Historical King Arthur: Cuneglas?

The monk Gildas provides us with the sole surviving written account of 6th-century Britain in his work “De Excidio Britonum,” also known as the “Ruin of Britain.” Primarily a sermon, it offers little verifiable historical content but includes a section denouncing various contemporary rulers for their sins and excesses. Interestingly, this list closely aligns with the sequence of “Kings” following Arthur in Geoffrey’s “History of the Kings of Britain”:

Gildas: Constantine> Vortipor > Aurelius Caninus > Maglocunus
Geoffrey: Constantine> Vortipore > Aurelius Conan > Malgo > ?

The only ruler absent from Geoffrey’s account is initially referred to as Urse (Bear) and later as Cuneglasus, a name corresponding to Cinglas in Welsh genealogies. Gildas accuses Constantine of murdering two royal youths seeking sanctuary at holy altars, a narrative reflected in Geoffrey’s version where Constantine kills the sons of Modred who sought refuge in monasteries. Gildas manipulates the names of Aurelius Conan and Maelgwn, translating them into Latin by their meanings. Maelgwn becomes Maglocunus, meaning “great hound,” and Conan becomes Caninus, meaning “dog” or “puppy.” Similarly, Gildas may have played with the name Urse, possibly a translation or play on the Celtic “Arthur,” which translates to “Bear.”

The etymology of Arthur, commonly associated with “Bear” in Celtic, supports the notion that the ancient understanding of the name Arthur was linked to bears. A marginal note in a 13th-century copy of “Historia Brittonum” by Nennius suggests Arthur means “Ursus Horribilis,” affirming the ancient interpretation of Arthur as “Bear.” Despite a rival theory proposing Arthur’s derivation from the Roman Artorius, textual evidence consistently renders the name as some variant of Welsh Arthur or Latinized forms like Artus, Arturus, or Arturius. Notably, “Arthur” likely wasn’t a personal name during this period, with instances appearing only in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, including figures such as Artair, Arthur son of Bicor the Briton, Arthur ap Pedr, Artuis of the Pennines Kingdom, Artuis of Elmet, and Arthwys ap Meurig.

The name “Arthur” could have been coined by figures like Cuneglasus, possibly called “Arth” or “Arth-Gwyr” (Bear Man) during his lifetime. It might have functioned as a nom de guerre or epithet for distinguished warriors, later adopted as a personal name in memory of renowned individuals. Keeping in mind that “Urse” could be Gildas’ interpretation of the Celtic “Arthur,” similarities between them should be noted.

Gildas implies that Cuneglasus has been involved in wickedness since youth, reminiscent of the narrative of Arthur as the “Boy King” who assumed the crown at a young age. Geoffrey of Monmouth states Arthur was 15 years old at the time. Later in the text, Gildas refers to Cuneglasus, interpreting it to mean “red butcher” in Latin, though it actually translates to “gray hound.” Interestingly, in Welsh triads, Arthur is depicted as worse than the three “red ravengers” of the isles, suggesting a reputation for being a bloody killer. In Welsh genealogies, Cuneglasus is referred to as Cinglas Goch, meaning “the red.”

It’s possible that Gildas mistranslated “Cuneglasus” as a means to label him a murderer. However, this supposed error would have been conspicuous to his audience, who would have regarded Latin as their language. Instead, it could have served as a deliberate signal for the audience to pay close attention to that passage. Chris Stewart has proposed a theory regarding this mistranslation, which may shed light on Gildas’s intentions.

Gildas highlights Cuneglasus’s use of unique weaponry in waging war against his own people, a detail not mentioned regarding other tyrants who engaged in internal conflicts. This observation gains significance in light of Arthur’s potential holding of old Roman military titles such as “Dux Britanniarum” or “Comes Britanniarum,” indicating his leadership in battle. Gildas’s mention aligns with this idea, suggesting Arthur’s distinctiveness in warfare.

In Welsh tradition, Arthur is described as fighting with a weapon known only to him, a detail that appears reminiscent of Gildas’s account. Granville Calder of the Wynchbury Archeological Society refers to this in his papers, indicating its relevance to the discussion. The exact nature of this unique weapon is unclear, but it may be linked to siege engines. Nennius also refers to Arthur as “The Iron Hammer,” breaking the “Walls of the Lions (molae leonum).” N.L. Goodrich suggests this could be a reference to Carlisle, with the Welsh word for waves (“lion”) mistaken for the Latin “lion,” possibly alluding to a form of battering ram. The Welsh sources on Arthur seem interconnected with this passage from Gildas, further suggesting Arthur’s exceptional military prowess.

