The monk Gildas left us the only extant written record of 6th century Britain.His work,"De Excidio Britonum", or the "Ruin of Britain" is mostly a sermon,and contains little verifiable history.It does contain, however, a section damning various rulers of his day for their sins and excesses.This list almost exactly parrallels the list of "Kings" which immediately follow Arthur in Geoffrey's "History of the Kings of Britain".
The only "Tyrant" missing from Geoffrey is addressed first as Urse(Bear) and later as Cuneglasus.The name is found as Cinglas in the Welsh genealogies. To read what Gildas has to say about Cuneglasus, click HERE. The others match up very well.Gildas claims that Constantine had murdered two royal youths as they took refuge before holy altars. In Geoffrey, Constantine slays the two sons of Modred who had taken refuge in monasteries. Gildas plays with the names of Aurelius Conan and Maelgwn, rendering them in Latin by their meanings. Maelgwn being rendered as Maglocunus which is "great hound" and Conan as Caninus, that is "dog" or "puppy". I suggest he does the same with Urse. It has long been recognized that Arthur best translates as "Bear" in Celtic. A marginal note on a 13th century copy of the "Historia Brittonum", by Nennius(9th century) says that Arthur means "Ursus Horribilis". No matter what the actual origin of the name, this earliest etymology is important as it shows beyond doubt that the ancients understood "Arthur" to mean "Bear". A rival theory has been current for years which claims Arthur derives from the Roman Artorius. This is more of a speculation than a theory as no text supports such a reading. The name is always rendered as some variant of the Welsh Arthur, or is Latinized in various ways like Artus, Arturus, or Arturius. And it should be remembered that "Arthur" was most likely not a personal name at this time. The word is unrecorded as a personal name before the end of the sixth and early seventh century, when several "Arthurs" are known. These include:Artair son of Aidan,a prince of Scottish Dalriada; "Arthur son of Bicor the Briton" from an Irish Annal; Arthur ap Pedr of Dyfed; Artuis of the Pennines Kingdom; Artuis of Elmet; and Arthwys ap Meurig of Gwent. The name could have been "coined" by Cuneglasus being called something like "Arth" or "Arth-Gwyr" (Bear Man) during his lifetime. It is possible that it was a "nome de guerre", perhaps born by more than one man, and afterward it was given as a personal name in memory of that (or those) great warriors. Click HERE to see a page about Arthur's name. If we keep in mind that "Urse" could be Gildas' translation of (or play on) the celtic "Arthur", then we should note any things which they share in common.
First of all, Gildas implies that Cuneglasus had been engaged in a life of wickedness "ever since your youth". Arthur was supposed to have taken "the crown" at a very early age-the "Boy King". Geoffrey of Monmouth says he was 15 years old!? Later in the text, Gildas calls him Cuneglasus, and says it means "red(tawny) butcher" in Latin. Of course it does not,it translates as "gray hound". Oddly enough, Arthur is said in one of the Welsh triads to be worse than the three "red ravengers"of the isles. Both these phrases carry the meaning of "bloody killer". In the Welsh Genealogies,Cuneglasus is called Cinglas Goch (the red). Did Gildas mistranslate "Cuneglasus" just as an excuse to call him a murderer? Maybe not. This "error" would have stuck out like a sore thumb to his audience who would have considered Latin "our language", as Gildas says. It might have been done as a sign to that audience that they should pay close attention to that passage, as will be discussed below.Chris Stewart has an excellent theory about this "mistranslation" located here .
