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
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
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
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
Aegidius and Britain?
Arthur Identified as Cadwaladr...
Owain Ddantgwyn& King Arthur
Now Just Who Was Arthur?
RULERS OF BRITAIN:
High Kings of Britain
The House of Bards
Roman-Britain.org (dead link)
Castles of Europe (in Russian)
Castles in Wales
Chester City Council
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
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
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.
Introduction to Gildas
De Excidio Brittaniae
Introduction to Nennius
Dumnonia in Maps
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
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
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
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
The origin of the term 'powis' lies in the Latin word
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.