The Survivors of Camlann: The Trauma of Warfare

Today I would like to share an article which has been written by one of my good friends and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony has written many articles on New Eden which you can easily find by putting his name into the search bar at the bottom of every page on the website. You can also check out Tony’s own website by clicking HERE.

“Here are the names of the men who escaped from the battle of Camlan: Sandde Bryd Angel because of his beauty, Morfran ap Tegid because of his ugliness, St Cynfelyn from the speed of his horse, St Cedwyn from the world’s blessing, St Pedrog from the strength of his spear, Derfel Gadarn for his strength, Geneid Hir from his speed.”

This text is found as a margin note in a seventeenth century Welsh manuscript collected by poet and clergyman Evan Evans, but it represents a much older tradition. The motif of seven survivors is an ancient one in Wales. It appears in the stories of the Mabinogion, where only seven warriors returned from Bran the Blessed’s war in Ireland. It also appears in a poem from the Book of Taliesin about King Arthur’s expedition to the realm of Annwn whence “none, save seven, returned”. The note in Evan Evans’ manuscript weaves this ancient motif of seven survivors into legends of King Arthur’s last battle, the Battle of Camlann.

In the pseudo-history of Arthur’s legend, Camlann was Arthur’s final battle, in which he received his mortal wound. This final battle is an ancient and persistent element of the Arthurian tradition that was deeply embedded in the Welsh psyche in the middle ages. It is a tragic full stop at the end of the brief golden age of Arthur’s reign and a catastrophe for the Britons which ushered in their uncertain present, harassed by the newly arrived Anglo-Saxons. 

Buried in the list of two hundred and sixty retainers at Arthur’s court, that forms part of the twelfth century text of ‘How Culhwch won Olwen,’ is an older version of the note from Evan Evan’s manuscript. Here the survivors are three and you find, as in the later seven, Sandde Bryd Angel whom “no one placed his spear in him at Camlan, so exceeding fair was he; all thought he was an angel helping.” You also find Morfran ap Tegid whom “no man placed his weapon in him at Camlan, so exceeding ugly was he; all thought he was a devil helping. There was hair on him like the hair of a stag.”

The triad in ‘Culhwch’ is completed by Cynwyl Sant, loyal and brave, “the last to part from Arthur”. This Saint Cynwyl is seemingly forgotten in the later tradition (and is replaced at the dying Arthur’s side by Sir Lucan in the English and French romances) but is dimly remembered on the Welsh map as a founder of churches in Carmarthenshire in the south, witnessed by the village names Cynwyl Gaeo and Cynwyl Elfed.

The later list of seven is a strange mix, retaining the mythical Sandde and Morfran from the older triad, and ending with Geneid the Tall, whose name appears nowhere else in Welsh literature. Bracketed in between are a group of four who seem to have more solid roots in the dawn of the mediaeval period in Wales, the Age of Saints spanning the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries when Christianity become inextricably intertwined with the early kingdoms of Wales.

St Derfel (Derfel Gadarn or Derfel the Mighty) in many ways is the prototype of this group. He was celebrated as one of Arthur’s warriors from the earliest days. He was also remembered as Derfel Farchog (Derfel the Knight) and some iconography shows him as an armoured warrior. His church at Llandderfel in Merionethshire was the home until the early modern period of a wooden figure of Derfel arrayed as a warrior with armour and weapons with an accompanying horse that can still be seen at the church today. The story of the fate of the status of Derfel is a bizarre one which I have included in the longer version of this article.

Nonetheless Derfel is also remembered for the holiness of his later life having eventually renounced his weapons and turned to a life of asceticism and penance after the disaster of Camlann. He was known as a saviour of souls; “David Darvell Catheren, as saith the Welshmen, fetched outlaws out of Hell.” The present day church of St Derfel at Llanderfel, the home until the Reformation of his relics, is said to have been built on the site of his hermitage and was a popular centre of local pilgrimage as the middle ages went on. Some other traditions say that in later life he succeeded his Breton cousin Cadfan as the abbot of Bardsey Island and died on the remote Isle of Tides at the age of more than a hundred.

St Cynfelyn, from the list in Evan Evan’s manuscript, has a similar legend. A warrior turned penitent. He seems to have started life as Cynfelyn ap Bleuddid, a local lordling in mid Wales descended from Cunedda Wledig and the kings of Gwynedd. In later life St Cynfelyn retired to a hermit’s cell on an island on the edge of a marsh, near the present day village of Llangynfelyn, where he lived a life of asceticism. He is remembered in the welsh martyrologies as a confessor of the faith and Aneurin’s poem ‘Stanzas of the Months’ includes the couplet “Truly says Cynfelyn, ‘A man’s best candle is reason’.”

Cedwyn, from the list of seven, is even more obscure but likewise seems to be a noble-born person descended in his case from Vortigern and Vortimer, the patriarchs of the House of Powys. Llangedwyn in the Tanat valley, not far from Pennant Melangell, preserves his name on the Welsh map. Here too is the tradition of a warrior turned holy man.

St Pedrog, to conclude the list, is a reference to Pedrog Splintered-Spear. According to the bards’ triads he was one of the three Just Knights of Arthur’s court. Paladins who would take up arms to correct any offence to the weak and defenceless, “in the cause of justice”. The triad says that this Pedrog was the son of Clement, prince of Cornwall. Other traditions (or traditions of a different Pedrog) remember a Pedrog who was descended from Welsh nobility, son of King Glywys of the kingdom of Glywysing in South Wales.

Then again there is Saint Petroc, patron saint of the county of Cornwall (along with St Michael and St Piran) who is patron of at least seventeen churches scattered across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset as well as a handful in Wales. The sites most closely linked with him at Padstow in Cornwall are where he settled for a while at the mouth of the River Camel and St Petroc’s church in the town of Bodmin where his relics were venerated. The number of different individuals represented here is dubious, but what you have clearly is a complex later tradition that combined motifs of noble descent, a career as a warrior and a separate saintly career.

So in all, you have these four sons of noble houses, steeped in the ways of war (as was their culture) who all laid down their arms and chose a life of penance. These stories seem to reflect a shift in Welsh culture brought about by the arrival of Christianity in Wales. The ideals for a leader in Celtic society were courage, skill in battle, largesse, and generosity in peace time. There is nothing in the indigenous culture that would shame a warrior for deeds done in war. Inter-tribal warfare was a fact of life and it was fitting for the sons of the aristocracy to answer the call to battle, and afterwards to settle down to enjoy the fruits of their battles. 

It seems though that the new faith opened up new possibilities that critiqued this violent culture. There are other stories, told in parallel to these, notably of Myrddin Wyllt in Welsh-speaking culture and of Suibne Geilt in Ireland, that recognise the trauma of warfare and tell of men driven mad on the battlefield. In a similar way to how the tales of Derfel and the others might tell the same story of traumatised men who went apart to seek healing, men who chose solitary hermitages where they found solace in divine love and attended to the healing of their souls. 

There’s maybe another perspective as well of souls who learnt from bitter experience that the violence of warfare was something that required repentance, that the deeds required by their culture were in the end too heavy to be borne. It seems a hopeful thing that the arrival of Christianity allowed these men to step out of that violent culture and find a broader perspective that offered them the chance of atonement and of freedom from those memories. In these troubled times of our own, it may be that the vision of a greater world can inspire us to transcend our own culture, too.

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