Cuneglasus makes war on his own countrymen with "arms special to himself". Why did Gildas need to say this of him and not of the other Tyrants who also made war with one another? Arthur is often now thought to have held one of the old Roman military titles such as "Dux Britanniarum" or "Comes Britanniarum". He was "Dux Bellorum", leader in battle, to Nennius. Gildas' statement makes sense in this light. Arthur was called "Emperor" in the Welsh medieval tradition. And this is very interesting."In Welsh writings Arthur is known and stated to have fought with a weapon known only to him". This seems to be lifted right out of the pages of Gildas!(Note:this quote is from a review of some papers by Granville Calder of the Wynchbury Archeological Society. I have included it because it is extremely relevant to this thesis, and it must serve till I locate the exact Welsh source). What this is a reference to is not clear. It is possible that this is a reference to the use of siege engines. The same note in Nennius that gives the "bear" etymology also calls Arthur "The Iron Hammer" by which the "Walls of the lions (molae leonum) were broken". N.L.Goodrich has an interesting discussion on a possible identity for this "molae leonum" in her "King Arthur". She suggests it is a reference to Carlisle, the welsh word for waves being mistaken for the latin "lion". This might be an allusion to some form of battering ram,etc.. In any event the Welsh source on Arthur seems connected to this passage from Gildas.
The great sin Gildas accuses Cuneglasus of is that he had rejected his own wife and had set his lustful eye on her sister, though she had taken holy vows. This exact same crime is well known of Arthur. It is referred to as the "False Guinevere" episode. In the romances, the "False Guinevere" is sent in exile to a convent for her attempted abduction of her sister. Later, she brings Arthur under her spell, convincing him that she is the rightful Queen. This is interesting because even though Gildas says that Cuneglasus's sister in law had "promised to God perpetually chaste widowhood", he also describes her as "villainous". These two statements seem incongruous, but make sense in light of what the romance has to say about the "False Guinevere". According to the French medieval romancers, this act was the greatest spot on Arthurs reputation in his own lifetime. This is a very specific coincidence, and in light of the etymology of the name a fortuitous literary borrowing is out of the question. So what is the source of this tale? Did the medieval authors know that Cuneglasus was Arthur, and based their story on the passage in Gildas or did they derive it from some other source of greater detail? It is possible that another work by Gildas survived to the 12th century, but is lost to us today. Either way, it would seem that the medievals "knew" that Urse-Cuneglasus was the one they called Arthur. Geoffrey was familiar with Gildas, and mentions his work in his "History".
Another passage from Gildas is difficult to interpret. The following quote is from the M.Winterbottom translation of "The Ruin of Britain".
A more likely suggestion is that he was making a reference, by way of "Urse", to the star Arcturus. This is the fourth brightest star in the sky and is situated between the thighs of Bootes, behind the constellation of the Great Bear. Sometimes the name "Arcturus" is applied to the whole constellation instead. It's name comes from the Greek "Guardian of the Bear".It was called the "Driver of the Bear" because it was said to drive or lead the Great Bear (Ursa Major), also called the Wain or even the Plough. The Romans called Ursa Major the "Currus" or Chariot and the third century B.C. Greek astronomical poet, Aratos, called it the "Wain-like Bear". As the above quote from the "Lay of the Last Minstrel" shows, it was long called "Arthur's Wain". Thus, by saying Cuneglasus "drove the chariot of the Bear's stronghold (holding place)", Gildas was associating him with this star. For what reason we do not know. Perhaps Cuneglasus bore a standard which held the stars of the Great Bear or it might even be a reference to the Northern origin of his family. His great grandfather, Cunnedda came from the Scottish lowlands in the previous century. The term "Arctos" was used to refere to Northern regions. And then perhaps he was only hinting at the sound of the name and how it related to the Celtic "Art(h)". In fact it could be much more than that! By the time Gildas was writing, changes had taken place in Latin including the dropping of middle "c" in three consonant clusters. So in his day "Arcturus" would have been heard as "Arturus"! The same change occured in Old English and is the origin of the name "Arthur's Wain". ( See the "Arthur's Name" page for more on this.) So it seems that Gildas could be saying that Cuneglasus was called by a name which sounded to his classically educated ears very like "Arturus". The Greek/Latin "Arcturus" has much the same meaning as the British/Welsh "Arth-gwyr". This is a remarkable passage because it directly connects Cuneglasus with the name "Arturus", one of the most common early forms for "Arthur". Whatever "driver of the chariot" was supposed to mean it is likely that the place referred to is Din Eirth in Rhos (Northern Wales). In the Welsh Genealogies, Cuneglasus appears as Cinglas Goch, a ruler in the Rhos line. But I should add that the term Gildas uses is not exactly "stronghold". He says "receptaculi" which is more like a holding place or a place where animals are kept. It can mean refuge or safe place but is not exactly a "fortress". So, possibly, no real place is actually being referred to.On the other hand it should be noted that the Celts frequently refered to constellations and other astronomical bodies as fortresses.For example the Milky Way was called Caer Gwydion, the Fortress of Gwydion and Cassiopeia was called Llys Don,The Fortress of the Goddes Don.Check this site for references.I would like to thank Kevin Bowman for pointing out this information and site.Once again this makes us think of the above Myth associated with the "Great Bear". The term "multorum sessor" deserves some comment as well. The allusion to a chariot being driven in the next passage suggested the translation "rider of many". It might equally translate as "inhabitant or dweller of many (places)" indicating that Cuneglasus held court in many places or perhaps "ruled" in many places. Of course it could be an allusion to Arthur's many far away battles in the North of Britain.