Gildas accuses Cuneglasus of the grave sin of rejecting his own wife and lusting after her sister, who had taken holy vows. This same crime is famously associated with Arthur in the “False Guinevere” episode. In this narrative, the “False Guinevere” attempts to abduct her sister and is subsequently sent into exile at a convent. Later, she manipulates Arthur into believing she is the rightful Queen.

It’s intriguing that Gildas describes Cuneglasus’s sister-in-law as having promised to God perpetual chastity but also labels her as “villainous.” While these statements may seem contradictory, they align with the portrayal of the “False Guinevere” in romance literature. According to French medieval romances, this incident tarnished Arthur’s reputation during his lifetime.

The specific coincidence between Gildas’s account and the Arthurian legend raises questions about the tale’s source. Did medieval authors know that Cuneglasus was Arthur and base their story on Gildas’s passage, or did they derive it from another, more detailed source? It’s plausible that another work by Gildas existed in the 12th century but is now lost. Regardless, it appears that medieval writers associated Urse-Cuneglasus with the figure they called Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was familiar with Gildas, mentions his work in his “History,” further suggesting a connection between the two narratives.

Who was Gildas’ Bear?

Gildas mentions a character called the Bear,

multorum sessor aurigaque currus receptaculi ursi
rider of many and driver of the chariot of the Bear’s Stronghold.

Gildas: On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae)

This passage suggests a parallel between the “castle of the chariot” mentioned by Mallory and the “Grail Castle,” positing they are one and the same. In ancient times, chariots were often associated with pagan temples, suggesting that the Grail Castle might have originally been a pagan site later taken over and converted by Arthur into a Christian stronghold. Gildas’s disapproval of Cuneglasus, potentially due to heretical beliefs such as Pelagianism, and his strained relationship with the church is noted, especially when Gildas denounces Cuneglasus as a “despiser of God.” Furthermore, Arthur’s depiction in the Welsh Saints’ lives as antagonistic towards the Church adds another layer of complexity to his character.

The text also delves into astronomical references, proposing that the term “Urse,” used by Gildas, might actually refer to the star Arcturus, known as the “Guardian of the Bear,” situated in the constellation near Ursa Major. This celestial body has been historically linked with Arthur, with the constellation Ursa Major being referred to as “Arthur’s Wain” or “Arthur’s Chariot.” This association might suggest that Cuneglasus had connections to the North, possibly through lineage or symbolism, further complicated by the linguistic evolution that made “Arcturus” sound similar to “Arthur.”

The discussion extends to Gildas’s use of specific terms that do not directly translate to a “fortress” but rather to a place of refuge, leading to speculation on whether a real location is being referred to at all. The Celts’ tradition of likening celestial phenomena to fortresses, such as the Milky Way being called “Caer Gwydion,” is highlighted, enriching the narrative with a blend of history, mythology, and astronomy.

Gildas might have refrained from explicitly identifying Cuneglasus as Arthur due to the potentially dangerous political implications of doing so. It’s suggested that Arthur’s real identity was a closely guarded secret, a task made easier in a time without photographs or widespread media. The connection between Arthur and the lineage of Ambrosius Aurelianus, as presented in later legends, is likely a construct of dynastic propaganda from Arthur’s era, aimed at uniting various British factions under a single, venerable Roman lineage.

This context implies that only a select few, particularly educated monks whose networks extended beyond regional borders, would have been privy to the truth. Figures like Gildas and Nennius are highlighted as belonging to this informed class. Nennius, for instance, pointedly avoids referring to Arthur as a king, suggesting he had access to sources that recognized Arthur’s true, perhaps less noble, origins.

Gildas, with his connections to the court of Maelgwyn (Cuneglasus’s cousin) and purported familiarity with Arthur, would have been well-placed to understand and subtly communicate this secret. His choice to use mythological and astrological symbolism to allude to Cuneglasus as “bear” and indirectly to Arthur, served as a coded message intended for contemporaries and future generations alike, who were well-versed in such references. This cryptic mention of “Arturus” (akin to Arcturus, a star associated with leadership and guidance) was likely understood by learned individuals centuries later, reinforcing the belief that Cuneglasus and Arthur were one and the same, not because of the literal term “bear” but due to the deeper, symbolic connections Gildas wove into his writings.

