Brittonic Naval Hegemony and The Isle of Man

Manannan Irish & British seafaring god
Tradition holds that Manannan mac Llyr was a Sorcerer-King who ruled the Isle of Man when St. Germanus arrived with a fleet to occupy the island. But Manannan (or Manawydan) was also the deified inventor of celestial navigation, venerated by the Irish, Britons and Manx alike, who hid his isle from invaders with a magical cloak of fog.

If one steps away from the minutiae of Dark Age British scholarship and looks at the bigger historical picture, it becomes apparent that—contrary to Gildas’ later polemic—independent Britain, far from being a “failed state,” was eminently successful and well able to repel repeated barbarian threats throughout the fifth century and well into the sixth.

Less discussed than Britain’s successful response to the many challenges to its independence, is the fact that a major component of this success had to have been dominance of the seas surrounding the British Isles. This present essay explores a corollary to that foundational premise: that as part of the Brittonic campaigns to gain & maintain hegemony over the encircling seas during the Brittonic Era, the Isle of Man played a strategic role in the struggle for control of the Irish Sea.

-a-map-of-the-isle-of-man-.-antique-map-by-thomas-hutchinson-1748-old-373740-p
Map of Isle of Man by Thomas Hutchinson, 1748

Lying midway between Ireland and Britain and dominating trade and invasion routes across the Irish Sea, control of the Isle of Man would have been crucial for whomever sought to dominate its surrounding shores and the green fields beyond. Regarding the isle’s history, written documentation is scarce before the Viking Age, although archaeological remains date back as far as the Mesolithic era, as do a jumble of ancient traditions and customs, remnants of the various folk who colonized or conquered the island over the ages.

 

Well before independence, there is evidence of enduring contact between Ireland and Britain, some of it peaceful, much of it violent.[1] Although much of this contact is known only from the mute testimony of archaeology, it is a safe assumption that most travel and trade which passed across the Irish Sea at some point involved the Isle of Man.

Complicating study of the period is the fact that transition from Roman to post Roman in Britain is not distinguishable by means of material culture alone. Indeed, long after actual Roman political hegemony ceased in Britain, some of its inhabitants still regarded themselves as more Roman than Briton. At some point, however, the Celtic substratum of Brittonic culture came to the fore on the mainland. On the Isle of Man, Roman cultural influence was always far less and Celtic culture far more pervasive in the pre-Viking ages than on mainland Britain. One enduring result has been that Arthurian lore swirls around Man as thick as the fog which often envelops it. As Celtic traditions remember it, the island is alleged to be the hiding place of the Holy Grail; it is claimed to be the location where Arthur was married, and it is also reputed to be the place graced by Queen Guinevere’s grave.

Of necessity, a British occupation of the island would have required naval control of the seas surrounding it; yet, to the best of my knowledge, this possibility has never been properly investigated. The landlubbers of mainstream academia do not dispute the importance of sea-power during this period in regard to the Saxons, nor would they quibble over its importance insofar as the Irish or the Picts are concerned, but they become strangely myopic with regard to native Britons’ own seafaring skills during this same period. The lack of surviving contemporary documents from the British Isles—save for the dubious reliability of Gildas’ mid-sixth century homily—makes the task of historical reconstruction doubly difficult, allowing for any number of competing chronologies and models to be put forward, many of which would otherwise not be taken seriously.

The Britons themselves believed that there had been a unified government, ruled by a single sovereign, appointed or elected by an island-wide “Council of Elders,” presumably drawn from the surviving civitates, tribes or other political entities formerly under the sway of the Roman Empire. In the service of this post-Roman polity, Saxons were one of several barbarian ethnic sub-groups recruited as mercenaries to defend the island, not only against fellow barbarians, but perhaps against a potential Roman effort to reoccupy the realm. Although later writers—starting with Gildas—heaped derision on this decision, in truth it was the right move at the time and, in fact, worked after a fashion.

The Saxons were an excellent choice to supplement Brittonic maritime defenses, since they were, like our modern Marine Corp, elite amphibious assault troops, skilled at war on both land and sea—with the key proviso that you kept paying them their wages. But it would be a mistake to assume (as most scholars do) that they were the only naval force at the Brittonic state’s disposal. Flavius Vegetius Renatus, the late Roman military idealist, provides corroboration for the fact of a Brittonic navy, albeit his reference is maddingly brief. The preponderance of evidence points to Flavius’ tome having been originally composed during the reign of Valentinian III, but given its awkward positioning in Part IV of that work, the passage about the British navy may have been inserted by Renatus some time after the initial draft, into one of several revised editions of his work known to have been made before AD 450.[2]

DECK MOUNTED BALLISTA Mainz reconstruction of Roman patrol vessel
Romano-British vessels were probably capable of offensive naval combat. Deck mounted Roman Ballista. ca. 4th-5th century AD. Mainz Museum
LATE ROMAN RIVER SQUADRON Mainz Roman Naval Museum
A late Roman river squadron as reconstructed from archaeological remains. Brittonic coast patrol vessels were probably very similar to these types. Mainz Museum

Our first hint of naval campaigning along the coast of Britannia and the Irish Sea occurs relatively early in the post-Roman era. Not long after his elevation as the first Brittonic sovereign, Vortigern as “Overking” (or Ameradaur) recruited a small detachment under north Germanic warlord (and perhaps outlaw) Hengist, whose “three cyls” of Saxon marines went into service in His Majesty’s Navy, where they were initially posted to guard the approaches to the Thames estuary and Londinium—a deployment which would indicate a greater fear of Roman invasion than of barbarian raids.

Within a short time, however, further detachments of Saxons under Octha and Ebissa—ostensibly “sons’ of Hengist—were recruited to guard the northern borderlands adjacent to the eastern terminus of the Wall.[3] These latter Saxon chieftains are reported to have led an expedition of some forty warships to harry the northern and western sea-faring folk who had been raiding Britannia off and on for centuries, but who had become particularly troublesome after Roman garrisons on the island ceased to be paid by Ravenna.[4]

We now know that the Brittonic polity continued to maintain a strong military presence along the Wall, in response to which northern barbarians took to the sea to evade the land defenses. The Saxon fleet, true to their oath, not only began raiding up the eastern coasts of Pictland but round the jagged top of Pictia, penetrating the northern seas at least as far as the Orkneys and probably beyond.[5]

Whether this expedition penetrated into the Irish Sea as far as the Isle of Man at this time is not recorded, but it would certainly make sense to have done so. Having raided as far as the Orkneys, from there they could easily have sailed down the western coasts of Pictland and Scotia, pillaging as they went, and ended up putting into Brittonic ports along the western coast of Britain for resupply. Visible from the Welsh coast on a clear day, the Isle of Man would have been an obvious landfall—and tempting target.