Why does Gildas not just come out and name Cuneglasus as Arthur? He probably would not have dared to do so. It seems Arthur's true identity was a secret. In an age before photographs and mass media it would have been relatively easy to conceal your true identity. The later legends which trace his line to the family of Ambrosius Aurelianus are almost certainly fabricated. They probably represent a form of dynastic propaganda current in his own lifetime. By the standards of the time he needed this connection to this "Last Great Roman" of antiquity in order for all the separate British factions to gather around him. But some were in a position to know the truth, namely the learned monks with connections which transcended the borders of individual realms. Gildas was in this class, as was Nennius. Consider what Nennius has to say about Arthur. He claims that while Arthur was the "Leader in Battle" of the British Kings,he is not called "King" himself.In fact,he consistently declines to call Arthur a "King". It looks like Nennius had sources which knew the true pedigree of Arthur and that he was a minor prince chosen for his ability rather than his nobility. Gildas was in a very good position to know the truth as he was for a time at the court of Maelgwyn, the first cousin of Cuneglasus. And if his "Life" is to be believed he was well acquainted with Arthur as well. By useing the concealed language of myth and astrology and calling Cuneglasus "bear", he was able to pass a forbidden hint of his secret knowledge to his intended audience. Who were they? Men just like himself, perhaps including those not even born yet like Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth. The educated of Geoffrey's time were just as familiar with classical myth and astrology as the men of Gildas' day. They would not have missed the reference to "Arturus" (Arcturus) that Gildas made 700 years earlier. This more than being called "bear" is what made them think Cuneglasus was Arthur.
The Mabinogion is another source that connects Arthur and Cuneglasus. In "How Culhwch Won Olwen" are listed some of Arthur's relatives, the six "Sons of Iaen". One of them is Caradoc Vreichvras(Strong arm). In"The Dream of Rhunabwy", Caradoc is said to be Arthurs first cousin. His father is called variously Eliavres, Llyr Vyrenin, or Llyr Merini(Llyr of the Sea). The father of Cuneglasus is Owein Ddantgwyn(Whitetooth). Eliavres and Owein share the same father in the genealogies, Einion Yrth(Enion Gyrt). Caradoc and Cuneglasus are thus first cousins as well. John and Joseph Rudmin theorize that Caradoc is the same as Cerdic of Wessex, and a prototype of Arthur. To see their very interesting theory go to Arthur,Cerdic,and the formation of Wessex. In"The Dream of Rhonabwy" Caradoc is said to be Arthur's chief advisor, so confusion between them is understandable. This tradition is very important as it is certainly independent of Gildas. It should also be noted that in the Welsh genealogies, Arthur occupies this same position through his mother, the third generation from Cunedda, i.e. his great grandson. This late genealogy is odd. It traces Arthur to Cunedda by a female line through his mother Igerne. She was said to be a daughter of Gwen, a daughter of Cunedda.
