Arthur, Cerdic, and the Formation of Wessex
II. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Nennius, and Gildas
No one has been more responsible for molding the image of Arthurian tradition than
Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was a twelfth century cleric who wrote "The History of the
Kings of Britain", which attempted to relate the history of the British Isles from
pre-Roman times to the completed Saxon conquest. The major focus of this history involved
the transition from Roman to Saxon Britain. It presented an account of Arthur's life,
military campaigns, and rule, according to the historical standards of Geoffrey's time.
What Geoffrey wrote is unhistorical by modern standards, but his account is the earliest
surviving extensive description of Arthur. For those who are unfamiliar with this account,
a brief summary is provided in Appendix A.
Geoffrey's "History of the Kings of Britain" is the foundation of the whole
genre of late Medieval Arthurian literature. Parts of Geoffrey's account are either
exaggerated or downright fantasy, such as the stories of Arthur's conquest of Gaul and
march on Rome. Nevertheless, many scholars believe that there is an historical reality
underlying Geoffrey's account of King Arthur.
Geoffrey's story incorporated numerous oral traditions and written accounts, many of
them lost. One such lost source is the mysterious "ancient book written in the
British language," presented to Geoffrey by a "Walter, Archdeacon of
Oxford." (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Book 1, Ch1) The identity of this book will probably
never be determined. However, one obvious source of Geoffrey's information, directly or
indirectly, was provided by the ninth century historian Nennius. (Ashe, 1985, p 62) Like
Geoffrey, Nennius records many fantastic and magical tales, but unlike Geoffrey, he is too
early to be influenced by the Norman cultural visions of grandeur, and most of his record
seems to be a straight history. Nennius gives a much more realistic portrayal of Arthur.
According to Nennius, Arthur "fought against them in those days, together with the
kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle." (Nennius, para 56) Nennius
then lists twelve battles which Arthur won, culminating in the famous and decisive victory
at Mt. Badon. The sites of many of these have not been identified, and there are various
interpretations and speculations by scholars. The given locations are the River Glein, the
River Doubglas in Lindsey, the river Bassas, the Celidon Forest, Fort Guinnion, the City
of the Legion, the river Tribruit, Agned Hill or Bregion, and Badon Hill. For an excellent
discussion of possible sites of Arthur's battles, see "Arthur's Britain".
(Alcock, 1971, pp 61-71) Alcock presents a map showing several possibilities for many of
the battles, most of them in western and northern Britain.
Nennius's account seems to be based on actual events and is more reliable than
Geoffrey's. His work does not exaggerate the extent of Arthur's influence and is actually
vague enough that he is clearly not creating stories to enhance his narrative. In fact,
Nennius's description of the campaign of Arthur is the only British affair he relates that
falls chronologically between the events involving Vortigern and Germanus, before 450, and
the time when the English "considerably increased their numbers," probably in
the sixth century. It should be noted that Nennius lived three centuries after Arthur.
Therefore we turn to the writings of a British commentator who lived close to the time of
Saint Gildas, a sixth-century monk, is best known as the author of "The Ruin
"and Conquest of Britain", written about 540. A hellfire-and-damnation
chastise-ment of the rulers of Britain for their sins and vices, it condemned a series of
tyrants for abandoning Christian morals and justice and for inviting the wrath of God.
Gildas never mentioned the name Arthur, because it was not his intent to write a
historical document, but rather to reprove his contemporary leaders for their vices and to
plea for their repentance. Nevertheless, his discourse provides paramount information
concerning the age of Arthur.
Gildas related that after the mid-fifth century Saxon revolt, a noble Roman named
Ambrosius Aurelianus rallied the Britons to challenge the invaders. This began the
Britons' long struggle to recover their dominion and to defend against marauders.
Gildas also wrote that the victory at Badon was in the year of his birth, 44 years
before the writing of his work in the 540's. References by Gildas to living British kings
fix the date of Badon to within ten years of the year 500. Gildas not only provides the
date of Badon but also reveals the tremendous decisiveness of the battle. The victory of
Badon Hill established over four decades of peace between native Britons and Saxon forces.
During that span, as kings and officials passed away, they were succeeded by a generation
"ignorant of the storm, acquainted only with the present calm."
"From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to the enemy....This lasted
right up till the year of the siege of Badon Hill, nearly the last but not the least
slaughter of the gallow-birds."
It has been agreed by many scholars that the original historical Arthur may be defined
as the leader who was victorious at Badon. His existence is disputed by some scholars, but
because of Gildas, it is certain that some powerful leader, around the year 500,
decisively secured a long period of peace between the Britons and Saxons.
Archaeology confirms that the Saxons in such nearby areas as Hampshire and the upper
Thames valley were neither driven out nor exterminated. Such a lasting peace as described
by Gildas could only have been achieved through the deeds of a war leader who won
authority over a large number of Saxons and established a strong defense of his lands. The
Anglo-Saxons were a proud and free people and would never have surrendered into a state of
abject servitude. This implies that their conqueror won not only the battle, but also the
respect and trust of the people he was to rule.
We will show that the leader was Cerdic, the founder of Wessex. His time, locations,
life story, epithet, and even genealogy designate him as the original Arthur. Our theory
is a radically new one which overturns the conventional paradigm. The most obvious
objection to it is that Cerdic was recorded as a leader of the Saxon invaders in the
"Anglo-Saxon Chronicle". Arthur as described by Geoffrey was the implacable
enemy of such Saxons.
John C. Rudmin, 864 Chicago Av, Harrisonburg, VA, 22801
Joseph W. Rudmin, Physics Dept., James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA, 22807
(First submitted for publication in Oct 1993)
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