Dating is always a contentious issue for this period, but while linguists still speculate absurdly late dates as to a Saxon advent, archaeology has solidly confirmed a date sometime in the 420’s for the earliest Saxon occupation sites of a military nature.[6] We also have the mid-fifth century hagiography of Germanus of Auxerre by Constantius of Lyon, composed shortly after the saint’s death, which mentions Saxon detachments present in western Britain at this time.[7] Although his biographer Constantius mistakenly has the Saxons allied with the Irish in the Alleluia Victory of AD 428/9, it is far more likely that at this time they were part of Germanus’ British army and the biographer simply misunderstood what the aged Bishop Lupus had told him of their participation in the battle.

It is generally agreed the battle happened somewhere in the mountainous regions of Wales or nearby. If such were the case, the city of Chester would have been ideal as a staging area for Germanus’ army. It had been a Roman legionary fortress but a few decades before, its stout walls were intact and in good condition at this time, and the city marked the limit of navigability of the River Dee (Deva Fluvius) for both merchant ships and naval vessels. Chester likely had already served as a naval base in Roman times and the beleaguered inhabitants would have welcomed a quasi-Roman army arriving to defend its hinterland.

While no doubt the Roman general-turned-bishop spent Lent piously engaged in prayer and fasting, we can be sure that he also used this period to train and equip his new army to face the invaders. With the arrival of a large detachment of Saxon auxiliaries by sea, Germanus’ “bloodless” victory (on the British side) was virtually assured, divine intervention or no. What goes generally unmentioned, however, is Germanus’ subsequent campaigns in the region to clear it of barbarian influence.

Germanus Allelluia Victory via Look & Learn
Before he was Bishop of Auxerre, Germanus was a general in the Roman Army, and in Britain his military skills were in greater demand than his piety. He is most famous for the Alleluia Victory in Wales ca. 428-9, but after that success he campaigned throughout the region to clear it of barbarian control. Manx tradition asserts he landed on the Isle of Man as well and established a Brittonic naval outpost there. He probably employed Saxon marines to supplement the native British volunteers and levies.

An old Manx tradition asserts that at the beginning of the fifth century the isle was ruled by a sovereign named Mananan Mac Llyr, a “magician,” who kept it magically hidden, enveloped in perpetual mists. St. Patrick, tradition asserts, broke the enchanter’s charm; “and, having persuaded or compelled Mac Lier to relinquish the possession, made Germanus bishop and ruler of the island.”[8]

Ignoring St. Patrick’s intrusion into the tale, it is not unreasonable to assume that, after decisively defeating an Irish-Pictish Army at the Alleluia Victory in the hill country of Wales, Germanus waged a broader campaign to clear the region of the barbarian invaders, as well as British leaders of dubious loyalty. Logically, this would have included establishing control over the Isle of Man—probably with the aid of the seagoing Saxons—and in fact Germanus figures large in early traditions about Christianity on the Isle. Moreover, we have contemporary corroboration for this: the Ulster Annals for the year AD 434 mentions “first booty of the Saxons from Ireland” which accords well with Octha & Ebissa’s naval expedition and subsequent operations in the Irish Sea around the time of the Alleluia Victory. For a Saxon fleet to land on Eire, it would have first have had to pass by the Isle of Man, if in fact the raid was not launched from there.[9]

Dating to about the same period, or perhaps a little later, we get a further hint of British presence on Man through early hagiographies. Irish clerics, wishing to emphasize their priority over the British church there, concocted a folk tale designed to emphasize the first bishop’s subservience to the Irish church, even though he had been invested in his office by two British bishops. While early saint’s lives are often full of fabulous accounts, they also reveal real underlying situations or make political points which reflect contemporary affairs. In this case, the author of the foundation legend wished people to believe that the first bishop—and by extension the whole island—was under Irish dominion in the mid-fifth century, when the fact of the first native bishop being appointed by British clerics proves it was actually under Brittonic sway at that time.

St. Patrick, a Romano-Briton, is believed to have resided on Man preceding his crossing over to Ireland on his life mission. From Patrick’s correspondence one can deduce that the bishop regarded himself as more Roman than native Briton and, implicitly, viewed his mission to the barbarian Irish as much a cultural one as ecclesiastical. Authorities in Britain and Gaul may also have intended Patrick’s mission to the Irish as a covertly political one as well. Underlying his theological narrative, one may see a general trend of growing Brittonic influence and control of the Irish Sea littoral—with the Isle of Man in the center of it.

In the 440’s, the central Brittonic authority (either Vortigern or Ambrosius) seems to have engaged in a major reallocation of military resources along the northern borders to further deal with Irish threats to the western coast. A segment of the Votadini tribe, who are believed to have been serving as foederati to the central government at the time, were transferred from the northeastern coast of Britannia, near the line of Hadrian’s Wall, over to the western coast, with a mandate to clear the region of Irish political influence. Cunedda and his “sons” (who may or may not have been actual kin) led a detachment, first overland and thence by sea down the coast to set up operations around the strait of Anglesey and north Wales. Whether this reallocation was conducted in one major move or carried out in successive waves remains a moot point, but there is no reason to doubt that it occurred and that their military campaigns included not only land actions but naval ones as well.[10]

We do not have specifics regarding their military occupation of the Isle of Man, but if they were engaged in maritime operations in the region to prevent attacks by the Scotti, at the very least they would have raided the island to deny it as a base to the enemy. Indeed, Celtic scholar N. K. Chadwick went so far as to suggest that not only did the Votadini arrive by sea but made landfall first on the Isle of Man, before descending on Anglesey and vicinity.[11] Chadwick’s thesis makes sense: this strategy would have isolated in advance the Irish colonies in north Wales from any potential reinforcements coming from Eire.

One should always remember that terms like Scot, Pict or Saxon were generic terms coined by upper class Roman authors, residing far from the frontiers and with only a vague knowledge of the actual ethnology and geography of the regions they wrote about. At any given time, one or another Irish tribe may have been at war with the British, while another tribe, or confederation of tribes, been at peace and eager for trade. Our detailed knowledge of the era is a virtual lacuna and, of necessity, to fill in the void one must rely on oblique statements and traditions which survived in oral folklore of a late date, which were in origin of a much older period than when they were finally committed to paper. The “guilty until proven innocent” approach to evaluating these traditions is not only unhelpful but fundamentally flawed. Conversely, literal or uncritical acceptance of folk traditions can also be fraught with errors. One thing one may say with some confidence is that, during this period, tribal loyalties may well have shifted many times and the fifth century naval struggle for control of the Irish Sea likely was far more complex and convoluted than our sources show knowledge of. Amid the varying fortunes of war during the fifth and early sixth centuries, however, control of the Isle of Man at all times would have been decisive.

