AGE OF ARTHUR: PART 11

This is the Eleventh-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!

(Read Part Ten here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)

ARTHUR’S NORTHERN CAMPAIGN

Arthur likely returned with King Gurgust to Eburacum (York), the Elmet capital; to feast and celebrate their victory over the Angles. Perhaps it was there that word comes by messenger on frothing horse, of rebellion in the north!

Caw o’ Brydyn (or Prydain), chieftain (or petty-king) in north Strathclyde, has openly rebelled against Arthur’s authority. Caw is variously described in the Vitae Gildae as rex Scotiae (king of Scotia); rex Albaniae (king of Albania/Alba); and rex Pictorum (king of the Picts). It is unlikely he was the High King of the Picts of Alba/Albaniae (i.e., the Highlands). But he likely had Scot or Pictish roots. His powerbase seems to have been in Renfrewshire west of Glasgow; his stronghold on Mons Bannauc, in the modern Cathkin Hills. Caw was the father of twenty-four sons, “strong warriors”, including the pirate Huail/Hueil ap Caw; and (more notably) the chronicler of this period in Britain, St. Gildas (“the Monk”). His daughter, Cwyllog, may have been the wife of Medrawt (Mordred), Arthur’s ultimate enemy and killer. (1)

It has been previously noted that Gildas’ omission of Arthur from his history may stem from a personal antipathy toward Arthur; largely based upon Arthur’s execution of Gildas’ brother Huail (see Ch. 9). But the bad-blood between them might have been a family feud dating at least back to 508 (approximately eight years before Gildas’ birth); if not even earlier.

For reasons unknown, Caw was an enemy of Arthur’s. He now took advantage of Arthur’s occupation in the Angle campaign to renounce Arthur’s authority as Dux Bellorum. In this, he was but an example of the fierce resentment to any central authority ingrained in the character of these Celtic princes. It was a disunity that would, in the century following Arthur’s death, lead to the slow death of Celtic Britain.

Perhaps Caw began gathering fellow discontents and even Scotti (Irish) or Pictish allies. Hearing of this at Eburacum, Arthur lost no time in coming north.

This leads us to Nennius’ sixth battle, on “the river called Bassas”. This battle of Nennius’ narrative has always perplexed Arthurian scholars, attempting toplace each of these battles geographically. A good case has been made, based upon etymology, for Cambuslang; now a suburb of Glasgow (2). It is speculated that the River Calder that runs beside the town may have been called the Bassas in the early Dark Ages.

Here Arthur came rapidly, catching Caw before he was prepared. The battle was short and bloody, Caw’s army scattered and the chief taken prisoner.

We can only speculate, but it seems Caw’s power was broken. Caw abdicated his 1-stcatwgthrone (if indeed he ever sat one) and spent the remainder of his life in exile, in north Wales at Twrcelyn in Anglesey. Here he became an associate and patron of St. Cadog; perhaps helping to found a monastery there. He lived there with some of his family at least till 515 (since Gildas wasn’t born till 516).

Nennius tells us that the “seventh battle was in the Caledonian Forest, that is, the Battle of Celidon Coit”. This location can almost certainly be identified as the Caledonian Forest in modern Scotland: Coed Celyddon.  In Arthur’s day, this forest covered much of modern Scotland; extending as far south perhaps as the Solway. It is most likely that Arthur’s seventh battle was in that portion of the forest northeast of Glasgow; on the edge of the Pictish Highlands.

We don’t know who Arthur’s enemies in this battle were, but Geoffrey of Monmouth identifies them as the remnants of the forces Arthur broke at the Battle of Lincoln  (Geoffrey’s condensed version of Nennius’ four battles along the River Dubglas; identified here as Arthur’s Lindsey Campaign near Lincoln). (See Ch. 10)  Geoffrey states that this force was a coalition of Saxons, Scots and Picts; a highly unlikely scenario. The Saxon lands were in the south of Britain, so Geoffrey must be confusing them with an early Angle settlement. While the Scots and Picts were inveterate enemies; battling each other for control of Alba, a fight that would continue for centuries!

