Arthur, Cerdic, and the Formation of Wessex

V. The Name Arthur

   We would like to suggest that the reason for the name Arthur was that the legends of Arthur, to a large extent, crystalized on the continent, particularly in Britanny. The subject of the tales was Ceredig Vreichvras, but the British name--which was meaningful to both Saxon and Celt, was replaced by a more scholarly and continental Latin version. (For a discussion of the replacement of Celtic by Latin, see Morris, 1973, p. 406, ff.) It is also possible that due to the remoteness of Britanny from the British Isles, the stories may have included additions which in fact referred to other heroes. For instance the warfare against the Roman emperor Lucius described by Geoffrey of Monmouth may well come from the life of Magnus Maximus. The ravaging of Ireland may have been due to confusing Ceredig of Dunbarton with Ceredig Vreichvras. We shall discuss other possibilities on this again. In any case, the wondrous tales developed and grew, and when they came back to Britain after several decades, few people realized that they in fact referred to Ceredig Vreichvras, especially considering that the name Cerdic was associated with the origins of a now primarily Saxon kingdom.
   Tatlock (1950, Ch VI), has an extensive discussion on possible derivations of the name Arthur. He notes that the usual and earliest form in France was Artu or Artus. He points out that, "In France, before Geoffrey's influence the man's name Arturus, with the second -r, has not turned up." (Tatlock, 1950, p. 220-1)
   We now cite the 1907 edition of Harper's Latin dictionary: Artus, plural artua: literally `joint', but figuratively `muscular strength in the joints', hence in general `strength, power'. Thus the Latin and English translations of Ceredig Vreichvras are Coroticus Artus and Cerdic Strongarm. `Arthur' simply means `Strongarm'.
   Although much of the legend of Arthur presented by Geoffrey may have developed in Brittany over centuries, the name Arthur was clearly present in Britain by the late sixth century, when a number of princes in Wales and the North were given the name. One, Arthur Mabpedr of Dyfed, was the possible source of Geoffrey's erroneous "Arthur mab Uther," although he lived almost a century too late to have anything to do with the Battle of Badon, the chief event which defines the original Arthur.
   The name Artus or *Artu-ri ("Strongarm King") may have been brought to Britain, during Cerdic's reign, by Bretons fleeing the Franks and seeking protection under the Gewisse. Both before and after Cerdic's death the name would have caught on and spread throughout the Celtic-speaking lands, where leaders were often called by title or flattering epithet. In contrast, Saxons preferred to know their leaders by their given first names.
   During the turbulent middle and late sixth century, the West Saxons came to be despised by the Welsh. Despite the post-Badon peace, the Welsh soon suffered the consequences of their ways, as Gildas prophesied, in the form of increasing civil strife, a terrible plague, and the return of devastating wars between Welsh and Saxon kings. What survived of the next violent generation lost the last traces of Roman culture and was reduced to savagery. Much Christianity was lost, as monks like Gildas were driven to Ireland or Brittany. Ceawlin, a Welsh "saint" in his younger years, now fiercely led the West Saxons against the Celtic chiefs of Wales and Cornwall. Nearly all history was forgotten in these bitter, stormy years.
   It would take the work of Irish Catholic missionaries to return the people of Britain to Christianity and culture. Early in the 7th century, St. Augustine came from Rome to help spur a revival of the Roman Catholic faith, and soon Anglo-Saxon kings were baptized and began to replace the old pagan cults and heretical forms of Christianity with Catholicism. From this time on, records were more consistently kept. However, knowledge of times before the late 500's had been forgotten and had to be restored largely through legends preserved in Britanny. It was only then that the misty Welsh memories of a glorious battle hero and king known as Arthur were vindicated. However, his identity as the ancestor of the kings of Wessex was lost for the next fifteen centuries.

John C. Rudmin, 864 Chicago Av, Harrisonburg, VA, 22801
Joseph W. Rudmin, Physics Dept., James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA, 22807
(First submitted for publication in Oct 1993)

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