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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.


  1. The map is a 20th/21st century product and ignores 1 basic fact - There is no literary testimony or maps from the 6th century to confirm where any of the territories referred to by Gildas were. At this time they are as likely to be in Central, Southern, Northern England as they are to be in Wales. The genealogies provided do not actually say where the individuals were from either. Within 3 - 4 generations the Tudor kings of England would end up in Wales if you follow the direct male genealogy from Henry VIII back. The Stewart genealogy would list fathers and sons going from England, Scotland and end up with Norman ancestors - so just because some of the figures in the genealogy may have come from a particular region doesn't mean that they all did. People were moving around as much in the 6th century as they were in later centuries, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the progenitors of any sons came from the same territory that their "sons" were kings of. As to King Arthur - there is only one individual that could ever have been. Cunedda - the dd is pronounced as th. As names were anglicised this became Cun Etha, Cyn Etha, Cyn Atha...King Arthur. his genealogy is documented as Cunedda, son of Oetern, Son of Patern Pesrud. Oeter is another form of Uther and Patern Pesrud was also the father of Ambrosius Aurelianus. Sorry but see "The History of the Scots, Picts and Britons" by DF Dale - interesting theories (not saying I agree with all of them though)

  2. Hmm, dont know where to start with this rather badly researched comment. Gildas clearly mentions Demetia, which we know was in southern Wales. He clearly mentions Damnonina which was in Devon and Cornall and Maglocunas has always been associated with Gwynedd/Venedotia. I agree that we cannot take for granted certain geneaologies whch is why the work disputes that Cuneglase may have come from Rhos. The rest of it is hardly worth commenting on, Cunedda, if he even existed, supposedly fought the Irish not the Saxons and lived long before Arthur's time. Trying to painfully make his name into Arthur is laughable. I think Dales book sounds like one to most certainly avoid if this is the kind of nonensense that comes from it.

  3. I think you need to look at your own facts. My argument - show me the map that Gildas draws, show me the directions etc. you can't - you have made an assumption that everyone is local to the one area. For the record I didn't challenge Vortipuros of Demetae but I can challenge your claim that Damnonia in Devon. Other records show that there was relationship between Gwynnedd and Alclud in the time of Cunedda. Alclud is traditionally thought to be in Strathclyde. in the 2nd C map by Ptolomey the tribe living in Strathclyde were the Damnoni - so there a candidate for Damnonia. The Dumnoni in the south gave their name to the territory but the territory is a variant of the word DEVIN I.E. Devon - this is already a celtic word (Cornish Dewans) and therefore predates the anglo-saxon conquest of the area in the 7th Century, so Gildas was not talking about Devon.
    As far as Cunedda the given genealogy states he was the nephew of Ambrosius, and this is exactly as the legends of King Arthur claim. Cunedda was the son of Oetern and the name Oeter can be anglicised to Uther. and the father of Oetern and Ambrosius was Patern Pesrud. As to anglicisation of names - Cunedda to King Arthur and Oeter to Uther is a damn sight less complicated that some of the ones that we know have happened for example Gough into Smith, Caim Beul into Campbell, Mac na Domnhall into McDonald. And if you ever see the way names change in birth, death, marriage records, census records and in Old parish registers over the past 200 years alone it wouldn't surprise you in the least. Cunedda to King Arthur and Oeter into Uther is absolutely nothing at all.
    As far as the time frame of Cunedda - it is based on one statement from Nennius that Maelgwyn's reign was 146 years from his ancestor Cunedda, but as anyone who has studied genealogy knows these times are always up for scrutiny and you need to allow for a significant amount of leeway in their accuracy. My family are not unusual and my great grandfather was only born 95 years before me - bet there isn't 146 years between you and your great grandfather either. 146 years between Cunedda and Maelgwyns reign is unrealistic. there is only 25 years per generation so Cunedda was between 75 - 100 years before Maelgwyn. 75 years makes Cunedda arrive around 475 AD. The timelines given in the records are quite simply not trustworthy. Here is another question for you though, Cunneda comes from the Brythonic word Cundagos which means good hound. Cuneglasus similarly means dog prince, but Cuneglasus is relatively elderly according to Gildas, so could Cunedda and Cuneglasus be related ?

