Yet again, I tell you the old story of looking for one thing and happening on something else. This time an article that questions the ultimate effectiveness of Henry VII’s reign. Well, rather it raises questions that historians don’t seem to have asked before now. It is well worth reading, especially as there are links to other articles for those who follow our period.
While doing some research, I came upon a beautiful 15th century scroll of Edward IV on the website of the Philadelphia Free Library, showing the King’s full line of descent with stunning imagery and symbolism.
What was particularly interesting was that Edward also used, as did Henry Tudor, the image of the Red Dragon in his propaganda. Here, Edward directly borrowed from Arthurian myths, but cast the Lancastrian faction in the role of the ‘white dragon’ (traditonally the ‘invading’ Saxons) that would be eventually overcome by the red. Henry IV, V and VI are all denoted as ‘Saxons’ while Edward brings forth his Welsh ancestry going back to Llewellyn the Great via the marriage of Llewellyn’s daughter, Gwladys Dhu ‘the Dark,’ to Ralph Mortimer, lord of Wigmore Castle.
In March 1461, the Lancastrian forces of King Henry VI were decisively thrashed at Towton, the Yorkist army of King Edward IV winning the day after a bitter and close-fought battle. After that, England fell into the hands of the first Yorkist king. At least, that is what Edward would have liked. In truth, repeated incursions across the Scottish borders during which castles such as Alnwick and Dunstanburgh were quickly snatched continued for some years until the battles of Hedgeley Moor and Hexham in 1464 finally quashed Lancastrian assaults in the north.
One place is often forgotten in the story of the Yorkist takeover of England and Wales. Harlech Castle became the last, stubborn enclave of Lancastrian influence in Edward IV’s kingdom and was not brought under his control until 1468. The siege of Harlech Castle is often cited as the longest siege in British history, but that doesn’t paint an entirely accurate picture. For most of the seven-year period from 1461-1468, the castle wasn’t under direct attack, though assaults did come sporadically. It is perhaps more accurate to consider the resistance of Harlech Castle as it being held against Edward IV for seven years.
Harlech became a crucial foothold for Lancastrians in the same way that Calais was important to the English in France. An enclave within territory otherwise belonging to the enemy was both precarious and vital. Part of Harlech’s success lay in geography that is very different to what can be seen today. Walking the open walls around the top of the castle offers a glorious view of the mountains to the north, the town to the east, the coast running away south and the flat plains to the west that lead to the sea. It is this western aspect that is substantially altered. In the fifteenth century, the sea came right up to the castle, as witnessed by the presence of the Water Gate just outside the castle’s western walls. From here, the castle could be restocked and relieved with little that the Yorkists could do about it. Jasper Tudor had been driven from the Welsh coast and was probably in Ireland at this point, providing him with the perfect vantage point from which to send supplies to Harlech and to get intelligence and rumours both in and out.
The garrison at Harlech was commanded throughout the siege by Dafydd ab Ifan ab Einion, a veteran of the Hundred Years’ War who appears to have served in Rouen. He has been linked to the forces commanded by another famous Welsh soldier named Matthew Gough, who had been killed fighting Jack Cade’s forces in London in 1450. In 1460, following the Battle of Northampton, Queen Margaret fled to Harlech Castle before escaping to Scotland and probably placed Dafydd in command at this point. Harlech became a sanctuary for dissident Lancastrians. In 1463, the Sir Richard Tunstall appeared there for about a year. A member of Henry VI’s household from a Lancashire family, Tunstall had been knighted by Henry in 1452. After his sojourn at Harlech, he headed north to fight alongside Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset at the battles of Hedgeley Moor and Hexham. After the defeats there, he found Henry and saw that he was secreted safely in Lancashire. Tunstall then returned to Harlech, perhaps recognising the importance of keeping a foothold on the Welsh coast.
