The Arthur of medieval Welsh literature - be it in Welsh or in Latin - is the archetypal Celtic hero - a rough, vigorous, splendidly barbarian figure fighting boars and serpents, witches, dog-headed warriors and other dreaded enemies. He is often seen in conflict with the Church, and echoes the values and life-style of the Heroic society of the "Dark Ages". We can forget the Round Table, damsels in distress, tournaments and the glittering Christian emperor until much later...
The Latin Historia Brittionum ("History of the Britons") - conventionally attributed to Nennius - was originally composed c. 829/30 A.D. (2) and attached to it are a series of Mirabilia or "Wonders":
There is another wonder in the country called Ergyng. There is a tomb there by a spring, called Llygad Amr; the name of the man who is buried in the tomb is Amr. He was a son of the warrior Arthur, and he killed him there and buried him. Men come to measure the tomb, and it is sometimes six feet long, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. At whatever measure you measure it on one occasion, you never find it again of the same measure, and I have tried it myself. (3)
Ergyng was an old Welsh kingdom which is now covered by the south-western part of Herefordshire and Llygad Amr ("the spring of Amr") is the original Welsh name for Gamber Head some 6 miles south of Hereford itself. The river Gamber (Welsh Afon Amr) flows from there to Trebumfrey near Langstone Court. The note points to the existence of local legends concerning Arthur as early as the 9th century. Whatever the ultimate origins of the great hero, it is obvious that Arthur was a popular figure in the folklore of the landscape by that date.
Other stories of a later date strengthen the impression of Arthur's popularity as a figure in landscape lore. Sometime in the 1070s or 1080s (4) a monk from Llancarfan in Glamorgan by the name of Lifris wrote a Latin "biography" of St. Cadog, the Vita Cadoci. Among the tales he tells about the saint, Lifris includes an account of his birth.
A local king called Gwynllyw - after whom Gwynllwg (the western part of Gwent) was named - eloped with Gwladus a daughter of Brychan, king of Brycheiniog (Brecknockshire). Brychan, naturally being somewhat put out at this unruly behaviour, gave chase with his warriors. When he had almost caught the couple, Gwynllyw and Gwladus came to a hill named Boch Rhiw Carn where they met Arthur and his boon companions, Cei and Bedwyr, playing dice! In later French and English tales these red-blooded Celtic heroes were transformed into the rather surly Sir Kay and effete Sir Bedivere. The "three vigorous heroes" (tres heroes strenui) promptly defeat Brychan and his men in a bloody battle, but not before Arthur has considered kidnapping Gwladus for himself! The happy couple go on their way, and the result of their newly-wed passion is the holy St. Cadog himself.(5)
It has been suggested that Boch Rhiw Carn is to be found somewhere on Mynydd LIangatwg to the north of Beaufort (6). In modern Welsh the name would be Carn Fochriw ("The Cairn on Pig Hill") and, personally, I favour one of the Bronze Age round cairns (carn) on Mynydd Fochriw above Rhymni, perhaps Carn y Bugail, the largest of them. Incidentally, there is an Early Christian inscribed stone nearby which has been dated to the 7th-9th Century (7). So here we have Arthur, Cei and Bedwyr fighting a battle on the bleak moors above Rhymni - at least in the fevered imagination of an 11th century cleric!
In another story in the Vita Cadoci (8) Arthur and the saint are in dispute over a general named Ligessawc who murdered some of Arthur's men. Finally, a blood-price of a hundred cows is settled for each man and the cattle are driven to the river Usk to be handed over to Cei and Bedwyr. Unfortunately, as the cows are led through the water, they are miraculously transformed into bundles of fern. That, says the Vita, is why the place is called "Tref redinauc, that is fern homestead. Also that ford, about which the pleading took place, is called Rith Guurtebou."
Tref Redinauc is the modern Tredunnock near Newbridge-on-Usk. As to Rith Guurtebou ("The Ford of Pleadings"), or, as it would read in modern Welsh, Rhyd Gwrthebau, I have not been able to trace the placename, but some spot near the Usk bridge at Newbridge would seem to be the place meant.
