Although I’m sceptical about the idea of a ‘real’ King Arthur I don’t have similar doubts about Merlin. This isn’t just because I’m a devotee of the wizard’s latest TV incarnation courtesy of the BBC. No indeed. My belief in a historical Merlin goes back more than three decades, to my first encounter with a famous entry in the Welsh Annals under the year 573:
bellum armterid inter filios elifer et guendoleu filium keidiau; in quo bello guendoleu cecidit; merlinus insanus effectus est.
‘The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddoleu son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddoleu fell; Merlin went mad.’
In 1876 the renowned Celtic scholar W.F. Skene identified Arfderydd as Arthuret, a parish on the Anglo-Scottish Border a few miles north of Carlisle. Skene also proposed that the nearby place-name Carwinley, recorded in the 13th century as Karwindelhou, derives from an earlier Caer Gwenddoleu, ‘Gwenddoleu’s Fort’. Most historians now accept this derivation. The fort itself is either the Roman one at Netherby or a native stronghold beneath the Norman ‘motte and bailey’ castle of Liddel Strength.
Much academic attention has been directed at the Welsh Annals to assess their original date of composition. They seem to have been compiled c.900, probably at the great monastery of St David’s, by a monk who gathered information from a number of earlier sources. It is likely that the entry for Arfderydd was originally a brief notice of the battle (bellum armterid) and that the details of the participants were added later. The information about Merlin may have been inserted c.1150 after the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and possibly reflects traditions enshrined in older Welsh poems attributed to the ‘wizard’ himself. In these poems, we see Merlin fleeing in terror from the carnage of Arfderydd to seek a refuge in the forest of Celidon, a wild region of what is now southern Scotland. There in the deep woods he lived alone as a fugitive, hiding from King Rhydderch of Dumbarton who sought to capture him. In medieval Scottish legend it was believed that Merlin’s grave lies beside the River Tweed at Drumelzier, a village between Biggar and Peebles.
Wales makes its own claim for Merlin in the Arthurian stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth and in folklore about the town of Carmarthen whose Welsh name Caerfyrddin is said to mean ‘Myrddin’s Fort’ (Myrddin is an old Welsh form of Merlin). Glastonbury in Somerset is another place associated with Merlin in his familiar guise as King Arthur’s chief counsellor. For me, however, the ‘real’ Merlin is the one from the lands around the Anglo-Scottish Border. He was the bard of King Gwenddoleu at a royal caer near Carwinley in northern Cumbria. He fought at the battle of Arfderydd in 573 where he witnessed the slaying of his lord. Afterwards, he fled into the wild woods of southern Scotland to live out his remaining years as a hunted man.
Why do I believe this to be history rather than legend? The answer is fairly straightforward: it’s a hunch, an instinct, a quirky personal preference. I could try to justify my stance by adding that I’ve been interested in the circumstances surrounding the battle of Arfderydd for more than 25 years, looked at scholarly papers on the earliest Welsh traditions and reached a conclusion based on the views of experts. But this wouldn’t be entirely true. Most experts are rightly cautious about who Merlin was and whether he was ‘real’. Their careful consideration of the literature doesn’t account for my unbridled enthusiasm in placing him among the historical figures of 6th-century North Britain. Like I said, it’s really nothing more than a hunch.
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Notes & References
* On the oldest traditions of Merlin see: A.O.H. Jarman, ‘Early stages in the development of the Merlin legend’, pp.335-48 in R. Bromwich & R.B. Jones (eds) Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd/Studies in Old Welsh Poetry (Cardiff, 1978).
* An excellent and accessible discussion of the northern Merlin is given by Nikolai Tolstoy in his book The Quest for Merlin (Sevenoaks, 1985).
* Skene’s identification of Arfderydd as Arthuret was announced in a paper presented to a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh: ‘Notice of the site of the battle of Ardderyd or Arderyth’ PSAS 6 (1876), 91-8.
* While visiting Carwinley in search of Caer Gwenddoleu, Skene heard of a local legend about a great battle between ‘Picts’ and ‘Romans’. Was this a genuine tradition of the bellum armterid of 573, preserved in Cumbrian folklore? I explored this question in a short article published sixteen years ago: ‘Local folklore and the battle of Arthuret’ Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society 95 (1995), 282-4.
The battle itself occupies one half of Chapter 5 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010).
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