BOAR OF EIRE VS BOAR OF CORNWALL: AN AMPHIBIOUS CAMPAIGN IN IRELAND & BRITAIN DURING THE AGE OF ARTHUR


alan lee culhwch & olwen the boar hunt for twrch trwyth
Was the story of the  hunt for Twrch Trwyth in the Mabinogion really an account of an amphibious campaign conducted in the late 5th century? Artwork by Alan Lee

 

In my ongoing research into Brittonic Sea-power during the Age of Arthur, a number of hitherto understudied naval operations have come to light relating to the Age of Arthur.

One of these is an amphibious operation which began in eastern Ireland and continued to the southern shores of modern Wales, ending along the north coast of Cornwall. Hitherto not studied as naval history, for want of a better name we shall refer to it as the Twrch Trwyth Campaign.

In general, while one can never be absolutely sure about any events which transpired in the fifth and early sixth centuries in Britain and its surrounding seas, where our analysis of traditional sources seems to reveal incidents which may be genuine historical events, it behooves us to at least present the evidence for them. Virtually all the materials relating to the period in question are traditional in one sense or another. They exist as chronicles and annals, homilies and hagiography, poetry and prose, or simply disjointed snippets of legend and myth, and almost all were committed to paper only centuries after the events in question. 

It is currently the fashion in academia for many esteemed scholars to reject such sources out of hand without proper evaluation—what Professor Koch characterizes as the “guilty until proven innocent” school of historiography. The present writer does not subscribe to this school of historiography and would prefer to subject the, admittedly unreliable, sources to critical analysis on a case by case basis.

Scholars of this Minimalist school are entitled to their opinions with regard to such sources, but we must also recognize that condemnation for what it is—opinion only and not objective fact. Conversely, older reconstructions of Post-Roman events in Britain—such as the nationalistic idea of an “Anglo-Saxon Invasion”—which have come to be regarded as proven fact and accepted as dogma and continue to color even modern archaeological research on the subject, need to be subjected to the light of critical analysis as well, especially where modern research has undermined their basic tenets.

Given the many lacunae in the evidence, the most one can do is provide plausible reconstructions based on all the evidence available and attempt to place it within the context of the wider cultural and political circumstances of the period which are better documented. It is perhaps not an ideal model for dealing with the sources for the Brittonic Period, but I would aver that it is the most one can hope for and one which may occasionally be supported by solid archaeological data.

     Before analyzing the Hunting of Twrch Trwyth narrative from the aspect of history, we must first deal with it as myth and legend. The fullest account of the story is found in Culwich and Olwen, one of the four “branches” of the Mabinogion, and there is no denying that the story as it is presented to us there is rife with fantastic motifs and imagery. On this ground alone, there are those in academia who would reject it as valueless to history and put it in a strictly delimited literary ghetto, with folklorists and the mytho-poeticists as its wardens.

Certainly, the motif in the story which revolves around the cutting of hair or of shaving, has echoes of the Biblical account of Samson and also seems to relate to ancient notions about sacral kingship. There also seem to be matrilineal customs implied in the story which definitely point to a prehistoric, pre-Christian stratum to the tale. The whole pursuit of the monster boar, moreover, could itself be framed in terms of the Wild Hunt, an archetype common to many early Indo-European cultures, not just British and Irish literature relating to the fifth century. All of this argues against attempts to extract historical data from the story that may be specific to post Roman Britain.

     While the mythic components to Culwch & Olwen are undeniable, we would aver that does not necessarily mean that everything in the story is fictional or that some aspects of it may reflect historical reality. It is in the nature of all Celtic cultures to merge history with myth, where actual events are subsumed within a pre-existing cultural matrix.

     Compare, if you will, Classical Greek and Roman renderings of the human face and form with Medieval Celtic renderings in the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels.  Classical portraiture is notable for its realism, Roman portraiture especially, to the point at times of representing their subjects in an unflattering manner. Each portrait so rendered is easily identifiable as an individual. In contrast, in Celtic art the human form is reduced to an abstraction, even when portraying a known historic figure: torsos become triangles and faces are rendered as a collection of geometric designs to the point where one human figure is virtually interchangeable with another. Similarly, in Celtic literature, actual historical events over time may be stripped of their individuality to the point where they may be easily mistaken for a restatement of a general cultural archetype. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, a scholar of both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic literature, was a leading exponent of the view that ancient British myth and legend were ultimately derived from real events, once writing that “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of truth.” Over time the historical elements in them fade, or as he expressed it in Lord of the Rings: “History became legend. Legend became myth.”[1]


der wilde jager by johan cordes 1856
Der Wilde Jager, an artist’s conception of the mythic “Wild Hunt,” which was as much a Germanic folk-belief as it was a Celtic one. Painting by Johan Cordes, 1856

     Boar hunting has been a popular sport enjoyed by the nobility in many cultures , not only in Medieval Wales. It was a sport which closely mimicked warfare: they hunted the wild boar from horseback and this activity was fraught with danger, factors which made it all the more suitable as an activity for a young warrior to perform in order to prove his worthiness or for a mature one to reaffirm it. The boar hunt plays a large role in Arthurian literature and more broadly in Medieval Welsh tradition.[2] However, we get a hint that the hunt in Culhwch & Olwen is something more than a sport or heroic quest from the fact that the boar which Arthur and his cousin Culhwch seek, Twrch Trwyth, is an Irish king’s son magically transformed into a wild boar for his transgressions.

     As the story unfolds, Arthur assembles a massive army and, with his flagship Prydwen (“Fair Form”) leading the fleet, invades Ireland. As a preliminary, Arthur’s men pillage the household of Diwrnach Wyddel, an Irish sub-king, murder him and carry away his gold-wealth in his cauldron, which he had refused to loan them for the hunt. 

arthur and his men loading the cauldron & gold taken from the irish king culhwch & olwen margaret jones aattt.org.uk
Arthur’s men make off with the Irish king’s cauldron–and his gold.

Next, after sending a spy to scout out the “boar” and his entourage, who had already ravaged a large swath of Hibernia, Arthur’s initial encounter with Twrch Trwyth results in the death of one of the giant boar’s seven offspring.

The boar, behaving more like a grieving human father than a wild animal, vows revenge against Arthur and his folk. The murder of one of his sons provokes the boar-king to cross the Irish sea with his remaining sons and ravage southern Wales.

 

 

roman warships image virgilius romanus ca 5th cent
A fleet of Liburniae, a type of late Roman warship, ca 5th century AD. The Arthurian navy was probably a mix of Celtic, Roman and Germanic style warships. After the Virgilius Romanus MS.

     Twrch Trwyth and his entourage make landfall near Porth Cleis—a small sheltered inlet close to St. David’s monastery—although some would argue that the nearby broad beaches of Whitesands Bay would have been a more likely landing spot, especially if the “boars” and their followers came ashore in a large armada of curraghs.

 

irish_curragh__4th_6th_centuryad_by_popius deviant art
One of his sons murdered by Arthur’s men, Twrch Trwyth, the “Boar King,” was filled with wrath and assembled an armada of war curraghs to have his revenge on the British. Image by Popian via Deviant Art.

It is at this point in the romance, as prehistorian Dewi Bowen observes, “where it gets interesting, because it gets very topographically detailed.”[3] Field archaeologist Bowen spent a number of years traversing the Welsh countryside inspecting the sites mentioned in the story and has concluded that the list is not random. Esteemed Welsh folklorist John Rhys had previously studied the places named at some length, although his interest was linguistic not archaeological.[4]  In contrast, field archaeologist Bowen has spent several years traversing the routes on foot and notes that most of the sites mentioned in the tale are also marked by ancient megalithic monuments. He concludes that the route is of very ancient date, perhaps as early as the Mesolithic Era.

     As Bowen reconstructs the origin of the trail, some time after the glacial ice sheets receded from the region, a primeval forest sprang up on what are now barren hills and dales, initially impenetrable to human beings. The first paths in this virgin wilderness were likely begun as animal trails cut by large mammals traversing dense forests, grazing and seeking springs or salt licks. The herds were followed by Mesolithic hunters in pursuit of big game, and the constant use made the sylvan paths wider and more distinct. Later, Neolithic farmers came, following these same woodland trails but now practicing slash and burn agriculture, which cleared large tracts and which in turn led to the creation of areas of open pasturage. Based on Bowen’s and others observations, the trails are certainly of pre-Roman and at the least date to the Early Bronze Age—probably far earlier.[5] However, this does not preclude their continued use well into the Post Roman—Brittonic—era in a region only lightly touched by Roman occupation.

     After pursuing the giant boar and his kinfolk across Wales, with heavy losses sustained on both sides, the campaign culminates in a bitter series of fights at the mouth of the Severn. Suffering losses, the Boar King crosses the sea to continue his rampage on the northern coast of Cornwall. After several more skirmishes which result in heavy loss of life and much carnage, and with the comb, scissors and razor finally seized from the boar, Twrch, all his children (or subordinate chieftains) killed in combat against the British, escapes by sea from Cornwall, never to be heard of or seen again. And God bless the Devil if that isn’t the absolute truth.

     Bowen, after many years investigating the places mentioned in the story, concluded that these locales were not mentioned arbitrarily, that they were all linked to sites which had megalithic monuments or stone circles, and which have celestial alignments. The story, he feels, is an encapsulation of ancient rituals which go back to the very dawn of human occupation in South Wales and that they also have a specific spatial relationship to sacred mountains and other holy sites in the region.[6] Rhys, in contrast, felt that the place-names were selected from a much broader range of locales in South Wales and more or less randomly cobbled together by the original redactor in order to explain the origins of the place names.[7] In either case, the Twrch Trwyth hunt, which is the central feature of Culhwch & Olwen, antedates the Medieval story by many centuries and was obviously adapted from far older traditions handed down orally.[8]

     The process of transformation of the original historical narrative into a fantastic hunting tale patterned after the archetypal The Wild Hunt is lost to us, having proceeded orally over a long period of time, but Cormac’s Glossary gives us some hint as to how a fifth century Irish king might have become confused with a monstrous mythic boar, for in it the Medieval Irish lexicographer defines triath as both “king” and “boar,” and this word is a cognate for the Welsh word trwyth.[9] In the same vein, it should be remembered that King Arthur himself was referred to as “The Boar of Cornwall” by the Welsh.[10] The boar’s innate ferociousness, his bravery in battle and his reputation for being notoriously difficult to kill, all recommended it as a metaphor for a victorious Celtic warlord or king. Similarly, Arthur’ epithet Pendragon, which identies him with the mythic Celtic dragon, was influenced by that creature’s fearsome reputation for laying waste to enemy lands by means of “scorched earth” tactics.

