Thursday, 20 November 2014

Locating the 12 Great Battles of King Arthur: Part One

Nennius, in his Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), records a list of twelve great victories in battle during Arthur's time as Dux Bellorum.  He claims to have made 'a heap' from all the chronicles avaliable to him, although many believe that most of his material is mythical.  Some historians have argued that twelve battles is just too great a number for one man's lifetime and believe that the possible locations for these battles are just too widespread for a single leader to have fought in each.  Nennius writes about the battles fought by Arthur as follows:

Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain fought against the Saxons.  And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror.
The first battle in which he was engaged was at the mouth of the river Gleni.
The second, third, fourth and fifth were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas (Dubglas) in the region of Linuis.
The sixth on the river Bassas.
The seventh in the wood of Celidon, which the Britons called Cat Coit Celidon.
The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter.
The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion.
The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit.
The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion.
The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon.  In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance.
In all these engagements the Britons were successful.  For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.

Many historians and Arthurian experts have tried to link modern locations with those of these battles, although it is impossible to give positive matches.

The first battle in which he was engaged was at the mouth of the river Gleni.
There are two main contenders for the first battle at the river Gleni: the River Glen in Northumberland and the River Glen in Lincolnshire.  Unfortunately, the name Glen stems from the Celtic word for 'pure', so there were probably many rivers during the 6th century that had this name.

Yeavering Bell, a hillfort in Northumbria, near the town of Woller, overlooks a flat landscape where the River Glen flows into the River Till.  Some scholars have identified the meeting of these two rivers as the location of 'the mouth of the river Gleni.'  Excavations of Yeavering Bell have shown that it was occupied during the Arthurian period, making it a possibility that Arthur could have commanded his armies fighting the battle below.  It is believed that this battle would have been against the northward moving East Anglians.

However, some prefer the location of the River Glen in Lincolnshire.  This part of Britain was inhabited by the Angles and, being that Nennius sites four battles in the 'region of Linnuis', many scholars believe that Lincolnshire could also have been the location of the first battle.  This site appears to be more logical than Northumberland, purely because it seems to tie in better to the battles that followed.  However, some scholars disagree due to the many fens and swamps that cover Lincolnshire.  This battle is believed to have been against the first Bernician settlers.

A battle taking place at either of these locations could possibly be attributed to King Arthuis of the Pennines, who lived during the late 5th century.  Some do not agree that this battle can be attributed to Arthur.  There is a record of a battle which occurred at Yeavering in 632, when King Edwin's palace on the River Glen was burned by Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Wales.  It is possible that Nennius mistakenly attributed this battle to Arthur.

An alternative location for the first battle is Glen Water in Ayrshire at Darvel, although it has been suggested that this battle was not one against the Picts or Angles, but an internal power struggle.  Local legend, however, claims this as one of Arthur's battles, even dating it to 542.  But this date does not fit with the Battle of Badon, which has been given as 516.

The second, third, fourth and fifth were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas (Dubglas) in the region of Linuis.
The location of the second, third fourth and fifth battles which, according to Nennius, took place on 'another river... called Duglas in the region of Linuis' is the modern Douglas meaning 'black water'.  This means that it could be one of many rivers called Blackwater.  Rather than using the river's name to find the location, scholars have looked for the region of Linuis, which some have identified as Lincoln.  Lincoln was, during the Arthurian period, known as the Roman Lindum.  The surrounding area would then be known as Linnuis and is today known as Lindset.  While there is no River Douglas or Blackwater here, one of the waterways flowing from the muddy peat bogs could have been known as such.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, tells us that, when Arthur took the throne, he swore to rid Britain of the Saxon menace and set out to attack the Anglian stronghold at York.  On hearing this, the Deiran leader, Colgin, gathered an alliance of Saxons, Scots, and Picts before marching south to meet him.  The apparently clashed on the River Douglas.  Geoffrey also tells us of the Battle of Lincoln, possibly one of the successive battles taking place on the same river, which has been identified as Witham.

