This is the fourteenth-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!
Our explorations into “the Age of Arthur” have taken us to 511 A.D. We have seen that as Ambrosius Aurelianus grew old, he passed the reins of military leadership to his chosen successor; the man known to legend as “Arthur”.
REVOLT IN THE NORTH
We now come to 514AD. Our guide has been the 9th century Welsh monk, Nennius; whose Historia Brittonum tells of 12 battles waged by Arthur in his role as “Dux Bellorum” (warlord) of the British.
At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain … Then it was that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons…
Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their warleader (or ‘dux bellorum’).
The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein.
The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Lindsey.
The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas.
The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Celyddon Coed.
The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his [shield,] and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The ninth battle was in the City of the Legion.
The tenth battle was on the bank of the river called Tribruit.
The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned.
The final battle was on Badon Hill, in which 960 men fell in one day from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns
Our discussion now comes to this tenth battle, at “river called Tribruit”.
As detailed previously, between 508 and 510, Arthur campaigned north of the Wall. He nipped-in-the-bud a conspiracy by the chieftain Caw, crushing his forces at the Battle of the Bassus (near modern Glasgow). He then turned back the Pictish reinforcements coming to join Caw at the Battle of the Celyddon Forest. Arthur spent the rest of that year and, perhaps, part or all of the next in settling affairs in the north to his liking.
In the process, we have suggested he placed his brother-in-law, Lot (Lleu), as petty-king of northern Gododdin. Lot’s fortress was at Din Eidyn (Castle Rock, Edinburgh); referred to in the Y Gododdin poem, from the seventh century, as Lleu’s Rock. As “Lleu”, he is remembered in the Triads as one of the three “Red Ravagers of Britain”.
Edinburgh Castle (ancient Din Eidyn) from the north
Arthur also enlarged the holdings of his ally and possible childhood friend, Dyfnwal of Strathclyde, by placing him in charge of southern Gododdin. By these measures he brought the otherwise over-strong and independent Kingdom of Gododdin to heal.
But in doing so, he perforce made enemies. These settlements would have left powerful and ambitious men disappointed or dispossessed. They would have bided their time, gathering strength in secret; waiting for the moment to strike. A natural place for them to gather would have been along the marches, the wild “debateable lands” north of the Gododdin, along the Pictish border.
Nennius’ states that Arthur’s tenth battle was along the river called Tribruit. As with all such battles, the location is debated. But most scholars agree that it was north of modern Edinburg, then a seat of power for the Gododdin. O.G.S. Crawford theorized the fords of the River Forth, called the “Fords of Frew”, some six miles upstream from Stirling as the location (1). His suggestion is persuasive: He asserts this as a three river system flowing into the estuary, and that the Forth was once known as the River Bruit. Combine “Tri”, meaning three, with “Bruit” and one has “Tribruit”.
Old Bridge over the Forth at Frew
The Fords of Frew have long been a site of strategic military importance. Its crossing point provided raiders or invading armies with a means of crossing the river while avoiding and bypassing the fortress of Stirling. It was here in 1745 that “Bonnie Prince” Charlie and the Jacobite rebel army crossed the Forth on its way to the Battle of Prestonpans. So important (and picturesque) were the famous “Fords of Frew” they were considered among the Seven Wonders of ancient Scotland.
The tentative location established, the question becomes against “who” and why” was Arthur battling?
Some have suggested Arthur was facing another Pictish invasion; or perhaps a landing by Angles or Saxons. However, an intriguing explanation is suggested by an older Welsh source.
THE DOG HEADS AND THE BATTLE OF TRYFRWD
In the eleventh century Welsh poem known as “Pa gur yv y porthaur” (“What Man is the Gatekeeper?”), or simply as Pa Gur, a battle is mentioned, called Tryfrwyd; which all scholars agree is synonymous with Nennius’ 10th battle. In this poem, the battle is fought against a group called the cinbin. “Cinbin” (or Cynbin) translates as “dog-heads”. They are led, in the poem, by a character known as Garwlwyd (“rough grey”).
Who could these “dog-heads” and their leader, Garwywyd, be?
During the Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxons and Norman-English referred to outlaws as “wolf’s heads”. Robinhood, famously, is so called by his enemies, Prince John and Guy of Gisbourne. In Dark Ages British/Celtic society, could “dog-head” not be of similar meaning: an outlaw? If so, then perhaps Arthur’s 10th battle at the crossing of the Forth was against an uprising of “outlaws”; broken or disgruntled men, banding together to oppose Arthur’s imposed order in the north.
A plausible scenario is that in the years since Arthur and his band of mounted Cymbrogi returned south, these “dog heads” had coalesced around a leader named Garwlwyd. Perhaps he was a Gododdin nobleman, dispossessed by Arthur or by the leadership put in place by Arthur’s settlement. Or, like the later Scottish hero, William Wallace, a man of lesser rank who rose to the occasion, to champion his people.