     If our hypothesis—that the mythic Twrch Trwyth stood for a real Irish sub-king who engaged in a revenge raid against the British during Arthur’s reign—does have merit, how then are we to interpret the narrative of it as encapsulated in the Mabinogion?  We must first recognize that the story as presented within Culhwch and Olwen has evolved orally over many centuries.  Consequently, it garnered a thick patina of magical and folkloric beliefs and practices which were extraneous to the original narrative. It has also been subjected to the whims of a writer (or writers) with literary aspirations. Some scenes may have been included for dramatic effect or rhetorical flourish. Moreover, at times, the story also exhibits a distinct taste for whimsy and even slapstick. Bromwich and Evans, as well as others, have noted a penchant for word-play in the texts. Moreover, even a non-linguist can recognize elements in the story which smack of the absurd: for example, Penpingion, one of the porters at Arthur’s court, “goes about on his head to spare his feet.”[11] The lengthy list of notables at Arthur’s court also goes on to an absurd length and includes the names of persons that smack of incongruity which a Medieval audience had to have known to be anachronistic.[12] At present, we cannot know how many of the places in Wales named in the hunt were included simply because they were part of the ancient route through the Welsh highlands, vesus than how many were the site of actual skirmishes between the enraged Irish buccaneer and his pursuers.

With these caveats in mind, we would reconstruct the Twrch Trwyth Campaign as follows: a piratical raid by one of Arthur’s subordinate fleet commanders against a local Irish chieftain in southeastern Hibernia is successful, garnering booty in the form of gold, slaves and a cauldron (symbolic of both royal authority and abundance) but also results in the death of one of the sub-king’s sons who was the target of the raid. From Patrick’s famed “Letter to Coroticus,” we know that such raids by Brittonic leaders against Irish chieftains on the other side of the Irish Sea did take place during the fifth century.[13]  Arthur’s border captain having incurred the wrath of this Scotti sea-lord, the Irish chief, wrathful as an enraged boar and equally as dangerous, musters a large and powerful army. While the boar-king’s main motive is revenge, he probably succeeds in recruiting a number of neighboring sub-kings eager for gold, glory and a good fight.

The punitive expedition’s first landfall is Mynyw, (Menevia) on the southwestern coast of Wales. Porth Cleis is the designated landing place, although as noted before, the broad sandy beaches nearby would have been more suitable to beach a large fleet of war-curraghs than the small inlet. Although the monastery of St. David’s was supposedly not established until sometime in the late sixth century, there was probably already some sort of Christian shrine established there and, in any case, seems to have been a traditional holy place dating back far into pagan times, it being one of the “Three Tribal Thrones” of Britain. We know that, previously, Menevia/St. David’s was selected as a landing place for Pascent’s army during his uprising against Ameradaur Ambrosius in AD 451.[14] There was also an Irish incursion, sometime in the sixth century, against the nearby stronghold of a certain Boia, a Visigothic garrison commander stationed there under Brittonic rule to keep an eye on the region, which was located only a mile from St. David’s monastery. During the Viking Age it was likewise a prime target for a number of Viking raids. While generally thought of as an isolated backwater of little value except to Medieval pilgrims visiting the shrine to St. David, in the second half of the first millennium it seems to have been a primary military and political target for Dark Age armies.

     From here, the account in Culhwch & Olwen traces the campaign overland across the ancient landscape of Wales, at times backtracking, as the map of locations based on the story shows. How many of these places were the sites of actual clashes between the Irish raiders and the Arthurian forces called out to defend their homes is problematical. No doubt some were the sites of skirmishes from the original early narrative, but we must also allow that the Medieval composer and his copyists included some places because they lay along the sacred way (as Bowen believes) and others whose etymologies fit in with the story’s plotline (as Rhys believed). Bowen is a field archaeologist who engages in observational, shovel-free archaeology; a dirt archaeologist willing to do follow-up sondages, combined with a closer look at local traditions regarding these battle-sites, might elucidate which of the places in the story were more likely to be part of the actual campaign than others. For example Clegyr Boia, mentioned above, has been revealed by excavations to have suffered burning and fire-damage, especially around its gates; while this is probably due to the mid-sixth Irish raid as related in the stories about Boia versus St. David, an earlier Arthurian period attack by Irish raiders can’t be ruled out. Other sites may yield similar indications of conflict.

 

map twrch_trwyth route in south wales
Map of the route of Twrch Trywth’s campaign in South Wales. The route follows ancient trails dotted with Megalithic monuments.

     It may be that the boorish Irish chieftain remembered as Twrch Trwyth engaged in a series of coastal raids rather than an extended overland campaign in the mountainous hinterland, where his army would have been exposed to continual attacks by local frontier forces (limitanei) mustered to defend hearth and home. That would limit the likely sites to those vulnerable to attack by sea along the southern coast of Wales, a much smaller number of places. We can be fairly confident, however, that the major engagement of the campaign occurred at the mouth of the Severn Estuary; in the story, the Boar of Ireland is cornered and falls into the Severn where a bitter struggle ensues with the pugnacious porc finally extricating himself and racing overland to Cornwall where the last battle occurs and, having lost the shears, comb and razor from his forehead, plunges into the sea and disappears from both legend and history.

     A more plausible scenario would be that the Irish invaders made a major landing somewhere up the Severn, were intercepted by Arthur’s main comitatenses field army (and navy) and that a series of bitter amphibious engagements were fought in and about the mouth of the River. The Boar of Ireland retreated by sea and attempted one more landing along the north coast of Cornwall but the Boar of Cornwall, in hot pursuit, beat him back with heavy losses, whereupon the Irish warlord, his army battered and much reduced in size, and having lost whatever booty acquired in the previous engagements of the campaign, retreated back across the Irish Sea, never again to challenge the might of Arthur and the Brittonic state.

     When did this campaign take place? One would hope that the Irish leaders mentioned in Culhwch & Olwen would be of help in narrowing down the time-frame of the campaign, since Irish records are somewhat more reliable than British for this period. We have, for example, the names of the Irish king’s son, Odgar and his royal steward, the sub-king Diwrnach Wyddel. Insofar as Odgar is concerned, one scholar thought it a name borrowed from the French rather than the Irish, but Bromwich cited Welsh reference to individuals with similar names which are Celtic. The steward and keeper of the cauldron, Diwrnach “the Irishman,” has a name similar to the British giant who was also owner to a magic cauldron, one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. In both cases, however, scholars have been unable to correlate them with known historical figures.[15] In the case of King Aed, their overlord, the problem is not lack of any known historic individual by that name, but a superabundance of them. There were several individuals with the same or similar name during the fifth and sixth century; some were indeed rulers, others abbots or “saints.”—who in the Dark Ages often exercised political and military authority—but they were not only Irish, but also Brittonic and even Dalriada Scot.  Aed (or Aedd) was a popular name in the Dark Ages, as was its diminutive, Aedan.[16]

     Therefore, trying to define the time-frame within which the campaign occurred based on known historical figures is problematical. In the story itself, it is implied to have taken place after Arthur’s major wars were over and the Saxons vanquished. Yet such a major invasion of Britain as this would more likely have occurred before the onset of the Pax Artorius, when the Brittonic Overking was still struggling to defeat his barbarian enemies on all sides: Saxon, Pict and Hibernian. Moreover, we cannot eliminate the possibility that this narrative, in its original form, may have taken place after the passing of Arthur and the unified Brittonic state, when the western marches had once more become vulnerable to raids and counter-raids. It is thus possible that the sheer magnitude of the campaign caused it to be appended by later bards to the exploits of the great Arthur, just as other persons and incidents later in date were.

     Such is the general outline of the Twrch Trwyth Campaign as we reconstruct it. Further field research in the vicinity of the probable battle sites in south Wales might yield corroborative evidence, as well as clarify the chronology of the story, although trying to correlate archaeological evidence with the literary narrative as related in the Mabinogion will always be circumstantial rather than definitive in nature.

One thing seems clear from the evidence, even through the shrouded mists of time; Arthur and his armies and war-fleets were indeed victorious. Based on our analysis of the historical truth buried beneath the literary fiction, however,we are safe in concluding that Arthur’s success in the Twrch Trwyth Campaign was ultimately a Pyrrhic Victory.

 

age of arthur battle by behnkestudio-d5nerlo jason behnke artist
Arthur’s warriors battle the Irish “Boar-King” and his fianna. (via Deviant Art) 

For another, interactive, map of the Twrch Trwyth Campaign in south Wales see: http://www.aattt.org.uk/map_a.php?lang=1


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien; quote by Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings.

[2] See the discussion of the boar in Arthurian Literature by Kara L. McShane, “Boar”, The Camelot Project https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/creator/kara-l-mcshane.

[3] Dewi Bowen, “The Wild Boar/Twrch Trwyth” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avE9KYiqm7c&feature=share.

[4] John Rhys, Celtic Folklore, Vol. II, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), 509-53.

[5] Dewi Bowen, “Possible Solar Alignments in South Wales,” Time and Mind, Vol.9, No.3 (2016), 267.

[6] Bowen, Solar Alignments, 267-272; also see Dewi Bowen, Ancient Siluria: Its Stones and Ceremonial Sites, (Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset: Llanarch Press, 1992).

[7]Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 522.

