Grandpa Kewl

Book Review – Arthur Of Britain

I picked up this book while on vacation in British Columbia and read it in its entirety during the vacation.

An enormous number of books have been written about King Arthur and his knights. This book, long out-of-print, is the original and definitive “source book” of the actual textual evidence related to the legend. I’ve read a number of the other books and this one is a “must read” for one interested in the topic. What is most important and significant is simply the rather sparse amount of original and actual writings that refer to Arthur.  It is a wonderful study of how myths develop from actual events…meaning that yes, I do accept the actual historical existence of the man who came to be known as King Arthur. Now as for all the knights etc….those are less reliable and much more debatable.

The text is a bit challenging to follow without constant reference to a map of the historical areas of England and France. I decided to do without that constant reference and just be a bit confused by all the place names. Another source of confusion is the translations of place names and persons names from the various dialects that were spoken at those times.

One of the dependable, at least to me, sources of confidence in the stories is that they are told by the bards who lived at the times. I love the bards…..they have been the real keepers of the traditions of the folk everywhere.

From the author: “Normally man attempts to bind the Gods to himself by such devices as sacrifice, ritual tendance and prayer.”

Of special interest are a few direct quotes from the sources that I have been able to locate at

These full text excerpts are included here:

Letter to Riothamus

Sidonius Apollinaris
Letter to Riothamus, King of the Britons, c.470

Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius (since the thirteenth century he has come to be known simply as Sidonius Apollinaris) was born in Lyons c.431 and died c.489. He was born into a senatorial family to whom, he says, high office almost seemed a hereditary right, and, in keeping with his family’s tradition, he served, for a time, as city prefect of Rome and became Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, c.470. He had the privilege of witnessing the decay and final demise of Roman civilization in the west and the beginnings of the new medieval society that would replace it. Because of his high station, it seems that there was hardly a person of distinction who lived during this time with whom he did not have some contact, either personal or written.

One of Sidonius’ correspondents was a man named Riothamus, said by Jordanes, a sixth century historian of the period, to be “king of the Brittones.” This Riothamus has been identified by some investigators (notably G. Ashe and L. Fleuriot) as the historical original for King Arthur, and the significance of this letter is that it places this “king of the Brittones” in Gaul in the early 470’s, in the very time period when Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur’s Gallic campaigns taking place (1).

An important issue, here, is the meaning of the term “Brittones:” does it mean Bretons or Britons? If the word means Britons, people from the island nation of Britain, then the implication is that a British king, crossed the English Channel and was holding court in Gaul. Taken in conjunction with the sixth century testimony of Jordanes’ “Gothic History” and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s quasi-historical “History of the Kings of Britain,” a reasonably convincing case can be made that Geoffrey’s Arthur and Jordanes’ and Sidonius Apollinaris’ Riothamus are really the same person.

On the other hand, if “Brittones” means Bretons, natives of the land of Brittany, then the Arthur-Riothamus equation begins to unravel. So, which is it, Britons or Bretons? Depending on which translator you read, either meaning is possible, so we get no help, there. But, there is something in the text of Sidonius’ letter which may assist us in finding out whether Riothamus is king of the Britons or king of the Bretons.

The letter, written in the late 460’s or early 470’s, is an appeal to Riothamus, whom Sidonius apparently knows to be a fair-minded and honourable ruler, for justice for “an obscure and humble person,” who has suffered a wrong. The wrongdoers, in this case, are Bretons who are enticing the man’s slaves away, perhaps encouraged to do so by the slave-owner’s own meekness and vulnerability. The Bretons are armed, aggressive and numerous and he, unarmed and impecunious, is no match for them.

Perhaps this unfortunate man came to Sidonius for justice in his capacity as Bishop of Clermont, but, as we learn from the letter, Sidonius commends his case on to Riothamus. We get no hint that there is anything irregular or unusual in his doing so, and we are left to conclude that ordinary due process is being done. The Gothic History of Jordanes tells us that Riothamus, king of the Brittones, came at the head of a 12,000 man force at the behest of Anthemius, the Roman Emperor, to aid in combatting the Visigoths. If Riothamus had come across the Channel from Britain to Gaul, he would have had no interest or jurisdiction there and could not be expected to be a part of any normal judicial process. But, it could be argued that since Riothamus was in Gaul at the behest of the Roman Emperor, he was the Emperor’s de facto representative in that area and, as such, had full legal jurisdiction. But that view doesn’t withstand close scruting since there already was an imperial prefect in Gaul, a man named Arvandus.

