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 Sixteenth-part of our discussion of Britain in 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”; the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain.
As we attempt to reconstruct the life of an “historical” King Arthur, it is important to bear in mind that all of this is highly speculative. We know little of Arthur beyond the legends, and that little we do have in way of “historical” data come from sources centuries later. However, unlike many modern historians who use this paucity of contemporary material as excuse to dismiss an historic Arthur as mere invention, we are here attempting to build a plausible narrative based upon what is available.
Certainly the historical facts support the possibility, even the likelihood, of a British national leader in the late 5th/early 6th century. One who defended the remnants of Roman civilization in Britain and led the resistance to Anglo-Saxon expansion on the island. We see evidence in the archaeological record, including the locations of Anglo-Saxon burial sites: in the early 6th century the seemingly inexorable advance of the Anglo-Saxons across Britain was arrested and thrown back to the eastern fringes of the island.
Procopius, the Byzantine historian of the mid-6th century, noted that there was an ongoing exodus of Saxons from Britain to the continent during his lifetime. Something (or someone) caused this to happen, almost certainly by making successful war upon the hitherto triumphant Anglo-Saxons. It goes without saying that successful warfare is impossible without good leadership. So such an achievement must be attributed to a otherwise unknown British leader.
Why would not that leader be the basis for the later stories and legends of “Arthur”?
That there is no contemporary written record of Arthur’s life and deeds, or a reliable genealogy for his House (the Dark Ages Celts loved to keep elaborate recorded genealogies for their kings and royal houses) are both explainable and, considering the age in which he lived, not at all surprising. There is an equal dearth of record for other, generally accepted contemporaneous historic figures, such as Cerdic, founder of the West Saxon Kingdom; or Æsc/Oisc Hengistson, from whom the later kings of Kent (the Oiscingas ) traced their descent. Even less is known about Ælle, the chief enemy of the southern Britons at this time and reputedly the first Anglo-Saxon leader to earn the title of “Bretwalda”. Yet few British historians challenges his or their existence as vehemently as they do Arthur’s. Only Arthur is dismissed out of hand as fiction.
The sole near-contemporary chronicler of Britain in this age was the monk, St. Gildas. As I explained in earlier installments of this series, the Welsh monastic sources indicate a very personal family animus towards Arthur held by Gildas. So Gildas’ failure to mention Arthur by name should not be grounds to dismiss his existence as fable. One must look between the lines of Gildas, often filling in the gaps with knowledge gleaned from later sources (many of which may have had access to more contemporary accounts now lost), from the pertinent archaeology, and from educated conjecture.
Gildas the Monk, whose De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae recounts the history of the Britons before and during the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, fails to mention Arthur; much less name him as leader of the British forces against the Anglo-Saxon invaders. But Gildas had personal reasons to deliberately omit references to Arthur; as the latter is said to have executed his brother and may have defeated his father, Caw in battle. One of his biographers says Gildas destroyed monastic records of Arthur.
The decline of Roman Britain, the coming of the Anglo-Saxon invaders, the fierce and desperate British resistance, and how Arthur rose to power following the historically-accepted leader of the Romano-British, Ambrosius Aurelianus: all have all been discussed in previous chapters. In building a narrative for the military history of Arthur, we have drawn on the work of the 9th century Welsh monk, Nennius; whose Historia Brittonum tells of twelve battles waged by Arthur as “Dux Bellorum” (Warlord) of the British. In previous installments, we have tried to place these battle on the map of Britain and develop a plausible explanation for each.
“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
Nennius used as source-material earlier (now lost) Welsh sources. Many modern historians dismiss his twelve battles as either from later ages grafted onto the Arthur legend; or simply spun out of whole (and wholly fictitious) cloth. But upon examination, Nennius’ battles, for the most part, tell a story that is both compelling and plausible; of a successful war-leader who, at the head of a band of well mounted, well armored cavalry (perhaps of the type the late Roman’s would have categorized as “Sarmatian“, or even “cataphract”) rode the length and breadth of Roman Britain; galvanizing and spearheading the Romano-Celtic resistance to the invaders. When viewed through the prism of military analysis by one well read in military history and trained in the military sciences, a discernible strategic narrative unfolds that is wholly tenable, taking into account the available data and known outcomes.
SUMMARY OF ARTHUR’S RISE TO POWER 507-511 AD
(The following is synopsis of material covered in previous installments of The Age of Arthur)
Our explorations into what can be called “the Age of Arthur” have taken us to 511 A.D. To recap, Arthur emerges initially as the right-hand of Ambrosius Aurelianus (who I have suggested is synonymous with the historical character, Riothamus), “Supreme King”of Britain. Celtic Britain in the wake of the Roman withdrawal is a patchwork of greater and lesser “kingdoms”. Most are tribal in nature, though others are based upon former Roman commands. The “High King” or “Supreme King” is a title indicating the “first-among-equals” of these petty monarchs. Arthur is perhaps Ambrosius’ nephew (as later tradition claims), and acts as his cavalry commander in Ambrosius’ later years.
