now the story is that Brennius inherits the kingdom of Norway through his marriage with the daughter of Elsingus, and therefore it ends up in Belinus’ hands to do as he pleases; while Wiglaek king of Denmark does not lose his crown, merely swearing allegiance to Belinus.

[12]Cf. for instance PROCOPIUS, op.cit. 5.12.9-11, in which “the Germans” are separate from Burgundians, Thuringians, Swabians and Alamanni.

[13]I only realized its importance a year or more after reaching a clear formulation of my theory about Arthur.

[14]However, it is also true that that the kings who enter into legend are those whose achievements do not endure. Charlemagne and Alexander the Great have two things in common with Arthur: their empires collapsed among squabbling successors, and they gave rise to great epic cycles of superhuman conquest and kingship. Caesar did not similarly enter legend - at least, not until the empire he had helped to found had itself collapsed. And the reason for this is obvious: that while the likes of Caesar had successors who could easily be regarded as their equal, the fact that Alexander and Charles had in practice no successors meant that they towered in memory like superhuman presences, whose likes the world no longer contained. Around such heroes, legends were easy to build; whereas the successors of Caesar found it easy to understand his achievements in terms of events in their own world. He could be regarded as a great man, but did not dwarf those who followed. (Especially since the Emperors of Rome made damn well sure that the image of each living one of them towered over the known world.) More recently, Napoleon came close to a similar status.

[15]The puzzle that Caesar has represented to so many historians comes from the fact that he does not show many of the features of the typical Leader. The fact that, while clearly asserting his primacy in the State, he refused to be made king, is of the same order as the fact that he did not set up show trials, a typical Leader act. My view is that he had been driven into fighting a civil war and conquer his homeland, but that his instincts, in spite of his commanding brilliance, imperious temper, and the devotion of his men, were not those of the typical empire-builder.

[16]OTTO STRASSER, Hitler and I, 74-77, quoted by ALAN BULLOCK, Hitler: a study in tyranny, Harmondsworth 1962, 373-4.

[17]It was not altogether the end of conquering projects. Marcus Aurelius, a wise and steadfast emperor who spoiled his otherwise spotless reputation by persecuting Christians and by allowing his degenerate son to succeed to the throne, had apparently intended to push the Roman borders to the Carpathians, which would have considerably improved Rome’s strategic situation; but he died with the conquest unfinished, and the wretched Commodus promptly undid all his father’s work. Even later, untimely death spoiled the plans of Septimius Severus for the conquest of all Britain; once again, a degenerate son (Caracalla) reversed his father’s policies before the corpse was cold.

[18]It is also said that Manawydan ab Llyr (son of the sea), whose Irish equivalent Manannan mac Lir is closely connected with the ocean and ocean journeys, “bore the ribs/timbers” (that is, warships) from one of Arthur and Cai’s great deeds, the battle of Tryfrwyd – which, we find out elsewhere in the poem, was fought on a sea-shore (traeth). In other words, the god of the ocean safely bore the warships of Arthur and Cei from a great and victorious battle, in which “shields [were] pierced” and Cei revealed his ferocious nature.

[19]The presence of a number of pagan deities in the earnestly Christian epic of Arthur has been long noticed. As a good few legends – for instance, all those involving Urien – seem to have derived from early poetic mentions whose context had been forgotten, is it not possible that the names of these gods may also have entered legend by the same path – as names mentioned in early poetry, but whose meaning had been forgotten? I wonder whether there is any other way to explain, in particular, the visibly misplaced and misunderstood Giriflet son of Do, that is Gilfaethwy ap Dōn from the Mabinogi.

[20]It is worth noticing that the Welsh river Eley (Ely) near Cardiff, noticed by Patrick Sims-Williams and which he argues shows a Glamorgan origin for the poem, is in line 11 and probably belongs to the intrusive group of verses.

