Deep in the confusion of the early Middle Ages, sometime between c. 540 and 600 AD, a group of Celtic warriors around three-hundred in number, set off from Scotland and headed south.
These warriors had been called together by Mynyddog Mwynfawr, King of the Gododdin, ruler of a territory that stretched from the Firth of Forth to as far south as the River Wear. These fighting men were selected from the patchwork of kingdoms that had once dominated the British Isles before the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon incursions in the 5th and 6th centuries.
The names and origins of these combatants speak of the plethora of now fallen kingdoms that once littered Britian including Gwynedd in Wales, the Kingdom of Elmet, an area around around Leeds, and ‘beyond Bannog’, an area between Stirling and Dumbarton.
The Battle of Catraeth
These fine warriors were summoned to Mynyddog Mwynfawr’s seat at Din Eidyn, a fortress on a rock believed to be the site of modern-day Edinburgh Castle, to be feasted. Then they set off on their journey to the region south now held by the Angles of Bernicia.
Their bold, and perhaps over-confident, intention was to attack a place called ‘Catraeth’, presumed to be modern-day Catterick, near Richmond, on the River Swale in North Yorkshire. Fighting against overwhelming odds, this brave Celtic company was either entirely, or almost entirely, destroyed in the battle that ensued.
This dramatic engagement, its heroic details and the names of the warriors slain, would have all but been forgotten had not someone, presumed to be Aneirin, a contemporary Brythonic poet, recorded the Battle of Catraeth in thrilling elegiac stanzas known as ‘Y Gododdin’.
Origins of Arthur?
But why then are we, in our pursuit of Arthur, interested in this early medieval poem that records events on a battlefield that fell silent at least 1,400 years ago?
One stanza in this heroic poem is of particular interest to us. This stanza has quickened the pulse and excited the minds of Arthurian scholars ever since the poem was first subjected to their scrunity. Its definitely worth reading the whole stanza which translates, lines leaping across the page, as follows;
‘He charged before three hundred of the finest,
He cut down both centre and wing,
He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,
He gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.
He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress,
Though he was no ARTHUR.
Among the powerful ones in battle,
In the front rank, Gwarddur was a palisade’
A. Jarman’s translation- Verse 38 of B Version
There we have it, words still quivering with emotion, the earliest reference, perhaps, to a historical Arthur.
Yet, unfortunately the search for Arthur is never quite as simple as it seems. Enthusiastic scholars have studied this passage in hope that this brief reference to Arthur can be verified as a tantalising clue to his reality. But, they have often ended up going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole in a vainless search. Let’s have a look at three different reasons why.
1. When was the poem composed?
The reason we’ve able to read and translate the poem in the 21st century, is that it was later written down, at least 700 years after the battle, in the late 13th century.
However, our existing manuscript is a copy of the pre-existing poem of ‘Y Gododdin’ and scholars simply cannot agree when the poem was first composed. If the poem was produced, most likely orally, soon after the battle, it would date from around 600 AD and we could say confidently that Aneirin was the creator.
This would mean the poem was created soon after the time Arthur was supposed to have lived and died (or have gone to sleep on Avalon). As a result, this would be strong evidence that the Arthur of myth was also an Arthur of historical reality.
But, some argue the poem originated much later in the 9th, 10th or even 11th century and thus any references to Arthur would be retrospective and based on the popular myth already developing from other sources.
2. How did the poem develop?
When our earliest surviving manuscript was written down in the late 13th century, it was part of a wider work known as the Book of Aneirin. This work draws on a fascinating melody of sources that only add to our confusion when dating our poem and working how Arthur came to be mentioned in it.
Between whatever date the poem was originally composed and its later 13th century recording, much change is likely to have taken place. This probably occurred when the poem was transmitted verbally by performers or when it was copied and written down by scribes.
In fact, some of the stanzas of ‘Y Gododdin’ are actually later additions, presumably added in this process of transmission and adaptation. The question is, was Arthur mentioned in the original poem or is he too a later add on to the piece?
3. The Book of Aneirin
When the Book of Aneirin was being written, its suggested two scribes were involved. We don’t know their names, so we’ll refer to them as Scribe A and Scribe B.
Scribe A started the writing. He wrote down a large proportion of the poem in Middle Welsh and then Scribe B, who it appears had access to an older manuscript, wrote down a smaller number of stanzas in Old Welsh, some containing new material and others a different version of the stanzas written by Scribe B.
These different versions of the same poem have slight variations and differ on the details and, most importantly, Arthur is only mentioned in one and not the other.
Arthur or Not?
So, after much investigation by scholars, we cannot confidently say that the ‘Y Gododdin’ contains the earliest reference to Arthur or that Arthur was only added later as the poem developed. But, all our excitement about Arthuriania has drawn attention to the fallen Celtic warriors at Catraeth who the poet describes as fighting despite the odds;
‘A hundred thousand opposed to three hundred men throwing,
weapons at each other,
splattered spears with blood,
They stood most valorously in the mighty action’‘The Most Innovative Text A’ (Koch and Carey)
Did Arthur really exist?
The road to questioning whether Arthur is was a real historical figure is well-worn and, at the present, no conclusive evidence can be drawn together to prove he actually existed.
But studying the Arthurian myth is still relevant as it allows us to
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- Highmas, Nicholas and Ryan, Martin, The Anglo-Saxon World (London, 2015)
- Bromwich, Rachel, ‘Concepts of Arthur’ Studia Celtica 10 (1975), pp. 163-181.
- Koch, John and Carey, John, The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales (Aberystwyth, 2003)
- Lupack, Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend (Oxford, 2005)
- Page from the Book of Aneurin , MS c. 1275. From the 1908 facsimile edition by J. Gwenogvryn Evans.