[8] Rhys cites a reference to the Hunt of Twrch Trwyth in “The Gorchan Cynfelyn,” an obscure poem in the Book of Aneurin (a 13th cent MS, but the poem itself probably dates to the 7th century), and, more importantly, a “miracle” related to the story in the Mirabilia of Nennius’ Historia Brittonum cap.73 (8th century), see Celtic Folklore, 537-538.

[9] John O’Donovan, Translator; Whitley Stokes, Ed., Cormac’s Glossary, (Sanas Chormaic) (Calcutta: Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, 1868), 156.

[10] “For the Boar of Cornwall shall bring succour and shall trample their necks beneath his feet,” Geoffrey of Monmouth, “Prophetia Merlini,” Historia Regum Britanniae, VII.3. Scholars are generally agreed that the passage referencing the Boar of Cornwall refers to Arthur, whether or not they believe in his existence.

[11] Lady Charlotte Guest, The Mabinogion (    ), 220; Rachel Bromwich & D. S. Evans (Eds.) Culhwch and Olwen : an Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, (Cardiff: Univ of Wales Press, 1992), line 86, n.1121. For a more recent translation, see Will Parker, Culhwch and Olwen, http://www.culhwch.info/index.html.

[12]  Morris Collins, “Farce and Satire in the Court List” The Arthurian Court List in Culhwch and Olwen, The Camelot Project, 2004, https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/collins-arthurian-court-list-in-culhwch-and-olwen

[13] Cf. R. P. C. Hanson, [tr.], “English translation of the Confession and the Letter to Coroticus of Saint Patrick”, Nottingham Medieval Studies 15 (1971): 3–26

[14] See the discussion of Pascent’s Rebellion in Chapter VIII, “The Pendragon Navy,” and also the Appendix, “Brittonic Ports & Harbors” of Britain’s Best Bulwark, Brittonic Sea-power in the Age of Arthur (forthcoming).

[15] See Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, notes l.635- l.636, 127-128.

[16] Bromwich and Evans, Culhwch & Olwen, ibid. Lewis Morris and, more recently, P. C. Bartram, enumerated several sovereigns named Aed, Aedd or Aeddan:  Lewis Morris, Celtic Remains, (London: Cambrian Archaeological Assn, 1878), 8; Peter Clement Bartram, A Welsh Classical Dictionary, People in History and Legend up to about AD 1000, (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 1993, rev. 2009), 1-3. Maeddog(g) (Maidoc) is yet another variant of the same name; a disciple of St. David’s by that name allegedly arbitrated a dispute between St. Cadog and Arthur; while the legend is probably anachronistic, it does connect Maedog with Menevia; another Maeddog is alleged to have been a “brother” of Arthur’s: cf. Bartram ibid, 496-98.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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British Sea-Power in the Age of Arthur

Naval Warfare fromRomanus Virgilius Folio 77r
Naval battle as portrayed in the 5th century Virgilis Romanus MS. It portrays a classical sea battle, but the illustration dates to the time of Post Roman British sea-power.

The Brittonic Period–the fifth and early sixth centuries of Britain–was a pivotal period in British history and as such it remains the subject of much contentious debate. There is still no academic agreement as to the chronology or even the precise sequence of events for the Brittonic era.[1] 

Nevertheless, in recent decades a certain degree of consensus has slowly emerged among scholars that the cessation of direct Roman political control over the British Isles did not automatically spell the collapse of civilized life in the former diocese of Britannia; some manner of organized Romano-British polity continued on after the cessation of Imperial control.[2]  While virtually all texts bearing on the period remain problematical and intensely debated, the archaeology of the era has begun to tilt more in the favor of continuity than  discontinuity in fifth century Britain.[3]

Many scholars have begun to question the whole ideology of the “Anglo-Saxon Invasion.” instead arguing for a more complex process of military recruitment, trade and immigration, which only in later stages devolved into outright conflict.[4] A few academics have even tried to make the case that southeastern Britain had already been German-speaking well before the arrival of the Romans, although this hypothesis remains an outlier.[5] Whatever model one may choose to reconstruct the events of fifth and early sixth century Britain, however, one important aspect of the era remains virtually ignored: Brittonic sea power and its relationship to the military and political events of the era.  Despite the voluminous secondary literature relating to the Brittonic Period–the storied Age of Arthur–almost no one has discussed naval aspects of Post-Roman Britain.[6]  If discussed at all, it has generally been within the context of an assumed Saxon naval dominance of Britain and its surrounding seas during the whole of the fifth and sixth centuries.

Celtic Sailing Vessel based on Guernsey Ship, artist's reconstruction, Guernsey Museum
Both Celtic and Saxon style vessels may have been employed by British fleets in the Age of Arthur. Artist’s reconstruction of the Guernsey Ship

While no one questions the military importance of Saxon, Irish and Pictish sea power during this period, when it comes to the native British and their seafaring capabilities, a curious myopia affects English historiography.

It could be argued that, like the question of Arthur’s historical existence, there is no direct evidence for British seafaring for this period, much less of a Brittonic navy or fleet. To a certain extent this is a specious argument, for actual written documents relating to Britain contemporaneous to the fifth century are nearly non-existent. The written evidence that does survive consist of:  inscribed stones, mostly grave markers; a copy of the Aeneid believed to have originated from a British scriptorium of the period; plus later copies of material ascribed to St. Patrick’s authorship.[7]  There are odds and ends of material from continental sources dating to the fifth and sixth centuries relating to events in Britain, but after the defeat of the British usurper Constantine III, Latin and Greek writers of the Roman Empire were little concerned with events in the former Roman diocese. Almost all other information we possess exist either as transcriptions of the oral tradition or much copied (and thus corrupted) texts dating to the periods following it. These later texts are subject to their own set of problems of accuracy or credibility. Yet the situation for Scotti, Picti and Saxons sources is the same or worse for this period: all these cultures were pre- or proto-literate and one must rely on transcribed oral traditions or later texts for evidence relating to their history as well.  Yet in all these cases, no one questions their seafaring prowess or the naval influence they wielded during this era.

lead ingots from plumanoch wreck
:Lead ingots with Celtic inscriptions recovered from the Plumanoch wreck, ca 5th cent AD

Despite this, we do have some evidence for the existence of Brittonic naval capabilities, albeit much of it indirect. During the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Britain acquired an odious reputation for being “fertile in tyrants.” These Late Roman usurpers of necessity had to make use of sea power to transport their armies unopposed onto the European continent. Control of the sea was thus a sine qua non for any British usurper attempting to seize the Imperial throne. The last such “tyrant” was Constantine III, who began his bid for power beginning in 405. Constantine nearly succeeded in his attempt, but he finally came to an ill end and by 514 the last vestiges of his attempt were erased.[8]

While details of the makeup of the usurper fleets is unknown, we do know that the rank and file of the sailors would have consisted of indigenous seafarers, even if the officers commanding them might have been ethnic Romans. From later British tradition, we know that these Roman usurpers were often viewed as British by the native population of Britannia.[9]  After Constantine III’s fall, continental sources fall silent about Britain. There is no evidence that the diocese of Britannia was ever re-occupied, while there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to indicate that, after Constantine, the Western Empire had but nominal control of most of Gaul and Hispania and, therefore, for the rest of the century a military conquest and reoccupation of Britannia was simply beyond the capabilities of the Empire.[10]  Whatever transpired in Britannia after Constantine would have happened under a native polity independent from Ravenna.

Brittonic Sailors with watchtower in background
Brittonic sailors wore “Venetian Blue” uniforms and their ships were clad in the same color, which blended with sea and sky as an early form of naval camouflage.

On the positive side, we do have direct evidence for the existence of British naval capabilities for the post Roman period.  The late Roman writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus included a section on naval affairs in his treatise on the Roman military.  The naval section of his treatise De Re Militari has rarely been translated, which may account for so few scholars being aware of his mention of British naval forces.  The passage is tantalizingly short, but it seems to reflect contemporary Brittonic affairs–not looking back to a previous era, as so much of Vegetius’ treatise does. While scholars debate the precise date of the tome, the best estimates places it in the reign of Valentinian III; a date between 435 and 450 would therefore not be unreasonable.[11]

Despite the paucity of contemporary evidence, there are a few Classical sources which bear indirectly on the subject and to late Roman naval affairs in general.  There also exists a large body of traditional accounts which relate to Brittonic Period seafaring and naval activities as well.  As with all traditional and folkloric material, these sources must be treated with caution; nevertheless, given the conservative nature of such folk traditions, much legitimate information may be gleaned from them.  Lastly, there is a growing body of archaeological and anthropological evidence which bears on the subject and which needs to be properly analyzed and interpreted freed from an anti-Brittonic bias which besets much of English historiography.

Although Saxon naval abilities and capabilities are important for the history of the Brittonic Period, they constitute only a part of the overall subject. Rather than view north German sea-power as a discreet topic isolated from the discussion of Brittonic maritime affairs, a better approach would be to see them as but an element in the larger context of general Brittonic (or British) maritime affairs.

Even after the Saxon revolt, the best archaeological evidence indicates that the native British polity remained intact and up until the mid sixth century, was still the dominant ethnic and military factor in the region. Consequentially, its naval capabilities would have also remained largely intact and substantial.  In putting the admittedly fragmentary evidence together for this era, rather than assuming the indigenous folk of Britain as inherently weak and incapable of self-defense, they should be viewed as active players in the history of their island and, despite the many challenges they faced, as generally successful in their response to these challenges, at least until at least the mid-sixth century.

Reconstruction sketch of Blackfriars 1
Blackfriars 1 ship based on archaeological finds.

Throughout history the native folk of Britain and adjacent isles were renowned as seafarers. Unless there is actual evidence to the contrary, one should also posit them as skilled at naval warfare, eminently capable of both offense and defense at sea and they were certainly no less capable during this initial era of British independence as they were in later, better documented, periods.

