Since starting my PhD in January I’ve taken a bit of a break from my Arthurian Tradition series of blog posts because being immersed in fifteenth-century Arthurian literature for my thesis meant that hopping back to the early medieval Arthur felt a bit jarring! But now that I’ve nearly finished the first chapter of my thesis (well, almost!) I feel a bit of mental liberty to dive further back in time again. In the last post in this series I left you with the Historia Brittonum – an ostensibly ninth-century text detailing the abandonment of Britain by the Romans and the subsequent period of upheaval, plus Vortigern, his tower, and Merlin; and the heroic figures of Ambrosius and Arthur. This time we turn to the Annales Cambriae…
The Annales Cambriae (the Welsh Annals) were written in south-west Wales around 960-80 (somewhat ironically) in Latin. Who wrote them, why they were written or who they were written for are all things I’m finding very difficult to discover – I would be very grateful to anyone who can elucidate upon this. The earliest extant copy of them survives in British Library MS Harley 3859, folios 190r-193r, dating from the first half of the twelfth century and bound in the same manuscript as a surviving copy of the Historia Brittonum. There are several other copies of the Annales in later manuscripts.
Professor Ronald Hutton highlights the importance of the Annales to the development of the early Arthur because ‘it represents the first attempt to locate Arthur in exact time.’1 The project of placing Arthur within a specific chronological set of events reveals itself in two dates within the text: 516 and 537 (or 518 and 539, depending on the text’s base-line). On these given dates, the chronicle outlines two battles, offering the bare-bones of their geographical locations and the names of some of the battles’ participants, as follows:
516: ‘The battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders [or shield] for three days and nights and the Britons were victors.’
537: ‘The battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished, and there was death in England and Ireland.’
Arthur is figured in this text as Christian (outwardly at least), and presumably a warrior of some description to have fought at these two battles. We cannot tell if he is a king or battle leader from this passage, although the fact that he is mentioned by name suggests that he is an important figure. There is little else that can be effectively established from these entries, except that he won the first battle and lost his life at the second. We do not know if there is a familial relationship between him and Medraut, who is probably a prototype of the later medieval Mordred. Is he the illegitimate progeny of Arthur’s incestuous liaison as in subsequent literature? Were they on the same side, or adversaries?
The reference to Arthur bearing the cross on his shoulders or shield (the words for each are identical in Old Welsh) echoes the passage in the Historia Brittonum which states that Arthur carried the image of the Virgin Mary into battle, and it has been suggested that the compiler of the Annales Cambriae would almost certainly have read the Historia. Interestingly, It has been suggested that the entries for both battles in the Annales might have come from different sources, because the entry on Badon ‘gives the name of the battle, like the rest of the chronicle, in Latin, while that on Camlann gives it in Welsh.’ 2
In a later version of the Annales than the one found in the Harley manuscript, there is also another line pertaining to Arthurian legend:
573: The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.
Here an interpolation adds another element of the Arthurian legends in the form of Merlin, but intriguingly this is a good thirty-six years after Arthur is said to have died at the Battle of Camlann.
These passages provide us with the first mention of Medraut/Mordred, placing him in battle with Arthur, but whether by his side or against him is impossible to tell. Slowly then, we are starting to see the gradual development of the Arthurian legend over time and place.
(On a side note: my favourite entry in the Annales is for the year 721, which simply states ‘A hot summer.’ In Britain?! I find this almost harder to believe than the historical Arthur.)
Full text of the Annales Cambriae available at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/annalescambriae.asp
1 Ronald Hutton. “The early Arthur: history and myth.” The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend. Edited by Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. pp. 21-35 (p. 25).
2 Ibid., p. 26.
Bromwich, Rachel, ed. The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature. Cardiff: Cardiff University Press, 1991.
Dumville, D.N., ‘Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend’, History, (62): (1977),173-92.
Higham, N. J. King Arthur, Myth-Making and History, London: Routledge, 2002.
Hutton, Ronald. “The early Arthur: history and myth.” The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend. Edited by Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. pp. 21-35
Morris, John. British History and the Welsh Annals, Arthurian Period Sources 8. Chichester: Phillimore, 1980.