Paperback    41 pages (A5) with maps and family trees

by David Hancocks

King Arthur and the Monnow Valley

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This booklet examines the possible source of Geoffrey of Monmouth's naming of 'Merlin', together with some surprising Arthurian connections with place-names in the Monnow Valley, which lies between Herefordshire and Monmouthshire. Geoffrey's priory overlooked the River Monnow and he grew up exploring the river valley just as countless gangs of boys have done before and after his time. The booklet also explores the family trees of the Celtic Saints and the royalty of King Arthur's era.


King Arthur and the Monnow ValleyAfter studying history over many years from the safety of an armchair, it became obvious to me that I was being drawn, quite reluctantly, into the swirling mists of the post-Roman era of Britain, the Early Medieval period.

Any student of the early 'Dark Ages' cannot help but be enchanted by the legends of Arthur. As always, his name will provoke the question - "Did he really exist?" He not only existed as one of the kings, of Western Britain, but he may well have been of Cornovian/Silurian origin. There were a number of kings and princes with the name of Arthur (or Arthrwys in early Welsh), but there was only one who fits the dating of "circa AD 500." We know, through the historical record, that King Constantine (The Blessed), was succeeded by Ambrosius Aurelianus (Emrys) and then his brother, Uther Pendragon, who ruled until circa AD 500. Maelgwn Gwynedd became over-king in the 540's succeeded by Constantine of Cornwall. However, there is no obvious record of the name of the king in the intervening 40 years, albeit the historian, Nennius (circa 800) names an Arthur as Dux Bellorum. Here, I set out my reasons for suggesting that his name was Arthur - King Arthur.   

My main preoccupation has been with the early 'Celtic Saints', a band of missionaries who brought Christianity to the rural parts of Wales. They were often of royal blood, and sometimes even former, pious kings came to be regarded as saints.

The roots of Christianity had existed in Britain - alongside the Pagan deities - since before the time of Constantine the Great's legalisation of Christianity in AD 313. But it was the Celtic Christianity of the 5th century that fired the imagination of the post-Roman Celtic Britons. The tribal entity of the Britons of Silurian South East Wales had survived intact, and they took to Christianity 'like ducks to water.' The bishops and priests had replaced their ancient druids and the Orthodox Church had soon absorbed their seasonal festivals.

For some centuries places associated with THE Arthur have been claimed by many parts of Britain. He is, in particular, associated with the lineage of the kings of old Siluria. For the purpose of exploring Arthurian connections with the Monnow Valley, this book follows the conjecture that Arthur was part Cornovian and part Silurian, and that he was - as stated by Geoffrey of Monmouth - based in the city of Caerleon.

When studying the fifth and sixth centuries AD, it is helpful to have some knowledge of Modern Welsh, a language that evolved from the early British or Brittonic Celtic tongue. Old Welsh developed from the mid 6th century, with Middle Welsh recorded in the mid 12th century, and Modern Welsh in the 14th century. I have listed some of the old Welsh names alongside their modern English counterparts, bearing in mind that over the centuries there were many different spellings of the same name in different sources. I have also listed some of the epithets given to individuals, many presumably after their death. Some of these epithets became fixed as proper names. On entering the priesthood a baptismal name was suffixed with -wg, in Welsh or -oc in English.

Needless to say, we must not judge the family trees of this transition period from a modern point of view. The tribal territories of Britain after Roman times were ruled over by high kings, sub-kings, princes or favoured military officers, so that one might well expect a society wherein the powerful dare not be criticised for infidelity or droit du signeur. This inevitably meant that there were half-brothers and sisters, step nieces, nephews, illegitimate offspring, cousins and second cousins who would have been difficult for the early historians to identify, leading many scholars to arrive at drawing up many different family trees. But we must not let that spoil our own theories too much; people of that era believed in sorcery and the supernatural. For example, if the story of Uther Pendragon seducing Ygraine with the involvement of Merlin the magician has any foundation, then it is likely that he killed Gorlais and forcefully took his wife - with Ygraine not having much choice and (probably with three young daughters) having to accept her fate.

