Heroic Age Logo The Heroic Age, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 1999  

Artúr mac Aedan of Dalriada


Michelle Ziegler
Belleville, Illinois

Among the men proposed as the historical King Arthur is a young Dalriadan prince named Artúr or Artuir.1 Before discussing his merits as a potential King Arthur,2 the known facts of his life will be reviewed. I hope to show, based on these facts, that there is no reason to believe this prince was the historical King Arthur.

The Political Geography of Northern Britain

The political situation in northern Britain was complex during Artúr's lifetime, the last third of the sixth century A.D. Northern Britain was inhabited by four ethnic groups in close proximity: the Irish (Dalriada Scots), Picts, Britons, and Angles. Interaction between these four groups was extensive in warfare, alliance, and intermarriage.

The Irish had settled in western Scotland before recorded history but probably during the late Roman period (Nieke and Duncan 1988:6–11). The political history of the Dalriada in Britain is traced from the time of Fergus Mor (d. 501), who moved the seat of the royal dynasty of Dalriada from Ireland to northern Britain. Scottish Dalriada was confined to the western coast of modern Scotland, including Arran, Jura, Islay, Mull, and numerous other smaller islands, with its seat at Dunadd in Argyll (Nieke and Duncan 1988:7). From 574 to 606/8, Dalriada was ruled by one of its most dynamic and successful kings, Aedan mac Gabran (Bannerman 1974:80–91), the probable father of Artúr.

The Picts held most of modern Scotland north of the region between the Firths of Clyde in the west and Forth in the east. Most of Pictish history has been lost but they are believed to have followed a unique mode of royal succession (Anderson 1980:165; Farmer 1990:46).3 With extensive intermarriage between all four groups, sons of foreign princes and kings often successfully claimed the Pictish throne (Anderson 1980:167–175). Dalriadan territory expanded mostly at the expense of the Picts, with whom the Scots were at a nearly constant state of war throughout the sixth and seventh centuries. During Artúr's lifetime dominance continually fluctuated between the Picts and the Scots, and Artúr participated in these wars.

The major British kingdoms such as Strathclyde, Gododdin, and Rheged were an important part of the northern political geography and it is quite possible that Artúr's mother was British. The Damnonii kingdom of Strathclyde, centered around Dumbarton and Glasgow, encircled the Firth of Clyde (Smyth 1984:10, 17; MacQuarrie 1993:2–3).4 Throughout the lifetime of Artúr, Strathclyde was controlled by one of its most enduring kings, Rhydderch the Generous (d. 612/14 Annals Cambriae; Miller 1975:261–262, 280; MacQuarrie 1993:7–8). The kingdom of Gododdin controlled the region around the Firth of Forth until 638. This kingdom was divided into two main regions: Manau, north of the Firth, around modern Stirling; and the larger region of Lothian, on the south coast of the Firth, containing the capital of Caer Eden (Edinburgh; Smyth 1984:9, 16–20). During Artúr's lifetime, the Gododdin may have been ruled by Morgant Bulc (or his grandson Morgant), who commissioned the assassination of Urien Rheged (Miller 1975:265–266). The battle of Catraeth and the eulogies of Y Gododdin date to the general period of Artúr's lifetime (Smyth 1984:21). Further south lay the vast Coeling dynasty, which was led during Artúr's lifetime by Urien of Rheged (d. 572 x 592), who marshalled British forces against Bernicia in the last quarter of the sixth century.5 However, Dunod ap (son of) Pabo (d. 595 Annals Cambriae; Miller 1975:280) was probably the last king of Rheged during Artúr's lifetime. The transition between Urien and ultimately Dunod left Rheged in a period of dynastic chaos celebrated in Welsh poetry.

In the generation before Artúr's birth, the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia was founded by Ida on the eastern coast of Britain, just north of Hadrian's Wall. According to chapter 61 of the Historia Brittonum (Hopkins and Koch 1995:282), Ida first "joined Din–Guaïroï (Bamburgh)6 to Berneich (Bernicia)". For the first 50 years, Anglian Bernicia was involved in extensive conflict with the British, primarily the Coelings, as can be seen from the originally British name of Bamburgh, Bernicia's capital; the numerous short reigns of Ida's sons; and the Urien Rheged literature and records (Sims–Williams 1996; Smyth 1984:21). Around the time of Artúr's death the dynasty of Bernicia came into the hands of Æthelfrith (r. 592–616), who gave Bernicia 24 years of stability and finally set the kingdom on a firm expansionist foundation. Prior to the reign of Æthelfrith there is little evidence of contact between Bernicia and Dalriada.7

