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King Arthur
Arthur's Twelve Battles
by Steve Haas

Nennius, the earliest witness to mention Arthur, in his History of the Britains, written somewhere between 700 and 800 A.D, describes Arthur's twelve Battles this way:

"In that time, the Saxons increased in numbers and their strength grew in Britain.
When Hengist was dead, Octha, his son crossed from the left hand side of Britain into the kingdom of the Cantii, and from him descended the Kings of the Cantii.  Then Arthur fought against those people in those days with the Kings of the Britons, but he himself was the dux Bellorum, or General in these battles.
The first battle was on the mouth of the river, which is called Glein. The second, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth upon another river, which is called Dubglass, and is in the Kingdom of Linnus. The sixth battle was upon the river which is called Bassas.
The seventh was the battle in the wood of Celidon, that is Cat Goit Celidon (which is "The Battle of the Wood of Celidon" in the old British tongue.)
The eighth was the battle in the stronghold of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried upon his choulders the image of the Blessed Mary, the Eternal Virgin. And the pagans were turned to flight on that day, and great was the slaughter brought upon them through the virtue of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and through the virtue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, his Mother.
The ninth battle was fought in the City of the Legion. He fought the tenth battle on the shore of the river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was waged in the mountain which is called Agned.
The Twelfth battle was on Mount Badon where in one day nine hundred and sixty men fell in one charge of Arthur's. And no one ladi them low but himself alone.
And in all these battles he stood as victor.

As has been stated before, all these names are local British names, and their location has been lost to history. Scholars have been debating where they were, especially the last site, the Battle of Mount Badon, for a few centuries. The following commentary on where these battles actually were I am taking from one source, Beram Saklatvala's "Arthur: Britain's Last Champion." I like his commentary, because I think he does something none of the others have done; instead of trying to match names in Nennius with places in Britain, he looks at the political and military situation and tries to match the names with what he thinks was happening at the time. Please refer to the enclosed map to follow this. I shall try to post it as a separate message, also.

For instance, most people have Arthur fighting all over Britain; this makes no sense. What was going on is that the English were trying to break out from their bridgehead in Kent, into the rest of Britain. Most of these battles had to have been fought in the South of Britain.

Also, notice how many of these battles were fought on rivers. It is quite natural for Arthur to have been defending river crossings against English attempts to break out from the river.

SO…we have the first battle, the mouth of the river Glein. Of course there is no river Glein in England…however, forty miles south of Modern Lincoln (Lindum Colonia, at the time), is the modern town of Bourne. Hereabouts, because of the great bay of the Wash, the road is only some twenty miles from the coast. To attempt to hold the road south of this point would be difficult. An enemy approaching from the south would have the width of Norfolk to maneuver. But, at Bourne, the sweeping coastline approaches the road. The Briton's left flank would be secured on the marshlands, and an enemy could only make frontal attacks.

Morever, about ten miles north of Bourne rises a small river, the Glen; it runs parallel with the road and to the west of it. As it turns eastward to the Wash, the road crosses it. Here, strategically and tactically, a battle might well have been fought.

The second, third, fourth and fifth battles were on the river Dublas. This has often been identified with the river Duglas, in Leicesterhsire. It is sensible, however, to seek a river whose modern name is a translation of the old British one. Du, or dhu, meant 'black' in the British tongue, and there are several Blackwater rivers. One such is in Hampshire, forming part of the boundary with Sussex. Here might well be the Dublass of the battle, and it makes sense; having established a northern boundary with the first battle, now the Saxons were trying to break out in the West….

The sixth battle, on the river Bassas, is unknown. The suggestion that Basingstoke marks the site is feasible; it presupposes that, after the engagements on the Dubglass, Arthur had withdrawn some few miles to the northwest. The name Basingstoke, considered to be of Saxon origin, not British, means the village built by the followers of a Saxon leader named Basa. This leader might have given his name to the river.