There is an abundance of archaeological remains on the island, some as early as the Mesolithic Period, although most remain poorly documented. Bronze and Iron age military sites are represented, as are other periods, especially the Viking Era.[12] According to recent studies, some 18 coastal promontory forts, two inland promontory forts and two “major hillforts” have been identified on the island.[13]  It seems certain that Brittonic remains are present at many of these locations, but to date only one site, Port y Candas has been subject to modern archaeological investigation[14]. The finds from this site so far seem to date to the seventh rather than the fifth or early sixth centuries.[15]

When we turn from archaeology to Dark Age British literature, we get some inkling as to Brittonic naval operations in and around the island, although as is the case elsewhere, interpretation of these texts can vary wildly among scholars. In particular, after close analysis by Professor Bachrach, a specialist in late Classical/early Medieval military history, the Arthurian Battle List of Nennius (Chapter 56) evinced evidence that some of the twelve battles may have been naval engagements. He demonstrates that the language of the chapter indicates that five of the battles were fought, “super fluvium.” on a river; one was fought “in ostium fluminis,” in (or at) the mouth of a river; while another was fought on a shoreline or beach.[16] In particular, the Latin text describing the tenth battle as “on the shore of the river that is called Tribuit,” indicates an action fought where river met sea, indicating an amphibious assault or a naval engagement in an estuary close to land, the British proving the victors.[17]

Nikolai Tolstoy, a British author and scholar of some repute, using an entirely different line of reasoning, also identified a battle on Nennius’ list as being a naval engagement as well.[18] Tolstoy’s identification of locale is quite different than the accepted interpretation, but makes perfect sense if one assumes the battle list was transcribed, not from a written text, but from an oral recitation. A monk, whose main language was Latin and being unfamiliar with either the dialect of the reciter or of the region’s geography, may well have assumed it was a Roman place-name instead of a Celtic one. Orally, the two localities would have sounded virtually the same.[19]

In light of these two previous hypotheses, we would now add a third: that no less than four of the battles on the list were fought on or near the Isle of Man and were either naval or amphibious operations. While in recent years it has been the fashion to dismiss the Arthurian Battle List out of hand (the “guilty until proved innocent” school of criticism), this author finds that the original arguments for its validity still hold water. Had the battle list been a later fabrication, the author would surely have cobbled together better-known battles of great renown to attribute to the legendary leader. Instead, except for Baden, the battles are otherwise unknown and there is no consensus as to the location of most of the battles on the list—nor even if they were all fought against the Saxons. In addition, although the list includes Badon, conspicuous by its absence from the list is the Battle of Camlann, the other great battle attributed to Arthur in numerous sources. The implication is that the original source, believed to have been a listing poem of his victories, was composed after Badon but before Arthur’s demise at Camlann. As with so much else regarding sources of the period, conclusive proof as to the list’s authenticity or falsity is lacking; in this case, the present author would agree with some of the leading lights of Celtic studies who have come down on the affirmative side.[20]

Far and away the most curious feature of the Arthurian Battle List is that it places no less than four of the twelve battles at exactly the same location: the River Dubglas, “in the region of Linnuis”.[21] Were this list a mere literary fabrication, its author would surely have cited (or recited) four battles held at different locations to make the narrative more dramatic and interesting for his audience, not simply repeat one place-name four times..

Dubglas is generally believed to refer to a river named Douglas. It so happens the British Isles are graced with a number such rivers by that name. There is a Douglas river in southern Scotland, which runs into Loch Lomond on the borders of Strathclyde and which many scholars, especially those partial to the “Men of the North” theory of Arthur, have been quick to fix this series of battles at that spot, or alternately at another location nearby.[22] Besides this river there is also a Douglas in Lancashire, near Wigan.[23] Then there are the rivers Divelish and Devil’s Brook, both claimed linguistically to derive from the Celtic name Dubglas, which flow in the region of Ilchester (the Roman Lindinis) in Somerset.[24] Renowned Celtic scholar K. H. Jackson, following Geoffrey of Monmouth, believed that the battles occurred near the city of Lincoln, Lindum, in the district known as Lindsey—which in Roman times may have been pronounced Linnuis—although there are no rivers named Dubglas or Douglas in that region.[25] Doubtless there are several other candidates we have overlooked, but the list of proposed candidates as it stands is enough to illumine the dilemma of identifying this battle-site based solely on linguistics. Wherever Dubglas may lay, in the late fifth century it was a location of utmost strategic importance, one which neither side was willing to relinquish easily

While there are a number of important harbors on the Isle of Man, the main port, Douglas, lies on the east side of the island and an early account explains its primacy: “for it has the best harbour, and the most easie entrance, and is frequented by the French and other foreigners, who bring hither their Baysalt, and buy up the Commodities of the Island.”[26] A more modern description of the island ascribes the port of Douglas’ growth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to a thriving smuggling trade.[27] At the beginning of the nineteenth century Douglas was well served by a fishing industry, with herring, whitefish and salmon all being caught in ample numbers.

The Port of Douglas was also a center for the construction of fishing boats, “the workmen having acquired the character of being singularly skilful,” with vessels being built both for local use and for export. It is safe to assume both industries date back well into antiquity.[28] In Camden’s day, the fishing boats averaged about two tons capacity; by the time Woods wrote in 1811, however, Manx fishing boats had grown to sixteen tons, with the island’s fishing fleet numbering between four to five hundred vessels.[29]

What is more relevant to our present discussion, however, is the origin of the town’s name. Local tradition holds that the town gained its name because it sits just below the confluence of two mountain-fed streams, the Duff (or Dubb) and the Glass, the combined waters forming the Dub-glas River which flows into the sea at Douglass Bay.[30] A more academic etymology traces it back to the P-Celtic words *dubo-, black or deep, plus *glassio-, water or river, although the same roots occur in other Celtic languages.[31]

The harbor formed by the conjoined rivers was deep and broad enough to admit vessels of deep draft at high tide in the Age of Sail which were able to tie up dockside. In earlier periods, before improvements to the port, it may still have accommodated deep draft vessels.

Port Douglas Harbor 1896 William Edward Webb 1862 1903 Manx Museum Isle of Man
A busy harbor scene, Port Douglas, Isle of Man, late 19th century

The port of Douglas lies on the south end of a broad bay, near to Douglas Head, with the shoreline stretching in a broad gentle curve some two miles northward, bordered by another headland, so that the bay sheltered ships from high winds on three sides. North of the town the bay features a sandy shore, well suited for beaching small craft (such as curraghs) while the waters of the bay itself are ideal as an anchorage, being placid and generally lacking treacherous currents or reefs, save for the rocky headlands and a tidal reef in the middle.[32] On a clear day the coast of Wales is easily seen, alternately reassuring British seafarers or tempting barbarian marauders, depending on who was in possession of this strategic port.

The Tower of REfuge sits on a partially tidal reef in the middle of Douglas Bay
The Tower of Refuge sits on a reef in the middle of Douglas Bay. The reef is in plain sight and safely above water at low tide, but treacherously hidden from view at high tide. The castle was built to provide a haven until ship-wrecked crews could be safely rescued.