In support of this thesis, we may look to one major aspect of Brittonic sea-power that has been overlooked or ignored by historians.  This is the fact of British expansion overseas during this period. It is well known that the Celtic British of Post Roman Britain established colonies in northern Hispania and northwestern Gaul during this era. Moreover, one British ruler participated in at least one major military intervention into Roman Gaul during the fifth century.[12]  Such colonial expansion and military intervention required maritime capabilities and naval power of some considerable strength to carry out.  Even if details of these fifth and sixth century continental activities remain poorly documented, the mere fact of their existence constitutes proof of Brittonic naval sea-power for the period in question.

While much new research is needed and a reassessment of old archaeological and written evidence is called for, even given the current state of knowledge, the role of sea-power in the history of Post-Roman Britain–and Brittonic sea-power–should be regarded as a basic fact, not theory.

Ancient harbor showing a variety of late Roman sailing vessels
Ancient harbor scene showing different types of late Roman vessels.

The task for the future, therefore, is to create a synthesis of the diverse material relating to the fact of British sea-power in the fifth and sixth centuries and present it to the relevant readership. 

Such a narrative may be disputed in its details, or its conclusions criticized, but ultimately it is preferable to make the attempt rather than continuing to allow so large a lacuna continue to exist in the study of the Brittonic era.[13]

[1] The term Brittonic was first used by Chris Snyder to describe the distinct period following the Roman era but before Saxon ascendancy, when the native Britons and their culture flourished.  This phrase is used in preference to the pejorative “sub” Roman label, or to use the now contentious phrase “Age of Arthur,” which has been much disputed and made anathema to the Minimalist school of English historiography by Professor Dumville since the 1970’s.
[2] See Kenneth Dark, “Centuries of Roman survival in the West” British Archaeology, Issue no 32, March 1998, and Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity, 300-800 (Studies in the Early History of Britain) (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1994); Martin Henig, “Roman Britons after 410″ British Archaeology, Issue 68, December 2002.
[3] Christopher Snyder “Sub-Roman Britain an Introduction” Vortigern Studies (1997)
[4] See, for example, Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon archaeology” in N. J. Higham, Ed., Woodbridge Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge : Boydell Press, 2007) ; Also see Francis Pryor, “The Invasion That Never Was,” Episode 3, Britain AD: (BBC Channel 4, 2004); print edition: Francis Pryor, Britain AD, (NY: Harper Perennial; 2005).
[5] Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story, (London: Constable, 2006)
[6] The number of studies which consider Dark Age Celtic naval developments can be counted on one hand (assuming that hand has been subjected to multiple amputations).  See, for example, Bernard S Bachrach, “The Questions of King Arthur’s Existence and of Romano- British Naval Operations” The Haskins Journal 2, 13-28. Although concerned with Germanic naval developments, John Haywood, Dark Age Naval Power: Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring Activity (London: Routledge, 1991) is also relevant. Geoffrey Ashe, Land to the West (NY: Viking, 1962) while mainly concerned with St. Brendan, disambiguated all the early Classical and Celtic references to seafaring in the western seas, and therefore is of value too.   Count Tolstoy, a brilliant non-academic historian, in a wide ranging essay trying to establish a valid chronology for the period, based on the unreliable homily by Gildas, also mentions in passing Arthurian sea-power: see Nikolai Tolstoy, “Early British History and Chronology” Transactions of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorians, 1964, pg. 308. There is, admittedly, a voluminous literature on Saxon seafaring and ships, which discuss a number of issues related to the Brittonic Navy, but which are outside the purview of this present short essay.
[7] Robert Vermaat, “The Vergilius Romanus: the first British book? Vergil MS Vat. lat. 3867= Romanus” Vortigern Studies; David H. Wright, The Roman Vergil and the Origins of Medieval Book Design. (Toronto, Univ. of Toronto Press 2001); St. Patrick, “A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus” AncientTexts.org; Mark Redknap, John M. Lewis and Nancy Edwards Eds., A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculptures in Wales (Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 2007-2013) (three volumes).
[8] Michael Kulikowsky, “Barbarians in Gaul, Usurpers in Britain” Britannia, vol. 31 (2000), 325-345.
[9] See, for example, “The Dream of Maxen Wledig,” The Mabinogion, (Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Eds.) (NY: Everyman’s, 1949).
[10] Eric Morse, “Decade of Darkness; the Collapse of the Roman Army in the West” (AD 395-405) Royal Canadian Military Institute Lecture (Toronto, Dec. 23, 2014).
[11] Paul D. Emanuele, Vegetius and the Roman Navy, MA Thesis, (Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia, 1974), 28;  Nikolas Boris Rankov, in 2002, in the Proceedings of the XVIIIth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, attempted to dismiss the notion of British naval vessels, but Emanuele had already foreseen these arguments in 1974 and successfully countered them in his thesis.
[12] For Britonia, see: Simon Young, “Britonia, The Forgotten Colony” History Today, Vol. 50 Issue 10 (Oct. 2000); Antonio Garcia y Garci­a, Historia de Bretona (Lugo: Edita Servivio /Publicacions Deputacion Provincial, 1999). For Brittany, see: Joseph Loth, Emigration Bretonne en Armorique du Ve au VIIe siecle de notre ere (Paris: Picard, 1883); Leon Fleuriot, Les origines de la Bretagne, (Payot, 1980); John Morris The Age of Arthur, Chapter 14, 249-260. On Riothamus and his campaigns in Gaul, see Geoffrey Ashe The Discovery of King Arthur, (London: Guild, 1985), 53-56; Morris, Age of Arthur, ibid; Dane Pestano, “Riothamus and the Visigoths” Dark Age History blog, August 21 2011.
[13] See Christopher K. Coleman, Britain’s Best Bulwark; Celtic British Naval Power in the Brittonic Era (forthcoming).

WAS LINDISFARNE A BRITTONIC NAVAL BASE IN THE AGE OF ARTHUR?

 

Lindisfarne-0198
Lindisfarne Castle, while only dating to the seventeenth century, overlies older Saxon and perhaps even Brittonic fortifications.

The “Holy Island” of Lindisfarne off the coast of northeastern England is notable for the great monastery established there in the early 7th century, as well as for its most famous expression of Medieval religious art, The Lindisfarne Gospel.[1]  Lindisfarne is also notable for suffering the first recorded Viking attack in 793 A.D., which was preceded, not surprisingly, by the sighting of ferocious dragons in the sky.[2] 

Vikings attack Lindisfarne
A Popular view of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. via Wikimedia

 

Lindisfarne is not recognized by most modern scholars as having had any military associations tied to its early history, much less naval ones.  However, renewed archaeological interest in Lindisfarne’s early period, coupled with observations made a few years back by Professor Howard Williams, brings to mind some interesting possibilities, which in turn lead us to a suggest a new hypothesis regarding the island’s early history.  Whether this hypothesis will eventually be proven valid or not remains to be seen.

The earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation on Lindisfarne dates to the Late Neolithic era, consisting of a lone stone found out of context with cup-marks on it.  At that period the coastline around Lindisfarne would likely have been far different than from today and, in fact, may not have been an island at all.  Today the “Holy Isle” is a tidal island which can be accessed by land when the tide is out.  Lindisfarne’s relation to sea and shore has doubtless changed several times over the intervening millennia.  Of greater importance for our present concern is Lindisfarne’s geographic proximity to Bamburgh Castle, the royal capital of an Anglian dynasty during the Late Brittonic (or Early Saxon) Period. Lindisfarne was within eyesight of Bamburgh and the relationship between the Northern Anglian dynasty’s royal seat and the island was clearly one of long standing, both religiously and politically.

Bamburgh Castle from beadh Wikimedia 2006
Bamburgh Castle viewed from the beach is within direct eyesight of Lindisfarne. Before becoming an Anglian stronghold, it would have been under Brittonic control.

 

Throughout most of its history, Lindisfarne has been seen in the context of it as a holy place and monastic center.  But there is evidence that it has served a far more secular role in the past as well.  In 2001, the Time Team conducted brief three-day investigation of Lindisfarne, concentrating on sites referred to as “the Priory” and “the Palace.”  Most of their finds from this short survey were of post-Medieval date, but what they discovered was relevant to our present line of inquiry.  The “Palace,” it turns out, was a tavern with an adjacent brew-house and in all likelihood was part of a 16th century naval station.  Similarly, the “Priory” was probably a naval barracks, where definite evidence was found for it having been used to house military supplies, including solid shot for cannon.  The Time Team also uncovered evidence of an earthwork near The Priory, as well as a lost angular bulwark.  A nearby field, today dry land, would have been a tidal basin at that time and was probably a part of the sixteenth century naval station.  All in all, while the Time Team did find assorted Medieval finds (mostly shards of pottery) they determined that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at least, Lindisfarne was “the Portsmouth of the North.[3]

The geographic location of Lindisfarne in far northeastern England made it ideally suited as a place from which Elizabethan fleets might sail out to defend against incursions from both Scotland or from across the North Sea, or indict enemies sailing north from the English Channel; its strategic location would have made it equally useful as a naval base in earlier eras as well.  This fundamental geographic reality of Lindisfarne has not escaped the attention of other scholars, despite the dearth of written sources on the subject.  Professor Williams, in his essay, “Lindisfarne’s Landscape and Seascape,” points out that Lindisfarne’s natural harbor on the south shore, coupled with its proximity to the Angle fortress of Bamburgh, would have made it a “key maritime central place” in the seventh and eighth centuries.[4]

Lindisfarne Castle, while looking suitably Medieval to the modern eye, in fact only dates to the seventeenth century, but the castle is located on a large outcropping of rock with clear visibility for miles around and may well have had a genuine military installation atop it in ages past, now covered over or erased by later construction.

These inferences regarding Lindisfarne’s early military and naval importance, throw the infamous Viking attack on the “Holy Island” in an entirely new light.  To be sure, the pious monks with their silver and gold would have been easy targets for the wolves of the sea; but what if the Viking raid had a sound military purpose as well?  A swift, sudden attack on the main Saxon naval base of the north, putting their northern fleet to the torch while it sat at anchor helpless and unmanned, would in one bold blow have shattered Anglo-Saxon maritime defenses and exposed the entire eastern coast of England open to numerous smaller plunder raids.