This final piece is rather out on a limb so take it for what it is worth. A patron saint of Scotland is named Kentigern or Mungo. Kentigern means something like "head chief" or "high lord" while Mungo means "beloved". He is a most legendary saint, intimately connected with the Arthurian tradition. Indeed one Scottish historian has observed that if Arthur never existed neither did Mungo. According to the Welsh Triads, Kentigern was Arthur's Chief Bishop at one of his three Royal Seats, in this case at Pen Rhionydd in the north (possibly Whitehorn in Galloway). None of the five sources for his life is earlier than the 12th century, so they were being composed at the same time as the great Arthurian literary explosion. In these "lives", Kentigern is said to be the grandson of King Lot. His father is a prince named Eugene, or Owein, the same name as Cuneglasus' father. (In this case generally said to be Owein ap Urien). So imagine my surprise to discover Mungo was called Glascau, the gaelic cognate of Cinglas (Cuneglasus). It has been suggested that Kentigern's british name should in fact be understood as "Cunotigurnos" or "Hound Lord". Even more surprising is that the story of his conception is a variant on the one told of Uther and Igyrne. Like Arthur, Kentigern was concieved by deception and Disguise. So what does this mean? I'm not suggesting that Mungo is Arthur. It does seem that when his life was being written in the 12th century, the authors made use of legendary sources conected with the Arthurian tradition, and in this instance still connected with the name Cuneglasus. In fact a connection does exist between Cuneglasus and St.Kentigern. When Mungo had to flee from Scotland he spent time in the Rhos region of Northern Wales, the homeland of Cuneglasus and his branch of the Cunedda line, founding the church which would become St.Asaph's. Interestingly enough, Geoffrey of Monmouth was named Bishop of St.Asaph's in the 12th century. There is another Arthurian connection to the Rhos region. According to William of Malmesbuy in his "Gesta Regum Anglorum" (c.1125) the tomb of Walwen (Gawain), nephew of Arthur, was to be found there. There are of course many claimed Arthurian locations in Britain but this one is very early, predating even Geoffrey's "History".
It might be asked why Arthur is never called Cuneglasus. Before that could be answered we would need to know first hand all the sources the medieval authors used. However, in the case of the one source, Gildas, they may not have considered Cuneglasus to be a name at all. They might have viewed it as an epitaph much the same as when Gildas called Maelgwn the Island Dragon. This view would be supported in that he calls him Urse first and the passage containing the name Cuneglasus is difficult to interpret. Remember he actually offers a translation,an incorrect one, of Cuneglasus.This is an unusual way to treat a proper name. Indeed it is possible that Cuneglasus was not a name. The genealogies which contain the name Cinglas are much later and could have been created just to contain an ancient prince mentioned in Gildas. Of course this is only speculation. It is more likely that the name Arthur was so renowned that it completely erased any other name he was known by. How many people today know Lenin's or Stalin's real names, or indeed that these are not their real names?
In this essay I hope to have shown the uncanny parallels between the Arthur of legend and Cuneglasus known through Gildas. These parallels range from suggestive hints to full one to one correlation. We will never know whether Urse-Cuneglasus "was" Arthur but certainly quite a number of the traits of the King Arthur of myth have their origin in what Gildas has to say about him. It is very possible they were mistaken about this man, drawing a wrong conclusion from the etymology they applied, i.e. Urse = Arthur. In that case we should ask another question. Cuneglasus was obviously a very important man in his own time, to judge by what Gildas has to say about him. Because the later northern Welsh lines descend through Maelgwyn, most attention is focused on him. This gives an unbalanced view of the actual situation in the 6th century. What does Welsh tradition have to say about Cuneglasus? Does he appear in the Mabinogi, perhaps under another name? What about the Triads? And finally, what figure does he become in the giant body of medieval Arthurian work? Or was this man's legacy completely effaced by his identification as Arthur? In the end it is a circular question to ask "who was Arthur?". All we know of the King comes from what is written about him and some of these tales may have other origin than in a king called Arthur. In that sense Cuneglasus "is" Arthur, at least as far as the specific traits I discussed above have their origin in him.
TO MY HOMEPAGE