Seminar CLXXXIV: making sense of Cerdic after Arthur

Returning after the pleasant trip abroad lately described to my seminar report backlog, the 2nd October 2013 saw me back in Senate House for the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because it was being given by Professor John Gillingham and that always bodes well. His title was “Richard of Devizes and the Annals of Winchester“, which was the only way in which this paper disappointed, as it had been advertised under the title “When Cerdic Met Arthur”. As John immediately pointed out, that never actually happened, “because they didn’t exist”, but in the period that John has made most his own, the twelfth century in England, that was of course not the general understanding, and the paper was about one particularly creative attempt to make that understanding make sense.

A romantic depiction of King Arthur

A suitably romantic depiction of King Arthur

The problem is Arthur, of course, whose history had grown from the twelve battles of its ninth-century genesis to the blockbuster of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work.1 Fitting that around the surviving contemporary sources from the Anglo-Saxon side of the mythical frontier, especially the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, both of which inconsiderately fail to mention the British high king, thus proved something of a challenge, and while some historians like William of Malmesbury did it by more or less dismissing Geoffrey’s work as fiction as we now do, others made more effort to find places in the Matter of England where the Matter of Britain might fit, and this is what led the writer behind the hardly-known Annals of Winchester, probably Richard of Devizes, to set up the meeting of John’s abandoned title.2

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9, showing the annal for 519 and also some of the marginal synchronisms, as well as a rather fine but inexplicable doodle

The Annals are edited only from the year 519 onwards, where they say that Cerdic ruled in England while Arthur was fighting in Gaul and died before he returned to fight Mordred, but the actual manuscripts (of which one now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, appears to be an autograph) have an extensive bit before this that tries to reconcile and synthesize several previous attempts to gel the two traditions.3 From Henry of Huntingdon (and ultimately from Gildas, I suppose) he borrowed the idea that the Saxons eventually defeated the British resistance by sheer pressure of immigration, and so he had Cerdic attack again and again until Arthur gave him a fief in Hampshire that the Saxon leader named Wessex. The Chronicle would have liked Cerdic to be a contemporary with the even-more-legendary Hengest,4 but Richard here preferred the Chronicle‘s later date for Cerdic’s arrival, and this he seems to have got from Gaimar’s Estoire de Anglais, whence he also borrowed a Duke Chelricus of the Saxons, with whom he had Cerdic revolt against Arthur at the impulse of Mordred, no less, from whom Cerdic got a considerable expansion of his Wessex, up as far as Kent, although Kent itself went to Chelricus along with Northumbria, that is, Hengest’s lands in the earlier versions of the story. Richard gave Mordred a seven-year reign after which he was killed by the returned Arthur in traditional Galfridian style, and then the text switches more or less firmly to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with the chronologies all now meshed.

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the winner and undisputed champion in this historiographical bout by a series of knockouts

This is arguably to have out-Geoffried Geoffrey, and it seems as if it didn’t travel well, as there are only two manuscripts, and in the fine copy of the two the copyist has borrowed much more of Geoffrey straight. It seems that Richard’s attempt to come up with a version that could have happened, according to what was then understood, failed against the pressure of the version that was already accepted, i. e. Geoffrey’s, and although Richard’s version has the effect of boosting the status of the Cerdicine line (which he draws back to Brutus to match that of the Britons) and various other interesting political takes, it’s still not clear (as came out in discussion) that it was ever written for an audience of more than one (the Annals are dedicated to a ‘Master Adam’ who is unknown).5 John was keen to emphasise that he had not finished with this text, but it already appealed to me because I remember, as a first-year undergraduate, trying exactly this game of getting all the various sources’ dates for early Anglo-Saxon history onto a single sheet of paper and then trying to work out a version that would let them all be true, and it was fun to see that I had unwittingly had such a predecessor…

1. The creation of an Arthurian history is usefully anthologised in Richard White (ed.), King Arthur in Legend and History (London 1997).