Moving on to about 1100 (9), we come across Culhwch ac Olwen ("Culhwch and Olwen"), the oldest surviving Arthurian prose tale in Welsh (10) - though much older material survives in verse. Culhwch ac Olwen is one of the stories included in the collection of Middle Welsh prose tales known as the Mabinogion. Having hunted the Twrch Trwyth (a king transformed into a great boar) from Ireland and through Dyfed, Arthur and his men burst into our corner of the world:
And then Llwydawg (one of Twrch Trwyth's band of fierce boars) went on to Ystrad Yw. And there the men of Llydaw (Brittany) met with him, and he then slew Hir Peisawg king of Llydaw, and Llygadrudd Emys and Gwrfoddw, Arhtur's uncles, his mother's brothers.(11)
Ystrad Yw is today represented by the village of Llanbedr Ystradwy near Crickhowell to the south of the Black Mountains, but the name once covered a much wider area including the parishes of Crickhowell, Llanbedr Ystradwy and Patrisio, Llanfihangel Cwm Du and Tretower, Llangattock and Llangenny, Llanelly and Llangynidr and Brynmawr.(12) The Norman lordship of Strat D'Eue (13) was centred on Tretower.
At this point in the chase Arthur appears to be finally at the end of his tether:
And Arthur said to the Warriors of this Island: "Twrch Trwyth has slain many of my men. By the valour of men, not while I am alive shall he go into Cornwall. I will pursue him no further, but I will join with him life for life (i.e. fight to the death). You do what you will." And by his counsel a body of horsemen was sent, and the dogs of the Island with them, as far as Ewyas, and they beat back thence to the Severn, and they waylaid him there with what tried warriors there were in this Island, and drove him by sheer force into Severn... between Llyn Lliwan and Aber Gwy.(14)
Ewyas was originally one of the comotes of Ergyng (see above) and covered the eastern area of the Black Mountains. It is now split between Wales and Herefordshire, but the name survives in the Herefordshire village of Ewias Harold. Dyffryn Ewias ("The Vale of Ewias") is where Llanthony Priory now stands. Is it is surely far from coincidental that a superb Neolithic chambered tomb known as Arthur's Stone stands on the eastern fringes of ancient Ewyas. Aber Gwy ("The Mouth of the Wye") speaks for itself, perhaps Beachley Point under the Welsh end of the old Severn Bridge is the spot referred to in the tale. Unfortunately for Arthur, the great boar does reach Cornwall before being chased into the sea by the fastest hounds in the world, Aned and Aethlem. Nothing more is heard of any of them.
LIyn Lliwan presents something of a problem. It is obvious from the passage above that this lake (llyn) is somewhere near the Severn, and in an earlier episode in the tale the Salmon of Llyn Lliwan guides Cei and another of Arthur's warriors to Kaer Loyw (Gloucester) to free a prisoner. Another of the "Wonders" described by Nennius in the 9th century was Oper Linn Liuan (15) which is without doubt another reference to the same place. Also, Lin Liguuam is mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain") (15) which was written about 1135-81 (17). This was the work which introduced the familiar clichés of what many think of today as the Arthurian legend: the Round Table, knights in shining armour and all the other chivalrous goings-on. Arthur tells of a "pool in the parts of Wales which are near the Severn":
When the sea flows into this pool, it is swallowed up as though in a bottomless pit;.. .if the people of all that region should come near, with their faces turned towards it,.. .it is only with difficulty, if, indeed, at all, that they have the strength to avoid being swallowed up by the pool. If, however, they turn their backs, their being sprinkled has no danger for them,(18)
It has been suggested (19) that the lake should be sought somewhere on the Llymon Brook which flows from Cross Ash in the middle of Gwent until it joins the River Trothy at Court Farm, but the etymology of Oper Lin Liuan makes this unlikely (20) and Llyn Lliwan remains a mystery.
It is Geoffrey, of course, who places Arthur's main court and headquarters at Urbs Legionium, Caerleon:
on the river Usk, not far from the Severn Sea, in a most pleasant position, and being richer in material wealth than other townships,... flanked by meadows and wooded groves, they had adorned the city with royal palaces, and by the gold-painted gables of its roofs it was a match for Rome.(21)
Geoffrey's influence can be seen on Trioedd Ynys Prydain ("The Triads of the Island of Britain") (22). The triads are a collection or index of legendary characters, stories and events arranged in groups of three. In medieval Wales, where the oral tradition was paramount, they acted as a means for the poets and story tellers to memorise the huge store of native lore, history, verse and genealogy that they were expected to master. The earliest existing manuscripts date from the 13th and 14th centuries but it is likely that the triads were originally brought together some time in the 12th century.
Triad 85 (23), which is preserved in a manuscript dating to c. 1400-50 (24), records "Caerleon on Usk" as the first of Arthur's "Three Principal Courts", the others being "Celli Wig in Cornwall, and Penrhyn Rhionydd in the North." (25)
Triad 51 (26) is called the "Three Dishonoured Men of the Island of Britain" and tells how Gwrtheyrn Gorthenau ("Vortigern the Extremely Thin"!):
first gave land to the Saxons in this Island, and was the first to enter into an alliance with them. He caused the death of Custennin the Younger, son of Custennin the Blessed, by his treachery, and exiled the two brothers Emrys Wledig and Uthur Penndragon from this Island to Armorica, and deceitfully took the crown and the kingdom into his own possession. And in the end Uthur and Emrys burned Gwrtheyrn in Castell Gwerthynyawn beside the Wye, in a single conflagration to avenge their brother.
