2 – DUX BELLORUM
In my last post I showed how several pieces of evidence, when placed in conjunction, confirm that Arthur was born in Tintagel, Cornwall. The question we now have to ask is when? The answer dwells within the pages of a single book given the rather mundane title of MS Harleian 3859 h. This lovely tome’s arrival into the public domain occurred back in 1753, when the Duchess of Portland, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, sold her family library to to the United Kingdom for £10,000. She was one of the Harley’s, a family of book-loving antiquarians that had over the years collected more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls.
These treasures are all now held by the British Museum, a rich seam of literary jewels such as the Harley Golden Gospels (made in Aachen c.800AD) & and the Prayerbook of Lady Jane Grey. There is also Harleian 3859h, a beautifully illuminated book that when it comes to deciphering the Matter of Britain is something of a Rosetta Stone, for it contains two of the oldest historical mentions of King Arthur. One of these, the Annales Cambrae, we shall look later on in the quest, but our immediate concern is a fascinating text known as the Historia Brittonum.
Nennius in his preface to the HB of 830, writes; ‘I, Nennius, a disciple of the holy Elbodugus have taken the trouble to write down some excerpts which the idleness of the people of Briton had caused to be throne aside… I, however, have made a heap of all that I have found, both of the annals of the Romans & of the chronicles of the holy fathers, & from the writings of the Irish & of the English & from the information handed down by the old men of our people.‘ This tells us that Nennius added nothing of his own research to the HB, which should be considered a compendium of earlier writing. Towards the end of the text (chapter 56 ) we encounter an important passage called the ‘Battle-List,’ in which Arthur is described as winning twelve militray victories against the Saxon invaders of Britain. Each of the numerous recensions of the HB offers a slightly different version of the list, so to simplify matters I have synthesized them into a single account, being;
At that time, the Saxons grew strong by virtue of their large number and increased in power in Britain. Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent.
Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons in those days, but Arthur himself was the dux bellorum. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror.
His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Lussas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was near the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon in which there fell in oneday 960 men from one charge by Arthur; 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.
And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.
Several 12th & early 13th century recensions of the HB state that the 6th century cleric known as St Gildas was involved in the HB, while Henry of Huntingdon writes, ‘These battles and battle-fields are described by Gildas the historian, but in our times the places are unknown.’ That Saint Gildas wrote Arthurian material is alluded to by Giraldus Cambrensis in his Description of Wales, who states that Gildas threw into the sea “a number of outstanding books” praising Arthur, as in; ‘With regard to Gildas, who inveighs so bitterly against his own nation, the Britons affirm that, highly irritated at the death of his brother (Hueil), the prince of Albania, whom king Arthur had slain, he wrote these invectives, and upon the same occasion threw into the sea many excellent books, in which he had described the actions of Arthur, and the celebrated deeds of his countrymen; from which cause it arises, that no authentic account of so great a prince is any where to be found.’
The battle-list tells us very little about Arthur, who appears not as a famous Excalibur-wielding king of Britain, but more a less-than-noble ‘Dux Bellorum.‘ This is a Roman-style military title meaning ‘Duke of Battles,’is similar to the Dux Britanniarum, the Roman general based in York responsible for guarding the north of Britain up to Hadrian’s Wall. The HB passage also gives us two concrete dates on which to fix the Arthurian period, based upon the Battle-List being sandwiched between two events verifiable by the beautiful English History known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC).
488 AD – ‘This year Esc succeeded to the kingdom; and was king of the men of Kent twenty-four winters.’ Esc was the son of Hengist, the death of whom opens the Twelve Battles chapter in the HB, as in ‘Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent.’ Common sense tells us that Esc (a variant name for Ochta) would have inherited the throne immediately after the death of his father.
547 – Ida began his reign; from whom first arose the royal kindred of the Northumbrians. Ida was the son of Eoppa, Eoppa of Esa. This presents us with a direct match to the Battle-List’s final sentences, as in; ‘And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba.‘
The successions of Esc & Ida form the two book-ends of the Arthurian period, which we can now assume took place between 488 & 547. A great many scholars have tried to place Arthur outwith this time period, from Lucus Artorius Castus (c.200 AD), to Arthur Mac Aedan (c.600 AD) – but I don’t really know how they could just ignore the oldest ‘official’ mention of Arthur we have. These scholars generally just dismiss historical texts with something like – ‘they were wrong‘ – & work out their own private theories regardless. A classic example is Michael Livingstone, who responding to a well-respected medieval chronicler’s work, which didn’t quite fit into the picture he was painting of the Battle of Brunanburh, shrieked;
If I can call anything a fact after such a long remove of time, I’m willing to stake a claim for this one: John of Worcester is wrong. Plain and simple. And, by extension, any hypothesis for Brunanburh that relies on his “eastern entry” for the invading force is similarly wrong… Brunanburh didn’t happen in the east, and a pox on that darn John of Worcester for giving anyone reason to think it so!
The thing is, you cant just do that. A modern police detective would laugh at such naivety; we must deal only with the facts, & if our oldest Arthurian historian says Arthur was active between 488 & 547, then all we can do is trust his word.