Despite the brevity of the passage, if the Isle of Man was indeed the site of the four battles in, on or near the Dub-glass/Douglas, one can safely make several inferences about these engagements. Although taking place in the same general locus, they may not necessarily have been in the same spot or transpired in the same manner. For example, one battle may have been a sharp, short amphibious raid on the port proper, with a view to burning the larger vessels and putting to sword their crews. Another may have been a true naval battle, with the invading fleet coming around one or another of the headlands and attacking the enemy fleet riding at anchor unawares in the bay. If the resident fleet consisted mainly of curraghs, the aggressor could similarly have stormed the broad beach where the craft had been drawn up and been in among the enemy camps before an alarm was raised. There may even have been one naval battle within the confines of the Dub-glass River proper, an extremely difficult and hazardous maneuver, but one which a Dutch fleet successfully carried out against the English navy on the Medway, a branch of the Thames Estuary, in 1667.[33]

Who held Douglas at the outset of the campaign and who was the aggressor is impossible to say based on the written evidence, and it could have passed back and forth between barbarian and Brittonic hands over the course of the four battles. Regardless, this port on the Isle of Man would have been of immense strategic value to both realms, with neither side willing to relinquish it without a bitter struggle. Since the four battles were included in the Arthurian Battle List, we may safely assume that the final outcome of the campaign proved a victory for the British under Arthur.

Nor is this the only historical connection between Arthur and the Isle of Man. In the dispute over Arthur’s historicity, one of the arguments trotted out to discredit his existence is the fact that Gildas, in his “history” makes no mention of Arthur at all. Early medieval authors were not unaware of this difficulty, however. In his hagiography of Gildas, Caradoc of Llangarfan provides us a reason why Gildas pointedly omits the greatest of Britain’s leaders.

Caradoc informs us that the saint had twenty-three brothers, who “constantly rose up against the afore-mentioned king (Arthur)” Foremost among them was Hueil, “the elder brother, an active warrior and most distinguished soldier, (who) submitted to no king, not even to Arthur.” Hueil would swoop down from “Scotland” (i.e. Pictland) and harass Arthur’s realm, bringing fire and sword to the southlands and carrying away spoils and renown. Finally, Arthur pursued Hueil and finally captured the pirate chieftain after a long pursuit. Arthur, in a “council of war held on the island of Minau” tried the barbarian raider and sentenced him to die. Hueil’s sentence was carried out on the island.[34] Geraldus Cambrensis (1146 – c. 1223) supplements this account, telling us that, angered at Arthur’s actions, Gildas destroyed “a number of outstanding books” praising Arthur after hearing on the death of his brother, thus expunging him from history.

Hueil seems to be a genuine historical personage and is mentioned in several early Welsh sources. The Welsh Triads refer to Hueil as one of three “battle-diademed” warriors. As a stubborn Pictish warlord who refused to submit to Brittonic hegemony by land or sea, he may well have incurred Arthur’s special enmity.[35] Whether Hueil’s naval campaigns against Arthur included any of the four Dubglass battles is unknown, but given his execution on the Island after a drumhead court-martial, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

We have one last connection between Arthur and the Isle worthy of consideration, although it is admittedly tenuous. After the Battle of Camlann—the site of which is also hotly debated—Arthurian lore holds that the mortally wound ruler was borne away to the misty magical Isle of Avalon.[36]

During the Middle Ages and continuing on up until today, the general candidate for this mist-enshrouded realm has generally been Glastonbury. While today dry land, in the early sixth century Glastonbury would have been an island within the Brue Estuary and navigable by boat. Evidence on the ground indicates it was a tidal promontory, only approachable by narrow causeway and guarded by a clay rampart. A grave containing a dark age warrior of substantial stature, accompanied by a female skeleton, were unearthed here in the twelfth century and this was identified as King Arthur and Guinevere. Glastonbury was also supposed to have been the hiding place of the Holy Grail, placed there by Joseph of Arimathea. The site remained a popular tourist attraction until the Reformation, when the Abbey was sacked, its Abbot tortured to death by pious Protestants, and the graves desecrated and destroyed. In recent decades, scholars have come to doubt the identification of the graves and posited, without evidence, that it was all a hoax designed to enrich the abbey.

But Geoffrey of Monmouth, the first to mention Avalon, did not associate it with Glastonbury, or any other place. He did mention that Arthur’s sword Caliburn was forged on Avalon.[37] In the Vita Merlini, Geoffrey waxes more fantastic, perhaps spurred by an overindulgence in sacramental wine, and gives us more details. He mentions that it is “The Island of apples, which is called the Fortunate island” because it “produces all things for itself,” and that no one needs to till the soil, since all crops grow by themselves.

Moreover, it was governed by nine sisters, one of whom was Morgen, all skilled in the healing arts. Although this description of Avalon is more detailed, its location is still vague. Geoffrey tells us that, “to that place after the battle of Camblan we brought Arthur, hurt by wounds, with Barinthus leading us, to whom the waters and the stars of the sky were known.”[38] Geoffrey’s description does not sound like the island would be hidden in a marsh or fen, as Glastonbury certainly was. Moreover, citing “Barinthus” as the helmsman of the boat is thought to refer to a character who appears in accounts of Saint Brendan the Navigator, telling the saint of a wonderful island to the West.

While one may take it as a given that Geoffrey of Monmouth is far from being a reliable narrator, he is also known to have borrowed heavily from earlier Celtic folklore and tradition, rather than inventing things out of whole cloth and it is to these earlier gleanings of his we should devote our attention, rather than his literary fictions. When he describes an island being reached by a pilot who is skilled in celestial navigation and knowledgeable of ocean currents, lying somewhere west of mainland Britain, Glastonbury quickly recedes as a candidate and the Isle of Man grows proportionally.

Avalon had the repute of being the “Fortunate Isle,” a place of abundance where food grew on its own and needed no cultivation, an isle where its inhabitants enjoyed great longevity, ruled over by an order of wise women renowned for their healing skills. It was a fruitful realm, abundant with groves of apple trees and, indeed, one etymology ascribed its name to mean, “the isle of apples.” Since it was also the place where Arthur’s sword was forged, one may assume it was sufficiently rich in iron-ore deposits to allow a swordsmith to ply his trade.[39] Another French author, not directly influenced by the Breton-Norman traditions, also described it as a place abundant in gold as well.[40]

It is easy enough to see how such a place may grow in the telling and retelling into a magical fairyland, especially in hands of the fertile Celtic imagination. But it is also not hard to imagine that Manx sailors, farmers and craftsmen, eager to promote their island as a center of trade and commerce, might promote its fresh fruit, abundant grain, fish and other foodstuffs, as well as its flowing fresh water streams, to weary wayfarers upon the western seas in search of a safe haven to refit and restock their depleted stores. That a famed warrior, suffering from grievous injuries in battle, might be shuttled to an isle known as the abode of an order of female healers is not a proposition without merit.

While the close association of Man with Arthur might be dismissed by those who choose to deny Arthur a place in history, the island’s military and naval importance highlighted in these traditions are not necessarily dependent on a belief that a person so named actually existed in late 5th/early 6th century Britain. While in another paper we do make the case for Arthur’s historicity, we should also point to one theory that the name Arthur, in the context of the late 5th century, may well have been a nom de guerre and not the Christian name of a leader of the Britons, making all etymologies, pro or con, irrelevant to the argument.