The spot has been identified (27) as the hill fort on Little Doward Hill in the parish of Gannerw, just over the border some two miles north of Monmouth. It is interesting to note that on Great Doward Hill in the same spot we find "King Arthur's Cave" which was excavated (with disappointing results) in the 1870s. (28)
In another Welsh manuscript c. 1600 (29), written by the grammarian Siôn Dafydd Rhys (John Davies, 1534-1617 (30)) there is a collection of tales concerning Arthur's giant-killing exploits throughout Wales. Many of these tales are onomastic, that is they are intended to explain the origin of placenames. So, Cribwr Gawr (Cribwr the Giant) lived in Castell Cefn Cribwr (31) which is why the place is so called, and so on. Some of these stories are quite detailed, while others give only the briefest of notes. No less than seven of the giants are said to have lived in Gwent:
Bwch Gawr lived in a place still called Castell Bwch between Caerleon on Usk and Llan Ternan, and he also lived in another Castell Bwch between Pentref Bach and the Henllys in the county of Gwent. And there were sons to this Bwch, namely, Ernallt Gawr, whose dwelling was in the place still called Castell Ernallt in Llan Gattwg in the Usk valley. Clidda Gawr in the parish of Bettws Newydd, and his abode in the place called Cloddeu Caer Clidda, and that land today is called Tir Clidda in the parish of Llanarth, Buga Gawr, and his abode in the place still called Castell Bryn Buga, Trogi Gawr dwelt in the castle still called Trogi by Coed Gwent. Gybi Gawr, whose home was in the castle still called Castell Cybi. Crou Gawr, his abode in the place still called Castell Tir Crou in the parish of Bettws Newydd. All these were the sons of Bwch Gawr within the county of Gwent. (32)
Henllys and Pentref Bach are a little to the north-west of Newport and Castell y Bwch is still to be seen between them. Llan Ternan is what we would now call Llanfihangel Llantarnam near Cwmbran and the "other Castell Bwch" could be the hillfort near Lodge Wood in Caerleon, or the mound on the banks of the Afon Lwyd near Ponthir. Castell Ernallt is Castle Arnold near Llangattock nigh Usk about two and a half miles south-east of Abergavenny - the place was burnt by the Norman lord of Abergavenny William de Braose in 1175. Bettws Newydd and Llanarth are still so called and I am tempted to identify Cloddeu Caer Clidda with Coed y Bwnydd hill-fort on Clytha Hill. Bryn Buga is the Welsh name for Usk, so Castell Bryn Buga may either refer to the castle on the outskirts of the town or to the large hill-fort on Gwehelog Fawr hill. Coed Gwent is Wentwood and Cas Troggy, Castell Trogi, is still to be seen. Castell Cybi may refer either to the remains of Llangibby Castle (two miles south of Usk) or to the motte nearby. I have been unable to trace Castell Tir Crou but the motte near Bettws Newydd above is a possibility. It seems that Gwent was a veritable nest of giants in its heyday.
Edward Lhuyd (1660-l709 (33)) was the custodian of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford during the 1690s and early 1700s (34) and as part of his wide-ranging and pioneering work he sent questionnaires to every parish in Wales in 1696 covering all aspects of local antiquities and natural history. Among the replies he received was one from a Mr. Progers in Llantilio Pertholey (about a mile north of Abergavenny) who reported that:
It (the parish) is bounded on the W(est) with the mountain called fforest Moel (the summit or top of which mountain is called Pen y val, where are certain stones called Cadeir Arthur)... There is upon Skerid Vawr a great stone shaped like a house called Cist Arthur, in English Arthur's Chest, as Cadeir Arthur is Arthur's Chair. (35)
Cadeir Arthur therefore stood on Mynydd Pen y Fan - also known as the Sugar Loaf - which overlooks the Ystrad Yw of Culhwch and Olwen, a fascinating coincidence. Cist Arthur on Skirrid Fawr (Ysgyryd Fawr) overlooks Abergavenny. Arthur was obviously an important element in the landscape lore of Gwent right down to the 1690s.
Further investigation has produced only two more Arthurian place-names in Gwent, namely Maes Arthur (Arthur's Field) about half a mile south-west of Bassaleg, and Tí Arthur (Arthur's House) near the site of the former Roseheyworth Colliery in Abertillery (both sadly no more). It is likely that both these names reflect the actual owners or builders of the features themselves rather than the great hero himself.
