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Saturday, 25 February 2017

Cuneglasus, Ursus and King Arthur

By Dane Pestano and contributing editor, Mak Wilson,1
© 2017. Composed in Sussex, England.


The tyrant Cuneglasus appears in a polemic written by a sixth century monk called Gildas in his work: De excidio et Conquestu Britanniæ (‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ shortened to De Excidio), where all of Cuneglasus’ various crimes and sins are laid bare by its author for all to see, along with those of four other tyrannical rulers of the Britons.2 In looking at the life of Cuneglasus from Gildas’ words we will try to disentangle the historical Cuneglasus from perceived links with King Arthur by various authors. The main points below will be discussed.
  1. By the twelfth century Cuneglasus has been assumed by some, to have been Arthur;3 as Geoffrey of Monmouth may have disguised him in his description of Gildas’ five kings, which he made follow Arthur in kingship in his History of the Kings of Britain; and certain Arthurian glosses were added to the Historia Britonnum in the early thirteenth century that have been seen to be related to Gildas’ description of Cuneglasus.4
  2. Assertions that Cuneglasus was 'King' Arthur may have been made because of the ‘bear’ reference to Cuneglasus in De Excidio (as Welsh Arth can mean ‘bear’),5 and, perhaps, because Geoffrey gave Arthur a 'special weapon', Caliburnus (later called Excalibur), just as Cuneglasus is described as having “arms special to thyself”.
  3. Geoffrey also used the form of Arthurus when referring to Arthur in his Prophecies of Merlin (c. 1130CE), a name that can be derived from the Greco-Romano cosmological and mythological figure, Arcturus (Greek Arktouros); an imagery that some have read into Gildas’ words regarding Cuneglasus (as Arcturus > Arthurus > Arthur).
  4. It could also be argued that by the twelfth century Cuneglasus had contributed to the legend of Arthur by hagiographers who portrayed a rather more brutal, tyrannical Arthur, prone to murder, civil war and rebellion, in Wales.
  5. From here it has also been suggested that the link with Cuneglasus and Arthur was picked up by the French Romance writers who tell the story of the False Guinevere, seemingly shadowing the story of Cuneglasus having driven away his wife and courted his wife’s sister. Mallory’s ‘Castle of the Chariot’, perhaps the Grail Castle, has also been seen as a reference to Cuneglasus, and Gildas’ use of the chariot metaphor.6
  6. Cuneglasus has been linked to a fort called Dinarth in Rhos, north Wales, due to the words of Gildas, and also to other possible forts in Ceredigion. We will discuss the validity of this in relation to a proposed metaphorical reading of Gildas' words.
In looking at all these arguments, on a line by line basis from Gildas’ De Excidio, the metaphorical and biblical nature of some of Gildas’ polemics against Cuneglasus will be examined and presented in a revised form and a solution to the difficult subject of Gildas’ confused translation of Cuneglasus into Latin ‘tawny butcher’ will also be attempted.
      The map below is a rough guide to Wales in the mid sixth century, with tyrants placed in approximate places as discussed in this work; including some of the later medieval names for the kingdoms. It presumes Maglocunus had deposed other tyrants in the north as described by Gildas and so a larger7 Gwynedd is indicated than would normally apply later. It should not be taken as definitive in any way.