2. My notes don’t seem to recall on what basis the authorship of the Annals is assigned to Richard, but I seem to have accepted it, so I’m going to assume that John sounded reasonable on this score, even though I can imagine his rush to dismiss the idea as I write that…

3. Henry Richard Luard (ed.), Annales monastici, Rolls Series 36 (London 1864-1869), 5 vols, II pp. 3-128, online here. I asked why Luard didn’t do the earlier portion and the answer seems to be that he started at the top of a page in the second manuscript and for some reason thought what came before was a different work!

4. On the two Cerdics of the Chronicle, see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Steven Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

5. As a sample of the other fun things Richard did in this text that presumably had a purpose, he has King Harold II survive the Battle of Hastings and run off to join Arthur in eternal waiting sleep on the Isle of Avalon (presumably along with Brán the Blessed’s head and the spirit of British industry), and he has Britain converted to Christianity by Joseph of Arimathea, thus meaning that when the Romans invade they are pagans attacking Christians!

19 responses to “Seminar CLXXXIV: making sense of Cerdic after Arthur

  1. Since ancient Britons and their medieval descendants are close to my heart, I should chip in here. Professor Gillingham is a little harsh to say that neither Arthur nor Cerdic existed. Perhaps not as popularly advertised, but they represent likely types of the era.

    For example, we know from Sidonius Apollinaris and Jordanes that a “High-King of the Britons” whom he called “Riothamus” was active in Armorica in the period 460-470: his subjects liked to free slaves from “poor” slave-owners, and Riothamus had a run-in or two with King Euric of the Visigoths in central France: this may be a reason why there was a power vacuum for the Franks to fill.

    In Britain, Gildas was adamant about the historicity of Ambrosius Aurelianus. The reference to his parents wearing the purple may simply mean that they were the British equivalent of patricians, with his father a member of a district senate, like a local or county council. (Of course, if he were truly a member of the rather extensive Aurelia gens, that would carry some weight.)

    As for Cerdic, the story of his landing in Hampshire is consistent with his sailing from, for example, the Cotentin, which was at that time populated by Britons. His name is consistent in form with near contemporaries, such as King Budic of Brittany.

    Weather permitting, crossing the Channel is no major drama, and the Britons and their Armorican kin often undertook it for trade and military purposes from ancient times, as we know from Julius Caesar’s accounts.

    That the ruling dynasty of Wessex claimed it was founded by a man with a British name requires some explanation. Just dismissing it simply won’t do.

    • It was not alone in that last characteristic, of course: Lindsey has Celtic names in its pedigree too. But I’m afraid I share Professor Gillingham’s cynicism: given how much evidence can be traced in the genealogies for adaptation as political circumstances and ideologies evolved, and that Cerdic’s arrival story is firstly the mirror of that of the kings of Kent, Wight, and Sussex, as well as Port and his son who would presumably be the founders of the Jutish people of Hampshire as reported by Bede, and secondly used twice by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, once for the Gewisse and once for the West Saxons, I think it’s clear that this is a trope. By the time the Chronicle‘s ancestor texts were being pulled together, perhaps with Bede’s story of Hengest (itself recycled from Gildas) in mind, arriving in three ships and killing a Briton at a place now named after him was obviously a good way for a kingship to have been established and one worth using again and again. So I think the best question to ask about Cerdic’s name is probably why it seemed useful in, say, the late eighth century, rather than anything to do with who was actually landing boats on the Hampshire foreshore in the fifth.

      • What I’m really curious about is the archaeology. What evidence do we have from contemporary (or earlier) Saxony, German Anglia and Jutland to support the claim that certain sites and remains in Britain are “Anglo-Saxon”?

        • Allan McKinley

          There is some common material culture, albeit as this is mainly funerary rather difficult to determine whether it’s of any significance. A lot of this culture is traditionally seen as ‘germanic’ or Saxon etc but most seems to be ultimately derived from either common North Sea/Channel literal culture or from Roman models, particularly associated with the army or administration. There are similar goods in use but, especially in the southern areas of England, similarities to the Frankish area are equally strong.

          It is clear that there was an elite by the late-fifth century employing this material culture in some ways. Whether they had the same uses as the actually much less-clearly defined elites of the supposed homelands for this culture or whether this was a common manifestation of local claims to authority as seen across the former western empire is a difficult question, although I’m personally of the later persuasion.

