History Files


Post-Roman Britain

Speculations on the Cornish Links in the Arthurian Legend

by Edwin Hustwit, 1 March 2009

Attempts to establish a historically credible King Arthur have, in fact, done little to aid the historical case for the 'Dark Age' leader.

This can be seen most obviously within Morris' 1973 work, The Age of Arthur. Although undoubtedly a labour of love such gross misrepresentation and uncritical use of sources offers little insight either into the period as a whole or the alleged life of this most enigmatic of British heroes. Indeed even more scholarly approaches such as Alcock's Arthurian Britain fail to engage with early Medieval history by attempting to correlate later propagandist literature with historical reality.


Despite these warnings from past works, the same approaches may appear to have been used here. However, what follows is not an attempt to establish a historical Arthur. Rather than that, the purpose of this article is to highlight the origins of such tales and the context within which they were written. Although the possibility remains that Arthur never existed, his importance in the early Medieval period should not be downplayed by scepticism and the dismissal of such a character by academia. Rather, understanding should be given as to where, why and how a figure such as Arthur could originate.

Therefore it is the principal purpose of this article to establish the 'real' Cornish connections regarding the Arthurian legends. By highlighting the shift which took place in the Medieval period this article will attempt to illustrate how the origins of the Arthurian legend were removed from their original geographical context. By doing so the context of the original traditions align itself more clearly with the historical realties underlying early Medieval politics. This will be principally achieved by examining Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and the Welsh traditions such as the ninth century court poetry, the Triads and Culhwych and Olwen. Both the Welsh and Anglo-Norman works associate Arthur heavily with Cornwall. This article will argue, however, that these connections are spurious and have misled those seeking the true origins of Arthur.

Where was the real Cornwall?

Geoffrey of Monmouth's elaborate tale of British history first appeared in 1139. Although denigrated by near contemporaries such as Gerald of Wales, its impact increased the popularity of 'King Arthur' immensely.

Not of least importance was Arthur's association with Cornwall.

This was primarily achieved through the setting of Arthur's birth at Tintagel and the setting of the battle of Camlann in Cornwall. Due to these associations, Cornwall and the West Country have become indelibly connected with the Arthurian legends. This has impacted in academia principally with Alcock's connection of South Cadbury with Arthur, itself an idea possibly originating with Leland.

Moreover, associations between Bath and the Battle of Mount Badon and Arthur's role in this historical battle further cemented the south-west in Arthurian legend. Furthermore, other tales from the Arthurian cycle such as that of Tristan and Isolde have been located, by a mixture of evidence in the form of inscriptions and the benevolent enthusiasm of Arthurian devotees, in the south-west.

Undoubtedly the south-west was of significance in the post-Roman/early Medieval period. Indeed there can be no refuting of the real importance of Tintagel in this period. Excavation has recovered from Tintagel the largest amount of imported pottery from Britain in the post-Roman period. This has been established as a diplomatic gift from the Byzantine Empire. It is unnecessary however, to conclude that the acceptance of such gifts meant that the ruler of Tintagel considered himself to be part of the Roman Empire. The importance remains however, that Tintagel was the major importer of Mediterranean ceramics in the post-Roman period.

Furthermore, the early to mid-sixth century ruler of this area and possibly of Tintagel itself, Constantine, was mentioned by Gildas in his attack on the kings of the Britons, indicating his fame during the mid-sixth century.

Therefore the role of Cornwall in the Arthurian legend appears to have been of paramount importance. However, the possibility remains that Geoffrey though correct in his assignation of a (partly) Cornish identity for Arthur was mistaken in his locating of the hero in the south-west. Indeed there is some place-name evidence to locate 'Cornwall' in this area such as the old name Durocornovis recorded by Ptolemy. However, the area under consideration was in reality known by another name entirely.

As recorded by Gildas the name for the south-west region, including modern Cornwall was the name derived from the Iron Age inhabitants of the region, the Dumnonii. Hence in the early Middle Ages the south-west was known as Dumnonia and the kings of the period identified themselves as such. That this area continued to be known as Dumnonia is indicated by later Anglo-Saxon writers. It only fell out of use when the kingdom of Wessex finally asserted itself in the south-west in the tenth century.

At this point the lands beyond the river Tamar came to be known as Cornwall. Thereby when writing his History of the Kings of Britain in the twelfth century Geoffrey naturally located his tale in the only area known to him as Cornwall ['the Welsh of the horn' or tip of south-western England].

The Welsh traditions on which Geoffrey was presumably drawing are clear on Arthur's connections to Cernyw. Both the Triads and Culhwych and Olwen state that Arthur's principal seat was at 'Celli Wic in Cernyw'. Of course this has been taken to mean modern Cornwall. But given the other information contained in these traditions, particularly the genealogical and geographical, the suggestion is rather that Arthur was connected with North Wales rather than the south-west.