To round out the strategic importance of the island, we may take note of occasional references to the Isle of Man in more accepted historical sources. They are fleeting accounts, and one wishes the annalists and chroniclers had been forthcoming about the subject in their entries.

The Ulster Annals record a second Saxon raid on Ireland for AD 471, but whether this involved the Isle of Man is unknown.[41] Alternately, the date for the second Saxon incursion may be misplaced, for while no Saxon source mentions this attack, one Saxon chronicle does mention a naval action in the Irish Sea around AD 500, which in turn could have been part of a more general campaign in the Severn Sea, perhaps culminating at the Battle of Badon. If a Saxon fleet was indeed rampaging around the Irish Sea at this time, it is not hard to see how the Isle of Man would also have been involved.

An entry in the Ulster Annals for AD 503 mentions an attack on Man by the Irish king Aedhan, which is curious, since Aedhan mac Gabrain, King of the Dal Riata Scots, had not been born yet. One editor of the Annals concluded that the entry should be placed later in the century, around 581-2 and that it in fact records a reconquest of the isle, which had been seized some years before by the Ulster warlord Báetán mac Cairill.[42] When Baetan died in 581, Aedhan, who had alliances with both the Britons and the King of Leinster, took his large fleet and moved against the Ulstermen dispossessing them around this time. By this time, Irish kings were thoroughly Christianized; Irish and British rulers were often united through dynastic marriage. In Aedhan’s case, although King of the Dal Riata Scots, his mother was a British princess and he was one of the Celtic sovereigns who at this time named their sons after Arthur, the famed last ruler of unified Britain.[43]

Although Edwin of Northumbria made a brief attempt to seize the island in AD 632, until the coming of the Vikings the island seems to have had British princes ruling it, although the common folk undoubtedly remained linguistically and culturally closer to the Irish than the Cymry of Wales.

Throughout the first millennium, despite different masters at different times, the island remained a strategic base for any seeking mastery of the Irish Sea. The preponderance of evidence, such as it is, indicates that this held true in the Brittonic Period as it did in later eras.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See, Christopher Coleman, Britain’s Best Bulwark: Brittonic Seapower in the Age of Arthur, Chapter 10, forthcoming.

[2] Flavius Vegetius Renatus, Epitoma de Rei Militari, IV, cap. 37; Paul D. Emanuele, Vegetius and the Roman Navy, MA Thesis, (Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia, 1974), 28. Many modern authors, wishing to use Vegetius for the Roman Army of the 3rd-4th centuries, have preferred to date his work too early; for an in depth discussion of the dating of the book’s composition, see Emanuele, 6-12. Also see my discussion in Britain’s Best Bulwark, Chapter VIII, “The Pendragon Navy.”

[3] Historia Brittonum, c.38

[4] When, who, and how many, Roman soldiers actually departed the island and its defenses is a thorny question which experts still vehemently argue over. The general trend has been to minimize the actual disruption so romantically portrayed by Victorian nationalist historians. To be sure, an army did depart Britain ca. AD 405/406 (not in 410) under the usurper Honorius III, but this would have been a field army (comitatenses) and not composed of limitanei, the local border garrisons tasked with the mundane but vital role of protecting the frontiers. Ironically, Honorius’ army was probably composed in large part of barbarian mercenaries such as the Saxons. The literature on this issue is extensive, but just to mention a few, see: H. E. M. Cool, “Which ‘Romans’; What ‘Home’? The Myth of the ‘End’ of Roman Britain” in Fiona K. Haarer, ed., AD 410: The History and Archaeology of Late and Post-Roman Britain (London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 2014), 13-22;

[5] “and took possession of many regions, even to the Pictish confines” HB ibid.

[6] See Helena Hamerow, Excavations at Mucking Volume 2: The Anglo-Saxon settlement, (English Heritage Archaeological Report 21), (London: English Heritage/British Museum Press, 1993).

[7] Vita Germani cap. 17; cf. Wilhelm Levison, ed., “Vita Germani episcopi Autissiodorensis auctore Constantio”, in: B. Krusch and W. Levison (eds.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (IV), MGH SS rer. merov. 7, (Hanover and Leipzig: 1920), p.283

[8] George Woods, An Account of the Past and Present State of the Isle of Man, (London: Robert Baldwin, 1811), Book III, Chapter I, 328. Of course, Mananan was also a Celtic god, venerated by both the Irish and the pagan British, but he was considered by all the protector of the island and numerous myths are told about him and his relationship to the island. The actual ruler’s name had obviously been forgotten (or deliberately expunged) by the earliest hagiographers. Moreover, a second saint, an imaginary “Germanus of Man” was later invented to account for the presence of Germanus of Auxerre on Man at this time: a saint whose origins and date are virtually identical to Germanus of Auxerre, but who is instead made subservient to the Irish patron saint.

[9] See F. A. Patterson, “Roman Wales and the Votadini” Welsh History Review, Vol. 7 No 2 (Dec. 1979), 221.

[10] Lewis Morris, discussing Cunedda, relates that “Selden in Mare Clausum, p. 251, concludes from his driving the Scots out of all the islands…that he must have very great strength in shipping.” Celtic Remains, (London: Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1878). Unfortunately, later authors have not followed up on this observation.

[11] N. K. Chadwick, in D. Moore, Ed. The Irish Sea Province in Archaeology and History, (Cardiff: Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1970), 68-69.

[12] Bob Carswell, “The Castles and Forts of the Isle of Man,” via Culture Vannin site: https://www.culturevannin.im/special/castles/Castles%20and%20Forts%20of%20the%20Isle%20of%20Man%20-%20General%20Introduction.pdf.

[13] See John T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies, (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007), Map §15.3: “The Penine-Solway Region Later Prehistory and Roman Period.” As noted above, even in carefully excavated sites, distinguishing between Roman and post-Roman occupations is very difficult and earlier surveys tended to assume that Roman cultural material culture ended in the 4th century, whereas modern experts now recognize that many such sites were still in active use into the sixth century.

[14] However, there have been some post Roman burials, excavated at Balladoole and Peel Castle; they are referred to as “pre-Viking,” and analysis indicated foreign migration to the island: K. Hemer et al, “No Man is an island: evidence of pre-Viking Age migration to the Isle of Man” Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 52, (December, 2014), Pages 242-249.

[15]  Laura Hebert “Porty y Candas: A Manx site with similarities to Irish ringforts” Journal of the University of Manitoba Anthropology Student’s Association (JUMASA) Vol. 30 (2012) 1-8; H. Mytum, 2014 “Excavations at the Iron Age and Early Medieval Settlement of Port y Candas German.” Proceedings of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society Vol. 12 No.4 (2014)), 650-665.

[16] Bernard Bachrach, “The Questions of King Arthur’s Existence and of Romano- British Naval Operations” The Haskins Journal 2, 19. Bachrach notes however that the scribes of the Vatican Recension, an outlier among the various editions of the Historia Brittonum, saw fit to modify the text of chapter 56 to exclude this novel naval interpretation of the text.