          In general I suspect the belief in strong material culture links comes about because there are similarities in the records of England and those areas assumed to be where Bede located the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (not actually as clear a location as assumed). Since the days of Kemble at the latest people have been searching for a link there on the authority of Bede, and there has therefore been a serious confirmation bias in saying there was a link, as common practices across multiple areas were assumed to be markers of a direct link between the two particular areas.

          That said, ‘Anglian’ areas have clear links to the other side of the North Sea missing on the south coast, which John Hines has emphasised. But since if you are in Norfolk or on the Humber it is probably easier to get to Jutland (not necessarily the place where Jutes came from…) than to Francia or Wales this is not surprising.

          • Thankyou, Allan, that’s saved me a long answer. I’d add only that Catherine Hills’s The Origins of the English (London 2003) is a neat little round-up (just over 100 small pages) of the various kinds of evidence we have for the supposed migrations and the weights that people have tried to make it bear.

  2. I’m not acquainted with the foundation myths of Kent, Sussex, Wight or Jutish Hampshire. At school all we were told was that the brothers Horsa (“horse”) and Hengest (“hen’s teeth” ?!) led the Saxons to England.

    Myths aside, why would a band from Jutland, the Angle or littoral Saxony land in Hampshire? Even after all the other Low Germanic tribes had settled in, there would have been ample land available on the eastern shore: the Danes continued to do this in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, so there was still lots of space then.

    In the 5th and 6th centuries, to venture into the Channel risked interception by British and Breton fleets, not to mention pirates in that age of turmoil. Julius Caesar’s navy had great difficulty combatting the sailors of the Bay of Morbihan; he found it necessary to invade southern Britain to deter the tribes there from sending further reinforcements. The Jutes and Saxons couldn’t have had the strength for what Caesar and several battle-hardened legions were barely able to do.

    Indeed, why would a name like “Cerdic” be useful to the Kings of Wessex toward the year 800?

    The onslaught of the Vikings, such as the destruction of Lindisfarne Abbey on 8 June 793, would have immediately affected the Angles, the Cumbrians and the Picts. Why would it cause a deliberate culture shift in Wessex?

    Even if they were desperate for allies, Charlemagne was Emperor on the Continent, so why use a Breton name for a mythical founder instead of a Frankish name?

    Sure, in the mid-800s, when both Brittany and the Vikings were causing the West Franks grief, it might have been politic to seek an alliance with the Bretons just across the water.

    Between 865 and 871, the Great Heathen Army and the Great Summer Army were rampaging over England and threatening Wessex. That’s the only crisis I can think of that might have caused a beleaguered last Saxon kingdom to rethink its identity in order to reach out to the Celts to its north, west and south in a common cause. But I don’t see any evidence that such a transformation, or even a policy change, happened then.

    To my limited knowledge, the earliest historical records of an alliance between Saxons and Bretons were in the early 900s, when much of the Breton court were granted refuge in Edward the Elder’s Wessex, and in 936 when Athelstan sent his god-brother Alan II back to Brittany to deal with the Vikings who were firmly entrenched here.

    • The myths as such are all very short as we have them, just a set of very similar annals in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the same three-ship violence form I mentioned. The Kent one is the only one that has any external validation, via Gildas, a British polemicist of the sixth century whose work Bede used, and who mentions Hengest (whose name is usually translated as `stallion’, making his pairing with a man bearing the feminine of the word `horse’ as a name even more worrying, as does the fact that the kings of Kent’s royal line was named not after them but their supposed descendant Oisc).