Historical Documentation for Artúr

Artúr is mentioned in three medieval manuscripts. In Book I, chapter 9 of Adomnan's8 Life of St. Columba (Anderson and Anderson 1991:32–33), written c. 700, Aedan asks Columba which of his three sons—Artúr, Eochaid Find, or Domangart—will succeed him. This chapter illustrated Columba's prophetic powers, having him predict Aedan's successor and the fates of three of his sons, including Artúr. The History of the Men of Scotland (Senchus Fer nAlban), a royal genealogy and military roster cataloging the strength of each of the three main tribal groups or cenéla of Dalriada (Bannerman 1974:154–6, 91; Anderson and Anderson 1991:160), was originally compiled in the seventh century, probably c. 650–700.9 Artúr is mentioned in the genealogical section of this document. Artúr's death is also mentioned in the Annals of Tigernach (abbreviated AT), which date from c. 1088.

Artúr's paternity is confused in the medieval texts. The History of the Men of Scotland records: "Aedan had seven sons. i. two Eochaids. i. Eocho Bude10 and Eochaid Find, Tuthal, Bran, Baithíne, Conaing, and Gartnait . . . . These are the sons of Conaing son of Aedan.i. Rígallán, Ferchar, Artán, Artúr, Dondchad, Domngart, Nechtan, Ném, Crumíne" (Bannerman 1974:47–48). In this manuscript, Artúr is listed as a grandson of Aedan, king of Dalriada (r. 574–606/8; Bannerman 1974:94–95). According to the Life of St. Columba, Artúr and Domangart11 were the sons of Aedan. Bannerman believed that the History of the Men of Scotland should be preferred since the goal of this manuscript was genealogical detail.12 However, AT also claims that Artúr was a son of Aedan. While AT are late—Tigernach died in c. 1088—the assertion that Artúr was Aedan's son cannot simply be assumed to have come from Adomnan because there are too many conflicts;13 therefore, AT appear to corroborate that Artúr was Aedan's son. Given the corroborative evidence of AT, I believe Artúr was most likely Aedan's son rather than grandson.

There are two possibilities that may explain the confusion. It is possible that the History of the Men of Scotland mistakenly transferred two of Aedan's sons to Conaing. According to the Andersons (1991:xxii), "the genealogy is not, however, entirely dependable; among other sons of Eochaid Buide (Eocho Bude) it names Domnall Dond, who is certainly Eochiad's grandson". Alternatively the History of the Men of Scotland could be incomplete. Artúr and Domangart mac Aedan may be missing entirely from the History of the Men of Scotland, while Artúr and Domangart mac Conaing might have been named after an older brothers of Conaing.

Artúr's ethnic background was complex. His name, Artúr, is British and there is reason to believe Aedan married a British woman.14 According to the Welsh genealogies, Aedan mac Gabran was the son of Luan daughter of Brychan (Bromwich 1978:264; Bannerman 1974:77–78).15 Maithgemma nic (daughter of) Aedan was also said to be the niece of a British king (Bannerman 1974:89). Aedan and his father are included in a version of the Strathclyde genealogy, inverted as Gafran ap Aeddan, and the death of both Gabran and Aedan are listed in the Annals Cambriae (Chadwick 1953:168).16 Alternatively it is possible that Aedan should have been added to the Strathclyde dynasty as a son–in–law rather than as a son. Aedan also had two grandsons and a great–grandson with British names (Bannerman 1974:48).17 Given his British name, it is likely that Artúr was the son of Aedan's British wife and a brother of Maithgemma.

The Life of St. Columba mentions Artúr in in a charming (but contrived) scene between Aedan and Columba, where Columba accurately predicts that Aedan's younger son Eochaid Bude will succeed instead of Aedan's chosen sons. Columba then predicts the deaths of Artúr, Eochaid Find, and Domangart while fighting their father's battles. Adomnan (Anderson and Anderson 1991:33) adds " Artuir and Echoid Find were slain a little while later, in the battle of Miathi mentioned above. Domangart was killed in a rout of battle in England," illustrating the fulfillment of Columba's prophecy. In the previous chapter, Adomnan portrayed Columba praying for Aedan's victory over the Miathi, indicating that the battle occurred before Columba's death in 596/7.