Our problem of Riothamus’ presence in Gaul and questionable legal jurisdiction goes away if he is a Breton, rather than a Briton. In the late 450’s, there were mass migrations of upper-crust Britons from Britain to Brittany. Some scholars of the period have made Riothamus the leader of that wave of migrations and the founder of the dynasties of the Breton kingdom of Dumnonie (2). If a Breton, Riothamus had a perfect right to be located there, north of the Loire, and would have been the obvious person to whom Sidonius should refer a grievance involving other Bretons.

I will write once more in my usual strain, mingling compliment with grievance. Not that I at all desire to follow up the first words of greeting with disagreeable subjects, but things seem to be always happening which a man of my order and in my position can neither mention without unpleasantness, nor pass over without neglect of duty. Yet I do my best to remember the burdensome and delicate sense of honour which makes you so ready to blush for others’ faults. The bearer of this is an obscure and humble person, so harmless, insignificant, and helpless that he seems to invite his own discomfiture; his grievance is that the Bretons are secretly enticing his slaves away. Whether his indictment is a true one, I cannot say; but, if you can only confront the parties and decide the matter on its merits, I think the unfortunate man may be able to make good his charge, if indeed a stranger from the country unarmed, abject and impecunious to boot, has ever a chance of a fair or kindly hearing against adversaries with all the advantages he lacks, arms, astuteness, turbulences, and the aggressive spirit of men backed by numerous friends. Farewell.

Gothic History

An Excerpt from the Gothic History, 6th Century

Jordanes was of Gothic descent and wrote the “Gothic History” as a summary of Cassiodorus’ much longer treatment of their history. Because Cassiodorus’ book no longer survives, Jordanes’ sixth century treatment is often our only source for some of the events it describes, and is generally believed to be quite reliable.

The excerpt below tells of a request made to the Britons, by the Roman Emperor Anthemius, for help in battling the Visigoths. The British responded by sending Riothamus, King of the Britons, along with 12,000 men to the aid of Rome. The Romans failed to arrive on time, leaving the British forces to do battle with Euric of the Visigoths, alone. Euric won the battle, killing most of the British army.

The theory has been advanced, most convincingly by Geoffrey Ashe, that King Riothamus is the “original” of King Arthur. The theory states that Arthur is merely the figure upon which has been hung, over the years, the real historical exploits of others. Whether or not that is the case is an open question, still, but the historically significant thing about this account is that 12,000 British men were sent overseas to battle a foe of Rome when their attention, it could be argued, should have been on the battles with the Saxon invaders raging on their own home territory.

Theodorid (King of the Visigoths) died in the thirteenth year of his reign.

His brother Euric succeeded him with such eager haste that he fell under dark suspicion. Now while these and various other matters were happening among the people of the Visigoths, the Emperor Valentinian was slain by the treachery of Maximus, and Maximus himself, like a tyrant, usurped the rule. Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, heard of this and came from Africa to Italy with ships of war, entered Rome and laid it waste. Maximus fled and was slain by a certain Ursus, a Roman soldier.

After him Majorian undertook the government of the Western Empire at the bidding of Marcian, Emperor of the East. But he too ruled but a short time. For when he had moved his forces against the Alani who were harassing Gaul, he was killed at Dertona near the river named Ira. Severus succeeded him and died at Rome in the third year of his reign. When the Emperor Leo, who had succeeded Marcian in the Eastern Empire, learned of this, he chose as emperor his Patrician Anthemius and sent him to Rome. Upon his arrival he sent against the Alani his son-in-law Ricimer, who was an excellent man and almost the only one in Italy at that time fit to command the army. In the very first engagement he conquered and destroyed the host of the Alani, together with their king, Beorg.

