Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!
This is the Thirteenth-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!
ARTHUR’S NORTHERN CAMPAIGN
In the last few parts of our discussion we have attempted to create a hypothetical reconstruction of Arthur’s rise to power. In part we have based our hypothesis upon clues found in the narrative of Nennius, the 9th century Welsh monk chronicler. In the 56th chapter of his Historia Brittonum Nennius speaks of twelve battles fought and won by Arthur; whom he calls dux bellorum (war leader or warlord) of the Celtic British:
At that time, the Saxons grew strong by virtue of their large number and increased in power in Britain. Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [“dux bellorum”]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.
We have thus far constructed a working theory as to the locations and details of the first five of Nennius’ 12 battles of Arthur. We are now prepared to continue with Nennius’ sixth and seventh battle.
Following his victories in Lindsey over the Angles, Arthur and his combrogi likely returned to Eboracum (York), to feast and celebrate their victory over the Angles. Perhaps while here word came of rebellion in the north.
Caw o’ Brydyn (or Prydain), chieftain or petty-king in north Strathclyde, had 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 power-base seems to have been in Renfrewshire west of Glasgow, with his principal 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.
Pictish Warrior (artist Matthew de Witte)
It has been noted previously that Gildas’ omission of Arthur from his history may stem from a personal antipathy toward Arthur, based upon Arthur’s execution of Gildas’ brother Hueil (see Ch. 9). But the bad-blood between them might have been a family feud dating back at least to 508 (approximately eight years before Gildas’ birth), if not even earlier.
In Welsh traditions Hueil is both an enemy of Arthur’s and a former member of his personal retinue. In the early Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen, Hueil (alongside his many brothers) is a knight of Arthur’s court and is described as having “never submitted to a lord’s hand.” The text refers to an incident in which Hueil stabbed Arthur’s nephew (or son?), Gwydre ap Llwydeu. Another tale tells of a duel between the two men over a woman. In any case, there is thus reason to surmise that Hueil may have been one of Arthur’s early combrogi. (If Arthur was indeed raised or sired in the north, Hueil may have been a boyhood acquaintance and an early recruit to Arthur’s mounted comitatus.) But enmity grew between them, and Hueil likely returned to his father’s stronghold, nursing his grudges and carrying out a vendetta against his former lord.
Perhaps Caw and Hueil now took advantage of Arthur’s occupation in the Angle campaign to openly renounce Arthur’s authority as Dux Bellorum. In this they were 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. Alternately, Arthur may have taken this opportunity to pay back Hueil for the past wrongs noted above.
This leads us to Nennius’ sixth battle, on “the river called Bassas”. This battle of Nennius’ narrative has always perplexed Arthurian scholars attempting to place each of these battles geographically. A good case has been made, based upon etymology, for Cambuslang, now a suburb of Glasgow. It is speculated that the River Calder which runs beside the town may have been called the Bassas in the early Dark Ages.
There are no details, but it seems Arthur was victorious and Caw’s power was broken. Caw abdicated his throne (if indeed he ever sat one) and spent the remainder of his life exiled to 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). We know that Hueil was executed by Arthur though this may have happened either directly after Arthur’s victory at the Bassas or sometime later. Tradition has it that he was executed for “piracy”; so he may have taken to the sea and continued his feud till eventually taken and put to death.
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 in the last chapter as Arthur’s “Lindsey Campaign” near Lincoln). 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 at best Geoffrey must be confusing them with an early Angle settlement. As the Scots and Picts were inveterate enemies, battling each other for control of Alba, an alliance of these two peoples is also problematic.
What is far more likely to have occurred is that a force of Picts marched south from the Highlands, perhaps coming to the aid of the now defeated Caw (who, again, is described as of Pictish descent). Having dealt with Caw, Arthur turns now upon the Picts.
As with the earlier battle on the Bassas against Caw, there is no record of how this battle unfolded (just as, for that matter, there are no descriptions for the myriad of small skirmishes and battles that happened throughout this, the darkest night of the growing Dark Ages). 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 combrogi 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 astride the Pict’s 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: news of Caw’s defeat has yet to reach them, nor of Arthur’s near presence. They are mostly young men, eager to experience war in all its violent splendor! Leading them is a leavening of older veteran warriors. These latter are more bored than ebullient as they trod sore-footed down the forest path. All are anticipating several days of easy looting, before their British foes can muster a force to oppose them.
Suddenly from either side in the brooding forest comes the shrill screeching of war-horns. The Pictish warriors freeze in their tracks, weapons tightly gripped. From out of the dark foliage to either side, javelins and arrows come flying, landing 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 met with an threat unexpected. Though brave, the Picts 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, no doubt baying like hounds to the hunt. Veterans or chiefs who attempt to halt and rally their young warriors are cut down. The pursuit goes on for miles, the Combrogi spurring their horses bloody-sided till fading light makes further pursuit impossible. Thus have all Great Captains turned tactical success into decisive victory.
The Caledonian 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 Gwyr 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 and 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 Britanniarum. 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.
His descendants now ruled many of the petty-kingships; as well as the four paramount northern kingdoms: Elmet, perhaps ruled by Arthur’s ally in the Angle Campaign, Gurgust Lethum (though this ruler’s life is alternatively dated in the previous generation), with its capital at Eboracum (York). Rheged, ruled from Cair Ligualid (Carlisle) by King Merchiaun “the Lean”. 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 childhood acquaintances or even 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 Aurelianus.
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 post-Roman 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 infant Scottish 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 Scots Kings
While there is no evidence one-way-or-another, it is tempting to consider the possibility 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 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 countenanced by the Strathclyde ruler, or else been crushed. A friendly Irish/Scotti kingdom might 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 other sister, Morgause. 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 is 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 makes the argument that Dyfnwal of Strathclyde was placed over southern Gododdin. Could this too have been Arthur’s handiwork?
In spring of 511 AD Arthur’s work in the north is complete, and satisfactory. The Picts are humbled, with an Irish/Scottish king friendly to the British in place in Argyll on their western flank. 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 (and perhaps childhood friend), Dyfnwal of Strathclyde. And with the Angles of Lindsey broken, York/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!
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
- Mathews, John: King Arthur:Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero, P. 19. Rosen Publishing Group, 2008
- Ashley, Mike: The Mammoth Book of King Arthur
- Matthews and Stewart: Warriors of Arthur, p.104. Blandford Press Ltd, 1987
- St. Cadoc’s hagiography is of importance in that it is one of seven saints’ lives that mention Arthur, independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
- Morris, John, The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. P 54. Barnes and Noble Books, 1996
- Castleden, Rodney: King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend. P 102. Routledge, NY (2000).