The final demise of Harlech was caused by a failed Lancastrian invasion. In June 1468, Jasper Tudor landed at Barmouth a few miles south of Harlech. Edward IV had made known his intention to invade France and Louis XI’s response was to fund a Lancastrian invasion on Edward’s western flank. Jasper managed to capture Denbigh Castle, from where he held court in Henry VI’s name and launched raids further into Wales. This was enough to convince Edward to act decisively. Well, sort of. Edward planned to lead an army into Wales himself to crush the insurgency, only to delegate the task at the last moment to William Herbert. William took half the men he had raised around the mountains to attack Harlech from the north. His younger brother Richard Herbert was to approach from the south with the other half of the army, giving each brother around 4,500 men each. Richard encountered Jasper Tudor’s force south of Harlech and caused them to disperse and flee. When the brothers arrived at Harlech, a true siege began and did not take long to conclude.
With food running short and no sign of supplies from the seas, Dafydd ab Ifan ab Einion surrendered the castle on 14 August 1468. Sir Richard Tunstall was taken into custody amongst the fifty or so prisoners seised from the fortress. Although he was taken to the Tower, Edward IV pardoned him, only for Tunstall to join the readeption government was Henry VI’s chamberlain. Tunstall was attainted when Edward IV regained power and managed to obtain the reversal of this punishment within a couple of years. He went on to serve both Edward IV and Richard III, the latter inducting him into the Order of the Garter before Tunstall was reported in the Ballad of Bosworth Field as one of four English knights to immediately join Henry Tudor when he landed in Wales in 1485. For his final victory against this remnant of Lancastrian resistance, William Herbert was given Jasper Tudor’s forfeited earldom of Pembroke.
Today, Harlech Castle is a stunning monument to Edward I’s campaign to impose himself on Wales. The sea has retreated from its w”Men alls, but it looms over the vast, flat plains left behind and still dominates the coastline to the north and south. The famous song Men of Harlech is widely believed to refer to this prolonged resistance to Yorkist rule, becoming something more like a Welsh national call to arms than a description of a long-running siege as part of a fight between two English royal houses. The 1873 version by John Oxenford romantically describes:
Echoes loudly waking,
Hill and valley shaking;
‘Till the sound spreads wide around,
The Saxon’s courage breaking;
Your foes on every side assailing,
Forward press with heart unfailing,
‘Till invaders learn with quailing,
Cambria ne’er can yield!
A modern visitor can walk the long entrance ramp that has replaced the old, open, wooden staircase into the castle and stroll the grounds at will. The walls remain open, and a pretty challenging walk as the wind blows in from the seas. If you pause for a moment there, it is easy to imagine standing there in the cold and high wind, heavy armour serving to help root your feet, but threatening to help drag you down from the walls with one false step. There can have been little romantic in August 1468 as cannon thundered from the town into the walls and food began to run short. With no hope of relief, surrender to an implacable and unforgiving enemy can only have held terror for those Men of Harlech, that last bastion of Lancastrian loyalty in England or Wales.
I have often wondered why Richard chose a boar as his cognizance. There are other heraldic beasts and symbols that might have appealed to him, but it was a white boar that he chose. Why? Well, from all accounts, he was only a child when he made the decision, so what might have drawn him to this particular creature?
There is a very famous, very large boar in the old Welsh stories, called the Twrch Trwyth, which means “the boar, Trwyth”. He is really a prince, but so wicked that he and his children have been cursed. This terrible creature and his family led King Arthur and his knights a merry chase from Ireland, across Wales, and thence over the Severn to Cornwall. He was never caught. Might such a story have engaged the attention of the boy Richard? After all, he lived for a while at Ludlow Castle, right in the Welsh Marches, where he was as likely to hear Welsh stories as English and French.
It does not take much for me to imagine Richard, together with other noble boys of his age, gathered around by firelight on a winter night, listening rapt as an old Welsh retainer tells them the adventures of the Trwch Trwyth. The picture below may be taken in bright daylight, but when the sun goes down and darkness sets in, the atmosphere would be perfect for some storytelling.
