Category: Avalon and King Arthur
King Arthur's Twelve Battles
A discussion by David Nash Ford
The Welsh historian, Nennius, records twelve great victories in battle during Arthur's time as Dux Bellorum. Much of his material is mythical, however, and the magical number 12 does not sit well for historical evidence. Some historians have argued that this is too great a number for one man's lifetime, and their locations may well have been too widespread for a single leader to have fought in each.
Counteracting this view, some believe Arthur to have headed up a warband of cavalrymen traveling around the country and championing the British cause: hence his widespread popularity. True or not, it seems likely that, as with stories attached to the real Arthur, several of these battles may have been properly associated with alternative Arthurs or just with other great Dark Age heroes. A tendency towards Northern locations may strengthen this theory. Unfortunately identifying the location of the battles is a highly controversial pass-time.
"The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein": This has been tentatively identified as one of the two Rivers Glen in Britain today, one in Lincolnshire and one in Northumberland. Unfortunately, Glen stems from the Celtic for "pure", so there were probably many rivers thus named in 6th century Britain. A battle at the former would have presumably been against the first Bernician settlers and at the latter against the northward moving East Anglians. Either could be attributed to King Arthuis of the Pennines.
"The second, the third, the fourth and the fifthwere on another river, called the Dubglas, which is in the region of Linnuis": The River Dubglas is modern Douglas, meaning "black water". If the Saxons translated this directly, it might be any one of the many Rivers Blackwater around the country today. So, we must first turn to identifying Linnuis.
The 2nd century geographer, Ptolemy, recorded the associated name of Lindum at the Roman Fort of Drumquhassle in the Lennox area of Scotland. The River Douglas still runs into the nearby Loch Lomond, on the borders of Strathclyde. Could King Arthuis of the Pennines have fought the Scots or the Strathclyde Britons here?
The better known Roman Lindum, however, is now the city of Lincoln. The surrounding area would be Linnuis: it is still called Lindsey today. Unfortunately, there is no longer a River Blackwater or the like here, but one of the waterways flowing off the muddy peat moors could easily have been originally described as such.
Geoffrey of Monmouth indicates this as the correct identification. His chronicle relates how immediately Arthur came to the throne, he swore to rid Britain of the Saxon menace and so set out to attack the Anglian stronghold at York. Hearing of this, the Deiran leader, Colgrin, gathered together an alliance of Saxons, Scots and Picts and marched south to meet him. They clashed on the River Douglas. Geoffrey also describes an ensuing Battle of Lincoln, probably one of the successive battles on the same river, thus identifying it as the Witham.
Several of these ensuing battles may have been invented, however, to increase the number to the mysterious 12. Some theorists have argued that Linnuis simply means "Lake Region" and therefore other rivers, such as the Douglas near Wigan in Lancashire have been suggested. Southerly alternatives, more suited to the traditional Arthur, include an imaginative identification with the Battle of Natanleag, now Netley in Hampshire; and, more convincingly, the area around Ilchester in Somerset, the Roman Lindinis, which may have become corrupted to Linnuis. The River Divelish and Devil's Brook, both deriving from Dubglas, flow nearby. Perhaps one of them demarked the border of Dumnonia.
"The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas": Only one convincing possible identification appears to have been forthcoming for this battle: Cambuslang in the southern suburbs of Glasgow. This place already has Arthurian associations as the burial place of the great King's Northern British enemy, Caw. Perhaps he was killed in the battle. Other proposals include the Lothian coast near Bass Rock; Baschurch in Shropshire, Old Basing and an obscure identification with the Battle of Cerdicesford, now Charford, both in Hampshire.
"The seventh battle was in the Caledonian Forest, that is, the Battle of Celidon Coit": As well as unconvincing arguments for the Chilterns and the Sussex Weald, some follow Geoffrey of Monmouth in supporting a wood just north of Lincoln for the location of this battle. However, Geoffrey appears to have been confused. He informs us that the battle took place after the Saxon, Scottish and Pictish alliance fled north from the Battle of Lincoln. He does not seem to have realized just how far they managed to travel before Arthur finally caught up with them; for the seventh battle site can pretty certainly be identified as the Caledonian Forest in modern Scotland: Coed Celyddon.
It may originally have stretched from the Solway to the Highlands, but Welsh tradition indicates the area of the Scottish border. The Moffat region of Dumfieshire, Penrith in Cumbria or Glasgow have all been suggested. This could, again, have been King Arthuis of the Pennines fighting against invading Scots; or possibly this is a memory of the later Battle of Arfderydd, now Arthuret in Cumbria.
In 573, the British armies of Kings Gwendoleu of Caer-Winley and Peredyr of Ebrauc clashed here in a territorial quarrel over the fort at Caer-Laverock. The fight is particularly associated with Arthurian legend because the original Merlin or Myrddin fled, after the battle, into the Celidon Forest.
"The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his shield, and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was great slaughter upon them, through the power of Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother.": This quote suffers from the same problems as that for the Battle of Badon in the Annales Cambriae: the Welsh words for shield and shoulder being confused.
Geoffrey of Monmouth explains that Arthur bore armorial bearings of both cross and virgin: the arms later adopted by Glastonbury Abbey. Guinnion is another site that is difficult to identify. The name is very similar to the Roman fort of Vinovium at Binchester, Durham. Land's End, Caer Guidn in the British tongue, has also been proposed.