A 'Cornwall' of the north?

However, as the Medieval period developed and the name Cernyw was finally forgotten, the tales began to be located in the Cornwall as this was the only area known by that name. This memory of Cernyw lingers on in the collection known as the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. All of the treasures are thought to have belonged to leaders of North Britain.

In this list is 'The Mantle of Arthur in Cornwall'. Clearly modern Cornwall cannot be considered to be, in any way shape or form, to be in the north of Britain. This is circumstantially backed-up by genealogical evidence in old Welsh genealogical tracts where a certain leader, Tudfwlch Corneu, is described as one of the 'Men of the North' whilst also belonging to Cernyw. This mistaken belief in the location of Cornwall has then dramatically altered perceptions on the true origins of Arthur's Cornish connections.

Why, however, did Geoffrey and Welsh tradition assert these Cornish links? Furthermore, if we are to reject their associations with the south-west where should we seek the true origins of the 'Cornish' Arthur?

Just as the name for the early Medieval kingdom of Dumnonia has Iron Age roots so too does the name Cornwall have Iron Age associations of its own. The tribe known to the Romans as the Cornovii were in reality located in the west Midlands in the area now covered, in general, by the modern counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and extending into Wales. Although the eastern portion of this territory came under the control of the Mercians the inhabitants of this area in the fifth/sixth centuries were Brittonic rather than Anglo-Saxon.

Therefore during both the Iron Age and the Roman period in Britain the people living in this area described themselves and were known as the Cornovii. However, this territory in the early Medieval period began to be known by another name entirely.

Powys in the Midlands

Powys was one of the most powerful of the Welsh kingdoms throughout the Medieval period. Despite its frontier location it existed as a political unit governed by its own native dynasty right up until the conquests of Edward I in the thirteenth century. It is within this kingdom that the true Cornish Arthur is to be found. The name Powys as used for a description of this area originated in the early Medieval period possibly in the late fifth century.

The change in name from Cornovii to Powys has then obscured the true 'Cornish' origins of Arthur. Indeed the term 'powis' is in actuality not confined to this area of Britain. It has not, however, gained such prominence in these other areas.

The origin of the term 'powis' lies in the Latin word 'paganses' which can mean 'people of the rural districts'. In a broader context this meaning can be extended to mean 'frontier'. Indeed this would be relevant to the position of Cornovii in the fifth century where their security was threatened, not by marauding Anglo-Saxons, but Irish incursions to the west. Thus 'powis' appears as a term of military usage used to describe a frontier region. This would be appropriate for what is known of the Cornovii. Not only was the legionary fortress at Chester established in their territory but since the time of Emperor Hadrian veterans had been settled in the tribal lands. The militaristic nature of the settlement was born out in later developments.

The late fourth/early fifth century document known as the Notitia Dignitatum contains notice of an auxiliary unit stationed at Pons Aelius, modern Newcastle, at the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall. This unit, known as the Cohors Primae Cornoviorum, was the only British unit known to have served within its own province. Therefore this unit was, presumably, held in high regard by the military authorities. Although a tradition of their Roman origin may have been kept alive, by the fifth century these men would have been just as much Britons as they were 'Roman', hence the name Cornoviorum assigned to them.

Other 'powis' locations

The other occurrences of powis place-names indicate, given their locations, similar meaning and context. Significantly, both these other occurrences take place in territory controlled by Britons but on land possibly described as frontiers. In modern Scotland near Stirling in the territory of the Manau Gododdin is Powis Mains Farm. Other field and boundary locations in this area, including the Powis Burn a small stream, bear witness to the powis name. The name Dumyat, the 'fort of the Maetae' located in the hills nearby illustrates the border nature of the area and gives context to the term powis. The Picts [or Northern Britons as they truly were], were a real threat to late Roman Britain and it is likely that the northern sector of the Gododdin [buffer] territory would have been involved in repelling these raiders.

Similarly the term powis occurs at the former Roman fort of Kirby Thore. No archaeological evidence survives to suggest this fort was re-established in a manner similar to Birdoswald. However, the Notitia Dignitatum lists the late fourth/early fifth century unit as the Numerus Defensorum, the 'Defensive Squadron' indicating the prolonged use of the site. Therefore it is possible this area was a frontier location in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Certainly the Bowes Pass which rises up over the Pennines connecting east and west was a strategic location. Indeed the heroic literature of the Britons suggests the Anglian centre at Catterick mentioned by Bede was important. Both the Gododdin and the Book of Taliesin acknowledged the importance of Catterick. Although the historical reliability of these sources is debateable, the occurrence of the place as a site to be fought over suggests it held significance at this date. Whether facing rival Brittonic kingdoms or nascent Anglo-Saxon territories, the western end of the Bowes Pass was an important location. Indeed the pass may have connected two kingdoms and could therefore be considered to be a frontier.

