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Mordred

Now Mordred (Medraut in Welsh) is interesting. Unless he had multiple personality disorder or was bi-polar, the accounts of him seem to be describing two different people. The Welsh texts describe him as good-natured, moderate, and courteous. (Though, really, the best villains could be charming and disarming—for their own purposes.) Other accounts have him out of control, almost berserk.

In the earliest accounts, even as late as Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th Century, Mordred was not an illegitimate son of Arthur nor the result of incest. He was Arthur’s nephew, son of Arthur’s sister or half-sister Morgause and her husband King Lot. Sometimes, he was also Arthur’s foster son. And the earliest mentions of the Battle of Camlann merely state that Arthur and Mordred both died there—not whether they were fighting side by side or against each other.

In some stories, Mordred was married to Guinevere’s younger sister, Gwenyhwyach, and the rivalry between the two Gwen’s was the cause of discord between Arthur and Mordred. . Other stories have him marrying Cwywyllog (yeah, I have no idea how to pronounce that, either), daughter of Caw and having two sons, the elder possibly named Melehan. These sons rose in rebellion against Arthur’s successor—Constantine of Dumnonia. They were defeated and, separately, went into hiding—one hid in a church, the other in a friary. Constantine hunted them down and killed them before the altars of their hiding places. Which matches very closely to the accusations Gildas levels against the real ruler of his day.

Personally, I think Constantine makes a better villain than Mordred. Although, nothing says there can be only one.

Arthur

For the central character of the legend, Arthur is the most nebulous of all. Gildas never mentions him—though, as opinionated as Gildas seems, there might be more than one reason for that.

About the only early evidence for Arthur is a 7th Century poem, Y Goddodin, which commemorates a battle fought in the area of Southeast Scotland and Northeast England. It’s not about Arthur at all. There’s just one line, in a stanza which praises the awesomeness of one of the British warriors, that says he did all these incredible things “though he was not Arthur”. Which indicates that already in the early 7th Century and at the other end of England, the poet still expected his audience to know about Arthur and that he was an even more awesome warrior. The only surviving copy of Y Goddodin dates to the 13th Century, but older forms of some words may indicate that this stanza is part of the original.

Then there are some mentions in the Welsh Triads. Again, the only existing versions were probably written down in the 13th Century, so it’s hard to know what may be older and potentially closer to the truth, and what may represent later additions. Also, they’re annoyingly vague, since their purpose was likely to act as a memory aid for oral story tellers, not to actually tell the stories.

Still, the Welsh traditions do give Arthur sons—none of whom survive him or have sons of their own. Amr or Amhar, was apparently killed by Arthur. No indication of why. Gwydre who was killed by the Boar Twrch Trwyth in the Arthur adjacent story of Culhwch and Olwen. Lacheu was apparently important and heroic in the early stories, but was also killed in some unspecified way. (Although, much later traditions do mention another son, Loholt, who is either killed by Cei, so that Cei can take credit for one of his deeds, or else dies of illness after Lancelot rescues him from imprisonment.) Duran was killed in the battle of Camlann. And another son, Kyduan, specifically not by Guinevere (though it’s not certain the others are Guinevere’s sons, either).

Then nothing much else until the History of the Britons in the 9th Century. The History mostly recounts 12 battles, in locations all over Britain, all supposedly fought by Arthur. Given the divisions among the small, tribal British kingdoms, it’s hard to imagine that any one war leader was responsible for all of them. In the History, Arthur is described as a dux bellorum, or war leader, not a king. A general, not even a ruler of whatever tribal territory he called home. The History also recounts a couple of wonders pertaining to Arthur, which generally tend to undermine it reliability.

But it was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th Century History of the Kings of Britain, which really got the Arthur legend rolling. Geoffrey adds—and I mean that literally–Merlin and the story of Arthur’s birth. But he popularized the story and then others added to it, too. Including Chretien de Troyes, who adds both Lancelot and Percival and the Grail Quest.

Other than Merlin, I won’t be using anything from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version or Chretien de Troyes.