Garwlwyd may be synonymous with a character found in the Welsh Triads: Gwrgi Garwlwyd (“man-dog rough-grey”, though perhaps a better translation would read, “rough-grey man-dog”); who is a savage, man-eating character sometimes identified as a werewolf! In the Triads he is credited with making a corpse of a Briton every day, and two on Saturday so as not to have to kill on a Sunday!
Gwrgi Garwlwyd is identified in the Welsh Triads as the first of “the three disgraceful traitors” of the Britons (or Cumbrians/Welsh in the Triads); whose actions weakened and betrayed Celtic Britain to the Anglo-Saxon conquest.
“The three disgraceful traitors who enabled the Saxons to take the crown of the Isle of Britain from the Cambrians: The first was Gwrgi Garwlwyd, who after tasting human flesh in the court of Edlfled the Saxon king, became so fond of it that he would eat no other but human flesh ever after. In consequence of this, he and his men united with Edlfled king of the Saxons; and he made secret incursions upon the Cambrians, and brought a young male and female whom he daily ate. And all the lawless men of the Cambrians flocked to him and the Saxons, for they obtained their full of prey and spoil taken from the natives of this Isle.”
In our scenario, this fearsome cannibalistic warrior, Garwlywd, has gathered a band of exiles and outlaws to his standard (a dog’s head?). He is opposed to Arthur’s settlement and to the rule of Arthur’s brother-in-law, Lot. He has made common cause with an Anglo-Saxon warlord, Edlfled (who has been tentatively identified by some scholars as Æthelfrith of Bernicia,); perhaps planning a joint assault on the Gododdin stronghold of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh).
With northern Gododdin so threatened, and in fear for his authority and perhaps his life, Lot sends urgent word to Arthur to come to his aid.
Arthur is at his favorite residence, Kelliwic (Killibury/Kelly Rounds) in Cornwall; where Geoffrey Ashe and (particularly) Rodney Castleden suggested he had his “seat of power” as lord of the region known as Trigg (in Brythonic) or Tricurium (in Latin) (2). Receiving Lot’s appeal, he soon sets out again at the head of his 300 armored Cymbrogi.
It is a journey of some 515 miles. A mounted force such as Arthur’s, used to hard riding and utilizing the very good Roman road network, can (at a controlled canter) make 45 – 60 miles in a day. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Arthur’s horsemen arrived at Din Eidyn in eight to ten days after leaving Kelliwic.
There he joins Lot’s forces and moves north against the outlaw army. Garwlywd is camped (perhaps) near the Fords of Frew (then called Tribruit); from which he threatens and raids into Gododdin. With his characteristic speed and vigor, Arthur crosses the river and attacks the outlaw band before warning of his coming can reach Garwlywd’s ears.
The Pa Gur speaks of the deeds of Arthur’s champions in the battle: Cei (remembered in the later romances as Sir Kay the Seneschal) and Bedwyr (Arthur’s last loyal knight, Sir Bedivere) in the battle. The fighting is fierce and bloody; and is portrayed as in the nature of a civil war fought between men who knew each other and regretted the strife between them. Cei pleads with his opponents; perhaps exhorting them to surrender, to throw themselves upon Arthur’s certain mercy.
“Cei pleaded with them / While he slew them three by three. . . . Cei pleaded with them / While he hewed them down.”
This “pleading” with his opponents by Cei validates the theory that this was not a battle against foreign enemies, but between fellow Britons. This fits well the scenario we have suggested here: that these are Britons, likely men of Gododdin, some of which may have known their opponents from childhood; who are now in rebellion against Arthur’s authority.
Bedwyr is mentioned as slaying his opponents “by the hundred”; and fighting the ferocious Garwlwyd himself:
“They fell by the hundred before Bedwyr of the Perfect-Sinew. On the shores of Tryfrwyd fighting with Garwlwyd furious was his nature with sword and shield”
The battle ends with Arthur’s victory, but perhaps not a decisive one. Arthur would have to fight again very soon at nearby Din Eidyn; and the “Dog-Heads” leader, Garwlwyd, perhaps escaped. According to the Triads, Garwlwyd was “assassinated” by one Diffydell mab Dysgyfdawd, in one of the three so-called “Fortunate Assassinations”. Either Diffydell slew the villain Garwlwyd during or after the battle of the Tryfrwyd (in which case it can hardly be called an assassination); or Garwlwyd escaped the battle and was later assassinated.
No mention is made in the Pa Gur’s (admittedly) scant account of the battle of the Angle allies the Triads accuse Garwlwyd of making common cause with. Could “Edlfled’s” Angle allies have struck by sea, landing south of the Forth and seizing “the hill of Agned”, near Din Eidyn?
(1) Ashley, M. A Brief History of King Arthur, P. 157. Running Press (2010)
(2) Castleden, Rodney: King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend. P 127. Routledge, NY (2000)