Without the northern fleet to ward off even these lesser blows, larger Viking raids were inevitable.  The Danes, it should be remembered, invaded Britain from the northeast, of which the attack on Lindisfarne was the opening gambit.  For English chroniclers, steeped in the ethos of a warrior culture, it would have been far less humiliating to record the butchery of pious unarmed monks at the monastery and conveniently omit from their chronicle the fact that the pride of the Saxon navy had been caught unawares and butchered at anchor with sails furled.

Although the Viking raid in 793 may be the first detailed mention of Lindisfarne, we know that it was a thriving place long before that and that there may yet be archaeological evidence of it having had a military function long before the Viking Age.  A new archaeological investigation of Lindisfarne is currently being undertaken, and while only preliminary results are available, the Dig Ventures expedition has already uncovered some interesting finds.  The new expedition is specifically tasked with looking for “Early Medieval” finds, presumably those associated with the monastery established there by St. Aidan in 635.  Among the sites being investigated was a structure called the “Holy Island Heugh” where their first season uncovered the foundation of a massive 25m. wide wall.  The Heugh is a rocky spine of high ground which seemed to protect the monastery from storms coming out of the North Sea; Lindisfarne Castle is built along another such outcropping to the east.[5]  Among some of the small finds from the first season were numerous indicators of early maritime activity, although none specifically naval.[6]

Brian Hope-Taylor in 1962 had determined that the Heugh was scattered with buildings of an early date, so it was a logical site for the present-day excavators to investigate.  Opening a trench on the Heugh, the Dig Ventures team uncovered the massive 25 meter wall; its lack of mortar suggests to them a pre-Norman date, while its size and structure point to it being a tower.  Such a massive construction argues strongly for it being more than simply a “signal tower” and likely served a military purpose.[7]

The military installation on the Lindisfarne Heugh (if such it was) is thought to be of early Saxon date which, if proven true, strongly supports Professor Williams theory regarding Lindisfarne being a Bernician and then a Northumbrian naval base.  But Lindisfarne’s strategic value surely was not only appreciated by the Anglian kings of Benicia; before the area fell under their rule Lindisfarne would have been an important port in the Brittonic Period—an era popularly associated with the Arthurian post-Roman state.  Is there any evidence which can point to a pre-Saxon phase at Lindisfarne and nearby Bamburgh?

Towards the end of the sixth century, a war broke out between the newly established Kingdom of Bernicia, ruled by Theodoric, versus a coalition of Celtic British kings (and a few Irish as well) led by the famous (or infamous) Urien of Rheged.  Bamburgh was taken by a force of the Dalriada Scots, while British armies overran the rest of the upstart Saxon kingdom.  Overwhelmed by superior forces, Theodoric retreated to Ynys Metcaut—the Celtic British name for Lindisfarne.  Although, as with most events of the Brittonic Period, dating is fluid for this campaign the best estimate puts it sometime around AD 590.[8]

The Anglian dynasty of Bernicia would surely have fallen had not Urien been assassinated at the instigation of one of his own sub-kings.  As it was, the siege (or blockade, depending on the translation) of Ynys Metcaut lasted three days and three nights.  Nennius’ text is a bit obscure in this passage and it is not entirely certain whether the siege/blockade of Lindisfarne was raised due to Urien’s death or whether he was perhaps murdered later because of his failure to take the island citadel. In any case, it is clear from the passage that Ynys Metcaut was a military stronghold of some sort and the possibility that there was naval component to the siege is at least implied; whether Urien’s siege was raised by the timely arrival of a Saxon fleet is purely speculative but not unreasonable given the island’s history and geography.

Two ships at sea from Arthurian MS in British Library
Medieval Arthurian MS showing two sailing vessels at sea.

 

All this occurred in the late sixth century, after the unified Brittonic state of the fifth century had disintegrated into separate successor realms governed by competing Celtic warlords, with each seeking hegemony—both over each other and over the Saxon realms that also arose in this era.

Going farther back into the past of this region, when a Celtic Overking or Ameradaur still held sway over most of what had been the Roman diocese of Britannia, it is generally acknowledged that the first Germanic settlers did not come as conquerors, but had been settled as foederati under Octha, military auxiliaries recruited by the British Overking to defend the area against both Picts and less friendly Saxons who might come raiding across the North Sea. They initially replaced Cunedda’s warband of the southern Votadini, who had been dispatched to Wales to deal with the Irish threat there.  While the exact date of the settlement of the first Germanic federates is, again, a moot point, a date in the early to mid fifth century is not unreasonable.

Late Roman early Brittonic warriors & sailors
Late Roman/Early Brittonic Warriors and Sailors, such as might have garrisoned Dinas Guayardi and Ynys Metcaut in the fifth century.

 

It was not until the mid to late sixth century that Ida is believed to have moved north from the Anglian colony of Deira (the Celtic Deywr) and established, probably by force, his headquarters at the former Brittonic stronghold of Din (or Dinas) Guayardi—Bamburgh.[9]  Din Guayardi could well have begun as a Roman signal station in the fourth century or earlier; as a rocky outcropping which guarded the mouth of a river, it also made a natural location for a later Brittonic citadel.  It is believed to have been the capitol of the Brittonic kingdom of Bryneich from the late fifth into the mid sixth century, up until Ida’s revolt. If Lindisfarne was not already a naval base before Ida’s arrival, it would certainly have been so after.

Celtic Sailing Vessel based on Guernsey Ship, artist's reconstruction, Guernsey Museum
Artist’s reconstruction of the Guernsey Ship, a sailing vessel of Celtic style construction.

While the early history of Lindisfarne remains but dimly understood, the geography and topography of Lindisfarne, Ynys Metcaut, would not have changed radically between the late fifth and early seventh centuries, nor would the island’s strategic relationship to northern Britain have changed during that time.  The first garrison could have been Celtic British, superseded by a Saxon garrison in the employ of a local Romano-Celtic polity before Ida’s outright break with his Celtic neighbors.  In any case, the use of Lindisfarne as a naval base would have been the logical outcome of its location under both Brittonic and Anglian rule.

At the present time, despite its fame, its long history and successive archaeological surveys, the systematic investigation of Lindisfarne is just beginning.  Moreover, to date little or no underwater archaeology has been conducted around the island to supplement investigations on land.   While current investigations are concerned with the early Saxon period (largely with seventh century remains), which are scarce enough, one would hope excavators would keep their eyes—and minds—open for earlier Brittonic occupation levels.

We know the Brittonic period favored wooden architecture over stone, so the evidence in the ground may consist of little more than discolorations in the soil where post-holes once lay; it may also be that the post-Roman Brittonic occupation levels were scraped clean by successive construction and reconstruction on the island and that such evidence is absent entirely.  Still, excavators should be made aware of the possibility of their existence, as the subtle testimony of the soil can be easily overlooked or ignored, as it has been on many other sites in the past.

If it is proven that Lindisfarne possessed an early Saxon era naval installation, it inevitably follows that Lindisfarne would have served a similar role in the preceding era.  Reinvestigation of previous sites thought to have had no post-Roman occupation are more and more showing evidence of continuity from the Roman period onward; the whole concept of an “Anglo-Saxon Invasion” has been called into question by a growing number of scholars.[10]  Future careful investigations of the “Holy Island” may yet reveal that Lindisfarne had an as yet undocumented Brittonic Era presence and verify its use as a Dark Age naval base.

 

[1] Janet Backhouse, The Lindisfarne Gospels, (Oxford: Phaidon, 1981).

[2] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 793:

[3] “Holy Island, Lindisfarne” Time Team, S08, Ep09 (2001): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v4E8zUWA1A

[4] Howard Williams, “Lindisfarne’s Landscape and Seascape,” Archaeodeath Blog, July 10, 2014: https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/lindisfarne/comment-page-1/

[5] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “Tools Down” June 27, 2016: https://digventures.com/lindisfarne/timeline/diary/site-diary-tools-down/

[6] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “A Whale’s Tale” June 18th 2016: https://digventures.com/lindisfarne/timeline/diary/4339/

[7] “Archaeologist’s Find St. Cuthbert’s Tower” Berwick Advertiser, July 12, 2016: http://www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk/news/archaeologists-find-st-cuthbert-s-tower-1-4175447

[8] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, cap.63; the syntax of this passage is somewhat garbled; the way it is phrased makes it uncertain as to whether the Bernician King in question was Theodoric or Hussa. For the war and Urien in general, see John Morris, The Age of Arthur, (NY: Scribers, 1973), 232-237; also see Peter Marren, Battles of the Dark Ages, (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 1988), 60-61.

[9] Anglos-Saxon Chronicle, AD 547. All early dates in the ASC were assigned by later editors and for the fifth and sixth centuries are highly suspect.  For a discussion of the etymology of the place name Lindisfarne and the origin of the Saxon  presence in Bernicia, see Caitlin GreenLindisfarne, the Lindisfaran and the Origins of Anglos Saxon Northumbria” Britons and Anglos-Saxons, Lincolnshire AD 400-650 (Lincoln: History of Lincolnshire Committee, 2012), Chap. 6 235-265.  At least one scholar would put Ida’s revolt against his British overlords at 575; see Donald Henson, “The Early Kings of Bernicia” Academia.Edu (2008):

[10] Dr. Francis Pryor, in his Britain AD (BBC TV Channel 4, 2004), described it as “The Invasion That Never Was,” while other scholars, though more circumspect, also emphasize British continuity over discontinuity.  See, for example Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology” in Nicholas Higham, Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, (Woodbridge, Boydell, 2007) Chapter 3, 27-41; Christopher A. Snyder, “A Gazetteer of Sub-Roman Britain (AD 400-600): The British sites.” Internet Archaeology, (3). (Council for British Archaeology, 1997).