[17] Bachrach, “Romano-British Naval Operations,” 23. Bachrach follows Jackson in believing that all the battles were fought in the north of Britain; the present author, while accepting most of Bachrach’s arguments, is not in agreement with him on this issue.

[18] Nikolai Tolstoy, “Early British History and Chronology” Transactions of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorian, 1964, pg. 308.

[19] It should also be noted that not just Caerleon (Isca Augusta), but Chester (Deva Victrix) and York (Eboricum) were all sited on navigable rivers and were probably served by naval detachments when they were Roman bases—and likely afterwards as well. Even if Tolstoy’s suggestion is disregarded, the thesis that the battle at Urbs Legionis was a naval or amphibious engagement is not disproven. Caerleon is at the mouth of the Usk, and even if the fortress itself had been abandoned at this time, it would still have been a port of some importance in the fifth century.

[20]  Hector Chadwick and Nora Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, vol.1 (Cambridge University Press, 1932), p. 155; Jackson, ‘Arthur of History,’ in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, p. 7.

[21] Historia Brittonum, c.56.

[22] William F. Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, 9   1868), Chapter IV, 53; also see John S. Stuart-Glennie, “Arthurian Localities, their historical origin, chief country, and Fingalian relations,” in Henry B. Wheatley (Ed.) Merlin or The Early History of King Arthur: A Prose Romance, Vol. I (London: Kegan Paul, 1899), Chap. III, lxxi*.

[23] Charles Hardwick, On Some Ancient Battle-Fields in Lancashire and their historical, legendary, and aesthetic associations, (London: Simpkin Marshall & Co, 1882), 1-31.

[24] Leslie Alcock, Arthur’s Britain, (London: Penguin, 1987), 66; M. K. Wade “King Arthur of Somerset: early battles above the River Divelish” kingarthursomerset website: https://kingarthursomerset.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/king-arthur-of-somerset-early-battles-above-the-river-divelish/

[25] K. H. Jackson, “Once Again Arthur’s Battles,” Modern Philology 43 (1945), 46-47.; also see Caitlin (“Thomas”) Green, “Lincolnshire and the Arthurian Legend” Arthurian Notes & Queries 3 http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/notes&queries/N&Q3_ArthLincs.pdf.

[26] William Camden, Britannia (London: 1695; trans. by Edmund Gibson, 1722) Vol. II, 1441/1442.

[27] “the smuggling trade was to Douglas what the slave trade became later to Liverpool,” John Quine, The Isle of Man (Cambridge County Geographies), (Cambridge: University Press, 1922), 109. In the fifth and sixth centuries, one may assume that piracy occupied the place of pride smuggling later assumed, as we know more certainly for the ensuing period of Viking ascendancy.

[28] George Woods, An Account of the Past and Present State of the Isle of Man, (London: Robert Baldwin, 1811), 114.

[29] Camden, Britannia, 1447/1448; Woods, Account, 79. One may safely assume that in the Brittonic Period traditional Manx boats, regardless of function, would have been closer to those of Camden’s day in size and capacity than Woods’.

[30] Woods, Account, 103;

[31] George Broderick “Pre-Scandinavian Place-Names in the Isle of Man” http://docs.exdat.com/docs/index-73563.html VIA EXDAT.COM (via EXDAT.COM, a Manx website).

[32] Woods, Account, 103, 105-106.

[33]  See P. G. Rogers and J. D. Davies, The Dutch in the Medway, (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2017).

[34] Caradoc of Llangarfan, The Life of Gildas, (ca. 1130-1150),  cap.5; after translation in Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/1150-caradoc-lifeofgildas.asp. Elis Gruffudd, Welsh writer of the Tudor era, recorded a bawdy variant of the feud between Arthur and Hueil, reducing it to rivalry over a woman and placing the site of the beheading in Wales.

[35] Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein, 2nd Ed., University of Wales Press, 1978, p. 409

[36] Geoffrey of Monmouth Historia Regum Brittaniae (AD 1136), XI.2; Lewis Thorpe translation, (Penguin Classic edition, Hammondsworth, 1966), 261. Geoffrey’s account is a simple factual statement of him taking ship to the island; later writers added more fabulous details to elaborate on this.

[37] Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia, ix.4; Thorpe, 217.

[38] Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, l.907-919, 928-930; Emily Rebekah Huber (Translator), “Avalon from the Vita Merlini” Camelot Project, Robbins Library Digital Projects, University of Rochester (2007).

[39] Both Copper and Iron Ore were mined in ages past, and the island also produced silver and lead in commercial quantities in the nineteenth century: Moore, A History of the Isle of Man, 960.

[40] See “Le Couromement de Louis” (ca. AD 1155): “n’l voldreit estre por tot l’or d’Avalon,” F.M. Warren, Modern Language Notes, Vol. XIV, No.2, (Feb. 1899), 96.

[41] AD 471 “Praeda secunda Saxonum de Hibernia ut alii dicunt, in isto anno deducta est, ut Maucteus .i. Mochtae dicit. Sic in Libro Cuanach inueni.” Hennessy translates this as: “the second prey of the Saxons from Ireland, as some say, was carried off in this year, as Maucteus (i.e. Mochtae) states. So I find in the Book of Guana.” Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Mavis Cournane, The Annals of Ulster, CELT online edition U471.1 for original text; W. B. Hennessy, Ed. & Translator, Annals of Ulster, Otherwise Annals of Senat, a Chronicle of Irish Affairs from AD 431 to AD 1540, (Dublin: HMSO, 1887), 23. Also see Ethelwerd’s Chronicle, AD 500, in Giles, Old English Chronicles (London: George Bell, 1906), 7.

[42] William M. Hennessy, Annals of Ulster, or Annals of Senat, A Chronicle of Irish Affairs from AD 431 to AD 1540, Vol. I (Dublin: HMSO, 1887), 35

[43] Bedwyr L. Jones, “Gwriad’s Heritage: Links Between Wales and the Isle of Man in the Early Middle Ages”, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1990, 39.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Lubienietsky_Comet_Crisis

 

The bay-trees in our country are all wither’d

And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;

  The pale-faced 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  by scholars for centuries.  They have long debated the cause of its political collapse; academicians often focus on the how of the empire’s fall and occasionally the why of it’s demise; while regarding the who, there remains a long list of culprits. But in recent decades a spirited debate has arisen over when, exactly, Classical civilization ended. And, it so happens, depending on the answer to that question, also affects the how and why, as well as the who.

The last nominal emperor in the West was deposed in 476 AD and that is often cited as the dividing line, but in truth the Roman political system was in decline for a long time before that and, as Professor J. B. Bury pointed out long ago, when the last puppet emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was overthrown, most assumed there would be some figurehead placed on the throne to replace him. “Not with a bang, but a whimper,” best describes what transpired.  Moreover, the status quo of barbarian-Roman relations in the West, as chaotic as it was, remained more or less stable for over a generation or so.

In the East, the Imperial government continued without cessation under Justinian the Great. Justinian is generally regarded as both the first ruler of the Byzantine era and the last emperor of the Classical era. The period of his reign thus straddles the transition from Classical to Medieval. Sort of.