The tale of the Twrch Trwyth comes from a much longer story, that of Culhwch and Olwen, in which Culhwch falls in love with Olwen, a giant’s daughter, and seeks her hand. The gist of the action is that the giant sets Culhwch a list of tasks which must be completed before Olwen is given up. The format is much the same as the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Anyway, one of these tasks is to find Trwyth and retrieve the comb, scissors and razor he carries between his ears. Cwlhwch must obtain the help of King Arthur and his best knights to hunt the great boar and its equally monstrous sons, which are all rampaging around Ireland.
And so the famous hunt begins, first in Ireland, and then across to Wales, where Trwyth and his sons cause more havoc. Trwyth himself evades capture, but one by one his sons are trapped and killed. Hunters are killed too, but Arthur continues the pursuit.
Reaching the mouth of the River Wye, Trwyth seems cornered at last, and the hunters manage to retrieve the comb, scissors and razor, but Trwyth escapes into the estuary of the River Severn, and manages to swim across to the Gloucestershire shore. There he dashes on toward Cornwall. Arthur’s two best hounds chase after him, but Trwyth reaches Land’s End and leaps into the sea, followed by the hounds. All three disappear forever.
What a wonderfully exciting yarn to listen to. What heroic images conjured in small boys’ minds. Did Richard hear it? Was he in awe of the Trwch Trwyth’s amazing stamina and bravery? Did he admire the way even King Arthur was unable to capture his prey? Did he think to himself that one day, he would have a boar as his mascot? A Twrch Trwyth of his own. A magical white (white animals were always special and sought after) boar to carry into battle in his name, as befitted the House of York?
Well, Richard might never have heard the story, of course, but I still find it an attractive possibility. And I do like to envisage that scene at Ludlow, boys—and girls, of course—gathered around of an evening as a Welsh storyteller entertains them with tales of magic and myth.
Edmund Mortimer, later 5th Earl of March, was born on 6 November 1391. His parents were Roger Mortimer, Earl of March (1374-1398) and his wife, the well-connected Alianore Holland, daughter of Thomas Earl of Kent. In the view of many people, including the Westminster Chronicler, and the Welsh poet Iolo Goch (c1320-1398) Earl Roger was the rightful heir to King Richard II. Under current inheritance doctrine he certainly would be, but it was far less clear at the time. Ian Mortimer believes – on the basis of reasonably compelling evidence – that Richard selected his uncle, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York to succeed him. In the event, of course, Richard was succeeded by his Lancastrian cousin, Henry IV. Whether this would have happened so smoothly had Earl Roger not died the previous year is a moot point.
After Earl Roger’s death, Countess Alianore received a dower valued at £1,242 a year (the rough equivalent of the minimum income for two earldoms!) and the remainder of the Mortimer lands were partitioned in wardship between the dukes of Aumale (Edward of York), Exeter (John Holland) and Surrey (Thomas Holland) and the Earl of Wiltshire. This arrangement did not last long due to fall of Richard II and the consequent deaths of Exeter, Surrey and Wiltshire. Countess Alianore was allowed the custody of her daughters, but her sons, Earl Edmund and his brother, Roger, were kept in King Henry’s hands under the charge of Sir Hugh Waterton, a Yorkshireman of Henry’s extensive following.
It is certain that not everyone in England accepted Henry IV’s dubious title to the throne. Among those who did not was the King’s own cousin, Constance of York, Lady Despenser, who contrived to extract the boys from Windsor Castle in the middle of a February night 1405. Her intention was apparently to take them to Owain Glyndwr in Wales, their uncle, Sir Edmund Mortimer, having already defected to Glyndwr after Henry’s failure to ransom him. The fugitives were recaptured near Cheltenham; had they managed the few extra miles to the other side of the Severn, English and Welsh history might have been different. It was only after the failure of Constance’s plot that Glyndwr, Edmund Mortimer and Northumberland came up with the Tripartite Indenture, a scheme to divide England between them; a proposal which probably cost them at least as many supporters as it gained.
Meanwhile, the young Earl of March and his brother were transferred to Pevensey Castle, where for a few months they were joined by Constance’s brother, Edward, Duke of York (the erstwhile Aumale) who was imprisoned for his part in her scheme. In February 1409 the two boys were transferred to the household of Henry, Prince of Wales, the future Henry V. The fall of Harlech Castle, Glyndwr’s last stronghold, and the death in the siege of their uncle, meant that the Mortimers were now much less of a political threat. The Prince of Wales was also given the custody of a large portion of the Mortimer lands.