Germanus & St. Collen. The Beginnings of Independent Britain Part II

 

Germanus leads the British troops to victory by reciting scripture. Over a month of training and reinforcements from elsewhere in Britain also helped.
Germanus leads the British troops to victory by reciting scripture. Over a month of training and reinforcements from elsewhere in Britain also helped.

Germanus and the Beginnings of Independent Britain II: Germanus and St. Collen

In the previous essay on Germanus of Auxerre, we asserted the basic historicity of Constantius’ hagiography of the famous Gaulish bishop and while wishing the biographer had been more detailed when it came to his account of the bishop’s sojourn in Britain, I think there is now a general consensus that, as inconvenient as it is for some versions of modern historian’s reconstruction of fifth century British history, his visit in AD 428/429 is fundamentally historical.

Dinas Bran, with the Dee flowing below (1798) by J M W Turner. This was the citadel of Comes Brennius who was likely the commander of the Romano-Britons along the western borders in the early fifth century. It was also the site of the Alleluia Victory in 429 AD.
Dinas Bran, with the Dee flowing below (1798) by J M W Turner. This was the citadel of Comes Brennius who was likely the commander of the Romano-Britons along the western borders in the early fifth century. It was also the site of the Alleluia Victory in 429 AD.

I would, however, question Constantius’ basic premise that Germanus’ visit to the British Isles was solely a pastoral visit, to correct what he asserts were heretical beliefs in the British Church.  That may well have been the official cover story at the time, but we should remember that large numbers of former Roman Army officers became clergymen during the fifth century—or at least were later remembered as such.  Moreover, on the continent we have a number of documented cases where the local bishops and other clerics concerned themselves with political and military affairs, organizing and leading the resistance to barbarians, while what passed for Imperial officialdom at that time either fled, cowered in their beds or made common cause with the invaders.  It was a time when the best and the brightest in the Roman Army and government were joining the Catholic Church.  Unspoken in this movement was, perhaps, the utter disgust on the part of many civic minded Romans with the Imperial government in the West.

So, when the former Dux Tractus Armoricani et Nervicani, who would have had the equivalent command in Gaul as the Comes Litus Saxonum in Britain, came to visit Britannia, we may question how much of his tour of the realm was pastoral and how much military-political.

A view of the vale of Llangollan from the commanding heights of Dinas Bran
A view of the vale of Llangollan from the commanding heights of Dinas Bran

Another issue, touched on previously, was exactly where Germanus obtained an army to defeat the barbarian armies rampaging unchecked on the west coast.  Certainly Germanus would have tried to scrape together whatever remnants were left after their previous commander, Comes Brennius/Bran, lost his head in a punitive expedition to Ireland.  However, in analyzing the locale where the battle allegedly occurred, I find there is also a hint as to where Germanus may have obtained further reinforcements.

Llangollan is a quaint village located at a strategic crossing of the River Dee, just below a strategic pass, with an imposing fort overlooking the entire vale.  It’s doubtful that it was all that much different in the fifth century.  As is the custom in Welsh, when one combines words to form a toponym, a consonant or syllable will be modified to create the amalgamated word.  Thus Llangollan is derived from two words: Lllan + Collen.  Llan is a common toponym indicating the location of a church or abbey; St. Collen is an obscure Welsh saint very poorly represented even in the Celtic areas of Britain and about whom only a few Dark Age myths are told.  These myths, however, provide hints as to who the alleged saint really may have been.

The "Green Bishop" of St. Collen Church, Llangollan, which is about as realistic a portrait as the stories about him.
The “Green Bishop” of St. Collen Church, Llangollan, which is about as realistic a portrait as the stories about him.

Ostensibly, St. Collen settled in the vicinity of Llangollen some time in the early sixth century or early seventh century (chronology is very fluid when it comes to Dark Age saints).  In a future entry I will go into more detail regarding a similar Dark Age “saint” named Padarn, aka Paternus, who, it turns out, was in fact really a Roman or Post-Roman military commander.  I propose that the real St. Collen was similarly a Roman or Post-Roman officer active in the first half of the fifth century.

According to the often confusing and sometimes bizarre hagiographies, St. Collen had connections with Orleans in Gaul and Langolen in Brittany; he was apparently a soldier at some point, since he ostensibly fought in single combat at the behest of the Pope against a barbarian king, whose tribe converted to Christianity after being defeated by Collen.  Collen returned to Britain and then at one point was living—or posted as an officer—at Glastonbury Tor, where he had a supernatural encounter with the lord of the underworld.  Later, when he sought to become a hermit at Llangollen, he again had to fight a “giant.”  Apparently this peace-loving saint engaged in quite a few military contests in his spiritual wanderings.  All of which seems to contradict his pacific calling as cleric.

Diploma of the Dux Britanniarum, who in the early fifth century would have been Coel Hen
Diploma of the Dux Britanniarum, who in the early fifth century would have been Coel Hen

While all these tales should be taken with more than a grain of salt, what I would take away from them a core truth that the obscure saint had a more a military than contemplative background.  Only a few churches were ever dedicated to this obscure saint, whose very existence as an actual saint I aver is questionable.

In truth, the name Collen is about the only thing about the saint I would take as being completely reliable, for Collen is one of the many variant spellings for the famed fifth century military leader best known as Coel Hen–our modern “Old King Cole.”  Other variant spellings for this  once famous leader are Kyle, Colling, Coyll, Cullen and probably a few others that have yet to be recognized.  Although precious little factual information is known about Coel, scholars are reasonably certain that he was the “last Roman commander of the northern British defenses”—or Dux Britanniarum, who held command of the garrisons along Hadrian’s wall and the allied federate detachments on either side of it.  The fact that Coel is mentioned as the founder of a number of northern kingdoms points to the fact that he was not only the “last” Roman commander of the north but also the first British commander of the northern defenses.

Brittonic cavalry smiting the barbarians, ca fifth century AD
Brittonic cavalry smiting the barbarians, ca fifth century AD

If, around 428-429, the western defenses in Britain were seriously threatened by a large barbarian alliance invading from out of the Irish Sea, it is not unreasonable that not only would the unified British government recruit Germanus to take command there, but also draw on troops from the northern command to reinforce the failing western frontier defenses.  The forty days of Lent would certainly have been ample time to bring up reinforcements and supplies with which to counter the barbarian invasion.  While Germanus may indeed have been appointed Dux Prolil by Emperor Vitalinus (Vortigern), I would posit that Coel Hen would have served as Germanus’ second in command at the Alleluia Victory, in charge of the northern troops brought down to aid in the campaign for the western marches.

Of course, when it comes to reconstructing fifth century British history, most of what passes for established fact is really just a series of inferences buttressed by speculation with a smattering of highly speculative etymologies thrown in to sound authoritative; but I would assert that positing Collen as Coel/Colling is as reasonable an inference as any–and consistent with the known facts.  It also helps bring what Constantius would have us believe to be a divine miracle into the realm of plausible reality.

Now that we have tidied up these details of Germanus’ first visit, in our next entry will take a closer look at Germanus’ second visit and the questions associated with that as well–issues even more problematical than those surrounding his first visit.

Castle of the City of Crows: Castell Dinas Brân

This is an excellent piece by Professor Williams and stunning photography. One might also add that Dinas Bran and Llangollan are also the likely location for the Alleluia Victory of AD 429 by Bishop/General Germanus of Auxerre against a combined Irish-Pictish army.

Archaeodeath

DSC00027 The castle in the fog

This weekend past, I ventured out into the dense fog and headed for the one place I imagined would be cloud-free: Castell Dinas Brân – the Castle of the City of Crows looming over Llangollen in the Vale. Through cobwebbed-covered gorse and up into the bright sunshine above the clouds, it was a steep but splendid walk for me and the 2-year-old twinagers.

DSC00117 In a sea of fog

Conventional narratives about the castle can be found here on the Castles of Wales website, on the CPAT website and on Wikipedia. There is also a bilingual guidebook produced by Denbighshire County Council. I have touched upon Castell Dinas Brân in previous entries, notably how the castle is a place of folklore and social memory incorporated into an antiquarian landscape and the modern tourist trail as discussed in the wider context of memory and identity around Llangollen

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FIRE VS ICE: WHAT ENDED CLASSICAL CIVILIZATION?

Comets have traditionally been looked upon as harbingers of doom. Maybe the folklore is right after all.
Comets have traditionally been looked upon as harbingers of doom. Maybe the folklore is right after all.

“The bay trees in our country are all wither’d,                                                          And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;                                                              The pale-fac’d moon looks bloody on the earth                                                        And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change;”

—-Shakespeare

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been much chewed over and discussed by scholars for centuries.  Mostly they debate the causes of its political collapse, but almost as debated is the issue of when Classical civilization ended exactly.  The last nominal emperor in the West was in 476 AD and that is often cited as the dividing line, but in truth the political system was in decline for a long time before that and, as Professor J. B. Bury pointed out in one lecture long ago, when the last puppet emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, no one in the West imagined that there would not be some figurehead placed on the throne to replace him after a year or so.  Moreover, the status quo of barbarian—Roman relations in the West, as chaotic as it was, remained more or less in place for several generations more.  In the East, the Imperial government went on without a beat and Justinian, is generally regarded as both the first ruler of the Byzantine era and the last emperor of the Roman one.  Yet even the East suffered a massive trauma and near collapse in the sixth century. Ancient civilization did end and the Middle Ages, at least in the West, was a very different period than that which preceded it.  Moreover, it is generally to the middle decades of the sixth century that we look to as the period of transition from one to the other.

Artist's conception of ancient volcano
Artist’s conception of ancient volcano

Now as in all other things in historiography, you will get various parties arguing that there was no ending and no beginning, that the Dark Ages weren’t dark at all and so forth.  Admittedly, because of the lack of survival of many written sources which might otherwise illumine things for us, the period following Classical Civilization demise appears more dismal than it might otherwise be.  But there was a collapse beyond the political one: in mid sixth century we have record of famines and a catastrophic plague which spread across the known world, killing off millions of people—perhaps even more than the Black Death of the late Middle Ages, which led to the end of Medieval Civilization.  But while famine and plague are certainly proximate causes, in recent decades there has been a gradual dawning among some researchers that a singular natural catastrophe triggered these economically and socially disruptive events.