Yet even the East suffered a massive trauma and near collapse in the sixth century. 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. Ancient civilization did end and the Middle Ages, at least in the West, proved to be a very different period than that which preceded it. So, Justinian’s reign was the when, to be sure; but why and how did the ancient world come to an end and who or what was responsible?

Artist's conception of ancient volcano
Artist’s conception of ancient volcano, such as the one which some say ended the ancient world, in American and in Europe

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 written sources which might otherwise illumine things for us, the period following Classical Civilization’s 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 millions—perhaps even more than the Black Death did in the late Middle Ages and the Black Death is widely acknowledged to have led to the end of Medieval Civilization.

But what sparked the famines and plague? Ah, here is where we start to get towards the bottom of the abyss–or do we? While famine and plague were certainly proximate causes of the Classical collapse, socially, economically and perhaps politically, in recent decades it has gradually dawned upon some researchers that a singular natural catastrophe may have triggered all these disruptive human events.

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

Traditionally, historians base their accounts on literary sources which, unfortunately, often result in the same sources being used to prove opposing viewpoints.  In the case of Justinian, one author, Procopius, wrote one book that was sycophantic praise of the emperor, as well as another that was a vicious back-biting criticism of him. Two-faced doesn’t begin to describe Procopius, but even this important eye-witness hints at strange things happening in the heavens at this time.

Dark days, obscured suns, celestial events, crop failures and a host of strange phenomena; Procopius and others recorded these and other portents, but historians for generations ignored what they had to say. In recent decades some scientists have taken note of these observations and begun going back into ancient accounts and taking a closer look at the scientific data.

In particular, scientists have studied ice cores going back many millennia, and more recently have analyzed sequences of tree rings dating back into the Neolithic and beyond, and as a result of scientific evidence have observed anomalies in the geophysical record which all cluster around the middle of the sixth century AD. The preponderance of evidence points to a climatic event of staggering proportions.

This is not theory but scientific fact. This environmental event was severe and it lasted for a number of years–a decade or more.  This event triggered massive famines worldwide; and where famines occur, plagues are not far behind. In a sense, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ended Classical Civilization.

But what was this singular event that triggered a worldwide climatic crisis?  Here’s where things 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 community, was one of the first to observe 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 trauma. This shift in the tree ring pattern transcends locale: the change was noticeable in Irish tree rings, in those from Germany, from the US, as well as other places in the world; all the change centered around ca. the AD 630-645  time frame.

Moreover, 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 volcanic activity was the effect, not the cause. He concluded that either there was an impact, or the near-earth grazing, by a large cometary body, which in turn triggered the 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 have not warmed to his ideas about catastrophic events causing culture change.  Their wariness is not without reason. It goes back to the radical theories of a scientist named Immanuel Velikovsky. Back in the 1950’s Mr. V had argued something similar to Baillie and then proceeded to rewrite history—something historians really don’t like scientists doing.

Well, in fact, Velikovsky’s cosmetology was all wrong and his theories rightly dismissed since then as hare-brained or crackpot.  But what Velikovsky did right was to comb through a welter of ancient sources for references to celestial events–real events for the most part. Velikovsky also combed through myths and legends in the form of fire gods and dragons, which were often how ancients often described real natural events. Then, when the hard science began to emerge about a comet and asteroids affecting earth, some (not all) of his citations began to not look so absurd after all.

Today, Catastrophists still reject Velikovsky’s basic premises as bad science. But researchers combing through his citations of the ancient sources have also found much that has proven of value.

Every year we pass through the debris of various comets–seasonal meteor showers. These displays, while beautiful to watch, are mostly harmless.  One such meteor shower, the Draconid, is particularly interesting, because dragons were a common ancient metaphor for comets.

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 very well collectively have spewed enough space dust, meteors and Tunguska-like fragments to trigger a prolonged climatic crisis. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it–and so are other reputable scientists.

The proverbial “dirty snowball” of AD 536 and ensuing other close calls around that time 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. He believes this eruption ended ancient civilization. Baillie’s theory holds a comet or series of comets to blame, whose gravitational pull may have in turn set off the eruption.

However, besides the skepticism of traditional 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 Classic Mayans but of Classical Civilization in Europe as well.

That a massive eruption occurred was well known. The giant caldera of  Lake Ilopango 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 scientific journals Prof. Baillie has published in, or the specialized books which 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. To be sure, Baillie’s theory does have flaws. For example, 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 dendrochronology 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 super volcano, 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 other media.

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 could trigger volcanic events; certainly the reverse cannot be true.  So, while Dr. Dull’s arguments seem persuasive, his is not necessarily the only explanation.

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 at one scientific conclave, later reported in the 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 publications 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.

From time to time, catastrophes of staggering proportion do strike without warning and when they do, humans are virtually powerless 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 seems, rather, that nature’s fickle hand can intervene without warning to jumble things up from time to time for us poor mortals.

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.

 

 

 

The Real Dance of the Dragons

The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis.  From a 15th century copy of Nennius' Historia Brittonum.
The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis. From a 15th century copy of Nennius’ Historia Brittonum.

 

In George R. R. Martin’s magnum opus, Songs of Fire and Ice, the latest published volume, A Dance With Dragons, as well as in the similarly named episode of the television series, makes passing reference to a curious tale about a young knight who attempts to slay a dragon by using a polished shield, thinking the dragon will see only its own reflection; the young knight is burned to a crisp for his efforts.  It turns out that this short tale is but part of a much larger fictitious history, called “The Dance of the Dragons, A True Telling” relating to a previous civil war in the realm of Westeros between members of the previous dynasty, the Targaryens.  It turns out that there are various versions of both the knight’s tale and the happenings alluded to in the referenced (non-existent) book.  Although at present a minor part of Martin’s fantasy mythos, the referenced history itself provides a foundational understanding to the later happenings of the realm that Martin has clearly modeled on medieval Great Britain.

As with other elements in his historical fantasy, Martin has borrowed story elements and motifs from actual British history and rewove them into his sub-creation which has now become a best selling phenomenon.  Although it plays but a minor role in his epic, it is not hard to see that it is heavily influenced by the semi-legendary real foundation myth of the Britain.  As one of Martin’s characters relates, the dragons (actually personifications of the warring members of the Targaryen dynasty) are not really “dancing” so much as warring with one another.  In this regard, the allegory is much closer to its British archetype than I think either fans of Martin, or academic historians of Dark Age Britain, may be willing to concede.

In Nennius’ Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, after the massacre of the Elders of Britain and uprising of the Saxons, the discredited monarch Vortigern retreats westward fearing both rebellious subjects and the mutinous Saxons and decides to build a castle with his remaining loyal followers at Dinas Emrys in Wales.  However, the masons are continually thwarted, as whatever they construct during the day is mysteriously undone at night.  Vortigern’s “wise men” tell him that a human sacrifice is needed to undue the magic spell cursing the site where he is trying to build a stronghold.  A boy born without any human father must be killed and his blood sprinkled over the site.  In due course such a child is found, but as he is about to be slaughtered he astounds the King and counselors with his own prophetic vision.