Cuneglasus8 the bear.
(De excidio, §32) “Ut quid in nequitiae tuae volveris vetusta faece et tu ab adolescentiae annis, urse, multorum sessor auriga que currus receptaculi ursi, dei contemptor sortisque eius depressor, Cuneglase, Romana lingua lanio fulve. Quare tantum certamen tam hominibus quam deo praestas, hominibus, civibus scilicet, armis specialibus, deo infinitis sceleribus? Quid praeter innumerabiles casus propria uxore pulsa furciferam germanum eius, perpetuam deo viduitatis castimoniam promittentem, ut poeta ait, summam ceu teneritudinem caelicolarum, tota animi veneratione vel potius hebetudine [nympharum] contra interdictum apostoli denegantis posse adulteros regni caelestis esse municipes suspicis? Quid gemitus atque suspiria sanctorum propter te corporaliter versantium, vice immanis leaenae dentium ossa tua quandoque fracturae, crebris instigas iniuriis?”9
Why dost thou, also, wallow in the old filth of thy wickedness, from the years of thy youth, thou bear, rider of many, and driver of a chariot belonging to a bear's den, despiser of God and contemner of His decree, thou Cuneglas[us] (meaning in the Roman tongue, thou ‘tawny butcher’). Why dost thou maintain such strife against both men and God? Against men, thine own countrymen, to wit, by arms special to thyself; against God, by crimes without number? Why, in addition to innumerable lapses, dost thou, having driven away thy wife, cast thine eyes upon her dastardly sister, who is under a vow to God of the perpetual chastity of widowhood, that is as the poet says, of the highest tenderness of heavenly nymphs, with the full reverence, or rather bluntness, of her mind, against the apostle's prohibition when he says that adulterers cannot be citizens of the kingdom of heaven? 
Why dost thou provoke, by thy repeated injuries, the groans and sighs of saints, who on thy account are living in the body, as if they were the teeth of a huge lioness that shall some day break thy bones? [...]”

...and he goes on for a while longer after this with some Biblical examples, ending with....
 “Otherwise thou shalt know and see, even in this world, how evil and bitter it is to have abandoned the Lord thy God, and that His fear is not with thee, and that in the world to come thou shalt be burnt in the hideous mass of eternal fires, without, however, in any way dying. For the souls of sinners are as immortal for never-ending fire as those of the saints are for joy.” 10 
The Latin name Cuneglasus is from Brythonic *Cunoglastos - Cunoglasos. Brythonic *cune means ‘hound’, 'dog’, ‘wolf’ or ‘lord’11 and *glasos (Welsh glas) is normally used for ‘blue’ or ‘green’ (sometimes ‘silver’); it can also mean ‘grey’ in Cornish and Gaelic.12 Gildas’ suggestion that it meant ‘tawny butcher’ will be resolved below when we come to discuss that part of his tirade.
Most scholars identify this man with Cinglas from the tenth-century North Welsh genealogies13 of the small kingdom of Rhos, with its llys (fort/court) at Dinerth/Dinarth (now Bryn Euryn) in what is now mid-North Wales. Another Rhos in West Wales has also been suggested, because of a Dinarth in Ceredigion, near the Avon (River) Arth.14 The hill fort of Llandewi, Aberarth in Ceredigion has also been suggested as an alternative ruling site for the rulers of this kingdom, as the archaeology suggests a possible early medieval enclosure there.15 This second position would make sense if Gildas were moving in a geographical clockwise direction with his tyrants’ locations, otherwise he has jumped Gwynedd, which follows Cuneglasus if he were from Rhos. Of course, perhaps he had no choice since Maglocunus (the next in line for Gildas’ quill lashing) attracted far more of his time; in fact, more ink is spilled on him than the other four leaders put together, portraying him as the most powerful of the five. 
 Like others, Nicholas Higham suggested the power-base of Cuneglasus to have been the area that became the North Wales cantref 16 of Rhos. He notes that in the ninth century the kingdom of Powys was ruled from their Gwynedd (Venedotia) overlord’s fort of Deganwy, which lies only five miles west of Dinerth as the crow flies. This is why he suggests Gwynedd (and therefore Maglocunus) may have also ruled Rhos, and it in turn may have encompassed what had been the Romano-British Deceangli region (what became medieval Tegeingl) and part of what became northern Powys. Therefore, between Gwynedd and Rhos, perhaps, all of what is now north-west to north-east Wales was under their rule, and even perhaps, in Gildas’ time.17 If this were the case, it would seem Cuneglasus would have to have had some kind of power for Gildas to focus on him also, unless his marital crimes were enough to get his attention; that and, possibly, his familial relation to the next tyrant to get Gildas’ tirade. Of course, Cuneglasus himself couldn’t have ruled Gwynedd at the time if Maglocunus was its ruler, and the most powerful in the region, hence why it is thought that Rhos could have been a sub-kingdom of Gwynedd, or a tribute polity. If this is all the case, however, it is hard to understand how Cuneglasus could still have held power in the region, being in such close proximity, unless he was one of the tyrants that Maglocunus removed from power, but did not kill. If Cuneglasus was given an association by Gildas with a fort whose name contained -arth, which is by no means certain,18 we would suggest that Ceredigion or the area that became Powys, as Gildas may have implied, would be a more suitable kingdom, being far enough away from Maglocunus to be viable.