Another possible location is the River Douglas at Loch Lomond near Inverberg, which falls into the ancient province of Lennox.  The 2nd century geographer Ptolmy recorded the name Lindum with the Roman fort of Drumquhassle in the Lennox province.  This would have been a natural place for a battle to occur with the Picts invading the British territory of Strathclyde from the north, as in 750 with the Battle of Mugdock.  Skene's Celtic Scotland concludes that Lennox would be a fitting location:  'This was certainly one of the distincts about the wall called 'Guaul' which had been occupied by Octa's colony; and Nennius tells us elsewhere that Severus' Wall (Antonine Wall), which passed by Cairpentaloch to the mouth of the River Clyde, was called in the British speech 'Guaul'.

Again, some believe that this battle could be attributed to Arthuis of the Pennines.  Others believe that these battles may have been fought by Arthur ic Uibar, a possible derivative of Arthur's name.  Some have argued that Linnuis simply means Lake Region, therefore making other rivers, such as the Douglas near Wigan in Lancashire, the possible location.  More suited to the traditional Arthur are locations found in the south, including an imaginative identification with the Battle of Natanleag, which is now Netley in Hampshire, and the more convincing suggestion of the area around Ilchester in Somerset, which is the Roman Lindinis, possibly later corrupted to Linuis.  Flowing nearby is the River Divelish and Devil's Brook, which both derive from Dubglas.  It has been suggested that one of these may have marked the border of Dunnonia.

The sixth on the river Bassas.
 The sixth battle has only one convincing possible location.  Cambusland, in the southern suburbs of Glasgow.  This site already claims Arthurian associations as the burial place of Arthur's enemy, the Pictish chieftain Caw.  Some believe that he may even have been killed during this battle.  Early genealogies have listed Caw as the son of Gildas, while his daughter, Cwyllog, may have been the wife of Medrawt (Mordred).  This is a possible reference to a feud between the family of Gildas and King Arthur - a credible reason for Gildas' omission of Arthur's name from his work.

Though the name Bassas has not been satisfactorily traced, Cambuslang derives from the Latin camus-long meaning blight of ships, indicating that this could possibly have been, as suggested by Tlostoy, a sea-faring battle where one of the piratical brother's of Gildas met his end.

The seventh in the wood of Celidon, which the Britons called Cat Coit Celidon.
The seventh battle was identified by Geoffrey of Monmouth as having taken place in a wood just north of Lincoln.  However, it seems that Geoffrey may have been confused.  He tells us that this battle took place after the Saxon, Scottish and Pictish alliance fled north from the Battle of Lincoln, but Geoffrey does not seem to realise just how far they managed to travel before Arthur caught up with them and many identify the location as the Caledonian Forest in modern Scotland, then known as Coed Celyddon.  It could have originally stretched from the Solway to the Highlands, although Welsh tradition tells us that it reached the area of the Scottish border.  Tolstoy has narrowed the location to the borders of the present-day counties of Peebles, Lanark and Dumfries.  Here a Roman road crosses the mountains, making it an ideal location for a skirmish.  The enemy could have been a colony of Saxons from Dumfrieshire.

The Moffat region of Dumfrieshire, Penrith in Cumbria and Glasgow have also been suggested as possible locations for the Battle of Cat Coit Celidon.

This is another battle which may have been fought by Arthuis of the Pennines, who may have been fighting against the invading Scots.  It could also be a memory of the later Battle of Arfderydd, now known as Arthuret in Cumbria.  In 573, the British armies of King Gwendoleu of Caer-Winley and King Peredyr of Ebrauc fought a territorial battle over the fort of Caer-Laverock.  The battle is believed to be associated with Arthur because the original Merlin, or Myrddin, fled into the Celidon Forest after the battle.

That's all for today.  Next time we will look at the five remaining victories of King Arthur.

Useful Resources
Historia Brittonum by Nennius
Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth
The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend by Alan Lupack
Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot by Christopher Gidlow
King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend by Rodney Castleden

The Battles of King Arthur
King Arthur and His Battles

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