Uther Pendragon

Uther is possibly not an historical character, even though he does appear—briefly—in a few Welsh texts. These texts, though mostly recounting old tales, were first written down much later. The story of him being magically disguised by Merlin so that he could get into Tintagel to rape Igraine doesn’t appear until Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th Century. (I stand by what I wrote in an earlier post. No one asked Igraine whether she wanted to participate, which makes it rape. It will not be in my version. Also, having recently written a couple of novels loosely inspired by the Hercules legend, I can’t help but notice that this story exactly mirrors the story of Hercules’s birth, which only makes it more suspect in my opinion.)

But Uther will play a very minor part as Igraine’s (consensual, though adulterous) lover in my version.

Now, what’s interesting to me about Uther is his family connections. According to tradition, he may descend from a very historical character known to history as Constantine III. Constantine was possibly British, but at least a Roman general in Britannia. And, with the support of a British ruler, probably of Dumnonia (Cornwall), Gerontius (or Geraint in Welsh), Constantine made himself Emperor of the Western Roman Empire for a short time in the early fifth century. His son was Constans (Custenin in Welsh), who was put to death by Gerontius, when Gerontius rebelled against Constantine.

Now that bit of history has nothing whatever to do with Arthurian legend. Except that legend also includes a King Constantine (this time the brother of a ruler in Brittany), who has three sons—Constans, Ambrosius, and Uther. And, in the legend, each of these sons becomes King of Britain in turn. Except, of course, there wasn’t any such thing as a King of Britain in the Dark Ages. The British tribes were much too busy fighting each other to have allowed any such thing.

But, there is a 6th Century ruler of Dumnonia mentioned by Gildas named . . . Constantine. In fact, there is more than one Constantine in the history of Dumnonia.

What’s interesting about this (to me, at least) is that it gives Uther a connection to Cornwall—and, potentially, Tintagel. A connection Igraine does not have. Her family is all connected to Wales.

Oh, and Arthur’s successor was traditionally . . . Constantine, possibly the one Gildas mentioned.

I do believe I can find a way to make use of this.

Ambrosius Aurelianus

Ambrosius Aurelianus was almost certainly an historical character. He is the only historical figure names by Gildas, who praises him for turning back the encroaching Saxons. Gildas also calls him the last of the Romans and of something akin to royal birth. And, quite likely, he was a Christian—or Gildas (a monk) might not have praised him so highly.

The Atrebates, and the allied domains of the Regni and the Belgae were early adopters of Roman culture and, unlike some British tribes, remained Romanized and in contact with still-Roman Gaul after Britannia was no longer a province of the Roman Empire. The civitas of the Belgae is possibly the most likely location for Ambrosius.

There seems to have been ongoing tension between Ambrosius and Vortigern. There’s a long defensive structure—a ditch and embankment—called Wansdyke roughly along what may have been the border between the two. Ambrosius is said to have defeated Vortigern at the Battle of Wallop, probably in the neighborhood of what is now called Danebury Hill Fort around 440—or approximately five to ten years before the arrival of Hengist. This would most likely have been in the territory of the Belgae.

Roger of Wendover claims that Ambrosius killed Vortigern in battle. The History of the Britons says that Vortigern’s son, Pascent, ruled in Builth and Gwerthegirnaim (in mid Wales) by Ambrosius’s consent. This would have been a greatly decreased area from that ruled by Vortigern and also suggests that Ambrosius’s influence had extended into Dobunni territory, at least temporarily.

If, somewhere in there, Ambrosius also fought against Saxons, it could have been against Hengest. Or, as mentioned before, the Catuvelauni had likely settled Saxon troops in Surrey, which could also be the Saxons Ambrosius fought.

Interestingly, in about 470, the Regni would be taken over by Aelle to eventually become Sussex (the Kingdom of the South Saxons). The civitas of the Belgae appears to have become Saxon through intermarriage. Cerdic is a nominally Saxon king with a British name. The Belgae would become Wessex (the Kingdom of the West Saxons) and eventually the dynasty that united most of England under Alfred the Great.