Now Euric, king of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent change of Roman Emperors and strove to hold Gaul by his own right. The Emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Brittones for aid. Their King Riotimus came with twelve thousand men into the state of the Bituriges by the way of Ocean, and was received as he disembarked from his ships.

Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them with an innumerable army, and after a long fight he routed Riotimus, king of the Brittones, before the Romans could join him. So when he had lost a great part of his army, he fled with all the men he could gather together, and came to the Burgundians, a neighboring tribe then allied to the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized the Gallic city of Arverna; for the Emperor Anthemius was now dead.

Welsh Battle Poem

Elegy for Geraint
Welsh Battle Poem, c.500

The poem below, found in the “Black Book of Carmarthen,” is an English translation (believed to be accurate) of a sixth century Welsh battle poem written in praise of Geraint, a Dumnonian king, who fell during the conflict with the Saxons. The significant thing about the poem is that it is not a wild, legendary tale of one of Arthur’s deeds, but mentions him only in an incidental way.

While this does not absolutely prove Arthur’s reality, it does indicate that his name was synonymous, at least as early as the sixth century, for prowess in battle. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, in its entry for the year 501*, reports the event this way:

Port and his two sons, Bieda and Maegla, came to Britain at the place called Portsmouth, and slew a young Welshman, a very noble man

Scholars believe that the Llongborth mentioned in the poem is, in fact, the Portsmouth of the Chronicle entry and that Geraint is the “young Welshman” who was killed, there. In those days, the term Welshman was used by the Saxons to refer to the Britons, in general, and did not denote a person from present-day Wales.

* According to John Morris’ book, “The Age of Arthur,” dates given in the early parts of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle are believed to be about 20 years off, due to an error by the 8th century historian, Bede, in dating the Adventus Saxonum, the coming of the Saxons. If true, then the Battle of Portsmouth (Llongborth) may have taken place as early as 480.

Before Geraint, the enemy’s scourge,
I saw white horses, tensed, red,
After the war cry, bitter the grave

Before Geraint, the unflinching foe,
I saw horses jaded and gory from battle,
After the war cry, a great driving force

Before Geraint, the enemy of tyranny,
I saw horses white with foam,
After the war cry, a terrible torrent.

In Llongborth I saw the rage of slaughter,
And biers beyond all number,
And red-stained men from the assault of Geraint.

In Llongborth, I saw the clash of swords,
Men in terror, bloody heads,
Before Geraint the Great, his father’s son.

In Llongborth I saw spurs,
And men who did not flinch from the dread of the spears,
Who drank their wine from the bright glass.

In Llongborth I saw the weapons,
Of men, and blood fast dropping,
After the war cry, a fearful return.

In Llongborth I saw Arthur’s
Heroes who cut with steel.
The Emperor, ruler of our labour.

In Llongborth Geraint was slain,
A brave man from the region of Dyvnaint,
And before they were overpowered, they committed slaughter.

Under the thigh of Geraint swift chargers,
Long their legs, wheat their fodder,
Ruddy ones, swooping like spotted eagles.

Under the thigh of Geraint swift chargers,
Long their legs, grain was given them,
Ruddy ones, swooping like black eagles.

Under the thigh of Geraint swift chargers,
Long their legs, restless over their grain,
Ruddy ones, swooping like red eagles.

Under the thigh of Geraint swift chargers,
Long their legs, grain-scattering,
Ruddy ones, swooping like white eagles.

Under the thigh of Geraint swift chargers,
Long their legs, with the pace of the stag,
With a nose like that of the consuming fire on a wild mountain.

Under the thigh of Geraint swift chargers,
Long their legs, satiated with grain,
Grey ones, with their manes tipped with silver.

Under the thigh of Geraint swift chargers,
Long their legs, well deserving of grain,
Ruddy ones, swooping like grey eagles.

Under the thigh of Geraint swift chargers,
Long their legs, having corn for food,
Ruddy ones, swooping like brown eagies.

When Geraint was born, Heaven’s gate stood open;
Christ granted all our prayer;
Lovely to behold, the glory of Britain (Prydain).