Did Halley's Comet cause the collapse of Classical Civilizaton? Some think so.
Did Halley’s Comet cause the collapse of Classical Civilizaton? Some think so.

This is not an abstraction, nor is it solely based on literary sources which, while some academics tout the virtues of “close linguistic analysis,” often result in the same source being used to prove opposing viewpoints.  In particular, scientists studying ice cores going back many millennia and more recently the assembling of continuous sequences of tree rings dating back into the Neolithic and beyond,  have observed anomalies in the geophysical record around the middle of the sixth century AD which hint at a climatic event of staggering proportions.  This is not theory but scientific fact; it was severe and it lasted a number of years.  It certainly triggered massive famines worldwide and, as a rule, where famines occur plagues are not far behind.

What was this singular event was that triggered a worldwide climatic crisis?  Here’s where it gets a bit dicey; we have the physical evidence, but what the source of the crisis was is more problematical.  Professor Mike Baillie, an Irish dendrochronologist of some standing in the scientific world, first observed that at certain times during the Holocene, tree ring growth has displayed a dramatic change—a change which could only mean that the trees in question suffered a dramatic trauma.  This shift in the tree ring pattern transcends locale: it was noticeable in Irish tree rings, in those from Germany, from the US, as well as other places in the world, all centered around ca. the 630-645 AD time frame.  Ice core samples similarly reflect something really bad going on in the climate about the same time.  Tracking down the villain, Baillie at first considered volcanic activity, which can spew massive amounts of particulate matter into the upper atmosphere; while not entirely discounting this, however, Baillie concluded that rather it was the effect of either an impact, or the near earth grazing, by a large cometary body which triggered this climate disaster which killed millions and ended Classical Civilization.

Professor Mike Baillie, the leading proponent of comet impacts and near misses profoundly altering human history and world climate.
Professor Mike Baillie, the leading proponent of comet impacts and near misses profoundly altering human history and world climate.

Many historians, I gather, have not warmed to his ideas about catastrophic events causing culture change.  Immanuel Velikovsky, back in the 1950’s argued something similar and then proceeded to rewrite history—something historians don’t like.  Well, Velikovsy’s cosmetology was entirely wrong and his theories rightly dismissed.  But Velikovsky did comb through a welter of ancient sources for references to celestial events, many of which became mythologized in the form of fire gods and dragons; and when the hard science began to emerge about comet and asteroids affecting earth in recent times, some (not all) of his citations began to not look so absurd after all.

Catastrophists still reject Velikovsky’s basic premises, but some of the ancient sources he cited have proven of value, even if historians still tend to ignore them as fictitious or as fantasy.  Bear in mind, every year we pass through the debris of various comets—shooting stars we call them—and are mostly harmless.  One such meteor shower, the Draconid, is particularly interesting because dragons are one ancient metaphor for comets.  Now Baillie’s theory of a cometary cause for the mid-sixth century event is not  dependent on am actual impact—although that may have occurred.  A series of earth grazing comets, occurring one after the other, could also spew enough space dust, meteors and Tunguska-like fragments to trigger a prolonged climatic crisis as well.  The proverbial “dirty snowball” of 536AD and ensuing other close calls may well have ended what was left of Classical Civilization.

Dr. Dull and associate inspecting evidence for the 636 AD Ilopongo Eruption.
Dr. Dull and associate inspecting evidence for the 636 AD Ilopongo Eruption.

However, besides the skepticism of academia, in recent years Baillie’s thesis has been challenged, if not discarded, by an archaeologist/anthropologists working in Central America.  Dr. Robert Dull, environmental scientist researching the Classic Maya Collapse, has argued that the dramatic and sudden change which occurred to Mayan Civilization, and posited that a major volcanic eruption in El Salvador is what not only caused the collapse of the Mayans but of Classical Civilization as well.  That a massive eruption occurred was well known: the giant caldera of  Lake Ilopanga exists to prove the event.  Dating, however, was considerably more problematical.  Finally, according to the National Geographic documentary series, Perfect Storms, Prof. Dull did find one carbonized tree trunk which he had analyzed, and which yielded a date close to 636 AD—the approximate time of both the Mayan and the Classical collapses.  Because National Geographic carries far more clout in the media than the obscure scientific journals Prof. Baillie has published in, or the specialized books that Baillie has published on the subject, Dr. Dull’s theory seems have become dominant—at least among anthropologists and the media.

So here we have it: Dull versus Baillie, fire versus ice; but who is correct?  I’m sure there are some academics out there who would say “none of the above;” but before rejecting both out of hand, I would recommend reading Mike Baillie’s Exodus to Arthur, which provides a good summary of his theories up to 1999.  Where Baillie relies on sub Roman British historians for his chronology of the fifth and early century, I’m afraid he is off, but that is not a defect in his ideas, merely of the historiography he relied on to supply him historical dates; where he instead relies on his dendrochronolgy and on ice core evidence, he is at his strongest.  For Dull, the Ilopango eruption is THE cause; while the documentary makes a good case for the Classic Maya Collapse being triggered by the Ilopango supervolcano, the linkage to the Justinian Plague and associated famines is assumed rather than proven.  However, see the “Dark Age Volcano” episode of Perfect Storms, either on the National Geographic Channel or on YouTube:

The way National Geographic weights the evidence, it makes Dull’s thesis seem as though it is the sole explanation of both events.  Moreover, more than ten years before, Prof. Baillie had theorized that cometary events might actually trigger volcanic events; certainly the reverse cannot be true.  So, while Dr. Dull’s arguments seem persuasive, his is not necessarily the only explanation.  The controversy continues and one would hope that a healthy discussion in the future will lead us all closer to the truth.

More recently, scientists analyzing ice core samples with up to date techniques, have found that much of the “stuff” that was deposited ca. 536 AD is extraterrestrial in origin: “I have all this extraterrestrial stuff in my ice core,” study leader Dallas Abbott, of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory opined to LiveScience/Huffington Post in 2013.  While acknowledging that they also found traces of volcanic material also dating to 536, Dr. Abbott said it almost certainly wasn’t big enough to change the climate so dramatically.

Who is correct? My own opinion is that Baillie is on the right track; but that does not necessarily negate Dr. Dull’s research. Unfortunately, while Dr. Baillie has written about his theories extensively, I could not find any academic publicatons by Dull, just articles in the popular media and, of course, the National Geographic documentary. I understand that he presented his theory orally at a meeting of the Association of American Geographers in 2012, but couldn’t find a copy of that lecture or any subsequent paper in print form. Perhaps Dr. Dull’s academic papers are available somewhere and I just haven’t located them.  Or perhaps the geographer has fallen prey to the chronic problem which besets archaeologists: digging and digging and not publishing their findings in a timely manner.  I have, unfortunately, known some distinguished archaeologists who perished before they published.

Comets were called "Broom Stars" by the Chinese, because their appearance meant life tended to be swept away by them.
Comets were called “Broom Stars” by the Chinese, because their appearance meant life tended to be swept away by them.

Regardless, I do believe that from time to time catastrophes of staggering proportion do strike without warning and when they do humans are virtually powerles to change the course of events. While it would be nice to think that the immutable forces of history control the march of events like some great orderly engine, it rather seems that nature’s fickle hand of fate intervenes to jumble things up from time to time for us. At the least, it would be good to learn more about this celestial pinball game before we get behind the eight ball once more, no?

Of Crows and Men: The Mystery of Bran

A white raven; they do not sing as sweet as Phoebus' bird but they do exist.
A white raven; they do not sing as sweet as Phoebus’ bird but they do exist.

Once upon a time all crows were white; did you know this?

That venerable gentleman Chaucer tells the tale of Phoebus, whom some call Apollo, who once had a lady love whom he kept in his earthly home and whom he loved so dear.  He also had a raven in a golden cage in that golden palace, as white as the snow, for in those days all Ravens and crows were white and could sing as beautifully as any known songbird.  And he taught the crow to understand the language of humans as well and to talk in human speech.

Yet, as well as he treated his lady love and as much as he thought she loved him, she would not, she could not be true.  She took a lover, not half as handsome as Phoebus, and no sooner would he leave to do his sunny work, than her lover came sneaking in the back door.  The raven saw all that transpired but said not a word; but when Phoebus returned home he cried “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo.”

“Why do you cry out so, byrd?” quoth Phoebus. “Why syngest thow the cuckold’s song? Allas, what song is this!”  In his heart, Phoebus knew what the white raven was telling him.

Said the Raven, “by God, I sing not amis Phoebus.”

And Phoebus saw from the raven’s look and his words that the Raven told true.  Then wrath replaced adoration in his heart and the flaming Phoebus seized his golden bow and arrow and went to his unfaithful mistress and her lover and both of them he slew.  But Phoebus was not grateful for the Raven telling its master of the treachery and lechery of his beloved.  With his divine powers he turned the white bird’s feathers black and his voice that had been sweeter than a nightingales, he made hoarse and harsh forevermore.  And that is why to this day the raven and his kin are black as night and caw and croak and are doomed to feast on dead flesh for their meals instead of the sweetmeats and other treats that Phoebus once gave them.

An artist's conception of The Manciple's Tale by Chaucer. by dreaminferno on Deviantart
An artist’s conception of The Manciple’s Tale by Chaucer. by dreaminferno on Deviantart

What has all this to do with Bran?  Well, nothing to be honest, but it tells a bit about crows and ravens and their brother blackbirds.  They are sometimes despised and shunned as carrion beasts, but at other times revered and feared, for not only do they feast on the flesh of those who die in battle, but they seem preternaturally intelligent for beasts of the air.  They do not only show up after battle, but they have been observed gathering before the start of battle as if to know ahead of time that a battle is to be fought.  Moreover, in elder times they acted in concert with wolves, scouting ahead of a pack for prey for the wolves to attack; then they would report back to the herd and when the wolves finally downed their prey, the ravens greedily shared in spoils, cawing in triumph over the carcass.  This behavior was observed by the Celts of old; but so too by the Native American tribes of the American South, who called the bird colonah; this was also an epithet they gave to the leader of a war party, who would scout ahead of the main warband to find suitable targets for the warriors to attack.  As we shall sea, Bran is closely connected with these fey creatures, even to the present day.