Hengist

Hengist is in many ways the other half of Vortigern’s story, especially as it intersects with Arthurian legend.

But that’s not all there is to Hengist—maybe. There’s a Hengest mentioned in something called the Finnsburg Fragment and also in Beowulf, in which a scop (bard) tells the story of the Battle of Finnsburg. Though, even in Beowulf, the tale is abbreviated, as if it was an allusion to a story the audience would be expected to know.

Between the two, they describe Hnaef (a Danish prince) visiting his sister’s husband Finn (a Frisian or Jute) for the winter. Some dispute occurred, resulting in a night attack on Hnaef and his men. Hnaef and Finn’s son were both killed in the battle. Hengest took over Hnaef’s war band and negotiated a deal with Finn. But that deal was breached in some way and in revenge Hengest attacked and killed Finn and his men.

Now, it’s far from certain that this Hengest of legend is the same Hengist hired by Vortigern. But it certainly presents some interesting dramatic possibilities. Neither one appears to be someone who took broken promises lightly. And that’s what seems to have gone wrong between Hengist and Vortigern, according to tradition.

The History of the Britons, written in the 9th Century, has it that three ships of exiled Germanic warriors arrived in Kent. That they might have been exiled is interesting given the story about Hengest killing his host, above. This would have been sometime between 445 and 450. The History doesn’t mention Vortigern inviting them, but it does say that he welcomed them and gave them the island of Thanet (the eastern tip of Kent), on which they had landed. (Thanet would have been an island then, though it isn’t now.) Vortigern then agreed to supply them with clothing and food in exchange for their military help against his enemies. So far, a fairly standard foederati agreement. But it was difficult for Vortigern to keep that agreement.

Check the map. If true, Vortigern would be trying to send supplies through enemy territory. The Belgae and Attrebates held the territory to the south of the Thames while the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes held the area to the north of the river and may have had a foothold to the south of London as well (Surrey). Vortigern wasn’t on good terms with any of them. In fact, they’re the best candidates for the enemies he wanted Hengist and his men to fight for him.

In any case, when Vortigern failed to deliver the promised supplies, Hengist rebelled. The first battle, at Aylesford in Kent seems to have been against Vortigern around 455. The next battle in about 457 was at Crayford possibly against Vortigern’s son, Vortimer. At any rate, Hengist seems to have been the undisputed ruler of Kent from this point.

His two later battles, in about 465 and 473, are more difficult to place and the opposing British forces are not named. It could have been Vortigern or Vortimer. Or against tribes neighboring Kent—the Catuvelauni or the Regni. The gap makes me think that it’s possibly a separate campaign, either against other Britons trying to oust Hengist or a war of expansion on Hengist’s part. If at least one of those battles was against the Regni, it would potentially be consistent with Gildas’s claim that Ambrosius turned back the Saxon advance.

In about 488, Oisc succeeds Hengist as king of Kent. Oisc is sometimes said to be Hengist’s son, but it is equally likely that he was the leader of a band of recently-arrived Jutes.

Vortigern, Part 2

I was going to write about Hengist, but it turned out most of what I had to say to start was really at least as much about Vortigern. So, I guess this is Vortigern Part 2.

Supposedly, Vortigern invited Hengist and his men into Britain. This isn’t actually as crazy as it sounds. The Romans had made extensive use of federated troops. This often meant groups of “barbarian” mercenaries who were permitted to settle within the empire in return for military service. After Rome had hired such foederati as the Vandals and the Visigoths, bringing a few Saxons, Angles, or Jutes into Britain may not have seemed like such a stretch.

However, the traditional idea that Vortigern brought them in to protect against the Picts . . . I have a lot of trouble with that notion. Even if Vortigern were in fact High King—which he wasn’t because the Romano-Celtic Britons could never have agreed to that—it still wouldn’t make sense. See, the Picts were all the way up in the northern and eastern portions of what is now Scotland. And Kent, the territory of the Canti, where Hengist landed . . . well that’s all the way down in the southeastern corner of what is now England. (See the map below.)