      As to a wider Wessex context, however, I think that while if one looks straight at 800 it’s tricky, that was still the point at which the West Saxon conquest of British Devon and Cornwall reached the tipping point. A century before, King Ine’s laws made attempts to include his `Welsh’ subjects in the structure of legal recourse, even if at a secondary level. If I had to come up with a reason why the kings of Wessex had use for a British ancestor, I’d see it in the need perhaps to establish a claim on those western lands, not anything much to do with Brittany. (Sorry…)

  3. Perhaps, but why make Cerdic their male-line dynastic founder?

    • Allan McKinley

      The simple solution to that question is that by the ninth century descent from Cerdic was seen as a prerequisite for ruling the West Saxons (in lieu of actually having a ruling family), so they had no choice. Also worth noting that I doubt Alfred (like many linguistically component historians since) thought Alfred’s name was British. He would have seen it is a Saxon name, in the same way no-one now sees our current descendent of Cerdic on the throne as having a Jewish name, her next two direct heirs of being Frankish and the fourth in line of being Greek or Turkish…

      • The simple solution to that question is that by the ninth century descent from Cerdic was seen as a prerequisite for ruling the West Saxons (in lieu of actually having a ruling family)

        Or even in the way that descent from Woden seems to have been a prerequisite of kingship in the seventh century everywhere but Essex, as the genealogies and Bede both more or less testify.

  4. The names of the current British royal family are of particular significance to them because they have occurred in the family before. Elizabeth is culturally important as the name of John the Baptist’s mother; as Supreme Governor of the Anglican Church, the Queen Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor is surely well aware of the Jewish origin of her names Elizabeth and Mary.

    William Arthur Philip Louis, Henry Charles Albert David and George Alexander Louis are all named after recent ancestors, and you can continue this analytic process back for centuries.

    • And yet we have never had a second Cerdic…

      • For that matter, there are no repeated names among the Kings of Wessex from Cerdic’s accession in 519 until Æthelstan.became King of the English in 927.

        If we allow Kings of England, then the first name repetition occurs with the accession of Edward “the Martyr” on 8 July 975.

        From then on, we get several name repetitions. I’d guess this was a nostalgic-cum-patriotic response to the increasing Danish threat.

        Why has there never been a King Alfred II?

  5. There might well have been, if Alfred the Ætheling hadn’t managed to get himself murdered (in 1036).

    • Arthur has also turned out to be a bad name to give princes…

      • Bad for the princes, anyway. An exception is Arthur III of Brittany, whose exploits reversed all of Henry V’s good work, and then some.

        • I will confess to not knowing about him! I’d have thought the precedent of Arthur I would have been enough to warn kings off the name, but Arthur II implies an Arthur II, whom I also did not know about, and who… seems to have managed OK?

          • Arthur II (born 25 July 1261) was the eldest son of Duke John II and Beatrice, daughter of King Henry III of England and Eleanor of Provence. Arthur was Duke of Brittany from 18 November 1305 until his death on 27 August 1312.

            A brief reign but significant, for he convened the first Estates of Brittany in 1309, and in its sessions not only lords and high clergy voted, but some commoners also.

            This is slightly paradoxical, because you will recall that Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, had in 1264 briefly deposed Henry III and instituted a sovereign, elected parliament.

  6. Arthur III (4 August 1393 – 26 December 1458) had a roller-coaster of a career which included fighting against the Burgundians from 1410 to 1414, being captured at Agincourt, 5 years in prison, upon release in 1420 he arranged the Treaty of Troyes between England and Brittany, for which he was made Duke of Touraine in 1422.

    However, since the English would not give Arthur the coveted Earldom of Richmond, which he saw as his birthright, in 1424 he returned to supporting the Dauphin.

    In 1425, Yolande of Aragon, the real power behind the French resurgence, had Arthur made Constable of France, but his outspokenness saw him expelled from the French court in 1427, though he retained his military title and fought beside Joan of Arc at the Battle of Patay in 1429.

    In 1435, at a three-way diplomatic conference between England, France and Burgundy, Arthur brokered the Treaty of Arras between France and Burgundy.

    In 1450 at Formigny in Normandy, the English gained the upper hand over the French, but then Arthur rode in with his Breton knights to save the day.

    In like manner in 1453, Arthur’s nephew Duke Peter II administered the coup de grace to John Talbot’s forces at the Battle of Castillon in Gascony.

    Arthur succeeded Peter II to reign as Duke from 22 September 1457 until his death a year later on 26 December 1458, and was succeeded in turn by another nephew, Francis II, the last-reigning Duke of a fully independent Brittany.

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