Sunday, October 30, 2011

Article: In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part One

Updated: 30.10.11

In these blogs I'd like to share my thoughts on my approach to looking for an 'original' historical Arthur.  This I have mainly been doing for an idea for a screenplay I'm working on.  I have written three already but haven't been totally happy with any of them, so I'm going back to basics and doing more research.  This has certainly come out as a much longer piece than I intended, which is why it's another multi-part blog.
King Arthur was Irish!?
I wanted to start, not with the Historia Britonnum, but with the known Hiberno-British/Hiberno-Brittanian (or Cambro-Irish) Arthurs of the 6th and 7th centuries and try to work forward and back from them.  What, I questioned myself, might have given rise to the kings of these areas giving their sons the name, as well as the mention of Arthur in the northern British 7th century (plus later additions) collection of poems, Y Gododdin? I realise there can only be possibilities and probabilities in the argument, but I'm attempting, though I may not succeed, to find an hypothesis that is a probable one, or certainly a believable one.  Of course, just because something is more probable and believable, doesn't make it the truth.
Assuming, just for the moment, that one of these Arthurs/Artúrs wasn't the 'original', which some argue one was, I'm starting with Occam's Razor, whilst keeping in mind that such a device might well be blunted by the stubble of time.  This 'razor' would probably first say that he has to be one of these known figures, but it could also say (if it was a double bladed affair) that they were given the name because, if there was an 'original' Arthur before them, they were of the same ethnic origins as he, or there was some identification with him by them.  This is not to say he was Irish (Hibernian) per se, but possibly of mixed race in an Hiberno-British region, or a region of such descent.  Such a person, of course, could have been born at one of several locations on the western seaboard from Cornwall to Clydesdale or Kintyre.  We know through inscribed stones that there were Hibernians or Hiberno-Britons on the islands, especially in what is now southwest Wales, and there are two 5th and 6th century 'Irishmen' known as far east as Roman Wroxeter (Viriconium Cornoviorum) in modern day Shropshire, and Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) in Wiltshire:
  • Wroxeter: CVNORIX | MACVSM/A | QVICO[L]I[N]E, 'Cunorix son of Maqui Coline' (c.460-475, Wright/Jackson/1968)
  • Silchester – EBICATO[S]/[MAQ]I MUCO[I—], 'of Ebicatus, son of the tribe of … ' (c. 500-700, Fulford/Clarke/1999 or 350-425, Fulford et al 2000).
We've no idea who these gentlemen were or what they were doing there, but they were there.  They could be warriors, they could be monks
There is very little to go on when searching for Arthur before the Historia Brittonum – 'History of the Britons' (H.B.) ca 828. and the Annales Cambriae – 'Annals of Wales' (A.C.) ca 970, but there are some clues.  Let's start with a reminder of (or an introduction to) who these 'other' HIberno-British Arthur's were and, firstly, where the Hiberno-Britons/Cambro-Irish regions lay.
Arthur (Artur/Artúr/Artuir) names of the Hiberno-British regions
The main regions where early Hiberno-Britannians (Goidelic speaking residents of Britain) or Hiberno-Britons (of mixed race) were resident were:
  • The Western Isles and western Scotland.
  • Northwest Wales
  • Southwest Wales
  • South central Wales
  • Southwest Devon
  • Northwest Cornwall

Only one of these regions would see their language remain: those of western Scotland. Those in Wales left the most traces through inscribed stones (especially in the southwest) and some place names. Cornwall has a number of Irish saints. The only part of the western seaboard that seems to not have had these early settlers are Cumbria and Lancashire. This could simply be because the Isle of Man lay between, which they did colonize. There are, of course, different theories to the existence of Goidelic (Early Gaelic) speakers in Britain and these range from settlers/raiders from Hibernia (Ireland) to there having always been Goidelic speakers in these regions. The jury's still out.
Why the Hiberno-Britons (descendants thereof or inhabitants of these areas) of the 6th and 7th centuries might give their princes the (generally accepted) British name Arthur (Gaelic Artur/Artúr/Artuir) two or three generations after Arthur of Badon's supposed death, whilst the British/Welsh did not until the 13th century has been debated many times.  I am of the opinion, based on the evidence as I see it, which I'll show during these blogs, that if they were named after an 'original' Arthur, who wasn't one of these, it was for a very good reason and a reason that was more than just taking a fashionable name or that of a god, or because the Brittonic speaking Britons wouldn't take the name out of respect or awe (Higham, 2002, Green 2007). It didn't stop them using the names Constantine or Caradoc (or variants thereof) on numerous occasions.
However, why those who were once his supposed enemy would take the name is anyones guess, whether Arthur was also an Hiberno-Briton or Hiberno-Britannian himself or not.  But we don't think with a 6th century warrior's mind and perhaps his unsurpassed martial prowess was enough; or, they were not his enemy at all at the time, or not all the time, but allies against the Picts.  After all, we actually have no evidence that those of the west of Scotland were the enemy in the late 5th century. (Bede says they didn't arrive until 500 AD, but the archaeological evidence disagrees). Those of the Cambro-Irish regions of southwest and northwest Wales seem to have been the enemy, or some of them, if the stories of Tewdric expelling Irish from southwest Wales and Cornwall are true and if Cunedag (Cunedda) from Manau Gododdin (southwest Fife) did indeed fight against those of the northwest.  Even if he didn't, a later 'Welsh' king supposedly did. But there were Hibernians and there were Hibernians: raiders and settlers … and, possibly, Goidelic speaking Britons.
The Dalriadians (Dál Riata) of the Western Isles of Scotland did become the enemy of their British 'cousins' yet they still continued to take the name … and still the 'royal' Britons weren't using it as far as we can tell.
A simple answer, and one Richard Barber (The Figure of Arthur, 1972) came to, is that the legendary Arthur is based on one of these.  (He obviously had a very sharp Occam's Razor!). This certainly makes more sense than Arthur being Ambrosius Aurelianus (Reno, 1994), Riothamus (Alcock, 1975), Vortigern, or even Catellus = Cattigern = Vortigern = Riothamus (Pace, 2009).  However, it can only be one of these if Arthur was not of the 5th century and did not fight at Badon.  I'll explore this further in later blogs.
Why the name Arthur?
The use of the (thought to be) British name Arthur by the Hiberno-Britannians/Cambro-Irish is explained as follows in Bart Jaski's paper 'Early Irish examples of the name 'Arthur':
"That a British name is found among members of an originally Irish dynasty can be explained by ties of marriage. The sources suggest that Áedán had a British grandmother, mother and wife, and such connections may have been common among other members of the ruling families of Dál Riata. In this way, British names could be adopted by dynasties with Irish roots." (p.94)
However, there could be other reasons behind the name being used, which I'll explore in the coming blogs, starting with Artúr (Arturius) mac Áedán of Dál Riata (Argyle, Scotland). Born ca 570.
Thanks for reading,
52.860268 -3.063694

About badonicus

My real name is Mak Wilson … well, actually, that's my stage name and my real name is Malcolm Wilson. My work is in film and television as a puppeteer/actor/director/voice artist/writer but I also have a passion for the Early Medieval period ('Dark Ages') of Britain. Originally from Stanley in Co, Durham, I now live in Oswestry, Shropshire, on the English-Welsh border with my wife Fiona. We have four 'boys': Ben, Toby, Josh and Tom, as well as a wonderful black lab called Jet.
Posted by on March 7, 2011 in Arthur of the Britons

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