Hence the name powis is again associated with a border territory but this time has no tribal or dynastic connections. Moreover, powis occurs in primarily military contexts; certainly the north was a military province and Stirling was a vital strategic hub. These uses tie in the name for the territory in Wales indicating its true meaning.

Cornovii to Powys

North Pennines

The Pennines form one of Britain's most outstanding natural beauty spots, but the region, known as the backbone of England, was also a major factor in defending the British kingdoms against Angle attacks in the sixth and seventh centuries. In truth, the kings of Northumbria probably never entirely conquered it, with strong Celtic elements remaining in place well after they assumed control.

Clearly the occurrence of powis names in these areas has nothing to do with the Cornovii. This indicates the creation of Powys as a name for the early Medieval kingdom was a construct born out of necessity and as a reflection of current political and military circumstances. This does not mean however, the inhabitants of the areas were all using this term. Certainly a term used by, perhaps, the nobility alone would take time to become established. That the people of the area still identified themselves as the Cornovii is evident from the court poetry attributed to Taliesin and Llywarch Hen.

Indeed the court poetry, even when assigned a ninth century date, strengthens the case for the lasting significance of the name Cornovii as a descriptive term for the land and people of the area rather than weakening it. For by the ninth century if the term Cornovii had no meaning or significance even as a way to connect with the heroic past its use would be superfluous.

By the ninth century Cornovii had been adapted to Cernyw. The use of Cernyw appears in the poem in praise to Cynan Garwyn, a sixth century ruler of Powys where 'Let Cernyw Greet' occurs. Further links are established in the poems in lament of the seventh century king of Powys, Cynddylan ap Cyndrwynyn. Cynddylan and his brothers were said to be the 'young whelps of great Arthur'. Perhaps this is intended to mean they inherited his martial prowess. Certainly the poem acknowledges Cynddylan's father as Cyndrwynyn. Therefore this phrase must have an oblique meaning.

Interestingly Arthur may, like Cynddylan, have connections to the small kingdom of Dogfeilion. Cynddylan is ascribed to have been originally from this territory before he gained the throne of Powys. The tale of Arthur's quarrel with Huail, son of Caw, king of Edeyrnion, suggests Arthur may have held territory around the fort at Caerwys. Of course this is speculation rather than argument based on solid evidence. Nevertheless it suggests the author of the poem was aware of the Arthurian associations both of the Cornovii and those of the kingdom of Dogfeilion.

The information regarding the Thirteen Treasures and Tudfwlch Corneu are both in association with information regarding the Gwyr y Gogledd [the 'Men of the North']. Perhaps however, the ancient tribal lands of the Cornovii could just possibly be described as being in the north. Certainly these cannot be thought of as referring to the south-west peninsula of Britain.

Therefore, during the fifth and sixth centuries, the period of Arthur, the true 'Cornwall' lay not in the remote south-west but rather where the Cornovii had been existence for hundreds of years, in the Midlands of England and the borders of Wales. After the decline of Roman administrative rule in Britain and the withdrawal of troops to support various usurpers, the Cornovii may have maintained a military tradition not held by other lowland tribes. The term powis can be seen then to be an appropriate piece of military nomenclature used to describe a frontier.

However, at this early stage though the territory may have begun to be styled Powys it had not appropriated any 'ethnic' connotations. Furthermore if the territory assigned the name powis originally only meant the western portion facing the Irish territories the remainder of Cornovian lands may well have retained their original name far longer than we are able to assess. Therefore that a military leader should emerge from this tribe is not inherently unlikely. We do not have to necessitate that this be Arthur. However, it would be entirely appropriate to the kingdom's idealised view of itself that such a hero could originate from within their ranks.

Certainly this would have been necessary following Powys' decline and loss of territory to the Mercians. Therefore the Arthur figure may appear as a figure of the heroic past and the days of Cornovian glory.


Main Sources

Alcock, Leslie - Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology AD 367-634, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1971

Blake, Steve & Lloyd, Scott - The Lost Legend of Arthur: The Untold Story of Britain's Greatest Warrior, Rider & Co, 2004

Davies, Sioned (Trans) - The Mabinogion (Oxford World's Classics), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007

Giles, J A (editor and translator (1841)) - Six Old English Chronicles, London, George Bell & Sons, 1900

Morris, John - The Age Of Arthur: A History of the British Isles, Phoenix, 2001

Thorpe, Lewis (Trans) - Gerald of Wales/Giraldus Cambrensis: The Journey Through Wales, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1978

Roman Britain - Web site

The House of Bards - Web site containing traditional Welsh material



Text copyright Edwin Hustwit. An original feature for the History Files.