Gwyddno’s Journey, and Legenda’s Prologue
Legenda Sancti Goeznovii (Legend of Saint Goeznovius) is the hagiography (writing of a saint’s life) of Goeznovius, who died c AD 675 according to one account but more probably flourished in the Sixth Century, according to Geoffrey Ashe. Goeznovius was a Bishop of Léon in Brittany, who is venerated as a saint in the diocese of Léon. The word Goeznovius is a late Latinisation of the Breton name Goueznou. The Welsh equivalent is Gwyddno.
So, as Gwyddno moved to what would become Brittany, his name shifted within the dialect to become Goueznou. When it was written down in Latin, it became Goeznovius. According to Legenda, he was born in Cornwall (West Wales – Gorllewin Cymru, as it was known at the time) and became one of the many of his countrymen who journeyed to the continent soon after the “Saxon” invasions began. Those who moved to Armorica helped to found the Brittonic settlement of Lesser Britain that eventually became known as Brittany.
Goeznovius had no personal connections to “Arthur”, yet his Legenda is relevant in its prologue (excerpted thusly):
“… in the year of the Lord’s incarnation, 1019 … In the course of time, the usurping king
Vortigern, to buttress the defence of the kingdom of Britain which he unrighteously held,
sent for warriors from Saxony and made them his allies within the kingdom. They were pagans
who wanted to shed human blood, so they committed many atrocities against the Britons.
Presently, Saxon pride was checked for a while through the great King Arthur of the Britons.
The Saxons were, for the most part, expelled from the island and reduced to subjugation. When
Arthur had won many glorious victories both in Britain and Gaul, he eventually laid down his
sword and died. This left the way clear for Saxons to return in full force to the island. They
greatly oppressed the Britons, destroying churches and persecuting saints. These actions
continued throughout the reigns of many kings. Saintly men would martyr themselves, others
left this greater Britain (now quickly becoming the Saxons’ new homeland), to sail across to the
lesser Britain (Brittany).”
This contains the only early historical narrative in which an Arthur is mentioned plainly, with no obvious fantastic or dubious touches. By this reference, Geoffrey Ashe places this Arthur’s activities in the AD 460s or 470s.
Legenda’s Author, Source(s), and Composition Date
The author of Legenda calls himself William, a Breton chaplain in the family of Bishop Eudo of Léon, and gives the date AD 1019 for the work, though André-Yves Bourgès says that it should be late 12th/early 13th Century. William cites an unidentified Ystoria Britanica (History of Britain) as his source.
John Strong Perry Tatlock tells us that the preface to William’s Legenda followed the outlines of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of Kings of Britain), written c AD 1136, and therefore the date of 1019 was fiction. This conclusion has been challenged: the prologue includes material that is found in early sources, yet not in Historia, suggesting that the author had access to earlier documents. Bourgès has demonstrated that the author of Legenda is most likely Guillaume le Breton (c AD 1166-1226). If one considers it independent of Historia, Legenda, as an early historical account of Arthur without legendary touches, is an important historical basis for a “King” Arthur. The text implies that an Arthur succeeds Vortigern directly whereas Historia lists two kings between them (Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon). If so, this places Arthur’s activities during the period of “Saxon” unrest in the mid-5th Century.
Even as a product of AD 1019, Legenda’s prologue is too remote in time from its subject-matter to be used directly as history. The sentences concerning Arthur need to be fully examined: “Presently, Saxon pride was checked for a while through the great King Arthur of the Britons.
The Saxons were, for the most part, expelled from the island and reduced to subjugation. When Arthur had won many glorious victories both in Britain and Gaul, he eventually laid down his sword and died. This left the way clear for Saxons to return in full force to the island.” William places the campaigns of Arthur not long after the Saxon revolt. The words translated as ‘presently’, ‘post modum’, imply sooner-rather-than-later. Neither the revolt nor Vortigern’s death can be dated with great accuracy (Vortigern possibly born AD 386/387, reigning c 425 to 450, dying AD 456/457), but it would be hard to put the beginning of this Arthur’s activities much after (or during) the 450s. He campaigns in Gaul as well as in Britain, and “Saxons” are the only enemy mentioned.
Scholarly Commentary on the Prologue
Ashe goes on to tell us that scholarly comment on the prologue has been scanty and variable. Arthur Le Moyne de la Borderie noted it in 1883. So did Sir Edmund Kerchever Chambers in 1927. In 1939, J S P Tatlock ruled it out as Arthurian evidence because its alleged date of composition was spurious and the author simply paraphrased Historia. Others, including Roger Sherman Loomis, followed Tatlock uncritically. At length, however, Léon Fleuriot vindicated the date as correct.