Now, I’m no military strategist, but it just makes better sense to me to put the defense closer to the potential enemy. The Romans left a very well-maintained wall (roughly indicated on the map) with forts and towers for just that purpose. Of course, Hadrian’s wall is well beyond Vortigern’s territory. Still, siting his defenses along his northern border, not the place farthest away from the threat, would seem more logical to me. That is, if the Pict’s were the threat.

However, as I mentioned last week, archaeology suggests that other British tribes had already started hiring Germanic troops and settling them along their tribal borders. In fact, the Catuvellauni might have done so first—a tribe with a history of expansionism that was a potential threat to Vortigern. Plus the Catuvellauni had tried to take Kent before the Romans came and they may be responsible for a string of Saxon settlements south of the Thames in what is now Surrey.

If the “northern threat” he was defending against was his neighbors, the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes . . . well, that makes some sense. Though, his eastern border would have made more. Clearly, I’m going to have to come up with some reason for Vortigern to even be paying attention to Kent, let alone hiring mercenaries to settle there. I have a couple of ideas to play with.

Vortigern

And now I’m going to start (I think) a series of posts on the major characters of this version of the Arthur legend. At least as they’ll appear in my story.

As I’m currently writing it, Merlin’s Gambit will start during the time of Vortigern and Ambrosius. Vortigern was quite possibly an historical character and Ambrosius almost certainly was. They may well have been roughly contemporaneous.

The “best” historical reference for that time that we have is Gildas, writing within a couple of generations of that time. Gildas was a sixth-century British monk, likely born and/or living somewhere in south Wales. He eventually moved to Brittany. In his own writing, he claimed to have been born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill–the battle in which Arthur is supposed to have decisively defeated the Saxons, but he never mentions Arthur. He also wasn’t writing a history, but a diatribe on the rulers of his time who weren’t living up to the example set by their predecessors in keeping the Saxons back. The title of his work, translated, is On the Ruin of Britain and he didn’t have much nice to say about any of the sixth-century rulers.

Gildas doesn’t name Vortigern, though his “superbus tyrannus” may be a play on Vortigern’s name which means something like “high king”. The superbus tyrannus, at any rate, is the one Gildas blames for letting the Saxons into Britain. Archaeologically, this seems a little unfair. It looks like several different regional rulers were using Saxons–or Angles, or Jutes–to defend their borders. Nevertheless, Vortigern certainly gets the blame in virtually all of the tales and he’ll get at least a share of it in mine, too.

Southern Britain Map New

I’ve included the map for reference.

To the extent that anything can be determined about Vortigern after about 1500 years, it looks like his power base would have been the area around Gloucester, or the territory of a Romano-Celtic tribe called the Dobunni and extending up the Severn Valley into the part of Wales that would later become Powys (territory of the Cornovi). He likely also exerted some political influence over other parts of Wales as well. And there’s good historical reason for bad blood between the Dobunni and the, in Roman terms, civitas to the south of them, the Belgae because the Romans had taken land away from the Dobunni to create the civitas of the Belgae (which is the likely center of Ambrosius’s power).

How Vortigern also held power of any kind in Kent (on the far southeastern corner of England and on the other side of the territory of several rival tribes) is a little trickier. I’m going to have to work a bit on that part. But all the legends claim it was Vortigern who invited Hengist and Horsa into England and that they landed in and eventually were given or took control of Kent (territory of the Canti). Kent became the first foothold of a Saxon (or possibly Jutish) kingdom in England.

But there’s some good drama in Vortigern’s story. He was, supposedly, married to Sevira, the daughter of Magnus Maximus (a very historical person who took legions and militia from Britain in the late 4th century in a failed attempt to make himself Emperor of Rome). Later, presumably after Sevira’s death, he is supposed to have become enamored of Hengist’s daughter, Rowena, ceding Kent (which wasn’t his) to Hengist in exchange for Rowena’s hand in marriage.

In some versions of the story, Vortigern is killed in battle with Ambrosius.

Yep, my story is definitely starting with Vortigern–or, actually, with Merlin trying to deal with and influence Vortigern.

