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 ill 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; despite decades of discussion, for example, there is still no academic agreement as to the chronology or precise sequence of events for the Brittonic era.[1]  However, 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 and that 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 any radical discontinuity in fifth century Britain.[3]

Similarly, many scholars have begun to question the whole ideology of the Anglo-Saxon Invasions, 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 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 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; and finally, later copies of material ascribed to St. Patrick’s authorship.[7]  Almost all other information exist either as transcriptions of the oral tradition or much copied (and thus corrupted) texts dating to the periods following; 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

However, 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 the unfavorable reputation for being “fertile in tyrants.” In each case, 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 in 514.[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 a great deal of circumstantial evidence indicates 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.

We do, in fact, have some 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 and not looking back to a previous era, as so much of Vegetius’ treatise does. While scholars may 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 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 traditions, much legitimate information may be gleaned from them.  Lastly, there is a growing body of archaeological and anthropological evidence which bear on the subject and which needs to be properly analyzed and interpreted freed from an anti-Brittonic bias.

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 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 viewing the indigenous folk of Britain as inherently weak and incapable of self-defense in the Brittonic Period, they should be viewed as active players in the history of their island and, despite the many challenges they faced, as being generally successful in their response to these challenges until at least the mid-sixth century.


Reconstruction sketch of Blackfriars 1
Reconstruction of the Blackfriars 1 vessel, built in the Celtic shipbuilding tradition.


More broadly, one should always keep in mind that the native folk of Britain and its adjacent isles throughout history were renowned as seafarers: as a corollary, unless there is positive evidence to the contrary, one should also posit them as skilled at naval warfare, eminently capable of both offense and defense at sea and that they were no less so during this initial era of British independence as they were in later periods.

One major aspect of Brittonic sea-power that has been overlooked or ignored is the fact of British expansion overseas during this period. It is well known that the Celtic British established colonies in northern Hispania and northwestern Gaul during this era and, moreover, participated in at least one direct 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 of Brittonic naval expertise in this history, should be regarded as a basic fact and 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 in published form to an interested readership.  Such a coherent narrative may well be disputed in its details or in its conclusions criticized, but ultimately it is preferable to make the attempt rather than continuing to allow so important an aspect of the Brittonic era to remain unexamined and ignored.[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, albeit marginally.  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”; 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).





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):

[4] Howard Williams, “Lindisfarne’s Landscape and Seascape,” Archaeodeath Blog, July 10, 2014:

[5] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “Tools Down” June 27, 2016:

[6] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “A Whale’s Tale” June 18th 2016:

[7] “Archaeologist’s Find St. Cuthbert’s Tower” Berwick Advertiser, July 12, 2016:

[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.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Crows and Men: The Mystery of Bran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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




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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