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Post-Roman Britain

Now Just Who Was Arthur?

by John Davey, 26 March 2003

Now just who was 'Arthur'? This is just a personal view but the problem we have with 'Arthur' is his timeless popularity. Too many people have jumped onto the Camelot bandwagon over the centuries and have adopted him - and then adapted him.

When looking at all the stories - and there are truly so many as to boggle the mind - the first job is to delete the obvious romances and parodies of later years. Then take the earlier offerings and, along with some thought for the political and religious agendas of the periods, see what we really have.

This takes us back to the twelfth century, and everyone's favourite storyteller, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Most later works - the ones which weren't total fabrications - were based either on Geoffrey's works or on 'evidence' similar to that with which he worked (an over-generalisation of course, but valid to an extent).

This author's opinion - and this is only an opinion - is as follows:

Names... and the first Myrddin

In the pre-Roman and post-Roman periods when Britons ruled the island, names as we know and accept them were seldom recorded. What could be termed 'titles' or 'nicknames' were prevalent. Sometimes two very different people, though famous, noteworthy people in their own right, could have the same 'name' within a generation of each other. Then again, a single person could go through more than one 'title' in their single lifetime. This can obviously lead to some confusion.

Looking at the names and/or titles involved in the Arthurian stories, and applying them to other histories and documentation as we know them, seems to give us two separate, and clearly defined, targets.

We have two Myrddins for a start: one youthful lad in the mid-fifth century, and one slightly older chap in the mid-sixth century. The century between them eliminates any chance of them being the same person (unless you really believe in magic).

Peredur, Gawain, Uriens and many of the 'knights' of the 'Round Table' are very much alive and are active in northern Britain in the latter half of the sixth century (in, respectively, Ebrauc (York), Guotodin, and North Rheged).

At that time the northern British war chief, the 'Great Warrior' or 'PenDragon' to give him his proper title, was one Gwenddolau of Arddrydd (Caer-Guendoleu). It is not a big step from 'King of Arthuret' to 'King Arthur', especially allowing for the British passion for titles and their grammar.

His chief councillor is recorded as one of the Myrddins mentioned above. His wife's name is not recorded, but would likely be titled after him - therefore being Gwen-something, almost as in Mrs Gwenddolau. So Gwenifar - or Guinevere in later tongues - would not be impossible.

Near his capital is a round circle where Celts have met since they reached these shores. For meetings to be held there, in the neutral open - especially as the so-called 'knights' were all in fact princes who were 'equal' to Gwenddolau - would be quite feasible. And the Celt's love of pomp and ceremony would near demand it. The nearby hill is still named 'Arthur's Seat', hence, perhaps, the 'round table'.

Guy Ritchie's Knights of the Round Table
Although cinematic depictions of Arthur and his knights tend to look impressive, they often leave a lot to be desired in terms of historical accuracy, with only John Boorman's interpretation of Le Morte d'Arthur standing the test of time

Even Myrddin's sister, a troublemaker beyond belief, makes a good basis for the 'wicked sister' of the later legends. She was also married to the prince of Din Eidin (Guotodin), one Morgn (Morgan Bulc) of great fame, so her acceptable title could well have been Morganna. She may not have been much of a witch though, as she seems to have left Morgn to live with St Kentigern.

After Gwenddolau's death, circa 572, his greatest friend Aiden, soon to be chief of the Dal Riada Scots, 'named' his next born son Arthur in his memory.

Mere coincidence of course. As are all of the above.

The second Myrddin

Now, further back in time, we have our other Myrddin. He is much closer to AD 460 and can be located in Gwynedd (modern north Wales). Here we meet the red and white dragons, which are quite probably an idea based on old Roman cavalry standards (which were not quite so old at the time, of course). Nennius, writing in the early ninth century, places this story in Snowdonia, and Welsh tradition also has it at Dinas Emrys near Beddgelert.

Here we have a youthful Myrddin Ambrosius putting his case forward to King Vortigern for him (Myrddin) to be warlord of the British. And his proven control over the fractious cavalry wins his argument. Ambrosius is said to be of Roman lineage and the two dragons could also be taken from the insignia of the Roman administration of the area. Again, this is something of a statement of who controlled what.

From Gwynedd he reputedly moved his base south to Powys. Later poems (Llywarch the Old in the ninth century comes to mind) often referred to the kings of Powys as 'the heirs of Arthur'. This was written well before the glamorised romances of Norman times. Indeed, Viroconium, the capital of Powys, is shown in excavations as one of, if not the most, sophisticated cities in Britain in the late fifth century.

A recorded leader in the area during the 490s was one Owain Ddantgwyn (prince of the Gwyneddian sub-kingdom of Rhos). According to Gildas, Ddantgwyn's battle title was 'The Bear', or 'Arth'. Also, purely coincidental is the fact that this man's father, Einion Yrth (or Enniaun Girt), was known in battle as the 'Terrible Chief Warrior' - Uthr Pen Dragon.

Lleyn peninsula
The expansion of Owain Ddantgwyn's Rhos to take in the Lleyn peninsula under the command of his son may have threatened the over-king of Gwynedd as a potential rival, a possible reason for it being merged back into Gwynedd proper by Rhun Hir in the mid-sixth century

It seems that we have two Arthurs and two Myrddins and PenDragons in both situations. The later stories seem to have blended much from each of them: the titles and lineage coming from the fifth century Arthur; the actions, associates, 'round table' and so on coming from the sixth century Arthur.

Was Arthur a living king? No. 'Arthur' was a real, living title.

And two great princes wore it while unknowingly giving their lives to a greater story. Either one of them is quite possibly more interesting than the 'literary' Arthur. Indeed, most definitely so. This is just an opinion, of course, but hopefully one which helps.



Text copyright © The Celtic Kingdom of Elmet & John Davey. Reproduced with permission.