[21]This extends to the well-known fact that Cai was the seneschal of Arthur. This is quite unknown to Welsh documents, in which Cai is simply the chief hero of the court, and clearly reflects the hatred felt for seneschals in the feudal age. In Robert de Boron’s Romance of the Grail, Judas is the money-grubbing chamberlain of Jesus, whom he betrays because he has been denied his share of a three-hundred-denarii gift; in the anonymous Anglo-Norman romance Sir Cleges, the seneschal is the highest-placed of the money-grubbing three court officials who, between themselves, demand so much to allow Cleges access to the King, that he has lost in advance any gift the King will give him. ROBERT DE BORON, Il romanzo della storia del Graal o Giuseppe di Arimatea, in GABRIELLA AGRATI & MARIA LETIZIA MAGRINI, La Leggenda del santo Graal, esp. p.208-209; Sir Cleges, in JESSIE L.WESTON, Arthurian romances unrepresented in Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur” Vol.5, Llanerch 1996. Evidently the feudal mentality was outraged at the thought that a nascent State administration should stand in the way of a vassal addressing his liege lord; therefore the invention of Cai as seneschal was intended to defame him.

[22]Rachel Bromwich denies that Llacheu has anything etymological to do with Loholt (Trioedd op.cit. s.v. Llacheu mab Arthvr), but that is of little importance, given that a Welsh Gwalchmai could be seen as equal to a Breton/Continental Gawain. The point is whether the two characters have anything to do with each other in their stories.

[23]The poems of the historical Taliesin give a strong hint of regional cultural differences. His hymns to Urien, lord of Galloway, and Cynan Garwyn of Powys, are nothing more than praises of highland robber chieftains, brave and generous; but in his praise of Gwallawg, king of Elmet, another element creeps in.  The passionate singer of raids and battlefields is unmistakably apologetic and embarrassed: "Let him sell off his fatted cows/ At the end of the summer;/ He only increases his wealth/ By means that are fair". Taliesin has to apologize for the brave lord of Elmet trading in cattle like a lowly merchant. The lord of Elmet is part of a network of trade, perhaps of a money economy; the lord of Reged is not. MEIRION PENNAR, op.cit., 118.

[24]"...Visigothic Spain emerged as the first region to overcome its divisions: Athanagild established his capital at Toledo and kept control of Septimania. Leovigild (569-86) conducted a vigorous offensive against the Suevic kingdom and succeeded in suppressing it in 585..." MICHEL ROUCHE: Break-up and metamorphsis of the West: fifth to seventh centuries, in Robert Fossier (ed.), THE CAMBRIDGE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE MIDDLE AGES, Cambridge 1997, p.60.

[25]BAUDONIVIA, Vita Radegundae, II.10, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum, Hannover 1888, 377-95.

[26]GREGORY OF TOURS op.cit.9.39-43, 10.15-17,20.

[27]EDMUND CURTIS, Roger of Sicily, London and New York, 1912, 8-10. By establishing the fragmented, city-based future of Italy – except for where the Normans of Hauteville reached, strangling the rising localism of dozens of small southern states into one imperial whole led from Naples - the Longobards had a colossal and incalculable impact on European and world history. Who can imagine the splendours of mediaeval and renaissance Italy, not to mention everything that happened since, without the effect of a dozen courts, three hundred-plus dioceses, forty-plus universities, umpteen music schools, producing saints, writers, scientists like Galileo, musicians from Palestrina to Puccini, even the world-changing invention of the pianoforte (dreamed up by the personal instrument-maker of a Duke of Tuscany), even the very varied pleasures of the Italian table, with its dozens upon dozens of regional identities? None of this is conceivable without the intense polycentricity of the peninsular nation, a continent compacted into a country; and that is ultimately the result of the Longobard division of the peninsula into dukedoms.

[28]David Keys has given a fascinating though not wholly acceptable theory of the reason for this trend to collapse and fragmentation, reaching far beyond the area of the old Roman Empire: Catastrophe, London 1999. On the whole, I tend to think his theory may have a point, though he commits at least one howler, dating the rise of the Ui Neill a century too late (and though I find his tables of British weather patterns hard to believe - where did his sources get their Dark Age data, when we hardly know even the broad history of the country?). But a man who tries to encompass the range of this attractive book cannot be expected to get everything right.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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