Speculations on the Cornish Links in the Arthurian Legend
by Edwin Hustwit, 1 March 2009
Attempts to establish an 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 an 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
By doing so the context of the original traditions
aligns itself more clearly with the historical realties underlying
early medieval politics. This will principally be 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
A map of Dumnonia around AD 400 at the very dawn
of what could be termed the 'Arthurian Era, by which
time Dumnonia had probably extended the territory under
its control to include the former lands of the Durotriges
in neighbouring Dorset (click on map to view full sized).
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
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 immensely
increased the popularity of 'King' Arthur.
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 had an impact upon academia, principally with Alcock's
connection of South Cadbury with Arthur, itself an idea possibly
originating with Leland.
Moreover, associations between Bath and the siege
of Mount Badon and Arthur's role in this historical conflict further
cemented the south-west in Arthurian legend. Even more, 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 (the King Mark of the tale is placed in Cornwall).
Undoubtedly the south-west was of significance
in the post-Roman/early medieval period. Indeed there can be no
refuting 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 important fact remains
that Tintagel was the major importer of Mediterranean ceramics in
the post-Roman period.
Furthermore, the early to mid-sixth century
Dumnonian 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
Therefore the role of Cornwall in the Arthurian
legend appears to have been of paramount importance. The
possibility remains though that Geoffrey, although correct in his
assignation of a (partly) Cornish identity for Arthur, was mistaken
in his locating 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.
It was only around this time that the lands
beyond the River Tamar were becoming known as Cornwall. Thanks
to this, 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 and not 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 northern Britain.
Sir Cligés is one of the less well-known knights of the round
table, a poor knight because of his generosity who is rewarded
by Uther Pendragon for his kindly ways and selflessness
In this list is 'The Mantle of Arthur in Cornwall'. Clearly
modern Cornwall cannot be considered, in any way shape or form, to
be in the north of Britain. This is circumstantially backed-up by
evidence in old Welsh genealogical tracts in which 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 dramatically altered perceptions of the true origins of
Arthur's Cornish connections.
Why 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
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
(rather than a much later region of a similar name in the
south-west) were located in the west Midlands in the area now covered,
in general, by the modern counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, and
Staffordshire and extending into Wales. Although the eastern portion
of this territory came under the control of the Mercians by the early
seventh century, the inhabitants of this area in the fifth and sixth
centuries were Brythonic rather than Anglo-Saxon. 
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. It was only in the early medieval period that
this region 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 later frontier
location it existed as a political unit that was 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 when Powys may have extended well into the west Midlands.
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 gained
such prominence in these other areas, though.
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' (as was later
the case for Welsh Powys).
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.
Possibly 'powis' could appear 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 borne out in later developments.
The late fourth and 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 are in territory which was controlled by Britons
but on land which possibly could be 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
Similarly the term 'powis' occurs at the former
Roman fort of Kirby Thore. No archaeological evidence survives to
suggest that this fort was re-established in a manner similar to
Birdoswald. However, the Notitia Dignitatum lists the late
fourth/early fifth century unit that was posted here as the
Numerus Defensorum, the 'Defensive Squadron', indicating
the prolonged use of the site. 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 Brythonic 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.
As can be seen, the name 'powis' is again associated
with a border territory but this time it 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.
Gawain of the Guotodin is perhaps one of the most famous of
Arthur's 'Knights of the Round Table', but his origins seem
to lay in the Lothian region, although his actual presence
there seems to have been extremely limited
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.
Cornovii to Powys
Clearly the occurrence of 'powis' names in these areas
has nothing to do with the Cornovii. This indicates that the creation
of Powys as a name for the early medieval kingdom was a construct borne
out of necessity and as a reflection of current political and military
circumstances. This does not mean that the inhabitants of these 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. 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 which lament 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 that Arthur may have held territory around the
fort at Caerwys. Of course this is speculation rather than argument
based on solid evidence. Even so, it suggests that 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 Britain's south-west peninsula.
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 England's Midlands and along 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
However, at this early stage, although 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 then the remainder of Cornovian lands may
well have retained their original name far longer than we are able
to assess. Therefore, the idea 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.
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 - website
The House of Bards - website containing
traditional Welsh material
Text copyright © Edwin Hustwit. An original feature
for the History Files.