By 506 at the latest, Arthur begins to emerge from behind the ageing Ambrosius as his successor. (Some Arthur historians put his life somewhat earlier, in the last quarter of the 5th century.) He commands a mobile force of armored horsemen; who, acting as a mobile “fire brigade”, ride throughout the marches between British and Anglo-Saxon territory. Their work is the unsung dirty business of “small war”: repelling incursions, defending endangered British fortresses and towns, and occasionally raiding into the Anglo-Saxon territories in the eastern part of the island.
These warriors (who call themselves Combrogi, meaning “fellow-countrymen“, but perhaps used as we would the term “comrades”) are recruited from the horse-riding class of Britain, sons of the British nobility, raised in the saddle from boyhood. Some, perhaps, may have been descendents of Sarmatian horsemen long settled in northern Britain; and from the Alani settlers of Armorica/Brittany, who since the mid 5th century have lived side-by-side in harmony with the British émigrés who arrived at about the same time, fleeing the “Saxon Terror”.
Campaigning together year-after-year; living in the close quarters of camp and bivouac; fighting together side-by-side in desperate battles or recounting tales around glowing fires: Arthur’s Combrogi must have become a true “band of brothers”. Some few are remembered by name, and survived to be included in the later legends of King Arthur: Cei, “the unrelenting warrior”, comes down to us as Sir Kay, Arthur’s foster brother and later seneschal, as well as one of the first Knights of the Round Table. Another is Bedwyr “of the Perfect Sinews”; who in Monmouth and Mallory is portrayed as Sir Bedivere; one of Arthur’s last surviving, loyal knights. Arthur’s Combrogi were well known to Welsh storytellers; in the romance Culhwch and Olwen, written around 1100, the protagonist Culhwch invokes the names of 225 individual warriors affiliated with Arthur. They are the basis for the later “Knights of the Round Table“.
In 507, while Ambrosius (who, according to some scholars, dies about this time) is conducting his last campaign against Cerdic and the West Saxons in the south; Arthur begins the campaigns that encompass the twelve battles noted by Nennius.
First he rides to Lindum (Lincoln), where the Angle leader, who Geoffrey of Monmouth called Colgren is laying siege to the town. In route, he intercepts and smashes a new landing at the River Glein (Nennius’ first battle); near the estuary of the Wash. Moving north, he takes Colgren’s forces by surprise at Lindum, breaking the siege (Nennius’ second battle). He drives the Angles eastward, over the River Dubglas (the “Black Water”); identified herein as the river Witham, which runs through Lincolnshire.
Map showing the proposed location and date of Arthur’s battles, as presented by Nennius; numbers one through nine.
Arthur pursues, and battles Colgren’s retreating forces at a ford of this river. In this, the third of Nennius’ battles, the Angles repel the British; and Arthur withdraws back to British territory for the winter.
The Angle campaign resumes the following spring (herein identified as 508), as Arthur joins local forces in Lindsey (southeast Lincolnshire). He forces a crossing of the Dubglas (Nennius’ 4th battle); and finally brings the retreating Colgren to decisive battle (Nennius’ 5th). The Angles are defeated, Colgren is slain, and the remnants of their colony in Lindsey becomes subject to the local British authority.
Arthur turns north, as news of rebellion reaches him. Caw o’ Brydyn (or Prydain), chieftain (or petty-king) in north Strathclyde, has openly rebelled against Arthur’s authority; making common cause with the Picts to the north. Arthur’s hard-riding Combrogi gallop up the Roman roads, arriving at Caw’s doorstep before news of their coming reaches the rebels. Caw is defeated at the Battle of the Bassus (Nennius 6th) near modern Glasgow, before he can fully assemble his forces. Caw is deposed from his throne, and goes into exile in Wales. (Caw is the father of St. Gildas. This is the first instance of Arthur running afoul of the chronicler’s family. Later, Arthur will execute Gildas’ brother Huail ap Caw for piracy.)
Arthur rides next against the Picts, as they come south to reinforce Caw. He catches them unaware and ambushes them in Nennius’ 7th battle: the Celyddon Coed (Caledonian Forest). The Pictish force is shattered and driven back into the highlands.
Arthur spends the winter in the north, settling affairs in Strathclyde and Gododdin. He confirms his brother-in-law, Lot, as petty-king in northern Gododdin; and places his friend, Dyfnwal of Strathclyde, over southern Gododdin. He also encourages Fergus Mór mac Eirc, semi-legendary progenitor of the kings of Scotland, to come from Dál Riata in northern Ireland, to establish the Kingdom of Dal Riada on the Argyll peninsula; based around the stronghold at Dunadd. These Irish “Scotti” would act as a counter against the power of the Picts; contending with them for supremacy in the Highlands for centuries; and eventually supplanting them and forming the Kingdom of Scotland.