Burial Discovery

Gerald of Wales
Two Accounts of the Exhumation of Arthur’s Body

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis, as he is sometimes known) was a well-known churchman of the twelfth century and the author of seventeen books. He was born in either 1145 or 1146 of three-quarters Norman and one-quarter Welsh extraction, in Manorbier, Pembrokeshire, South Wales. He was the great-grandson of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the Prince of South Wales (on his mother’s side), and the son of William de Barri, a Norman knight. He was self-described as strikingly handsome and quite tall. He possessed boundless energy, strong personal skills and a firm belief in his own ability and importance.

One of his uncles, David FitzGerald was made Bishop of St. David’s in 1148, an event which provided young Gerald with his life’s goal. His ultimate desire was to be consecrated as Bishop of St. David’s, without having to acknowledge the supremacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then to have the Pope elevate his bishopric into the Archbishopric of St. David’s. Although, in his long life, he was never able to satisfy this ambition, it was not for want of effort, as he focused all his considerable energies toward it from the late 1170’s through the early days of the reign of King John.

In the course of things, he was offered, but refused to accept, four other bishoprics in Ireland and Wales, and, thus had to content himself with the lesser post of Archdeacon of Brecon, which he described by saying,

“In this most temperate area I myself have been appointed to a post of some importance, to use the jargon with which we are all so familiar, but it affords me no great promise of wealth and certainly no expectation of ever playing my part in the tragic pomps and ceremonies of this world.

Because of his Norman blood and connection with Welsh royalty, Gerald was well acquainted with those in power, and had many opportunities to serve at the highest levels of twelfth century society. No doubt, it was in connection with that service that he was at Glastonbury in 1190 to witness the uncovering of a grave, said to be that of King Arthur. Gerald refers to Arthur as being a famous, local ruler but never even hints that he might have been a king of the intercontinental proportions suggested by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

Gerald wrote two accounts of this event which are given below. He is generally regarded to be a reliable historian and there is no reason to doubt that he did witness the opening of a grave at the Abbey, over 800 years ago.

From “Liber de Principis instructione” c.1193
The memory of Arthur, that most renowned King of the Britons, will endure for ever. In his own day he was a munificent patron of the famous Abbey at Glastonbury, giving many donations to the monks and always supporting them strongly, and he is highly praised in their records. More than any other place of worship in his kingdom he loved the Church of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, in Glastonbury, and he fostered its interests with much greater loving care than that of any of the others. When he went out to fight, he had a full-length portrait of the Blessed Virgin painted on the front of his shield, so that in the heat of battle he could always gaze upon Her; and whenever he was about to make contact with the enemy he would kiss Her feet with great devoutness.

In our own lifetime Arthur’s body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending, that he had resisted death and had been spirited away to some far-distant spot. The body was hidden deep in the earth in a hollowed-out oak bole and between two stone pyramids which had been set up long ago in the churchyard there. They carried it into the church with every mark of honour and buried it decently there in a marble tomb. It had been provided with most unusual indications which were, indeed, little short of miraculous, for beneath it, and not on top, as would be the custom nowadays, there was a stone slab, with a leaden cross attached to its under side. I have seen this cross myself and I have traced the lettering which was cut into it on the side turned towards the stone, instead of being on the outer side and immediately visible.

The inscription read as follows:


There are many remarkable deductions to be made from this discovery. Arthur obviously had two wives, and the second one was buried with him. Her bones were found with those of her husband, but they were separate from his. Two thirds of the coffin, the part towards the top end, held the husband’s bones, and the other section, at his feet, contained those of his wife. A tress of woman’s hair, blond, and still fresh and bright in colour, was found in the coffin. One of the monks snatched it up and it immediately disintegrated into dust.

There had been some indications in the Abbey records that the body would be discovered on this spot, and another clue was provided by lettering carved on the pyramids, but this had been almost completely erased by the passage of the years. The holy monks and other religious had seen visions and revelations. However, it was Henry II, King of England, who had told the monks that, according to a story which he had heard from some old British soothsayer, they would find Arthur’s body buried at least sixteen feet in the ground, not in a stone coffin but in a hollowed-out oak bole. It had been sunk as deep as that, and carefully concealed, so that it could never be discovered by the Saxons, whom Arthur had attacked relentlessly as long as he lived and whom, indeed, he had almost wiped out, but who occupied the island [of Britain] after his death.

