Arthur’s Nephew

Medieval readers had a choice of two versions of the fall of Independent Britain; an English perspective based on Bede, favoured and promoted by the monk Reformers, and a British perspective, brought to a non-British readership by Geoffrey of Monmouth but clearly derived from earlier British traditions. The former has gone on to form the basis of early English history to this day, the latter is now dismissed as legend. In Bede's version the dominion of the wicked British nation over the island was replaced by that of God's new Chosen People, the English, in pretty much a straight fight, one on one. Geoffrey's story, in contrast, involves a huge cast of characters: Picts, Scots, Huns, Norwegians, Danes, Romans and their many allies, Franks, Africans and of course, the Saxons. But these foreign nations, even in combination, would have stood no chance of taking over the island if the natives had remained united. It was civil war, and native treachery which gave Britain into the power of the Saxons.

It was treachery that destroyed the Arthurian Golden Age. Geoffrey tells us that it was Arthur’s own nephew, Mordred, who raised the flag of rebellion against him, taking advantage of his absence abroad, fighting off the threat of a Roman invasion. The villainous nephew Mordred, Arthur’s opponent at the final battle of Camlann, is now a fixed element of the Arthurian legend. But The History of the Kings of Britain is the first recorded mention we have of Arthur’s nephew and nemesis.

Geoffrey invented nothing: choose what mockery he made of the sources he used, the evidence is, he always had sources. So where did he get this story from? The first and obvious source is the Welsh Annals. The relevant entry reads “Year 93, The strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was death in Britain and in Ireland.” That Medraut is Mordred is universally accepted, the former is the Welsh form of the name, the latter the Cornish and Breton version. But who, exactly, is this character?

This ‘Year 93’ entry is, of course, one of two Arthurian entries, the other being Badon, dated to ‘Year 72’. Since Badon was fought in 497, we can date Camlann to 518, twenty one years later. Of course, for Dark Age historians, both these entries must be dismissed as later, legendary intrusions, historically worthless, since Arthur never existed: Badon was fought by some other British commander and no one could have fallen with Arthur at Camlann. Yet all the other characters mentioned in the Annals are historical, and we have evidence for the existence of Medraut quite independent of the Arthurian tradition.

Among the surviving Welsh genealogical records there is one called Bonedd Y Saint, that is, The Pedigrees of the Saints. One of the saints listed is Domnoc, who, according to John Morris, gave his name to Dunwich in Suffolk, which later became the see of the bishop of the East Angles, called ‘civitas Domnoc’ in Bede’s history.1 The father of this individual is named Medraut.

Welsh tradition prior to Geoffrey does not regard Medraut as a villain or a traitor. He seems rather to have been held up as a paragon of military virtue and good breeding. There is, indeed, no hint in the earliest reference to Medraut, in the Annals, to suggest that he and Arthur were enemies. They could just as easily have fallen in battle fighting on the same side. And no one before Geoffrey calls Medraut Arthur’s nephew. So why does he?

Geoffrey compiled his history from three main sources and one of these does present us with a man who killed his uncle. Maelgwn of Gwynedd, Gildas’ principle target, is accused by him of slaughtering “the king your uncle”. It seems, indeed, to have been his earliest crime, committed “in the first years of your youth”, and the one that brought him to power, since Gildas follows this accusation immediately with: “After your dream of rule by force had gone according to plan...” And as Maelgwn attacked this uncle “with sword and spear and flame” along with “nearly his bravest soldiers”,2 it would seem that the two men met in battle: But only one of them fell.

The identity of this uncle has been deduced from the Welsh genealogies. It is widely accepted that he is Owain Ddantgwyn, Owen White-Teeth, King of Rhos and father of Cynlas, that is Cuneglasus, the third of Gildas' Pelagian tyrants.

