Was King Arthur Welsh?

In some casual commentaries on King Arthur, we sometimes encounter the statement that he ‘defended the English from the Anglo-Saxons’. Of course, such a statement is deeply flawed, because the Anglo-Saxons were the nation from which the English developed. The very word ‘English’ is rooted in the word ‘Angle’. So in other words, the English were actually Arthur’s enemies. But if Arthur was not English himself, then what nationality was he?

A correct answer would likely be ‘British’, in the sense of the native Celtic population of the British Isles (the only real alternative is if he was a foreign Roman officer). But this answer, while likely being correct, is very generic. Within the British Isles, there are a number of different regions. For example, was Arthur Scottish? Or was he Cornish? Or alternatively, was he Welsh? To ascertain the answer to that question, let us look at some of the earliest evidence for Arthur and see where it places him.

Arthur’s Area of Activity

Caerleon in Wales

Starting with the earliest definite reference to Arthur, in Historia Brittonum (HB), we immediately find some useful information. The list of twelve battles between Arthur and the Saxons are said to have taken place across nine different locations. While most of these locations are not readily identifiable (and speculation continues to be made about each of them), the location of one battle site has near universal agreement. This is the Celidon Wood, which is generally accepted as being the Caledonian Forest. Thus, if this is correct, we can say that Arthur fought somewhere in southern Scotland.

This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that an early Welsh poem called Pa Gur places Arthur in the vicinity of ‘Mynyd Eidyn’, which is the Welsh name for Edinburgh. So this agrees with the Historia Brittonum in placing Arthur in southern Scotland.

However, the HB contains additional information about where Arthur was active. In a kind of appendix to the work, known as The Wonders of Britain, we find two ‘wonders’ which are associated with Arthur. One of these is said to be the tomb of his son, who was killed by Arthur himself, while the other is said to be the paw print of Arthur’s dog while they were hunting for an enemy. The tomb of Arthur’s son is placed in Ergyng, modern-day Archenfield. This is just outside the modern border of south-east Wales, though in Arthur’s time it was part of that country.

Regarding the paw print of Arthur’s hunting dog, this is placed near the centre of Wales, somewhat below the midway point between the north and the south. So according to this early source, Arthur was active in southern Scotland, but also in the southern half of Wales.

The Historia Brittonum claims that Arthur led ‘the kings of Britain’ into battle, so it is no surprise that he seems to have been active over a large area. However, what does the information reveal about where he himself actually came from?

Arthur’s Court in Kernyw

There are a number of sources that describe Arthur’s courts. One of the earliest of these is Culhwch ac Olwen, which is a potentially 11th century Welsh tale about Arthur. This is a full telling of the story which was briefly referenced in HB‘s description of Arthur and his dog searching out an enemy, a boar named ‘Trwyth’, across south Wales. However, here in Culhwch ac Olwen, several comments are made concerning Arthur’s actual court, his base of operations. It is said to have been a place called ‘Celliwig’ in a region called ‘Kerniw’. The name of the region is generally held to be a reference to Cornwall, and it is true that this was the Welsh word for that area.

However, several areas in Wales are also known to have had that name, so the matter is not completely clear. And while there was a Celliwig in Cornwall, there is also a Celliwig in Gwent, where there was formerly a large region called ‘Cernyw’. And there are yet more places in Wales that potentially fit the names.

So, unfortunately, we cannot arrive at any definite conclusions from the information about Arthur’s court being at ‘Kernyw’. It may mean that he was based in Cornwall, or it may be a reference to the identically-named region in Gwent (which would be closest to the other locations mentioned in the story), or it might possibly be a reference to one of the other regions of ‘Cernyw’ in Wales. But, nonetheless, it does indicate that he was from this general part of the country, as opposed to Scotland or northern England.

The King’s Home Territory

Was King Arthur Welsh
Castell Dinas Bran, near Llangollen, Denbigshire, Wales, UK

The various 11th and 12th century Lives of the Saints mostly place Arthur in Wales too. This is particularly interesting, because Arthur is not described as campaigning against the Saxons in these sources. He generally appears as a king who, while roaming about the country, has interactions with a variety of different religious individuals. On that basis, it would appear logical that the Lives of the Saints reflect, more than the HB‘s battle list, where Arthur actually lived – after all, he may well have travelled far from his home territory when campaigning against the Saxons.

However, there is also a significant reference in one of the earliest Lives, which makes Arthur the king, along with Cado, of Dumnonia. This region has always had strong connections to Wales, especially during the post-Roman era, so it is no surprise to see Arthur associated with both places. Culhwch ac Olwen also portrays Arthur as having power over the men of Dumnonia, so the evidence is consistent in that regard.

It must be noted, however, that this tale also presents him as having power over the men of south Wales and other places, so it seems logical that his kingship over Dumnonia was more in the sense of an over-king, especially considering that Cado alone is most often described as king of that country, rather than Arthur.

In later records, Arthur’s main court is almost always said to have been at Caerleon in south-east Wales. While it is claimed by some that this association originated with Geoffrey of Monmouth, who lived in that part of the country, it also appears in the Mabinogion (a collection of Welsh tales), which is generally held to be independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. So with these facts in mind, if Arthur’s main court really was at Caerleon in south-east Wales, then we could likely take this as supporting evidence that this was his home territory.

Conclusion

In summary, the evidence does seem to suggest that Wales was Arthur’s centre of activity when he was not campaigning against the Saxons, which would suggest that this was his home territory. This is supported by the placement of his main court at Caerleon in south-east Wales in many records, and is possibly also supported by his other main court being in ‘Kernyw’, which could match a former region near Caerleon. His alleged power over Dumnonia is consistent in this regard, due to the strong historical associations between Dumnonia and Wales. Thus, the evidence as a whole indicates that Arthur was indeed from the area we now call Wales.

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