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 1 Thanks and appreciation goes to Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews for help with the Latin and Charles Evans-Gunther for help with the structure and a peer review to formalise the final version. Special thanks to Mak Wilson, whose many contributions and help with the copious editing has been invaluable.

2 Maglocunus, Aurelius Caninus, Constantine and Vortiporus.

3 See: Mark Devere Davis’s theory concerning Cuneglasus and Arthur- [Accessed 8th February, 2017]
Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, King Arthur: The True Story, Bit Bound, 1992, and Graham Phillips the Lost Tomb Of King Arthur, 2016, who suggest Owain Danwyn (whom they call, Owain Ddantgwyn), the genealogical father of Cinglas (Cuneglasus) could be Arthur, but this is easily disproved. Latin is more precise than English and when Gildas used the word uncle when describing the man Owain killed to grab power, he used the Latin word “avunculus”. The precise meaning is ‘one’s mother’s brother’ – in other words the maternal uncle. Owain Danwyn was Maelgwn’s (i.e. Maglocunus’s) paternal uncle. Many scholars suggest the word was used just a general meaning for uncle, but this is the sixth century and Gildas was clearly a well education member of the religious class. He would have used Latin in its correct form. Thanks to Charles Evans-Gunther for pointing this out.

4 A. O. Anderson, “Gildas and Arthur.” The Celtic Review, vol. 8, no. 30, 1912, pp. 149–165. [Accessed 8th February, 2017]

5 For example by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd, Pendragon: The Definitive Account of the Origins of Arthur, The Lyons Press, 2004.

6 Ibid., Mark Devere.- This castle was, however, in Lambeth, London. From the Book of the Queens Maying- Le Morte d’Arthur Book XIX chapter I, [accessed 8th February, 2017] .

7 As portrayed in the eleventh to twelfth century Saints' lives where Maglocunus rules all of the north.

8 Gildas wrote the name as Cuneglase, in the vocative, as was Urse.

9 We will also consider readings from the simplified De Excidio, Avranches PL.162 MS, which is twelfth century but possibly from a family of MSS dated to around the ninth to tenth century. That reading is in the appendix.

10 From the Winterbottom translation.

11 Thomas O’Sullivan, The De excidio of Gildas: Its Authenticity and Date, Leiden: Brill, 1978, p.27.

12 Ibid.

13 Harleian genealogy 3: [H]iguel map Caratauc map Meriaun map Rumaun map Enniaun map Ytigoy map Catgual Crisban map Cangan map Meic map Cinglas map Eugein dant guin map Enniaun Girt map Cuneda. Source: [Accessed 8th February, 2017]. Thomas O’Sullivan noted that the Rhos genealogy may not have been well preserved by their overlords and sometimes enemy, Gwynedd (The De Excidio of Gildas: Its Authenticity and Date, 1978, p.108).

14 Castle of Dinerth (Welsh: Castell Dineirth, Castell Dinerth, or Castell Allt Craig Arth) is in the Welsh county of Ceredigion, West Wales. No evidence of an early medieval settlement has been found but there are remains of a promontory fort, which the Normans may have built over.

15 See August Hunt’s Shadows in the Mist website: The Probable ruling center [sic] of Ceredig/Arthur in Ceredigion.

16 Cantref = hundred towns.

17 Nicholas Higham, The English Conquest, Manchester University Press, 1994, pp.179-180

18 We will discuss this further below. Gildas would need to have been layering several metaphorical meanings over this one line concerning the refuge of the bear.