Soon after Henry V’s accession, March was given livery of his lands, as he was now of age. He chose to marry Anne Stafford, daughter of that Earl of Stafford who was killed at Shrewsbury (1403) and granddaughter of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. Henry V imposed a massive marriage fine of 10,000 marks. Now to be quite clear, Henry was entitled to levy the fine, but the amount was wholly excessive and unreasonable. In another king it would be called tyrannical. To make matters worse, to meet the cost of following Henry to France and service his own large debts, March was obliged, in 1415, to mortgage a large part of his Welsh lands plus no fewer than 45 English manors. He was never able to restore himself to solvency, and the burden was eventually passed on to his successor. It should be borne in mind that the Welsh lands had been devastated during the Glyndwr rising, and much reduced in value, while the whole inheritance had suffered some 17 years of wardship, during which a degree of asset-stripping was almost inevitable.
In the circumstances, it is not wholly surprising that March was drawn into the Southampton Plot led by his former brother-in-law, Richard of York, Earl of Cambridge. The exact nature of that plot is still a mystery to historians. It was certainly aimed at Henry V, but not necessarily at killing the King or overthrowing his government. Whatever the ultimate intentions of the conspirators, their ideas seem only to have been half-formed when March, perhaps in a panic, decided to betray them to the King.
By doing so March saved his own life, but made it unlikely that anyone would trust him ever again, He obtained a royal pardon for all treasons and other offences and went to France with Henry, only to be invalided back from Harfleur. It is likely that he contracted dysentery. Between 1416 and 1422 he was involved in other military actions in France without any obvious advantage either to his fortunes or his reputation. Henry gave him no share in the lands conquered in Normandy.
After Henry’s death March served on the Council but soon attracted the hostility of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who in 1424 claimed that March was keeping too great a household and offering too much in the way of hospitality. The activities of March’s kinsman, Sir John Mortimer, who escaped from the Tower twice before being executed in 1424, cannot have helped his case.
In May 1424 March was made Lieutenant of Ireland, and effectively banished there. His term of office did not in fact last long, as like his father he died in the Emerald Isle. In Edmund’s case, on 18th January 1425. His marriage was childless, but his widow went on to have children with her second husband.
The effect of this was (since Edmund’s brother had died some years earlier) that the vast Mortimer estates passed to his nephew, Richard, Duke of York. Without this “merger” – so to speak – it is most unlikely that the House of York would ever have had sufficient landed clout to put itself on the throne. It is worth mentioning that this was also the cause of the white rose badge transferring to York. Previously it had been a Mortimer symbol.
Henry V and the Southampton Plot, T.B. Pugh.
Complete Peerage (March)
The Fears of Henry IV, Ian Mortimer.
1415, Ian Mortimer.
Frustrated Falcons, Brian Wainwright.
Matthew Craddock was the son of Richard ap Gwilliam ap Evan ap Craddock Vreichfras and Jennet Horton of Candleston Castle in Glamorgan. His great grandfather, William Horton of Tregwynt in Pembrokeshire, married Joan de Canteloupe the heiress of Candleston. Jennet Horton was their granddaughter.
I first came across Matthew Craddock while looking at anything that connected Bishop Stillington to Mathry in Pembrokeshire and his connection to the Craddock/ Newton family of East Harptree in Somerset. Some of the Craddock family (Caradog in Welsh) had changed their name to Newton however Matthew’s father retained the name Craddock. William Horton was from Tregwynt in the Parish of Granston and the living is annexed to that of Mathry which was where Stillington was living at one time .There are connections between Stillington and Sir John Newton of East Harptree whose father was a Sir Richard CraddockNewton. Sir Richard Craddock Newton was the arbitrator for the Talbots in the Berkley dispute.
It was thought that Matthew and Sir John may have been brothers but this is thought to be unlikely now. It is possible that they are related but not brothers.
