Arthur of the Battles
Defender of the Land
A War Leader’s Rise to Power
In the written sources Arthur appears as a dux bellorum or “leader of battles,” not yet a king. In describing the “Wonders of Britain,” Nennius calls Arthur simply a miles, or soldier.1 In the Vatican recension of Historia Brittonum, we hear that: “although many were more noble than he, Arthur was the leader and victor in twelve battles.”2 How did a man so obscure rise from the ranks to gain twelve famous victories? How he came to this position, what military methods he used, who were his allies and enemies will be examined here as we seek the motivations for Arthur’s battles beyond the bare accounts of the chronicles.
Gildas’s insistence that Ambrosius was the victor at Badon is not necessarily at odds with Nennius’s account of Arthur’s victory. If Ambrosius had been Arthur’s commander in chief, both men could have taken part in the battle and could therefore both be said to be victorious. In the common parlance of war, a battle is normally attributed to its commander in chief, not to any subordinate general, however valiant, although special campaigns might single out an individual as particularly successful.
Was Arthur known to his contemporaries as “Arthur of Badon?” The historian William of Malmesbury, writing in the first quarter of the twelfth century, gives us a brief glimpse of Arthur at the side of Ambrosius:
When (Vortigern) died, the British strength decayed; their hopes becoming diminished, fled; and they would have soon perished altogether, had not Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans, who became monarch after Vortigern, quelled the presumptuous barbarians by the powerful aid of warlike Arthur. This is that Arthur of whom the Britons fondly fable, even to the present day: a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but in authentic history. He, indeed, for a long time upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war. Finally, at the siege of Mount Badon, relying on an image of the Virgin which he had affixed to his armour, he engaged nine hundred of the enemy singlehanded, and dispersed them with incredible slaughter.3
The passage is largely attributable to Nennius’s Historia Brittonum, and the variations may be of William’s own creation, but even here we have “a warlike Arthur,” not a king.
We do not know the nature of Ambrosius’s relationship to Arthur. Had Arthur been a relative this would surely have been remembered in the genealogical record. In terms of the military emergency in which Britain found itself, it is possible that Ambrosius, acculturated in the Roman way, adopted Arthur. Adoption of a successor was a Roman custom among both its emperors as well as its citizens, recognized within Roman law so that childless men could appoint responsible inheritors. There are two obstacles to this, for Ambrosius had descendants, according to Gildas, and if Arthur had been formally adopted, we would expect to have some account of him as “Arthur, son of Ambrosius.”
We have already seen how Vortigern continued to rule as king while his son Vortimer acted as the active general of his forces only a generation before Arthur’s time, and it is more likely that Arthur was Ambrosius’s military successor rather than his adopted son. Ambrosius Aurelianus is a resoundingly Roman name with no British equivalent until Nennius calls him Emrys Guletic, or “Ambrosius the Sovereign.” In the mid-fifth century British men still bore Latinate names, but successive generations favored British ones. What if Ambrosius had a British military nickname like “Uter Pendragon” or “the Terrible Draco-Leader.” Such a nickname would explain why Ambrosius is associated with the story of Vortigern’s tower and the dragons as well as providing a battle cry to rally behind. Nennius’s story about a cloth with two worms upon it could well represent the two standards of the British and Saxons. A draco standard, so much a part of the legionary insignia of Lucius Artorius Castus, was the rallying point both for the British and the Sarmatians he lead.
If such a nom de guerre had been applied to Ambrosius, it might well have led to the later association between Uther and Arthur as father and son; for, while it is clear that Arthur is no one’s son in the early record, both he and his predecessor bear the name “Pendragon” in later legend. The draco standard of the legions gradually mutated into the red dragon emblem of Gwynedd, still in use today as the national standard of Wales.
So where did Arthur of the Battles originate? There is a poem in the Book of Taliesin that gives us a clue to his antecedents and makes powerful sense. Already mentioned in chapter 1, where it has been seen as complementary evidence for the Roman origins of Arthur, “Kadeir Teyrnon” may also support the antecedents of a fifth-century northern Arthur. The poem discusses the ruler of Britain as a man born and bred on the Wall as well as one militarily qualified to its supervision.
Declare the clear ode
In inspiration’s own metre:
A man sprung of two authors,
Of a cavalry wing’s steel.
His spear and his wisdom,
His judicious course,
His kingly sovereignty
His assault over the Wall,
His rightful seat Amongst the defenders of the Wall. . . .
From the slaughter of chieftains,
From the destruction of armies,
From the loricated legion,
Sprang the Guledic,
Around the fierce old boundary.4
The “fierce old boundary” is none other than Hadrian’s Wall (see plate 3). This poem suggests a man who was born either of native stock and Roman lineage or perhaps one who is half-native and half-foreigner; we might take our pick from the men of Rheged, the Gododdin, or of Pictish or Dalriadan origin, which might help explain from whence the name “Arthur” was first introduced.