Welsh poets, together with historians such as Tacitus,  Gildas, Nennius, Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth have left us with a jumble constituting the 'world's biggest jigsaw puzzle and crossword'. Their texts, often beautifully written, together with the surviving historical Welsh Annals and Genealogies, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and many other sources allow us merely a glimpse of what made up the six hundred years of the Dark Ages. As every historian knows an ill-conceived hypothesis can, by being repeated over a long period of time, quite easily become a 'fact' which is hard to refute.

I have tried not to dwell on the established history, or still less, on the cumbersome references that one can read in every book about the Dark Ages; or even provided a bibliography. This would be boring for everyone except enthusiasts of such an exciting era, and nowadays we have the power of the internet. Incidentally, I quite like such labels as the "Dark Ages" or "Celtic Church", and especially "The Age of the Saints". "Sub-Roman Britain", "The Christian Church in Celtic Lands", or the "Early Medieval Period" which are fine for the experts - but can confuse the general reader. I also appreciate that some will disagree with my arguments, and that part of my research may well become obsolete. But, so be it!

Early writers from Tacitus to Geoffrey of Monmouth would never have guessed that learned scholars of the future would scrutinise their every word, aided by computers, electric light, hundreds of later books - and critical, not to say cynical, minds. However, we must admit that writers of those early days did tend to exaggerate a little. Miracles were quite normal for them.

One only has to read slightly between the lines to see the romances, the murders, the heroics and suffering of Arthur's time are as relevant today when we watch exactly the same sequence of events unfold in every drama and comedy on our screens.

This kind of story-telling was conjured up by Geoffrey of Monmouth especially, and so, in the twelfth century, he had already taken his rightful place as one of our first historical novelists! However, behind his legendary stories lurk occasional glimpses of the true facts of Arthur's time. The proto Hollywood stories of the Holy Grail, the knights of the round table, jousting etc., have no place in Arthurian studies and were invented well after Geoffrey's time.

Geoffrey, whilst writing his 'History of The Kings of Britain' (1136), (dedicated to the powerful Robert, Earl of Gloucester), and 'Life of Merlin' (1150), both in Latin, used many of the place-names just upstream from his birthplace, Monmouth. As the child of a Breton family, he would have been quite familiar with the Welsh language which was then even closer to Breton and Cornish than it is today, indeed, apart from the new 'French' of the ruling classes, the old British/Welsh language would still have been the mother tongue of most people west of the Wye. One can picture Geoffrey as a young lad, and part of a gang, hunting and fishing the length of the Monnow valley where countless youngsters have followed in his footsteps. He would have wanted to visit the old Welsh cemeteries with their early churches being transformed in to the stone churches that we know today.

The international language of the church, of course, was Latin. Geoffrey's literary sources and the extant legends about King Arthur, although hundreds of years old, would have been even more abundant than they are today. He claims to have had access to 'a certain very ancient book written in the British language', now lost to us. If this wasn't true, then the owner of the book, Walter, archdeacon of Oxford who died in 1151, would amongst others, surely have objected at the time.

I have never heard anyone describe the Monnow Valley as anything less than 'lovely' and as it's place-names constantly crop up in Arthurian literature, I felt this was more than just a passing coincidence. The peaceful vale of the River Monnow is surely hiding ancient secrets.    


Chapter One          Off The Beaten Track
Chapter Two         The Diocese of Llandaff
Chapter Three       The Old Welsh Genealogies
Chapter Four         Skenfrith
Chapter Five         The Chapel of Saint Noe
Chapter Six            The Erging Family
Chapter Seven      Rockfield (formerly Llanoronwy)
Chapter Eight        Dubricius ( Dyfrig )
Chapter Nine         Skenfrith Church
Chapter Ten          Merlin ( Myrddin )
Chapter Eleven     Nearby Arthur Place-Names
Chapter Twelve    Conclusion
List of Names