An interesting theory suggests a translation of the Saxon Battle of Wihtgarasburh, the Isle of Wight: Gwyn in Welsh. However, either of the walled towns called Venta by the Romans seem more likely. One became the modern Caer-Went in Gwent, the other Win-Chester in Hampshire. The latter was the location for a pre-Camlann battle between Arthur and his usurping nephew, Morded, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Modern historians suggest the Saxon invader, Cerdic, as a more likely enemy. An intermediate stage in the evolution of Winchester's name was the Romano-British Caer Guinntguic or Caer Guinn. -guic would be a corrupt form of -iog, a standard Celtic place-name ending. -ion was used similarly and, though there is no record of it, an acceptable alternative for the name would be Caer Guinnion, as with Caer Leir recorded as Caer Lerion and Caer Celef recorded as Caer Celemion. Caerwent is unlikely. The e never did change to an i.
"The ninth battle was in the City of the Legion": The Urbe Legionis or "City of the Legions" causes problems because there were two cities so called: Caerleon and Chester, at either end of the Welsh border. It is also possible that York bore such a title. The idea that many other Roman forts, like Carlisle or Exeter, once had similar names seems unlikely though; as does identification with the Battle of Dyrham. Chester was Caer Legion, while Caerleon was Caer Legion guar Uisc (that is "Caerleon-upon-Usk"), though the latter often lost its suffix.
Chester appears to be the likeliest candidate. It was actually recorded in the Annales Cambriae as Urbs Legionis and was the site of a well-attested Battle of Chester in Dark Age times. In 613, King Æthelfrith of Bernicia invaded the Welsh Kingdoms in order to stop King Iago of Gwynedd restoring the former's old enemy, Edwin, to the Deiran throne. The armies of Gwynedd, Powys, Pengwern & Dumnonia rose to repel him, but were bitterly defeated at the Battle of Chester: Kings Iago of Gwynedd &Selyf Sarffgadau of Powys being killed. This brave British stand against the Northern Saxons was probably transported back a hundred years to the time of Arthur.
"The tenth battle was on the bank of the river called Tribruit": Tribruit is more properly Tryfrwyd. The battle is mentioned in an eleventh century Welsh poem from the Black Book of Carmarthen, Pa Gur. Cai Hir (the Tall), Arthur's foster-brother of traditional legend, apparently fought there against a foe named Garwlwyd. Presumably therefore, Arthur, as Cai's patron in the poem, was the British commander at the battle. Some people identify it's location as the River Frew at Stirling; others, the River Ribble in Lancashire; the Severn at Gloucester or the Eden at Carlisle.
"The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned": Geoffrey of Monmouth identifies Monte Agned as Edinburgh and there appears to be little evidence to contradict him. The rock of Edinburgh Castle was certainly occupied at this time. It was a strategic point of some importance at the centre of the Kingdom of Gododdin. Perhaps the battle was connected with King Lot of Gododdin being one of the eleven kings who rebelled against Arthur at the beginning of his reign. Edinburgh alias Din-Eityn specifically relates to the settlement on top of the rock of course.
Geoffrey calls this the Castle of Maidens or the Dolorous Castle. There was apparently a 7th century Siege of Din-Eityn. Could this have been the real Battle of Mount Agned pushed back to Arthur's reign? More obscure proposed identifications include Brent Knoll, Somerset; Ribchester, Lancashire and Cirencester, Gloucestershire. A 10th century version of Nennius' History gives this battle the alternative name of Breguoin.
This may have been another of Arthur's victories. The name could be a corruption of Bravonium, a Roman name for Leintwardine in Herefordshire. This is conveniently situated for a possible battle involving King Athrwys of Ergyng, though the place was, more usually, called Branogenium. Alternatively, the name could stem from Bremenium, now High Rochester in Northumberland. Unfortunately, this is probably also the site of King Urien Rheged's Battle of the Cells of Brewyn, as mentioned in Welsh poetry. Arthur, therefore, erroneously claims another battle.
"The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's, and no-one lay them low save he alone.": It was at the Battle of Mount Badon that tradition says the Saxon advance into Britain was finally halted. It was Arthur's greatest victory and, not surprisingly, there are many claimants for its location. Forts are preferred since Gildas, in his De Excidio Britanniae", more properly called the battle a "siege" and nearby Rivers Avon strengthen claims.
Possibilities include Bowden Hill, Lothian; Dumbarton Rock, Strathclyde; Mynydd Baedan, Glamorgan; Little Solway Hill, Somerset; or Brent Knoll, Somerset. Modern theory, however, suggests one of the many Badburys Caer Baddon, or, at least somewhere in its vicinity. Bathampton Down has been suggested. Around the country: in Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. Liddington Castle, near Badbury in Wiltshire, seems most popular at present. Welsh tradition backed up by Geoffrey of Monmouth is, however, almost certainly correct in identifying the battle site with Bath,
Arthur's last battle, where he was fatally wounded, is not mentioned by Nennius. It is known to us from the Annales Cambriae as:"The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished". Over the years, it has been variously identified as being at Queen or West Camel on the River Cam, Somerset; at Slaughter Bridge on the River Camel in Cornwall; at Camelon, Stirlingshire or Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire.
Recent suggestions indicate Goring Gap on the Thames at the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border or Cadnam in the New Forest. Generally, however, modern historians recognize the battle-site as the Roman fort of Camboglanna, on Hadrian's Wall. The place is now called Castlesteads in Cumbria, though the place is often confused with nearby Birdoswald, now thought to have been Banna. However, this northern site appears unlikely for the traditional Arthur and there seems no good reason to look anywhere other than one of the three Welsh Camlans of today: the two Camlan Valleys in Southern Meirionydd and the River Gamlan in Southern Dunoding.
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