Beram suggests that the site of the seventh battle was in Scotland, north of the wall, for the wood of Celidon is the wood of Caledonia. This seems improbable to me, for the reasons given above (i.e. it is too far away). However, almost everyone agrees on this one, and who am I to argue? It does make some sort of sense, if one supposes that the Picts tried to take advantage of the fighting in the South…but why in the world would Arthur travel that distance when he had a real menace in front of him. Maybe he thought he had beaten the English enough. I don't know.

The ninth battle was fought at the castle of Guinnon. This could be Winchester, which, in the Breton poem of Chretien de Troyes is spelt 'Guincestre,' or even Windsor, which, in the same text is spelt "Guinesores'. Neither is geographically impossible, one being at the southern, the other at the northern extremity of Arthur's defensive line which held the Saxons from breaking out in the West.

It is in this battle that Arthur carried the image of the Virgin, and the choice is rather interesting, both in the timing and the choice. Maybe, at this time, Arthur finally declared his Crusade a holy crusade? If Arthur had been brought up in the Romanised western kingdom of Ambrosius, and if he had been a follower of the Marian cult of Glastonbury, his use of Mary's image as his standard becomes credible and reasonable.
The Ninth battle was at the 'City of the Legion.' This has always been a problem, as there were many cities identified with Roman Legions; each one used a particular city as its base. Chester seems a logical choice, as it is in the same general area that Arthur has been fighting….and, in light of the battle at Winchester (or Windsor), one can see him swinging North to quell another attempted breakout.

The tenth battle, the Battle of Truibruit, is documented in other sources than Nennius. The 'Black Book of Carmarthen,' a medieval book of Welsh poetry, tells of one of Arthur's companions who came back with a broken shield from 'Tryvrwd'. To lose one's shield in Battle has always been taken by the Romans as a sign of disgrace and defeat. This poem conveys that the victory was barely won, and the defeat narrowly avoided. The same poem tells us that the casualties were heavy; that one of Arthur's men killed his enemies three at a time, another a hundred at a time. It also refers to 'the shores of Tryvwyd'. So, Tribruit was a river, and again a battle for a crossing. Unfortunately, we don't know where this river is, but it has been placed in the North, maybe another campaign against the Picts….or maybe Rebellious Celts? It has been suggested that the Northern Celts didn't see the danger of the Anglo-Saxons as the southern ones did, and were less cooperative than Arthur might have wanted…who knows?

The eleventh battle was fought on the hill called Agned. According to a marginal note in some of the manuscripts, this was in Somerset. If this is so, it would appear that, while Arthur's main army was engaged in the North, the English had broken through in the South and marched deep into the West country.

This theory is borne out by the twelfth, and most desperate, battle, the battle of Mount Badon. Geoffrey Ashe places this at Badbury, in Wiltshire, just south of Liddington. 'Badbury' as he points out, could be derived from 'Badon-Byrig', the fort of Badon. There is another possibility, though. A few miles to the south-west is the small village of Baydon, standing on the old Roman road from Calleva Atrebatum northwards to Corinium, the modern Cirencester. North of this village rises the steep hill of Baydon, on the slopes of which can be still seen the scars and ditches of ancient fortifications.

The fighting here must have been desperate, for Arthur was fighting the combined strength of the Anglo-Saxon forces. His victory must have been absolute, for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records no Saxon victories in Britain for the next 50 years. Here, at his final battle, Arthur finally achieves the goal for which he has been fighting most of his life…a goal for which his father had fought all of his life, the halting of the Anglo-Saxon advance into Britain and the survival of the Celtic people and Celtic culture.

For the Celts did survive, even though their nation was eventually conquered. Celtic culture is still present in Wales, the home of Arthur and the Ambrosii, and in the place names around Britain. This was the result of the stolid resistance of men like Arthur through the ages, and an essential part of the steel that makes up the British national character.

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King Arthur written by Steve Haas.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Haas
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