Map

I missed posting yesterday. I just got busy. Oh, well, better late than never–or even later.

I’ve done a map for Merlin’s Gambit to help keep me on track as I write the story.

Southern Britain Map New

I’ve noted, as well as I can, the locations of the various tribes of southern Britain in the fifth century. And the places I think may be of importance tot he story.

Research

I’ve done it again, haven’t I. Almost a month since my last post. All I can say is that I’ve been head down in research.

And it’s paid off. I now have a shape, a plan for at least the first part of my story that feels . . . if not actually historical, then historically possible. Well, except for the dragons, of course. But they’re kind of the inspiration for my version of the Arthur legend, so the dragons stay.

But I now have a more-or-less historical basis in which to set my story, which won’t resemble the usual tradition in several ways. It simply isn’t plausible for Arthur to be King of all Britain. There wasn’t any such thing until after England and Scotland were joined under one crown–well over a thousand years after Arthur could have existed. There wasn’t even a King of England until Alfred the Great (one of those Saxons whose ancestors Arthur would have been fighting against) at least 300 years after Arthur.

And it’s not really plausible that Arthur was somehow defending all of what would become England, either. So this story is going to have a much smaller geographical reach. But the research has given me a good idea of the general area in which a Vortigern and an Ambrosius might have been operating. And why they might have been enemies. And an idea of where to slot my Arthur into that context. So, we’ll see how this works out. I think I’m even going to figure out how to have Arthur born in Tintagel, though not, of course, in the way Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote it.

This doesn’t mean my research is finished. Far from it. Mostly it’s going to change direction. I need to get more background for the world building. What would these people wear? What kind of houses would they live in? What would they do when they weren’t fighting?

And, I’m probably going to have to do a similar research on the Saxons, but that can come later. For now, I’m ready to carry on with the story.

 

Oops

It’s been a little while since I posted, hasn’t it?

Well, some of that is because I’ve been writing. Not making any speed records, here. But I actually am writing. I’m also still doing research for this one.

Part of the goal is to get as reasonably close to history as practical–at least the history of the times, since there is no historical documentation of Arthur at all. That’s important because I mean to carry the story and at least Merlin forward beyond Arthur’s time. But Arthur’s time, to the extent that any part of the legend has a real basis, is the fifth century–the Dark Ages. And the reason it’s called the Dark Ages (beyond the fact that daily life almost certainly did get grimmer than it had been during Roman times) is that there just isn’t a lot of historical documentation. Archaeology to the rescue. Except that mostly what archaeology has turned up complicates the legend.

Before the Romans, the native Celtic Britons had been organized into dozens of small, tribal territories more likely to fight each other than the invading Romans. Which, of course, the Romans exploited. And the Romans had mostly left that ground-level organization in place, and just put a layer of Roman administration on top of it. So, when the Romans left, the Britons naturally fell right back into their tribal territories–and their inter-tribal warfare. And it’s most likely that several of those small tribal “kingdoms” hired Saxon or other Germanic warriors to help them out against their neighbors. Who then also hired Saxons to fight on their side. So the image of Arthur uniting the Britons to expel the Saxons is just not realistic.

And, at the same time, I want to keep enough of the legend that it is recognizable, but without all the flourishes that later writers, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, and Thomas Mallory added. Though, I am keeping Merlin even if Geoffrey of Monmouth mostly made him up. Just, well, my Merlin will be very different than Geoffrey’s.

I will not, for example, be using the story of Merlin disguising Uther so Uther can get into Tintagel and spend the night with Igraine. Sorry, but I’ve never liked that story and I like it less now. Frankly, it’s rape, since no one asked Igraine what she thought about it. And that’s not the kind of story I write. Anyway, having just written a couple of books inspired by the legend of Hercules it’s impossible not to notice that it’s basically a direct copy of the Greek myth of Hercules’s birth. Which I also didn’t use.

Right now, I’m writing the part where Merlin discovers there’s a dragon under Dinas Emrys, where Vortigern is trying to build a fort on top of the hill.

Oh, yes, there will be dragons.