  4. see, This also points out the problem with an earlier time frame for Cunedda and highlights that several academics suggest a more realistic time frame of mid 5th century time for the arrival of Cunedda. This would make him contemporary with the Arthurian legends

  5. What records show a relationship between Gwynedd and Alcud in the time of cunedda? The time of Cunedda is not even known, or even if he existed and there are certainly no 'records' from that 'time'. The Damnoni of Ptolemy in the north is well known. But they dissapear and are not heard of again, especially during our period four hundred years later. So they cannot be used to place Gildas' Damnonia in the North. If you want to use Ptolemy then I could point out the Damnonia point in Cornwall he mentions. There is a great deal of evidence for Dumonia in Devon. Dont know where you got the nonesense aboout DEVINI.E, but Devon as a name naturally evolved from Dunmnonia and Dewens is just a Cornish variant of the root word from Celtic Dubnos. So then you go onto the ridiculous claim that Cunedda is related to Ambrosius in genealogies. Please, you've just stated how unreliaable they are then you make this contradictory statement. Then you get even worse by bringing Uther into it all. This is all Galfridian nonsense derived from the HRB. If I were you I would seek contemporary evidence only and forget geneaologies which have been completley manipulated and invented. I agree Cunedda could be dated later, but even placing him in the early to mid fith century does not place him in the Arthurian timeframe.

  6. from Wikipedia - Gildas restricts his attention to the kings of Gwynedd (Maelgwn), Dyfed (Vortiporius), Penllyn (probable, as its king Cuneglasus/Cynlas appears in royal genealogies associated with the region),[15] Damnonia/Alt Clud (Constantine), and the unknown region associated with Caninus. The Welsh kingdoms are all associated with the conquest of the Gaels by Cunedda, while Alt Clud had a long and ongoing relationship with Gwynedd and its kings.

    from Wikipedia -
    Strathclyde (lit. "Strath of the River Clyde"), originally Cumbric: Ystrad Clud or Alclud (and Strath-Clota in Anglo-Saxon), was one of the early medieval kingdoms of the Britons in Hen Ogledd ("the Old North"), the Brythonic-speaking parts of what is now southern Scotland and northern England. The kingdom developed during the post-Roman period. It is also known as Alt Clut, a Brittonic term for Dumbarton Castle, the medieval capital of the region. It may have had its origins with the Brythonic Damnonii people of Ptolemy's Geography.

    So for your argument you would need to have 2 Alcluds and 2 Damnionia's - I just need one - and Bede only mentions one Alcluid as well, which is the one in Strathclyde, as one of the territories between the Scots and Picts. doesn't mention any other Alclud or Alcluid down south.

    Let's just agree to disagree here and end this on a friendly basis - I won't bother you again but I've always liked Geoffrey of Monmouth though

  7. I know all about Altclud. Studying the archaeology would help you. There is no evidence of any fortress there until the sixth century. Gildas does not link Dumnonia/Damnonia with Alt Clud, so not sure what your point is? Using genealogies to prove a link with alt Clud is not viable as we have discussed.

  8. I don't think they were referring to the fortress - this is a quote from Wikipedia - Dumbarton history goes back at least as far as the Iron Age and probably much earlier. It was the site of a strategically important Roman settlement known as Alcluith of a province named Valentia.[8].