We therefore gain some idea of the longevity and persistence of Arthurian landscape legends in South-East Wales and adjacent parts of Herefordshire, as well as an impression of the influence these exercised over the area's placenames. A full alphabetical list of NGR references to the places mentioned in this article is included with the notes. (36)
1. Morris, J., (1980) Nennius. Text and translation.
2. Dumville, D. N., 'The Historical Value of the Historia Brittonum', Arthurian Literature IV, (1986), pp.21/2.
3. Morris, op cit., p.42.
4. Davies, W., (1982), Wales in the Early Middle Ages, p.208.
5. Wade-Evans, A. W., (1944), Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae, pp.24-9. Text and translation.
6. Rees, W J., (1853) Lives of the Cambro-British Saints,p.312 n.1.
7. Nash-Williams, V. E., (1950) The Early Christian Monuments of Wales, pp.132,135.
8. Wade-Evans, op.cit., pp.68-75
9. Evans, D. Simon., "Culhwch ac Olwen", 'Tystiolaeth yr laith', Ysgrifau Beirniadol, XIII, (1985), p.113.
10. Jones, G. & Jones, T., (1977), The Mabinogion, pp.95-136. Translation. For original text see: Evans, I. G., (1907), The White Book Mabinogion, pp.226-54.
11. Jones & Jones, op.cit., p.134.
12. Rhys, J., (1901), Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx, Vol.11, p.516.
14. Jones & Jones, loc.cit.
15. Morris, op.cit., pp.40-I.
16. Wright, N., (1984), The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, p.106. Original text.
17. Ibid., p.xvi.
18. Thorpe, L., (I 969), ~ The History of the Kings of Britain, p.197. Translation.
19. Tatlock, J. S. P., (1950), The Legendary History of Britain, p.76.
20. Jackson, K. H., 'Rhal Sylwadau ar "Kulhwch ac Olwen"', Ysgrifau Beirniadol, XII, (1982), p.19.
21. Thorpe, op.cit., pp.202-3.
22. Bromwich, R., (1977), Trioedd Ynys Prydein. Text and translation.
23. Ibid, p.211.
24. Peniarth MS.50, ibid, p.xxxi.
25. Aberffraw appears in the oldest version, ibid, p.228.
26. Ibid, pp.131-3.
27. Lloyd, J. E., 'Geoffrey of Monmouth', English Historical Review, LVII, (1942), pp.460-8.
28. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1872, pp.74-5.
29. Owen, H., 'Peniarth Ms. 118, fos. 829-837' Y Cymmrodor, XXVII, (1917) pp.115-52. Text and translation.
30. Lloyd, J. E., et al. (eds 1959), The Dictionary of Welsh Biography, pp.845-6.
31. Owen, op.cit., p.141.
32. Ibid, p.143.
33. Lloyd, (1959), pp.565-7.
34. Ellis, R., 'Some Incidents in the Life of Edward Lhuyd', Transactions of the Hon. Soc. of Cymmrodorion, 1906-7, pp.1-35. Lhwyd, E., (1909), Parochialia, (Morris, R. A. ed.), III, pp.72-3.
36. NGR References.
Abergavenny SO 302 140
Bassaleg ST 277 871
Beachley Point ST 549 903
Beaufort SO 165 117
Bettws Newydd SO 359 062
Caerleon ST 339 907
Carn y Bugail SO 101 036
Castle Arnold SO 319 101
Cas Troggy ST 416 953
Clytha Hill SO 366 068
Court Farm SO 443 140
Crickhowell SO 217 814
Cross Ash SO 412 197
Doward Hill (Little)SO 540 160
Gamber Head SO 495 296
Gwehelog Fawr SO 379 038
Henllys ST 270 937
King Arthur's Cave SO 545 156
Lodge Wood ST 323 914
Llanarth SO 376 108
Llanbedr Ystradwy SO 239 205
Llanfihangel Cwm Du SO 181 239
Llanfihangel Llantarnam ST 307 33
Llangattock nigh Usk SO 211 179
Llangenny SO 241 182
Llangibby ST 365 975
Llangynidr SO 155 195
Llanthony Priory SO 288 277
Llantilio Pertholey SO 312 614
Maes Arthur ST 267 861
Mynydd Fochriw SO 056 047
Mynydd Llangatwg SO 187 147
Newbridge on Usk ST 380 949
Patrisio SO 279 225
Pentref Bach ST 285 921
Pen y Fal SO 265 194
Ponthir ST 319 926
Rhymni SO116 072
Roseheyworth Colliery SO 206 056
Skirrid Fawr SO 330 180
Tredunnock ST 379 948
Tretower SO 185 214
Usk ST 377 006