That was why the inscription, which was eventually to reveal the truth, had been cut into the inside of the cross and turned inwards towards the stone. For many a long year this inscription was to keep the secret of what the coffin contained, but eventually, when time and circumstance were both opportune the lettering revealed what it had so long concealed.

What is now known as Glastonbury used, in ancient times, to he called the Isle of Avalon. It is virtually an island, for it is completely surrounded by marshlands. In Welsh it is called ‘Ynys Avallon’, which means the Island of Apples and this fruit used to grow there in great abundance. After the Battle of Camlann, a noblewoman called Morgan, who was the ruler and patroness of these parts as well as being a close blood-relation of King Arthur, carried him off to the island, now known as Glastonbury, so that his wounds could be cared for. Years ago the district had also been called ‘Ynys Gutrin’ in Welsh, that is the Island of Glass, and from these words the invading Saxons later coined the place-name ‘Glastingebury.’ The word ‘glass’ in their language means ‘vitrum’ in Latin, and bury’ means ‘castrum’ or ‘civitas’.

You must know that the bones of Arthur’s body which were discovered there were so big that, in them, the poet’s words seem to be fulfilled:

All men will exclaim at the size of the bones they’ve exhumed (Virgil, “Georgics,” I.497)

The Abbot showed me one of the shin-bones. He held it upright on the ground against the foot of the tallest man he could find, and it now stretched a good three inches above the man’s knee. The skull was so large and capacious that it seemed a veritable prodigy of nature, for the space between the eyebrows and the eye-sockets was as broad as the palm of a man’s hand. Ten or more wounds could clearly be seen, but they had all mended except one. This was larger than the others and it had made an immense gash. Apparently it was this wound which had caused Arthur’s death.

From “Speculum Ecclesiae,” c.1216
In our own lifetime, when Henry II was reigning in England, strenuous efforts were made in Glastonbury Abbey to locate what must have once been the splendid tomb of Arthur. It was the King himself who put them on to this, and Abbot Henry, who was later elected Bishop of Worcester, gave them every encouragement.

With immense difficulty, Arthur’s body was eventually dug up in the churchyard dedicated by Saint Dunstan. It lay between two tall pyramids with inscriptions on them, which pyramids had been erected many years before in memory of Arthur. The body was reduced to dust, but it was lifted up into the fresh air from the depths of the grave and carried with the bones to a more seemly place of burial. In the same grave there was found a tress of woman’s hair, blond and lovely to look at, plaited and coiled with consummate skill, and belonging, no doubt, to Arthur’s wife, who was buried there with her husband.

The moment that [he saw],this lock of hair, [one of the monks], who was standing there in the crowd, jumped down into the deep grave in an attempt to snatch hold of it before any of the others. It was a pretty shameless thing to do and it showed little reverence for the dead. This monk, then, of whom I have told you, a silly, rash and impudent fellow, who had come to gawp at what was going on, dropped down into the hole, which was a sort of symbol of the Abyss from which none of us can escape. He was determined to seize hold of this tress of woman’s hair before anyone else could do so and to touch it with his hand. This was a fair indication of his wanton thoughts, for female hair is a snare for the feeble-minded, although those with any strength of purpose can resist it.

Hair is considered to be imperishable, in that it has no fleshy content and no humidity of its own, but as he held it in his hand after picking it up and stood gazing at it in rapture, it immediately disintegrated into fine powder. All those who were watching were astounded by what had happened. By some sort of miracle, not to say. . ., it just disappeared, as if suddenly changed back into atoms, for it could never have been uncoiled and examined closely. . .this showed that it was even more perishable than most things, proving that all physical beauty is a transitory thing for us to stare at with our vacant eyes or to grope for in our lustful moments, empty and availing nothing. As the philosopher says: ‘Physical beauty is short-lived, it disappears so soon’ it fades more quickly than the flowers in springtime.