Even had such an alliance of convenience been achieved, how would a Pictish/Scottish army have passed through Gododdin, home of the warlike Votadini; then pierced the Wall and its attendant British-garrisoned forts, to arrive at Lincoln? Such an effort, if it happened, would either have been very large, to achieve such a penetration; or very small, a mere warband, and have circumvented these buffers by taking to the sea, using boats. Once defeated, it is highly unlikely that such a force would ever had been able to return to the north; retreating through lands peopled by hostile Britons!

What is far more likely to have occurred follows the scenario already described earlier: Arthur defeats the Angles under Colgren in or around 508 AD; near Lincoln. A revolt breaks out nearly simultaneously in the north: the conspiracy of Caw, petty-king near modern Glasgow. As part of his plan to throw off his allegiance to the British High Kingship, for the last 70 years held by a southern Briton (Vortigern, perhaps his son Vortimer, then Ambrosius Aurelianus, and now Arthur), Caw makes common cause with and invites the Picts to join him in arms.

Arthur hears of the conspiracy, and rushes north before the two can join forces. He defeats Caw at the River Bassus (Nennius sixth battle); and now Arthur turns against the Picts.

There is no record of how this battle unfolded; nor, for that matter, for the myriad of small skirmishes and battles that happened throughout this, the darkest night of the growing Dark Age. But based on similar situations of which we have record, from very nearly this period, a conjectural battle can be described:

Moving quickly, Arthur rides north. He and his troops (the mounted Cymbrogi” of his Comitatus, and perhaps  local troops supplied by loyal warlords or petty-kings, more fearful of the presence of Pictish warriors on their soil than they are of Arthur’s assumption of authority; take up positions just inside the Caledonian Forest, hidden in ambush positions astride the Picts route of march.

The compact Pictish schiltrons stream down the forested path, long spears resting on their shoulders, in loose marching order. Battle is unexpected: they have not yet heard of Arthur’s arrival in the north, and of Caw’s defeat. They are mostly young men, eager to experience war in all its violent splendor! They are led by a leavening of older veteran warriors; these more bored than ebullient as they trod sore-footed down the forest path. They all anticipate several days of easy looting, before their British foes can muster a force to oppose them.

Suddenly, from either side in the brooding forest, hunting horns screech! Seemingly from all sides comes the blood-chilling blare; and the Pictish warriors on the pathway freeze in their tracks, hands gripping weapons tightly. From the shady darkness, arrows and javelins land among the massed Highland warriors; sowing confusion and death! British war cries now sound all around, and from out of the trees Arthur and his warriors charge into the disordered and rapidly-panicking Picts.

Men courageous and steadfast when prepared to face danger can lose their manhood when unexpectedly met with sudden threat. Brave men, the Picts; but they are nevertheless unnerved by this abrupt onslaught! They put up a brief and frantic resistance; before breaking and routing away, fleeing back the way they have come!

The Battle of Celidon Coit becomes a rout. The Picts flee up the road or scatter into the wood, Arthur’s horseman close on their heels, baying like hounds! Veterans or chiefs who attempt to halt and rally their young warriors are cut down. The pursuit goes on for miles, the Cymbrogi spurring their horses bloody-sided; till fading light makes further pursuit impossible. Thus have all Great Captains turned tactical success into decisive victory.

The Calydonian Forest has been turned into an abattoir, decorated with Northern dead.  The Picts have been taught a bloody lesson. They will not pose a major threat again in Arthur’s lifetime.

A NORTHERN SETTLEMENT

Arthur may have spent the rest of the year 509-510 AD in the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”), strengthening or creating relationships with the leading Gwŷr y Gogledd (“Men of the North”). As has been previously suggested, Arthur may have had roots in the north. Perhaps this stay may have served as a chance to renew old friendships, visit with kin, as well as bring order to a troubled area.