Mabinogion, Arthur and Cuneglasus

The Mabinogion, a crucial source of Welsh mythology, indeed forges a link between Arthur and Cuneglasus, adding depth to the complex tapestry of Arthurian and related legends. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen relatives of Arthur, specifically the six “Sons of Iaen,” are mentioned, including Caradoc Vreichvras (Strong arm). The Dream of Rhonabwy further identifies Caradoc as Arthur’s first cousin, with a father variably named Eliavres, Llyr Vyrenin, or Llyr Merini (Llyr of the Sea), connecting him to Cuneglasus through their shared grandfather, Einion Yrth (Enion Gyrt).

Caradoc (possibly aligned with Cerdic of Wessex)may have been a foundational figure in the Arthurian narrative, suggesting a potential prototype for Arthur himself. This theory underscores the fluidity and interconnectedness of these ancient genealogies and stories, separate from Gildas’s accounts, offering an independent narrative strand that enriches the broader understanding of Arthurian lineage and influence.

Arthur & Saint Kentigern

The connection to Saint Kentigern (or Mungo), considered a patron saint of Scotland and closely tied to the Arthurian tradition, introduces an intriguing layer to this network of associations. Kentigern’s supposed lineage from King Lot, and his father’s naming alignment with Owein (akin to Cuneglasus’s father), alongside the Gaelic cognate of Cinglas for Kentigern, further intertwine these historical and legendary figures. The narrative of Kentigern’s conception, mirroring that of Arthur’s with Uther and Igyrne, adds to the mystique and depth of these interlinked stories, suggesting a continuum of Arthurian elements across different regions and generations.

Moreover, Kentigern’s exile to Northern Wales, the territory of Cuneglasus, and the founding of what would become St.Asaph’s church, where Geoffrey of Monmouth later served as bishop, highlights the geographical and narrative intersections enriching the Arthurian saga. The mention of Gawain’s tomb in the Rhos region by William of Malmesbury further anchors the Arthurian legend in specific British locales, emphasizing the enduring fascination and scholarly exploration of these myths across centuries.

This complex web of relationships, names, and narratives demonstrates the rich layering of history, myth, and legend that characterizes the Arthurian tradition, offering a multidimensional perspective on the figures of Arthur, Cuneglasus, and their contemporaries.

The question of why Arthur is never directly identified as Cuneglasus invites us to delve into the complexities of historical and medieval literary sources. It’s conceivable that medieval authors might not have interpreted “Cuneglasus” as a name in the straightforward sense, but rather as an epithet, akin to Gildas’s labeling of Maelgwn as the “Island Dragon.” This interpretation gains traction considering Gildas’s initial reference to “Urse” and the somewhat enigmatic discussion surrounding the name “Cuneglasus,” which Gildas unusually attempts to translate, suggesting it might not have been recognized as a proper name by later scholars.

This speculation is further compounded by the fact that genealogies mentioning “Cinglas” emerged significantly after Gildas’s writings, possibly as an attempt to anchor the name of an ancient prince within historical records. Nonetheless, it’s more plausible that the name “Arthur” had simply overshadowed any other aliases or titles due to its profound renown, in a manner similar to how few recognize the birth names of historical figures like Lenin or Stalin today.

Through exploring the striking parallels between the legendary Arthur and the historical figure of Cuneglasus as depicted by Gildas, from subtle hints to explicit correlations, this discussion opens a window into the complex interweaving of history and myth. Although we may never definitively prove that Cuneglasus and Arthur were the same individual, the traits attributed to Arthur in myth may very well find their roots in Gildas’s portrayal of Cuneglasus.

This leads to broader inquiries about Cuneglasus’s place within Welsh tradition and medieval Arthurian literature. Despite the dominance of Maelgwn in historical focus, due to the descent of later northern Welsh lines from him, such emphasis may distort our understanding of the 6th century. The exploration into whether Cuneglasus appears under a different guise in the Mabinogi, the Triads, or within the vast expanse of medieval Arthurian narratives, raises intriguing questions about his legacy.

Ultimately, asking “Who was Arthur?” circles back to the realization that our understanding of this king is intrinsically tied to the narratives crafted about him, some of which may originate from figures like Cuneglasus. Thus, in the narratives and traits discussed, Cuneglasus and Arthur converge, highlighting the intricate blend of historical fact and literary legend that defines the enduring enigma of King Arthur.