The Grail Code 
Looking for Arthur in the Annals of Wales

Probably the oldest source that gives us any details at all about Arthur is a brief entry in the Annals of Wales:

Bellum Badonis, in quo Arthur portavit crucem Domini nostri Jhesu Christi tribus diebus et tribus noctibus in humeros suos et Brittones victores fuerunt.

The battle of Badon, in which Arthur bore the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights, and the Britons were the victors.

Here at last we have Arthur named as the hero of Badon, and if we were certain when the Annals were written down, we might be much more certain that Arthur was a real figure in history. But no one is quite sure when the Annals were written; or, rather, everyone seems to be absolutely positive, but they all come up with wildly different dates.

Medieval Welsh stories often call Arthur Emperor, and it is tempting to take that title as evidence that Arthur’s own people preserved the memory of some historical fact—that “Emperor” was Arthur’s proper title. From that we might deduce that it was his mission to preserve and restore Roman civilization, and we could go on to draw a vivid picture of Arthur as a last flickering flame briefly holding off the inevitable darkness.

But the Welsh legends are too fragmentary to give us a coherent picture of Arthur’s world. Like the Holy Grail itself, the legendary Arthur is woven together from multiple strands, and it’s very hard to argue backward from legend to history.

In the Annals of Wales, there is only one other mention of Arthur:

Gueith Camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt, et mortalitas in Brittannia et in Hibernia fuit.

Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell; and there was plague in Britain and in Ireland.

There is a space of 21 years between Badon and Camlann. That space could have been the age of order that Gildas remembered. The Annals of Wales put Camlann in the year 537. Or somewhere around there: other historians, making various assumptions about the inaccuracy of the Annals’ chronology, give wildly different dates.

Presuming, then, that there was an Arthur, and that these two entries in the Annals of Wales are accurate, these are the things we know about him:

1. He was a Christian leader fighting pagan invaders.

2. He was successful against those invaders.

3. He fell in battle with Medraut (which is obviously the same name as Mordred). We don’t know, however, whether Arthur and Medraut were fighting each other or were allies against a common enemy.

4. He was memorable enough that his name, alone of all the British leaders of his time, was preserved forever in legend.

That last point is the most important. Whoever the real Arthur was, his legend has had a far greater effect on civilization than he himself ever had.

The Annals of Wales give us one more tantalizing glimpse of the world of Arthur. Thirty-six years after the fatal battle of Camlann (and three years after the death of Gildas), we find this startling entry for the year 573:

Bellum Armterid inter filios Elifer et Guendoleu filium Keidiau; in quo bello Guendoleu cecidit; Merlinus insanus effectus est.

Battle of Armterid between the sons of Elifer and Guendoleu son of Keidiau, in which battle Guendoleu was killed; Merlin was driven mad.

The entry is startling because that name Merlin jumps off the page at us. The Annals have not introduced him before, and we hear no more of him after this. But there must have been a well-known story of Merlin’s madness. Was this the same Merlin the enchanter who guided the young Arthur in all the stories we heard when we were children?

Those are all the details the Annals give us, except that an entry seven years later recording the death of the sons of Elifer gives their names: Guurci and Peretur. Peretur, or Peredur as it would be spelled in Welsh, is a name we’ll hear again in a while.

3 Responses to “Looking for Arthur in the Annals of Wales”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Looking for Arthur in Nennius, Part 2 Says:

    [...] Some take “dux bellorum,” which I’ve translated as “commander-in-chief,” as a memory of the old Roman imperial title by that name, and go on from there to imagine Arthur as trying to restore some shadow of the old Roman imperial government in Britain. I won’t draw that conclusion, but I will remember an interesting fact I mentioned earlier: that medieval Welsh legends often call Arthur “emperor.” [...]

  2. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » The historical Merlin? Says:

    [...] While we were looking for the historical Arthur in the Annals of Wales, we ran into another familiar character: [...]

  3. Malinda Says:

    I’m not easily iprmesesd. . . but that’s impressing me! :)

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