Tigernach gave a confused account of the battles and the deaths of Aedan's descendants in his annals. AT places Artúr's death in 596, although Bannerman (1974:91) believed 590 more likely.18 According to the Anderson and Anderson (1991:xx), the AT entry originated in the Ulster Chronicle, the source of AU, in an entry for the deaths of Bran and Domangart mac Aedan, to which was added the deaths of Artúr and Eochaid Find by an annalist at Clonmacnoise. The last phrase, which lists the defeat of Aedan "in the battle of Circenn," was added in Irish even though the rest of AT were composed in Latin (Anderson and Anderson 1991:xx). This conglomeration contradicts Adomnan at every step. Adomnan claimed Domangart died in England and that the battle of Miathi, where Artúr and Eochaid Find died, was a victory for Aedan. According to Bannerman (1974:92), Bran mac Aedan19 died in 598 in a battle against the Angles.

The Battle of Miathi

To understand Artúr's death, we have to ask several questions. Who were the Miathi? Where were they located? And what relation, if any, did the battle of Miathi have to the battle of Circenn?

Miathi appears to be the Irish form of the tribal name Maeatae. The Maeatae were described by the Roman writer Dio Cassius as a tribe hostile to Rome living next to the wall, presumably the Antonine Wall (Bannerman 1974:84; Duncan 1975:25). Their presence may be indicated by the place names Dumyat and Myot Hill near Stirling (Bannerman 1974:84). Who they were is a much more difficult question. According to Duncan (1975:25–26), Dio Cassius understood the Maeatae and the Caledonii to be composed of various separate peoples whom Roman pressure and policy had forced into a small number of confederations. Duncan (1975:26) suggested that in the second century A.D. the Maeatae led a confederation of tribes south of the Mounth but north of the Antonine Wall, perhaps extending into Fife and/or Angus. After several second century conflicts, the Maeatae revolted against Rome in 209 (Duncan 1975:27) and are not heard from again until Adomnan mentions them c. 700. The most likely explanation for this gap in the records is that the Romans had crushed the Maeatae in 209, causing them to yield their leading role in the confederation of southern tribes. From then on, they were probably a minor tribe in southern Pictland whom the Romans kept a watchful eye on. It seems premature to automatically classify the Maeatae as Picts. As the tribe immediately north of the Antonine Wall, the second century Maeatae probably contained a large percentage of British refugees in addition to indigenous natives of Pictland. In addition, their surviving place names also are found immediately north and west of the British district of Manau Gododdin.20 It is perhaps safest to consider the Maeatae as a Celtic tribe heavily influenced by both the Picts and Britons, as any tribe on the border would be.

Circenn was undoubtably the Pictish region along the east coast of Scotland, north of the Firth of Tay, where a battle was fought in 586 that may have involved Aedan.21 If Aedan did fight at Circenn in 586, he would likely have been on the victor's side, which also conflicts with AT unless there was a second battle at Circenn in the 590s. There seems to be no direct relation between the battle of Miathi and the battle of Circenn other than that they both demonstrate an interest by Cenél nGabrain in southeastern Pictland.

To understand why the battle of Miathi was fought we have to turn to later records and folktales that link Aedan to the territory of the Miathi. According to several late Irish sources, Aedan and possibly his father Gabran dominated a territory that stretched all the way across southern Pictland, perhaps to the Firth of Tay or into Fife.22 Duncan (1975:43) suggests that at his succession "Aedan may have been a refugee from Dal Riata, carving out for himself a principality on the Forth which included Aberfoyle.23 . . . It looks, therefore, as if Aedan came back to Dal Riata from the east by strength of arms in 574." Aedan is also remembered as an adversary of the Picts.24 The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick gives an account where St. Patrick prophesies to Fergus Mor, the founder of Scottish Dalriada, that his descendants would rule Dalriada and Fortrenn for ever (Bannerman 1974:86). Fortrenn is the name of one of the seven provinces of Pictland, but later became synonymous with all of Pictland. Like Adomnan verifying Columba's prophecy, the author of the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick commented that the prophecy was fulfilled in the time of Aedan (Bannerman 1974:86).25 In this case, however, the province of Fortrenn is implied rather than all of Pictland.

