Early Arthurian Britain – Introduction to Early Arthurian Britain

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The Age of King Arthur is usually perceived as one of knights in shining armor, rousing battles, the Round Table, Camelot, the Holy Grail, Guinevere and Lancelot, and of course, Merlin. However, most of these elements and characters did not become attached to Arthur until centuries long after his proposed time.

The French writer, Chretien de Troyes, introduced Lancelot, Camelot, the grail quest and the Fisher King in the mid-twelfth century. Another Medieval French writer, Wace, introduced motifs from Celtic myth, the Round Table, and Arthur’s return from Avalon. Over hundreds of years, many additional aspects became attached, including metaphoric symbolism in the grail cycles and the suspected dark side of druidism. Through it all, Arthur rose into an iconic legend to rival that of Charlemagne in France and the Scandinavian sagas.

But there is another, more realistic view of Arthurian Britain. Though Arthur’s existence has never been proven, deeply imbedded in the legend is the historical basis from which he is derived, far removed from the idyllic figure of Camelot. From clues in early chronicles and archaeological evidence, we are able to sketch life in the fifth century. We have a good idea of who the people were that inhabited the island at that time and how they lived. We are able to calculate the general flux of incoming settlers and their retreats. Studies have been made of the flora and fauna, weather, housing, clothing, weaponry and warfare. While not complete, taken altogether, it is possible to trace events, consequences, and personages that shaped the era.

The Arthurian age may be roughly split into three sections. The early period is from the end of Roman rule to Arthur’s rise to power, the middle period encompasses Arthur’s reign, and the late period runs from Arthur’s death to the completion of the Anglo-Saxon conquest. Years are difficult to assign to the periods as the existing annals often lack dates and those that do have dates are vague and confused by subsequent calendar shifts.

The following is an outline of the historical events effecting early Arthurian Britain. Please keep in mind that all dates are approximate:

360’s – Picts, Saxons, and Irish harass Britain.
367 – Celtic pagan revival begins.
369 – Imperial rule restored, but a rapid decline of towns and economy ensues.
383 – Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig of Welsh & Cornish legend) declared emperor by British army.
387 – Maximus moves British troops to the Continent to fight.
388 – Maximus defeated and killed, British link to Empire remains weakened.
395 – Niall, High King of Ireland sacks towns in western Britain.
399 – Stilicho clears Britain of barbarians.
400 – Christian missionary activity begins. Possible settlement of monks/hermits near Glastonbury.
402 – Stilicho withdraws troops from Britain.
405 – Niall killed at sea and Irish threat reduced. Some settlements remain in South Wales.
407 – Constantine III proclaimed emperor by British army. Goes to Gaul with remaining regular forces.
408-410 – Britain devastated by Saxon and Irish incursions.
410 – Regional councils rebel against Constantine. Britain becomes autonomous.
411 – Constantine captured at Arles, executed at Ravenna soon afterward.
418 – Possible imperial expedition to reoccupy Britain
420 – Death of Coel Hen, King of the North. His land divided among his descendants.
421 – Agricola introduces Pelagian doctrine into Britain.
421 – Death of King Gradlon Mawr of Brittany. Kingdom divided into subkingdoms Cornouaille and Domnonee.
425 – Cunedda from Manau Gododdin in north takes over North Wales and expels part of Irish.
425 – No imperial forces after this date. Vortigern coming into power.
425 – King Conomor begins to flourish in Dumnonia (Cornwall), capital at Castle Dore.
429 – St. Germanus of Auxerre sent to Britain to combat Pelagianism that Vortigern’s supporters allegedly favor. St. Germanus also a military man.
429 – Defeat of combined raid by Picts and Saxons.
432 – Patrick’s mission in Ireland begins.
432-440 – Extensive Saxon raiding.
435 – War between Irish settlers in Wales (Garth Madrun) and kingdom of Powys.
440-450 – Civil war, plague and famine.
443 – Death of King Corneu of Dumnonia. Kingdom split between sons, become Dumnonia and Cerniw.
446 – Britons ask Aetius for aid against barbarians. He is busy fighting Attila the Hun.
447 – Second visit of St. Germanus.
447 – Superbus tyrannus (Vortigern) predominant.
450 – Vortigern allowing Saxons, Angles & Jutes to settle in return for mercenary service against raiders. Arrival of Hengist.
452 – Increasing settlements of Saxons. Vortigern sets aside his British wife and takes Hengist’s daughter Rowenna allegedly in exchange for Kent. Hengist invites his son Ochta from Germany.
453 – Increasing unrest with Saxons.
455 – Hengist seizing territory. Vortimer, Vortigern’s son rebels. Battle of Aylesford indecisive.
457 – Battle of Crayford. Saxon revolt, sacking of lowland Britain. Hengist victorious. Refugees flee to Armorica (Brittany) and Spain. Economy collapses.
458 – Hengist conquers Kent.
461 – Death of Vortigern. Partial recovery begins, led by Ambrosius Aurelianus. Re-fortification of ancient hillforts begins.
465 – Possible date for birth of Arthur.
470 – Seaborne British army and Armorican settlers campaign to restore authority of Emperor Anthemius in Gaul against the Visigoths. British force probably led by Riothamus. All vanish.
470 – Faustus, a British bishop and perhaps a son of Vortigern’s, prominent in Gaul. British church cut off from continent but regaining vigor.
470 – Ambrosius Aurelianus begins to make progress against the Saxons.
471 – King Ceredig of Strathclyde raids Irish coast in response to raid on Britain’s west coast. Carries off Irish slaves, including some of St. Patrick’s converts. Receives harsh reprimand from Patrick.
475 – Death of Gwrast of Rheged, kingdom split into Rheged and Elmet between his two sons.
475 – Death of Mor of Ebrauc, kingdom split into Ebrauc and Northern Pennines between his sons. Northern Pennines seizes part of Elmet.
477 – Aelle of South Saxons lands near Selsey.
485-500 – Period of twelve battles for which Arthur gains reputation of invincibility.
495 – Cerdic of the West Saxons, lands from Southampton Water.
500 – Angles and Saxons on Humber (north Lincolnshire), in East Anglia, Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, Hampshire and advancing up the Thames; Jutes in Kent and New Forest. Continued migration of refugees to Armorica. Invasions begin to be contained with Arthur among the military leaders.
500 – Strong forward movement of Church in the west.
508 – Cerdic defeats Britons in Netley Marsh.
518 – Entry for Battle of Badon in Annales Cambriae. Great victory at Mount Badon by Britons under Arthur’s command. Date is more likely to be around 500.
518 – Important ecclesiastical figures become very active. Monastery at Glastonbury in existence.

Sources:

  1. Ashe, Geoffrey, The Quest for Arthur’s Britain
  2. Ford, David Nash, Early British Kingdoms website
  3. Snyder, Christopher, The World of King Arthur