    We also don't know exactly when Gildas wrote his tirade - from Wikipedia - Cambridge historian Karen George, in her exhaustive study of Gildas' text, offers a date range of c. 510-530 AD.[2] In the view of the historian Guy Halsall:
    There is some evidence for an 'early Gildas', writing in the late fifth century. This includes Gildas' rhetorical education, his Latin style, his theological concerns, and a rereading of his historical section and his place within it. I tend towards this interpretation, although it cannot be proven. It is unlikely that Gildas wrote before 480/490 or much after about 550; beyond that we cannot go.[3].
    So he wrote it sometime between 480 - 550AD. If it was 480, then Mount Badon occurred around 436 AD, if it was 550 AD then Mount Badon occurred 506 AD. Any of these dates would change who Arthur could have been. Lets just agree to disagree..

  9. You really need to stop quoting Wikipedia which is notoriously innacurate. For a start there could not have been a Roman settlement of Alt Clut as alt means rock, hence it refers to the fortress of the rock of the clyde, so its sixth century. There was no Roman settlement on the rock or even near it. The reference you quote on wiki is from 1880. A lot has been learned since then! There is much debate as to where Valentia was. This was a name given to a recovered province in the late 4th century. It has nothing and no link with Alt Clud. Yes. there are debates about when Gildas wrote but the consensus is around the 530's. How could Badon be in 436 when Aetius was not even third consul until 455. He may have just aquired his first consulship by 436. So much evidence is ignored to try and prove this early Gildas nonesense. The Irish annals give his date of death in 570 and he is discussed in letters of the late sixth and early seventh century. Also the above work on Cuneglasus makes a link between Gildas' rhetorical thinking being very similar to that of St Gregory who became Pope in 590, suggesting they were both a product of a similar sixth century learning. In any event, Gildas does not mention Arthur, so this has no bearing on when Arthur's florit was. The HB links Arthur with Badon, which even if correct is placed in the sixth century by those closer to the actual event although a date of 493 would seem about right to me.

  10. Look the point is it's a difference of opinion that will remain a difference. St Patrick writes his epistle to Ceretic, the king of Stratchclyde at AltCluith around 450AD, so Altcluith was well established by the mid 5th C. All Alt Clud means is a rock in the Clyde. Dumbarton Rock has been a substantial presence in the Clyde for millions of years. The following quote is from - It is worth nothing that the kingdom's having had its fortress here is not the same thing as having had its heartland here (in the recorded history of the kingdom, the Rock itself is generally mentioned only in connection with its capture or burning).

    The timelines we have even from Roman sources have a substantial amount of leeway in them. Dates change frequently depending in who you read and the sources they use, even for Roman sources. In response to use of Wikipedia

    Wikipedia was quoting Guy Halsall who is a Professor of History at the University of York and was b. 1964, and it is his quote that refers to evidence for an early Gildas and that all that is know for certain is that Gildas could have written his tirade anytime between 480 - 550AD.
    And again from Wikipedia -
    Damnonia, land of the Damnonii, a Celtic tribe of Roman Britain in what today is southern Scotland
    Damnonia, a name of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, the early mediaeval kingdom that subsumed the Damnonii
    Damnonia, an alternative spelling of Dumnonia, the early mediaeval kingdom (named for the Celtic tribe of Roman Britain, the Dumnonii), in what today is Devon and Cornwall.
    The point is you believe one thing, others just as well educated take a different track and suggest other things. The reality is we don't know where some of the places being referred to are for definite, and the legendary Arthur (not necessarily a real person - i.e. Malory's King Arthur etc.) is probably a composite figure, where events belonging to several different individuals have been attributed to him. Good luck with the website

  11. Again, this is bad research. See my article on St Patrick. Coroticus was based in Ireland according the most up to date research and it's not generally known when Coroticus lived, but as Patrick was very old when he had dealings with him and as Patrick died around 493, we can place Coroticus in the late part of the fifth century, not the mid. The Archaeology shows no fortress on the rock until the sixth century, don't know how many times I have to say this. Yes, there would have been tribes in the area but the Damnonini were long gone or subsumed and are never mentioned after Ptolemy. Cunedda is even more mythical than Arthur, so trying to make him into Arthur is just asking for failure. It's as barmy as Lucius Artorius Castus.