More compelling ties between Cenél nGabráin, Artúr's kindred, and Pictland are illustrated by the titles given to two of Artúr's brothers and nephews. Bannerman (1974:93–94) raised the possibility that Gartnait, king of Picts from 586–c. 601/2, was the son of Aedan by a Pictish woman, Domelch.26 The AU, citing "Cuanu's book" as it source, also claimed that Eocho Bude mac Aedan, Aedan's successor as king of Dalriada, was also known as Rex Pictorum (king of Picts) (Anderson 1980:151). A later Scottish pedigree claimed that the men of Gowrie (Gabranaig) in Fife were descended from Conall Cerr and Fergus Goll, sons of Eocho Bude mac Aedan (Anderson 1980:151). Domnall Brecc mac Eocho Bude was killed in 642 in battle against Owain ap Beli of Strathclyde at Strathcarron, near the Forth, as recorded in the AU, AT, and a celebratory stanza in the British poem Y Gododdin (Bannerman 1974:102–103).27 Further, it is also possible that the two Pictish kings named Garnait and Drest, sons of Donuel who reigned in succession from 657–671, were the sons of Domnall Brecc mac Aedan, although there is no supporting evidence (Anderson 1980:167, 169).28

The close ties between Dalriada and the Picts must influence our interpretation of the battle against the Miathi c. 590–596. If Gartnait mac Aedan was king of Picts (r. 586– c. 601/2), there are three possibilities for Aedan's motive. Aedan could have been attacking to support Gartnait's interests and solidify his position on the Pictish throne.29 Alternatively, Aedan may have been acting in his own interest, to expand his holdings along the Forth or recapture land lost by his father Gabran. If Aedan himself was from the kindred of the Miathi on his mother's side, he may have been quelling a rebellion.30

While Aedan's motives and objectives can never be fully understood, we can grasp several facets of the situation in which Artúr mac Aedan died. The battle of Miathi was fought near the River Forth in Manau. Adomnan (1.8; Anderson and Anderson 1991:119) indicated that the battle was very costly—"from Aedan's army, three hundred and three were killed as the saint had also prophesied"31—but Aedan was victorious. Adomnan refers to the Miathi as barbarians, perhaps indicating that they were not associated with either the ruling branches of the Picts or the British (Sharpe 1995:269). This might well have been the case if they were caught in a tug–of–war between the Picts, the British, and, in this case, the Dalriada Scots. Considering Aedan and Cenél nGabráin's ties with the Picts, it seems clear that Aedan and therefore his son Artúr were not fighting as allies of the British.32

Consideration of Artúr mac Aedan as King Arthur

What can we conclude about Artúr's candidacy for the historical King Arthur from his history? Like many candidates for the historical "King Arthur," there is only slightly more evidence than his name. Yet I think it can be demonstrated that none of the evidence rises to the level of proof. If the Arthur we know today is indeed a mosaic of many historical Arthurs and other legendary figures, then this Arthur perhaps contributed in a very modest way.

The strongest evidence for a relationship between Artúr and King Arthur is that Artúr mac Aedan is the earliest verifiable historical personage with the name Arthur. However, he is far too late to be the historical King Arthur. There is no way to explain why Bede, all the Irish annals, and other British sources fail to mention the traditional facts of King Arthur's life in association with Artúr mac Aedan or misdate the battles of Badon and Camlann by over 50 years. Further, there is no reason to believe that the British fought as allies of Aedan in his wars with the Picts. Aedan was well known to the British; it is difficult to explain why he would not be represented in the Arthurian legend.33 Without evidence of British forces in alliance with Aedan it is difficult to believe that Artúr would have become a British hero.

Arthur and other similar Art– and Arth– names were very popular in southern Scotland and northern England in the seventh and eighth centuries. Artúr mac Conaing, from the History of the Men of Scotland, may have been named after his uncle Artúr mac Aedan. AU and AT list an Artuir son of Bicoir Britone, who slew Morgan mac Fiachna of Ulster in 620/625 in Kintyre (Bromwich 1975:178).34 A Feradach, grandson of Artúr, was a signatory at the synod that enacted the Law of Adomnan in 697 (Bromwich 1975:178).35 Other similar names include Artúr's own nephew (or brother) Artán mac Conaing and a cousin Artán mac Conall (Bannerman 1974:48). An Arthan is listed in the Names of the Monks in the Lindisfarne Liber Vitae(Sims–Williams 1996:42). In addition to the Arthurian reference in Y Gododdin (B2.38; Koch 1997:75), a man named Arthwys (A.19; Koch 1997:23) is listed as a victim of one of the heroes. Arthwys ap Mar in the Coeling pedigree would be in approximately the right era for the historical Arthur (Bromwich 1978: app. 2; Miller 1979:88). Further south at about the same time, Athrwys ap Meurig lived in Gwent, and St. Arthmael/Armel lived in Brittany (Barber and Pykitt 1993:33–35, 174), and Arthur ap Pedr was a prince in Dyfed, born around 570–580 (Bromwich 1975:178).

