Early Arthurian Britain – Celtic Traditions: Survival and Revival


It is unknown how quickly or completely Roman influence dissipated in Britain after the occupation ended, but it appears to be gradual. Town life associated with Roman fortresses slowly disintegrated. Agriculture remained the basic economy, and the population returned to the land as trade with the continent and beyond lessened. Large farms based on villas were abandoned as there were no longer enough people to run them. The walled towns may have provided some safety for refugees of invasions, but the towns were not self-sustaining. Famine would have forced people back into the countryside to hunt and forage or establish their own smallholdings.

By the end of Roman rule, Britain below Hadrian’s Wall had been divided into four administrative provinces. Once the ties to Rome were broken, the native Britons, still Celtic in culture and heritage, revived some of their old customs. Local warlords, no longer held in check by governors, quickly carved out a large number of small kingdoms. Many were based on former Roman fortresses. Over time, approximately fifty tiny kingdoms and sub-kingdoms are likely to have covered the island, their borders in flux as warlords gained or lost control of territory.

Higher ranking leaders also emerged and were given the title gwledig, roughly meaning “great landholder.” The first of these was Magnus Maximus (Macsen), and was probably given the title posthumously. Others were Cunedda, king of Gwynedd and Ceredig, king of Strathclyde. From these leaders, dynasties claim to have been descended. They stood for the revival of the Celtic way of life and rejection of Roman customs.

Celtic custom did not follow primogeniture, the practice of the eldest male child inheriting the kingdom, as in Anglo-Saxon society. Instead, Celtic kingdoms were split among the sons. The practice can easily be seen in the early Welsh genealogies. Presumably, the practice also caused many power struggles. Instead of leaving a kingdom intact and (hopefully) strong, it weakened it and caused rivalries between brothers. Brothers were sometimes assassinated even before their father died, forcing the kingdom to be handed to the surviving sibling. The practice also created more and smaller kingdoms that struggled to maintain independence. With fifty tiny kingdoms continuously at odds with each other, aggressive outsiders could easily take advantage of their distraction and gain control of territory, kingdom by kingdom. The practice continued in Wales until its conquest by the English in the thirteenth century.

Other aspects of the Celts’ pre-Roman customs revived to a degree. In spite of the influx of Christianity in the fifth century, the animistic tradition continued, though to a lesser level. People still left offerings to the spirit of a lake or pond, tied ribbons on trees to appease the woodland’s guardian, feared faeries and other mysterious creatures of the night and forest. Holidays like Beltaine, the spring rites festival, continued to be celebrated secularly. Samhain, a three-day festival of departed spirits, evolved into Halloween. It is also believed that a Midwinter festival celebrating the rebirth of light on the Winter Solstice, was adopted by the church and became Christmas. What was once part of an organized religion turned into folklore, yet it survived.

The bard system, once an integral part of druidry, continued in the royal courts and produced many fine poets. Without this tradition, the poems and stories of Arthur and other heroes would never have been handed down to those who knew how to write.

Law had also been an integral part of druidry. In Wales, the laws of pre-Roman days began to be applied once more after Roman rule was gone, though likely in a less orderly manner than under druidic supervision. Assuming Arthur, as a strong ruler coming into power, would have kept the same laws and organized them, they probably could have remained valid and in use into the days when the Celtic kingdoms of the west became known as Wales. Hywel Dda, king of a sizable portion of South Wales in the 900’s, codified Welsh law, drawing on legal customs that had developed over many centuries. The code was based on reconciliation of kinship groups, not punishment by the state, a clear reflection the nature of law in earlier (druidic) times.