Scrutiny shows that the prologue cannot be explained in Tatlock’s terms, and he admitted as much himself in the case of one episode (a gruesome story of British settlers cutting out the tongues of indigenous women), which appears in Legenda and also in the Welsh Breuddwyd Macsen/Maxen (Wledig) (Dream of Macsen/Maxen (Wledig)), but is not in Historia Regum Britanniae. There had to be a prior source – a conclusion with a much wider application, says E K Chambers in Arthur of Britain, as well as Tatlock in his “The Dates of the Arthurian Saints’ Legends”. R S Loomis in ALIMA (Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages), p54; and L Fleuriot in Les Origines de la Bretagne, agree with this assessment.
Geoffrey Ashe himself in Speculum; Neil Wright, in his edition of Historia; and James J Wilhelm in The Romance of Arthur, all concur with the previous conclusion pointing to a prior source. Perhaps this “prior source” contained the date of AD 1019, which Guillaume le Breton merely transcribed when he used Ystoria Britanica as his source, thus leading to the convincing conclusion that Legenda was indeed written late 12th/early 13th Century.
Determining Time Period, and Assigning Identity to “Arthur”
There was one single period when a king could have gone from fighting Saxons in Britain to fighting them in Gaul. During the AD 460s, Saxons were present on the lower Loire, and for some years they were in confrontation with the Britons who were settling just north of them. They were finally beaten and dispersed in a battle near Angers somewhere around 469 (according to Gregory of Tours; John Morris, in The Age of Arthur; and Geoffrey Ashe in Speculum).
The Britons, in their short-lived imperial alliance, appear to have taken part along with ‘Romans’ and Franks, and while no one says so, it is possible that Riothamus was involved. Ashe tells us that Riothamus was certainly in the right area before his march to Bourges. After his fading-out in the AD 470s, new “Saxon” incursions into Britain – ‘to return in full force to the island’ – began along the south coast. Legenda Sancti Goeznovii calls Arthur ‘King Arthur of the Britons’, the same rather uncommon title, justified only for a short time, that is given to Riothamus, also according to Ashe; and Riothamus, whether or not he came to Angers, was active in Gaul at the assumed range of dates indicated in Legenda for this Arthur.
The unidentified Arthurian battle ‘Agned’, listed in Historia Brittonum, has sometimes been explained as a scribal error (both contracting and corrupting Andegavum – Angers). This is mainly the idea of Geoffrey Ashe, in equating this particular “King Arthur of the Britons” with his Riothamus.
In reality, there were three “Riothami”. There is “Riatham I” (Riot(h)am(us), Riotimus, Riutimus, Rigotamos, Rigotamus, Rigadaf) ap Deroch I. He was a Gaulic/Armorican Prince of the Domnonée. According to Ashe, this “Riothamus” used “Arthur” as a title. He was born AD 430/435, reigned 454 to 470 (flourished AD 458 to 460), and died c 470. This first Riatham is Geoffrey Ashe’s “Arthur” as Riothamus. The other two Riothami/Riatham were born AD 454/470 and 520/530 respectively. Clearly too late to be either Ashe’s Riothamus or Legenda’s Arthur”.
The life of Gwyddno from Britain to Gaul as Goueznou, later to be immortalised as Goeznovius, has lived up to its reputation as Legenda. Yet we can glean some historical knowledge from its content, particularly in the prologue. Gwyddno (Goeznovius) was born in Gorllewin Cymru (present-day Cornwall), and helped to populate the Brittonic settlement of Lesser Britain, in Armorica, that later became Brittany. His story (Legenda Sancti Goeznovii) contains the only early historical narrative in which an Arthur is mentioned plainly, with no dubious additions. By this reference, Arthur’s activities can be placed in the AD 460s or 470s.
It is apparent that the author of Legenda was Guillaume le Breton (c AD 1166-1226), despite the date of 1019 appearing in the prologue itself. The writing of Legenda was most likely late 12th/early 13th Century AD. Guillaume (William) may have used an unidentified Ystoria Britanica as his source. Legenda does call Arthur ‘King Arthur of the Britons’. This same title can be given to Riothamus. This Riothamus was active in Gaul at the assumed range of dates indicated in Legenda for Arthur. As Riatham I ap Deroch I, he was a Gaulic/Armorican Prince of the Domnonée. This Riatham is Geoffrey Ashe’s “Arthur” as Riothamus.
So, perhaps, the “Kingly” succession proceeded thusly: Vortigern, Riatham I, Aurelius Ambrosius, Uther Pendragon, and then an “Arthur”. This is pure speculation, but it does give an interestingly useful framework on which to hang events of that era. Any further analysis is beyond the scope of this article. Even though Legenda Sancti Goeznovii is a little-known work to most people, it is of great importance for its historical content, especially in its prologue.
Glyn Hnutu-healh is the primary author for the Circle of Logres: Encyclopædia Arthuriana project. He is a practicing Druí Alchemist, who is degreed in Physics and a long-time fan of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Glyn consults (among other things) in matters of History, Genealogy, Alchemy, and Physics.