The following spring, Arthur returns to the south to find Cerdic’s West Saxons raiding the Cornish coast. At Land’s End, warded then by a fortress known as Guinnion (the “White Fort”), he and the local lords of Cornwall catch the raiders and cut down many before they can return to their ships. This battle, Nennius’ 8th, is remembered in local Cornish legend as the Battle of Vellan-Druchar.
Later that year or the following, an Irish landing in Cornwall is repelled by Arthur’s ally (and possible neighbor in Cornwall), Theodoric. Theodoric, whose duties include patrolling the southwestern coasts, follows the survivors to south Wales. Here he drives out an Irish dynasty ruling in Demetia/Dyfed; placing on the throne instead Aircol/Agricola Longhand.
511 AD or 512 AD sees Arthur joining Theodoric in southeastern Wales, in Gwent. This petty-kingdom is experiencing dynastic strife; and Irish raiders driven from Cornwall and Dyfed have moved into the kingdom to fish in its troubled waters. Arthur and Theodoric defeat the Irish at Caerleon, the “City of the Legion”; in what was Nennius’ 9th battle. Theodoric is given the western portion of Gwent, Glywysing, as reward; which he, in turn, bestows upon his son, Meurig. He is remembered in local legends and genealogies as King Tewdric; being revered as an early Christian saint! In later years, he died in battle, aiding his son Meurig to repel an Anglo-Saxon incursion.
This brings us up to date: 511-512. Arthur has emerged as the paramount warlord amongst the Britons. He is styled “Dux Bellorum”: the “Duke of War”, or “warlord”. Though the most successful of the British leaders, he is not ready yet to take the title of High King, as was born by Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus before him. But events are in motion that will bring Arthur to the pinnacle of his military career; and pave the way for him to emerge as Arthur: High King and Emperor of Britain.
REVOLT IN THE NORTH
Our discussion now comes to this tenth battle, at “river called Tribruit”.
As detailed previously, between 508 and 510, Arthur had campaigned north of the Wall. He’d nipped-in-the-bud a conspiracy by the chieftain Caw o’ Brydyn , crushing his forces at the Battle of the Bassus (tentatively placed near modern Glasgow). He then turned back an incursion by the Picts (possibly coming to join in Caw’s rebellion) 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 (rendered alternatively as Lleu or Leudonus), 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 Welsh Triads as one of the three “Red Ravagers of Britain”. Lot is the eponymous king of Lothian in legend.
Edinburgh Castle (ancient Din Eidyn) from the north
Arthur also enlarged the holdings of his ally and possible childhood friend, Dyfnwal of Alclud, 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. These would have bide 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 . 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 bypassing and avoiding 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.
With a 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 most scholars agree is synonymous with Nennius’ Battle of at the river called Tribruit. 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 an outlaw as a “wolf’s head” (translated from the Latin, Caput lupinum). Robinhood, famously, is addressed as such by his enemies Prince John and Guy of Gisbourne. In the much earlier 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?
Just as plausibly, these outlaws might have taken the name “Dog-Heads”, and even used such as their standard.
In this scenario, in the years since Arthur and his band of mounted combrogi returned south, these “dog heads” 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, a self-proclaimed champion of his people. Alternately he may have been naught but an leader of brigands.
Garwlwyd may also 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 Cambrians/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 or pirate, 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.
Lot’s appeal reaches Arthur 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). Arthur soon sets out at the head of his 300 (?) armored combrogi.
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, could at a controlled canter make 50 miles in a day. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Arthur’s horsemen arrived at Din Eidyn in ten to eleven 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 (in legend 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?
* All dates are speculative. Scholarly debate places the life and deeds of Arthur at some point between 480 A.D. and 535 A.D.
- Procopius, Debellis 8.20
- Caw o’ Brydyn (or Prydain), was a chieftain (or petty-king) in north Strathclyde. He was the father of Huail/Hueil ap Caw, who was at some point one of Arthur’s combrogi cavalry; but eventually fell out with Arthur and the men became bitter enemies. Caw was also the father of St. Gildas, the future monkish chronicler of the period; and of daughter, Cwyllog, who may have been the wife of Medrawt/Mordred, Arthur’s killer. (Mathews, John: King Arthur:Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero, P. 19. Rosen Publishing Group, 2008).
- Ashley, M. A Brief History of King Arthur, P. 157. Running Press (2010)
- Castleden, Rodney: King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend. P 127. Routledge, NY (2000)
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.