The rulers here are the Coelings, kings and petty-kings descended from Coel Hen (“Old King Cole”), perhaps the last to hold the title, Dux Brittanniarum. This Roman officer commanded the northern garrisons of Roman Britain; and following the Roman withdrawal in the early 5th century, Coel may have used his authority to create a power-base in the north. Upon his death, his many sons divided up the north between them. (3)

His descendants now ruled many of the petty-kingships; as well as the four paramount northern kingdoms: Elmet, ruled by Arthur’s ally in the Angle Campaign, Gurgust Lethum, with its capital at Eburacum/York; Rheged, ruled from Cair Ligualid (Carlisle) by King Merchiaun; Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde), whose stronghold was at  Alt Clut, the Brythonic name for Dumbarton Rock; and ruled since 500 AD by Dyfnwal son of Ceretic.

         Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock), ancient stronghold of Strathclyde kings

It bears notice that all of these kings came to power at about the same time as Arthur: it was a new age, with new rulers. If Arthur did indeed spend part or all of his childhood in the north, then some or all of these men may have been child hood acquaintances or friends. Among them, Arthur was at the least primus inter pares, “first among equals”.  As the hitherto successful Dux Bellorum, conqueror of the Angles and scourge of the Picts, his prestige outshone them all. He was well on the way to becoming High King, as had his predecessor, Ambrosius.

The strongest of the Hen Ogledd kingdoms, by far, was Gododdin. This was home to the warlike Votadini tribe, and its chief strongholds were on the formidable Traprain Law (Haddington, East Lothian), and at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh). The volcanic plug  known as Castle Rock, upon which currently sits Edinburgh Castle, has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. The Dark Ages and Medieval fortress there was called “Maiden Castle” (or, “the Castell of Maidens”).  It has legendary connection with Arthur’s fey sister, Morgan. Also located here, about a mile to the east of Edinburgh Castle, is the hill known (intriguingly) as Arthur’s Seat. An ancient Iron Age hill-fort occupied this imposing place; and there is evidence it was reoccupied in Arthur’s time.  Could this have been occupied during this time by Arthur and his entourage; as he “held court” in the north, entertained by friends and kin while he arranged affairs?

                                  Arthur’s Seat, Edinburg, Scotland

The dynastic picture in Gododdin at this period is far from clear. In 475 AD, a Cyleddon “Wledic” ruled there; though the extent of his authority is unknown. In or around 500 AD, no less than three rulers are listed as alternate kings: Cyngar ( or Cincar), son of Gorbon; his brother, Bran; and one Dyfnwal. This last name, the same as the neighboring ruler of Strathclyde, has led some scholars to suggest that civil-strife (perhaps dynastic civil war between the brothers, Cyngar and Bran) in Gododdin led to intervention by King Dyfnwal of Strathclyde; who may have seized all or a portion of Gododdin.

At about this time, another ruler appears on the scene, here on the edge of the Hen Ogledd; one whose arrival would set in motion the future creation of the Kingdom of Scotland.

Fergus Mór mac Eirc, semi-legendary progenitor of the kings of Scotland, came from Dál Riata in  northern Ireland, with his brothers, Loarn & Oengus; and a band of followers. Landing on the Argyll  Peninsula, Fergus establishing the Kingdom of Dal Riada. From their prime stronghold at the Iron Age hill-fort at Dunadd, the Scots would contend with the Picts for supremacy in the north in the coming centuries; eventually forming the Kingdom of Scotland!

                      Dunadd, power-center of the Dal Riata Scot Kings

It is likely that while settling affairs in the north, Arthur met with Fergus. Perhaps on neutral ground; hosted by Dyfnwal, at his stronghold on Dumbarton Rock. Considering the pains to which the British went to throughout the 5th and 6th century to prevent Irish settlement in Britain, such a new colony so close to Dumbarton, power-center of the Strathclyde British, must have been considered and encouraged by Arthur; or else would have been crushed. A friendly Irish/Scotti kingdom would have been considered a clever foil to Pictish power in the north; something to keep the Picts occupied and in check.

Good relations between the Dal Riada Scots and the Strathclyde British continued for generations. Wither accidental, or encouraged (even planned?) by Arthur the Scots did prove a thorn in the side of Pictish Alba; and as such a benefit to the British kingdoms of Hen Ogledd.