Many tales are told and many legends have been invented about King Arthur and his mysterious ending. In their stupidity the British people maintain that he is still alive. Now that the truth is known, I have taken the trouble to add a few more details in this present chapter. The fairy-tales have been snuffed out, and the true and indubitable facts are made known, so that what really happened must be made crystal clear to all and separated from the myths which have accumulated on the subject.

After the Battle of Camlann. . .killed his uncle. . .Arthur: the sequel was that the body of Arthur, who had been mortally wounded, was carried off by a certain noble matron, called Morgan, who was his cousin, to the Isle of Avalon, which is now known as Glastonbury. Under Morgan’s supervision the corpse was buried in the churchyard there. As a result, the credulous Britons and their bards invented the legend that a fantastic sorceress called Morgan had removed Arthur’s body to the Isle of Avalon, so that she might cure his wounds there. According to them, once he has recovered from his wounds this strong and all-powerful King will return to rule over the Britons in the normal way. The result of all this is that they really expect him to come back, just as the Jews, led astray by even greater stupidity, misfortune and misplaced faith, really expect their Messiah to return.

It is worth noting. . .just as, indeed. . .placed by all, as. . .are called islands and are known to be situated in salt water, that is to say in the sea. It is called Avalon, either from the Welsh word ‘aval’, which means apple, because appletrees and apples are very common there, or from the name of a certain Vallo who used to rule over the area long ago. In remote times, the place used to be called ‘Ynys Gutrin’ in the Welsh language, that is the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows round it in the marshland. As a result, the Saxons who occupied the area later on called it ‘Glastonia’ in their language, for in Saxon or English ‘glass’ corresponds to the Latin word ‘vitrum’. From what I have said, you can see why it was called first ‘the Isle of Avalon’ and then ‘Glastonia’. It is also clear how this fantastic sorceress came to be adopted by the story-tellers.
It is worthy of note that the Abbot called. . .also from the letters inscribed on it, although they had been almost obliterated long ago by the passing of the years, and he had the aforesaid King Henry to provide the main evidence.

The King had told the Abbot on a number of occasions that he had learnt from the historical accounts of the Britons and from their bards that Arthur had been buried in the churchyard there between two pyramids which had been erected subsequently, very deep in the ground for fear lest the Saxons, who had striven to occupy the whole island after his death, might ravage the dead body in their evil lust for vengeance. Arthur had attacked them on a great number of occasions and had expelled them from the Island of Britain, but his dastardly nephew Mordred had called them back again to fight against him. To avoid such a frightful contingency, to a large stone slab, found in the tomb by those who were digging it up, some seven feet. . .a leaden cross had been fixed, not on top of the stone, but underneath it, bearing this inscription:


They prised this cross away from the stone, and Abbot Henry, about whom I have told you, showed it to me. I examined it closely and I read the inscription. The cross had been attached to the under side of the stone and, to make it even less easy to find, the surface with the lettering had been turned towards the stone. One can only wonder at the industry and the extraordinary prudence of the men of that period, who were determined to protect at all costs and for all time the body of this great man, their leader and the ruler of this area, from the possibility of sudden desecration. At the same time they ensured that at some moment in the future, when the troubles were over, the evidence of the lettering cut into the cross might be discovered as an indication of what they had done.

. . .it had indicated, so Arthur’s body was discovered, not in a stone sarcophagus, carved out of rock or of Parian marble, as would have been seemly for so famous a King, but in wood, in an oak bole hollowed out for this purpose and buried deep in the earth, sixteen feet or more down, for the burial of so great a Prince, hurried, no doubt, rather than performed with due pomp and ceremony, as this period of pressing disturbance made only too necessary.

When the body was discovered from the indications provided by King Henry, the Abbot whom I have named had a splendid marble tomb built for it, as was only proper, for so distinguished a ruler of the area, who, moreover, had shown more favour to this church than to any other in his kingdom, and had endowed it with wide and extensive lands. By the judgement of God, which is always just and which in this case was certainly not unjustified, who rewards all good deeds not only in Heaven above but on this earth and in our terrestrial Iife. . .,
church. . .others of his kingdom. . .the genuine [remains] and the body. . .of Arthur to be buried in a seemly fashion. . .and gloriously. . .and. . .inhumed.

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