Artúr's death at the battle of Miathi as a prince, not a king, is not as much of a detriment as it looks on the surface. In the early version of Arthurian lore Arthur was not a king either, but a battle leader or warlord. Yet Arthur's death at Camlan is one of the most consistent themes of the tradition. It is inconsistent that the historical Arthur died anywhere but Camlan. We can leave open the possibility that the battle of Miathi was know to the British as Camlan, but there is no supporting proof.36 The date of the battle of Miathi is also fairly well established at c. 590–596.

The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee lists a Muirgein ("birth of the sea") on January 27, which D. F. Carroll has suggested provided inspiration for the linkage of Morgana (Morgan le Fay)37 and King Arthur as siblings. This assertion is based on Whitley Stokes's (1905:53) suggested identification of Muirgein as "Muirgein, daughter of Aedan, in Belach Gabrain." The suggestions for the location of Belach Gabráin are not Dalriadan at all.38 Belach Gabráin has been identified as a passage between Leinster and Ossory and therefore on the border between Leinster and Munster in Ireland.39 It is unlikely that Muirgein nic Aedan of Belach Gabráin was related to the family of Aedan mac Gabran of Scottish Dalriada. There is nothing in what can be discerned of her life to suggest that she was the direct inspiration for Morgana, the sister of King Arthur. Belach Gabráin, if it is correctly located at Gowran in southern Ireland, is far inland40 and should not be associated with the Isle of Avallon.

It is possible that Artúr of Dalriada did contribute one place name and perhaps a battle (or four battles) to King Arthur's battle list. On the Dalriada–Strathclyde border, W. F. Skene located a hill named Ben Arthur near Loch Long, not far from Glen Douglas in Lennox.41 Leslie Alcock (1989:64–66) suggested this area as a possible location of the battles on the River Dubglas, but he thought this was an unlikely place for four battles, which the battle list claims.42 It is possible that this hill is named after Artúr mac Aedan and that Glen Douglas was the site of one or more battles attributed to King Arthur on the River Dubglas in Linnuis. However Arthurian place names were once common in Strathclyde (Glennie 1994:83–93, 130) and this could simply be the most western example. Similarly Glen Douglas may have been the site of a British victory over the Scots that entered Arthurian lore through Strathclyde.


There is an unfortunate tendency in early Arthurian research to feel the need to champion one particular man as the King Arthur. While I agree that there is an abundance of material suggesting that northern Britain was very important in the genesis of the Arthurian legend, that does not mean that this prince was the historical King Arthur. He lived too late and there is no way to explain the lack of Arthurian exploits attributed to him. Further there is no mention of Aedan or Dalriada in Arthurian lore. It is difficult to believe that a prince of Dalriada could be the seed for the Arthurian legend without bringing some reflections of his homeland and his powerful and popular father, Aedan, with him.

Perhaps the most important outcome studies on Artúr of Dalriada have generated is to draw attention to the role northern Britain played in the origin of the Arthurian legend. Nora Chadwick's studies drew needed attention to the role of Caw of Pictland's family in the development of the Arthurian legend and an oral transmission route that may have played an important role in transmitting early tales of Arthur from north Britain to Wales through Leinster. In Leinster the Arthurian legend could have picked up its similarities to the Fenian cycle, if they were not already present. If Murgein nic Aedan of Belach Gabrain can ever be proven to have been the daughter of Aedan mac Gabran of Dalriada, it would reinforce the ties between Dalriada and Leinster and might possibly be the source for Morgan's kinship with Arthur. However, it seems unlikely that such a tie can ever be proven.

By c. 600 there is growing evidence of the first flowering of the Arthurian tradition. At least two or three men named Arthur (Artúr mac Aedan, Artúr mac Conaing, and Arthur ap Bicor) lived in southwestern Scotland at approximately the same time that the Arthurian reference was incorporated into the oldest level of Y Gododdin in southeastern Scotland and while Arthur ap Peter lived in Dyfed (Bromwich 1975:178). The names of all these men plus the Gododdin reference suggest that the Arthurian legend was flourishing especially strongly in the late sixth and early seventh century. There is therefore no reason to single out Artúr mac Aedan as the historical origin of the Arthurian legend.

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