Something has to be said about another, perhaps mythical, ruler of the north: King Lot of Lothian.

In the Arthurian Romances, Lot is husband to Arthur’s sister, Morgana/ Morguase.  He is alternately an enemy or subject of Arthur. His sons, Gawain, Agravain, Gaharis, Gareth, and Modred are all Knights of the Round Table. The first and fourth are heroes; the last, the traitor who brings about his uncle’s ultimate destruction.

Lothian, an alternate (and later) name for most of the territory of Gododdin, is said by some to derive from Lot’s name (this is linguistically questionable). Could Lot have been a powerful sub-king in Gododdin during this troubled time in the kingdom? If so, perhaps his stronghold was at Traprain Law (below), a hill-fort in modern East Lothian; a very strong place indeed.

With recent civil/dynastic strife between rival claimants, could Arthur have used his time in the north to impose order, placing his sister’s husband in charge of the northern Gododdin? Castleden (4) makes the argument that Dyfnwal of Strathclyde was placed over southern Gododdin. Could this too have been Arthur’s handiwork?

In spring of 511AD Arthur’s work in the north is complete, and satisfactory. The Picts are humbled; with a friendly (to the British) Irish king in place on their western flank in Argyll. The too-powerful Gododdin are now broke-up into two more compliant realms: the northern portion ruled by his brother-in-law, the southern under the hand of his ally (perhaps childhood friend?), Dyfnwal of Strathclyde. And with the Angles of Lindsey broken, Elmet is secure as well (as any kingdom can be in this age of blood and iron).

News arrives that Arthur is once again required in the south. Cerdic the Saxon has crawled out from the coastal swamps of Hamptonshire with a warband, and is causing the local petty-king more trouble than he can easily deal with. Arthur departs the north no doubt with a light heart: The sun is at his back, all is as he wills it, and he rides forth once more to future glories!

NEXT: War to the Knives!

(1) (2) Mathews, John: King Arthur:Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero, P. 19. Rosen Publishing Group, 2008

(2) Matthews and Stewart: Warriors of Arthur, P104. Blandford Press Ltd, 1987

(3) Morris, John, The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. P 54. Barnes and Noble Books, 1996

(4) Castleden, Rodney: King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend. P 102. Routledge, NY (2000).

 

 

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17 Responses to AGE OF ARTHUR: PART 11

  1. Pingback: AGE OF ARTHUR: PART 10 | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  2. Pingback: June 5th California Primary: Tea Party Pre-Results Analysis « Temple of Mut

  3. Pingback: Egyptology News June 2012 – Lionesses and Attempts to Steal Pharaonic Artifacts « Temple of Mut

  4. mutnodjmet13 says:

    A great piece — especially the part about the Picts. Fascinating. I am looking forward to the next post very much.

  5. António says:

    Great drawings you have collected there Jacobsen! There’s an artist, Richard Scolins, who has an awesome picture on Arthurian soldiers:
    http://fraxinus-victoryv.blogspot.pt/2009/03/richard-scollins-military-artist.html

  6. Pingback: THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART TWELVE | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  7. Brian says:

    Love the description of the battle Barry. 🙂 Could really see you getting into the writing! 😉

  8. Pingback: THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART FOURTEEN | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  9. Margaret says:

    HI, I just discovered this blog – have been trying to find some good material on Arthurian times. This site is absolutely amazing. SO comprehensive, yet integrated in an entertaining and easy to understand way. The breadth of historical information here (not just in the Arthur section) is breathtaking. Amazing site – thank you so much for your hard work. Very addictive site to land on!

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thank you, Margaret! I appreciate the kind words. If I have one major fault, I don’t do site maintenance as regularly as I should; thus your comments are just now being posted. Please forgive the delay.

  10. Pingback: THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART TWELVE | Djalma Web

  11. Pingback: THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART FOURTEEN | Djalma Web

  12. Josh Glover says:

    Reblogged this on The Fine Art of J Glover and commented:
    The Age of Arthur: Part 11

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