In Welsh, the name for the raven is Bran, but Bran is also the name of an ancient hero/king who was both a sailor and a supernatural being connected with regeneration.  In fact, there were probably several ancient leaders called Bran.  There are a number of stories told by the Welsh about Bran, and also by the Irish; and sometimes the stories are fantastic and seem to make little sense, but that doe not necessarily make them untrue for all of that.  Bear with me and let us try to separate out these different Brans of Celtic lore and history and assign to them at least a rough chronology, much as an archaeologist might sort out fragments of pottery which he finds all in a jumble and tries to arrange them in order from oldest to latest.  Sir William Flinders Petrie pioneered this method long ago, although that was in another time for another civilization.

In the Voyage of Bran, he meets his brother upon the sea raveling by chariot across rolling meadows.  Go figure: it is Celtic myth at its  finest.
In the Voyage of Bran, he meets his brother upon the sea raveling by chariot across rolling meadows.

In his earliest incarnation Bran (or Brain Mac Febail to the Irish) is a god, whose brother is Manawydan fab Llyr (to the Irish, Manannan Mac Lyr); both gods were closely connected with seafaring and credited with the invention of celestial navigation, a discovery which probably dates to some time in the Mesolithic era.  In the Voyage of Bran (the Gaelic tale Imramm Brain) the hero/god is lured to take a voyage westward.  Two days out to sea he encounters Manannan/Manawydan.  This meeting would not be so unusual, save for the fact that while Bran is traveling over the rolling waves in a sea going vessel, Manannan is riding his chariot across rolling meadows of dry land.  He voyages farther west and encounters several fantastic lands in the middle of the sea.  During the stone age it should be noted, various parts of the Irish Sea and its adjacent waters were in fact dry land, and islands now beneath the sea were then above the waves, a fact not appreciated until recently and which folk memory apparently retained through long ages.

Bran surfaces in another tale which Geoffrey of Monmouth relates, a convoluted tale of Brennius and Belinus (or Beli).  Brennius is Geoffrey’s Latin rendition of the name Bran and he seems to relate a story that dates to some time in the Iron Age.  The two brothers feud over the kingship of Britain and then embark on various adventures and conquests on the continent.  They invade Gaul, sack Rome and one of the two invades the Balkans, making himself unwelcome their.  While one is tempted to dismiss Geoffrey’s story as a fabrication, there are just enough historical echoes to lead some scholars to believe this is a distant echo of some oral tradition still current in Britain in Geoffrey’s time, which may have been brought to the island by the Belgae in the Iron Age.  Livy records a sack of Rome by a Celtic tribe, while Pausanius tells of Delphi being looted and burned in the Iron Age by Celtic invaders led by two leaders named Brennios and Bolgius.  Some of the Celtic invaders even crossed into Anatolia where they raised further hell before they were stopped.

"Le Brenn et sa part de butin"  (Bran and his booty) by Paul  Jamin (1893).  Apparently the Celtic warlord's booty also included booty.
“Le Brenn et sa part de butin” (Bran and his booty) by Paul Jamin (1893). Apparently the Celtic warlord’s booty also included booty.

The sack of Rome (ca. 390 BC) was real enough and there is no reason to doubt that the leader of the combined British/Gaulish army was named Bran/Brennius- or its Iron Age equivalent.  Hower the sack of Delphi was undoubtedly by different Celtic invaders whose leader apparently shared the same name, since the two conquests occurred about a century apart; but Brendan MacGonagle in his Balkan Celts blog theorizes “that Brennos was not a personal name, but a military title given to the overall commander of a Celtic army drawn from different tribes.”  In this regard, the Celtic warbands acted very much like the Cherokee war parties of the eighteenth century.  In his article on “CATUBODUA – Queen of Death” MacGonagle also notes that Iron Age Celts often practiced excarnation: leaving the bodies of those who die in battle exposed for carrion beasts to consume.  Sometimes these were vultures, but in Britain it would have been ravens and crows.  During battle, war goddess appeared in the guise of a bird of prey, to carry the souls of the fallen brave away.  Unspoken, but related, may be the notion that the crows or ravens, by devouring the Celtic war dead, would absorb the souls as well as the flesh of the slain warriors.  This would explain several motifs connected with the archetypal Bran and their close connection with ravens.

Dinas Bran, with the Dee flowing below (1798)  by J M W Turner.  This was the citadel of  the Brennius who was likely the Comes of the Romano-Britons in the early fifth century.  It was also the site of the Alleluia Victory in 429 AD.
Dinas Bran, with the Dee flowing below (1798) by J M W Turner. This was the citadel of the Brennius who was likely the Comes of the Romano-Britons in the early fifth century. It was also the site of the Alleluia Victory in 429 AD.

Near the picturesque village of Llangollen, by the fast running River Dee, rises the hillfort of Castell Dinas Bran, believed to once have been the abode of Bran.  This Bran may be in fact a historical personage, although with oral tradition one can never be completely certain.  The hillfort was probably originally occupied in the Iron Age, but was probably reoccupied some time in the late fourth or early fifth century AD.  The ruins that one sees today date to the Middle Ages where it served to hold the Welsh hills against the barbaric English kings.

This Bran was the subject of another Welsh tale from the Mabinogion, collected in the Middle Ages but originating centuries earlier.  In this incarnation he is known as Bendigeidfran—Bran the Blessed.  While this Bran too has supernatural aspects, underlying the story seems to be a record of real events, probably occurring either in the late fourth or early fifth century AD.  This Bran would probably have been named Comes Brennius, and he was likely more Roman than Celt; but just as the Roman general Maximus became Maxen Wledig, later Welsh bards remembered him as one of their own.  The tale called Branwen verch Llŷr relates how Matholwych, an Irish king, came to seek the hand of Bran’s sister Branwen.  Bran consented and the match was made; however Bran’s trouble making brother was insulted that he was not consulted and made trouble, mutilating the Irishman’s horses.  For a time Bran smoothed things over and it seemed Branwen and her husband would be happy; but the Irish king was persuaded to punish Branwen for her brother’s insults and Branwen sent a raven with a message to her brother Bran asking him to rescue her.

Branwen sends a raven with a message to her brother Bran about her husband's abuse.  So starts the war between the Britons and the Irish.
Branwen sends a raven with a message to her brother Bran about her husband’s abuse. So starts the war between the Britons and the Irish.

Bran launched a fleet of ships to punish the Irish and then fought a might battle on Irish soil.   The Irish were defeated, but Bran himself was mortally wounded.  He instructed his surviving warriors to cut off his head and return it to Britain.  This they did, but found their king still kept conversing with them all the way back to London, where he was buried beneath the White Hill (later the Tower of London) with the promise that so long as his head lay buried facing Gaul, no enemy would ever invade the isle of Britain.  Behind all the fantastic imagery and exaggeration, seems to be an account of a punitive expedition, undoubtedly launched from the old legionary fortress of Chester, which was also located at the highest point on the River Dee still navigable by ships.  In the late fourth and continuing well into the fifth century, Irish incursions and settlements continued to plague western Britain and likely Bran’s ill fated raid was neither the first nor last British counter-attack.  A flock of ravens followed Bran to London and ever since have dwelt at the site where Bran’s head was interred, faithful bodyguards who dwell in the Tower of London forevermore.

Although not linked to this Bran by any scholar I know of, this unsuccessful attack on the Irish might explain why, in 429 AD, an Irish/Pictish army suddenly appeared in western Britain without any apparent local leader to resist the invasion.  When Germanus of Auxerre was summoned to lead the British to resist the invaders, he apparently fought them at Llangollen, which is coincidently where Bran’s hillfort lay.  Coincidence?  I doubt it; this was probably the mustering point for the local militia of the hill country, to which whatever regular troops were available also rallied—and probably including a few Saxon mercenaries in British pay to boot.  As I noted in my previous blog about Germanus, armies of men do not suddenly appear out of the ground and certainly the army Germanus led in battle did not.

 

In Rhonabwy's Dream, Owain's army of ravens defeats Arthur's men while they play chess.  Artwork by Lucy Burns, Welsh Artist (2013).
In Rhonabwy’s Dream, Owain’s army of ravens defeats Arthur’s men while they play chess. Artwork by Lucy Burns, Welsh Artist (2013).

Another tale from the Mabinogion tells, not about Bran, but of an army of ravens who seem to act like human warriors.  In the Dream of Rhonabwy where Owain’s teulu of ravens battle King Arthur’s knights and get the better of them, while their leaders play chess.  Owain had an army of Ravens, some three hundred in number, and they seem to have been inherited from father to son in that royal household; the ravens were loyal to their masters to the death, much as Bran’s teulu of ravens were to their master; for to this day Bran’s ravens stand guard in London protecting the realm against foreign invaders.

 

Close up of a Tower of London, one of seven who diligently guard the tower and protect the realm from harm.  The royal family is not superstitious, but on the other hand they don't want to tempt fate.
Close up of a Tower of London Raven, one of seven who diligently guard the tower and protect the realm from harm. The royal family is not superstitious, but on the other hand they don’t want to tempt fate.

Bran, Brennius, Brennios, or the other names this ancient hero goes by, may be a flight of fancy of the Celtic imagination–or not–but either way, the ravens who are so closely connected with him are real enough–and smarter than many humans.  No wonder that George R. R. Martin borrowed the raven motif from Celtic myth and history for his popular Game of Thrones book and TV series–and the deep magic of the corvidae may well be the real reason underlying the series phenomenal success.