Was Owain Ddantgwyn the real King Arthur? John Rhys accepted that possibility back in the nineteenth century,3 and it has more recently been put forward by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman,4 In King Arthur, the True Story they suggest that Arthur was the ‘battle name’ of Owain, and they point out that this would not be the only case of a character going down in history under his nickname: Caligula means ‘little boot’, and was never the given name of that emperor. The name Arthur is derived from Arth, the Welsh ’bear’, and there is a gloss in a medieval edition of ‘‘Nennius’’ which claims that Arthur translated into Latin means ursus horribilis, and that this Arthur was “cruel from his boyhood, a horrible son, a horrible bear, an iron hammer”.5 Owain’s son Cuneglasus is addressed by Gildas as “you bear, rider of many and driver of the chariot of the Bear’s Stronghold”.6

According to Philips and Keatman, Owain and his son Cuneglasus were rulers of Powys, hence descendants of this Powys royal line are described in a ninth century Welsh poem as ‘heirs of great Arthur’. This poem, the Canu Llywarch Hen, commemorates Cynddylan, who died in battle against the English in the seventh century, describing him as ‘vested in purple’, which is to say, as the descendant of emperors. The last of this line, according to Graham Phillips, was Cyngen (that is, Concenn, he of the Greek cryptogram) who went to Rome in the mid ninth century to dispute the claim of Charlemagne’s descendants to the title of Holy Roman Emperor, carrying with him an Imperial sceptre as proof of his own descent from Emperor Maximus. He lost, and was executed by the Holy Roman Emperor Louis II. The Welsh Annals record Concenn’s death in Rome in 854. The conventional view is that he was there on pilgrimage.

David Dumville, in his highly successful campaign to have Arthur’s name eliminated from serious historical study, describes him as “a man without position or ancestry in pre-Geoffrey Welsh sources”, as if this weird anomaly added something to his case.7 Arthur was the Britons’ greatest hero, the lynchpin of their historical tradition. We would logically expect many royal houses to have claimed a link to his lineage, whether real or fictitious. But instead, the earliest extant genealogy of Arthur is that found in The History of the Kings of Britain, and that was clearly invented by Geoffrey himself. But Geoffrey always had sources. When he makes Arthur the nephew of Gildas’ holy Roman Ambrosius, he is directing us to William of Malmesbury’s claim that the “warlike Arthur” operated under the authority of Ambrosius, “who was monarch of the realm after Vortigern”. No earlier British tradition connects Arthur with Ambrosius, and William of Malmesbury is one of those monk historians whom Geoffrey mocks - which means he did not intend us to take this genealogy seriously.

Geoffrey directs us back to the sources. His principle source for the period following Arthur’s death is very plainly Gildas. The five kings who followed him in succession onto the British throne are clearly Gildas’ five contemporaneous tyrants, strung out in a line. But there is one substitution. The last of the five, coming after Malgo, is Keredic, hateful to God and to the Britons, whose treachery opened the island to foreign attack. Missing from the list is Cuneglasus, whom Gildas addresses as “you bear”. He is made conspicuous by his absence. Turning from Geoffrey to his source, Gildas, his readers were bound to notice this individual. If scholars today can deduce that the uncle whom Maelgwn killed was the father of this man, whom Gildas calls the bear, then so could some, at least, of Geoffrey’s contemporaries.

The surviving written record, as it stands, cannot tell us whether or not Owain Ddantgwyn was the real King Arthur. But the balance of evidence strongly suggests that Geoffrey of Monmouth intended his readers to make that identification.

Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009

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1 John Morris, Arthurian Period Sources, Vol. 3, p51

2 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 33.4, 34.1

3 John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, p8 & p47. Rhys attributes the theory to a Prof. Sayce, writing in the Academy 1884, Vol. xxvi, p139.

4 jointly in King Arthur, the True Story, and in The Search for the Grail by Phillips alone.

5 Jack Lindsay, Arthur and his Times, p220

6 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 32.1

7 see above, Chapter 1.5 Sub-Roman Britain & Chapter 2.15 The Figure of Arthur