Another medieval illustration of the "Dance of the Dragons" as rendered in Nennius.  Egerton 3028 BM ms.
Another medieval illustration of the “Dance of the Dragons” as rendered in Nennius. Egerton 3028 BM ms.

The wunderkind proclaims that only he can solve the mystery of the collapsing castle.  He instructs the kingsmen to dig into the ground, where they uncover a pond; he then instructs them to drain the pond, where they uncover two dragons, red and white, who proceed to duel one another.  The astonishing vision is explained by the prophetic child as symbolic of Britain: the Red Dragon represents the Welsh, the white one the Saxons and the two “dragons” will fight for possession of the land of Britain until the Red Dragon at last vanquishes the White, but not after much bloodshed and destruction.  Such, in short is the tale, although Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others disagree on a number of details.

Not surprisingly, historians have dismissed the story as utter nonsense, labeling Nennius’ entire history as “pseudo-history” and Geoffrey’s—well they never did have much faith in Geoffrey of Monmouth as a historian anyway.  While clearly framed in mytho-poetical terms, the story relates some basic historical realities, albeit much disguised and distorted; however, that is beyond our main point here.  The Prophecy of the Two Dragons as related by Welsh tradition is in fact the basic foundation myth of Great Britain and as such transcends whatever historical realities which may be disguised in the story.  In later times it would be referenced again and again to cite one faction or claimant’s legitimacy, or lack thereof.  Not surprisingly, when Henry Tudor (or to give the Welsh spelling, Twdwr) fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he carried not the English St. George’s cross into battle, but rather the Red Dragon of Wales as his battle standard.  So as not to leave any doubt about his partisanship for the Welsh cause, Henry (in English terms Henry VII) named his first son Arthur, so that, as the ancient Welsh prophecy foretold, Arthur would once day rule again over a united Britain.  Unfortunately, though Henry VII ended the English Civil War—the War of the Roses—Arthur did not become king again, and the Welsh prophecy remains to be fulfilled.

It is easy enough to dismiss the Prophecy of the Two Dragons as pure fantasy, like George Martin’s works; but Welsh legends and myth generally have a factual basis, if one is willing to spend some time unraveling the entangled truth (most academics are not so inclined) and, more importantly, this legend has had a far deeper cultural impact on British history than any historical details which may be gleaned from it.  At a later date I may detail the historical background underlying the Legend of the Two Dragons, although it is convoluted and bound to stir disagreement as to interpretation; but for now let us just appreciate the foundation myth as myth and George R. R. Martin’s creative appropriation of it

British History and the Game of Thrones

Songs of Fire and Ice series of books by George R R Martin were the basis for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.
Song of Fire and Ice series of books by George R R Martin were the basis for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

In honor of the start of the latest season of the popular sword, sex and sorcery television series, Game of Thrones, we will depart from our regular agenda of discussing what some regard as the equally fabulous Age of Arthur, and discuss the relationship between George R. R. Martin’s best selling novels and actual medieval history.  He has, with some justification, been labeled “the American Tolkien.”

Martin has acknowledged that much in his violent series of books is modeled on British history, although he has obviously tweaked the fantasy elements quite a bit—but even here he has borrowed more generously from Celtic British folklore and myth as well.  George actually comes from a Sci-Fi background, having won numerous accolades for his legitimate Science Fiction work.  Upon a time, the aficionados of Sci Fi and those of Fantasy never met: the science geeks looked down on the sword and sorcery bunch, priding themselves on basing their works closely on scientific theory.  Indeed, it often turns out that Sci Fi writers have been hard put to keep ahead of scientific fact, so rapidly have the speculations of fiction writers been turned into mundane science.  Perhaps that may have motivated the veteran Science Fiction writer Martin to turn to the “dark side” (so to speak) of Fantasy.  At any rate, with millions of fans hungering for more books to come out in the series, no one these days is complaining about his having betraying the “purity” of Science Fiction writing for Medieval Fantasy.

 

While we can’t cover the entire spectrum of Martin’s fantasy world, we will touch on one or two motifs and elements which are clearly borrowed from British history.  Obviously, the civil war which absorbs most of the series emulates the later medieval conflicts such as the Baron’s War and more closely the War of the Roses.  The similarity of the “House of Lannister” to the House of Lancaster virtually goes without saying, although not necessarily their sadism and incest.  The bloodthirsty course of the wars and the often equally violent acts of the subsequent Tudor dynasty are scarcely less replete in gore than their fictional counterparts.

One chapter which stunned television audiences in particular was the episode known as “the Red Wedding.”  For reasons best known to George, his wedding scenes tend towards the murderous and the Red Wedding is one aptly named, as drenched in gore as it is.  While others may take issue with me on this score, I cannot help seeing in this episode a strong reflection of an event famous in Welsh history, although English historians prefer to believe it never happened: the Brad y Cyllyll Hirion, translated alternately as “The Treachery of the Long Knives” or “The Massacre of the Elders of Britain.”  The incident occurred when Vortigern, the first ruler of a united Britain after the departure of the Romans, had come to become dependent on a mercenary army composed of German barbarians—the Saxons.  As was typical in the fifth century AD, their leader, Hengist, had ingratiated himself with the sovereign, to the point where Vortigern married Hengist’s daughter, Rowena, and become a virtual puppet ruler.  The Britains, unlike the Romans on the continent, however, did not meekly submit to barbarian domination.  Ambrosius, a Romano-British general, had revolted but was defeated and forced into exile.  Meanwhile, Vortigern, ever the skilfull politician, had cobbled together a compromise, reconciling Celt and Saxon.  The compromise was to be celebrated at a feast, which tradition holds was held near Amesbury.  However, at a pre-arranged signal, the Saxon warlords, ostensibly unarmed, drew knives from under their cloaks and attacked the Celtic “Elders”—the Senate that governed Britain under the elected sovereign.  Only a handful of native British leaders escaped the massacre and the Saxons followed their treachery by widespread pillaging, looting and rape.  Such, at least, is the Welsh version of the story.  Every since, any act of political deceit or treachery on the part of the English against the Welsh has been figuaratively referred to as the Brad y Cyllyll Hirion.  It does not take too much imagination to picture the treacherous massacre of the Red Wedding as borrowed in substance from Welsh historical tradition.

Also borrowed from Welsh lore is the central role of the Raven in the epic series of books: communication over vast distances is done by ravens, not messenger pigeons; likewise, one of the stark boys is called Bran, which is Welsh for raven, a bird with strong supernatural and prophetic ties in Welsh myth and legend.  We shall delve more deeply into Bran and his antecedents in a futrue essay, but for now, suffice it to say, the name strongly suggests supernatural powers of second sight and prophecy.

 

Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister for the television adaptation.
Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister for the television adaptation.

Well, a new season of mayhem, murder and naughtiness is upon us.  I leave one and all to enjoy Game of Thrones and await George R. R. Matin’s latest offering in print

 

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