When discussing Sir William Herbert on the Richard III Forum and the fact that he was in charge of guarding the South Wales coast for his father in law Richard III in 1485 it occurred to me that the Glamorgan Castles could have been part of this defence and that maybe Matthew had supported Richard. In the Dictionary of Welsh Biography it is reported that the Calendar of Patent Rolls 6/3/1485 – 1486 1HVII says that Craddock was appointed Constable for life at Caerphilly and Kenfig Castles. In 1491 Sir Matthew Craddock was appointed Steward of the Gower and also in 1497. Then I read a short note on a genealogy site, though obviously genealogy sites are not a reliable sources, it said that Matthew Craddock had fought in Rhys ap Thomas’retinue at Bosworth, this came as a surprise and a disappointment though it would probably explain the appointments under Tudor. Apparently William Herbert didn’t fight at all at Bosworth, which begs the question was it because he had links to Tudor from childhood (Tudor was brought up by the Herberts as their ward) or had Richard excused him to look after Katherine in the event of a Tudor victory?
I had started looking at the families who lived in some of the castles along the Glamorgan and South Wales coast before I came across the information that possibly Craddock had fought in Rhys ap Thomas’ retinue. Some of the names were familiar to me as there were still some of their descendants living in Glamorgan at least until the 1960s.These families were the Stradlings, the Turbevilles, the Mansells and the Talbots.
Candelston Castle is on the west side of the River Ogmore on the opposite side to Ogmore Castle. All along the Glamorgan coast there are castles, to the east of Ogmore is St Donat’s Castle, seat of the Stradling family and to the west would have been Kenfig castle. Further inland from Ogmore are Newcastle Castle, guarding the approach to the Llynfi Valley, and Coity Castle, seat of the Turbeville family. The Turbevilles also inherited Newcastle when one of them married the daughter of Morgan Gam of Afan. When the Normans took over South Wales they built castles at Ogmore, Newcastle and Coity. Ogmore Castle was an important link in the defensive system of the Ogmore estuary. They were known as the Ogmore Triangle. Apparently they had a system whereby they would come to one anothers aid if attacked. Ogmore is on the estuary of the river and would guard against invasion from the sea. Further north is Newcastle, in what is now Bridgend, it is built high on a hill overlooking the river and so protecting the access to the Llynfi Valley. Coity is slightly north west of Newcastle and protects the Ogmore and Garw Valleys.
Ogmore, Newcastle and Coity were built by William de Londres in the 12th century and Coity was granted to Payn de Turbeville by Robert Fitzhamon. Payn Turbeville’s gt grandson Gilbert Turbeville married Matilda daughter of Morgan Gam of Afan and in 1217 he acquired the manor of Newcastle previously held by Morgan Gam and from then on Coity and Newcastle devolved together. The Turbevilles held both properties until 1380 when Richard Turbeville, a descendant of Payn Turbeville, died without issue and the properties descended to his sister Catherine and her husband Sir Roger Berkerolles. Their daughter Gwenllian Berkerolles married Sir Edward Stradling of St Donats.
The Stradlings came to Britain after the Norman conquest. They are a branch of the noble family of Strattigan who lived near Thun in Switzerland and they arrived in Wales in the late 13th century. In the late 14th century Sir Edward Stradling, Gwenllian Berkerolles husband, was twice Sheriff of Glamorgan. Edward and Gwenllian Stradling’s grandson, also called Sir Edward Stradling married Cardinal Beaufort’s daughter Joan by Alice Fitzalan and became Chamberlain and Receiver of South Wales. He died on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His son Henry Stradling married Elizabeth Herbert of Raglan. Henry and Elizabeth’s son Thomas Stradling married Jane Matthew but Thomas died young in 1480 leaving Jane a young widow with a small child Edward, who was the Stradling heir to St Donat’s. (St Donat’s is now Atlantic College)
Imagine my surprise when, not long after I had read that Matthew Craddock had fought in Rhys ap Thomas’ retinue at Bosworth, I read in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography that Jane Stradling’s second husband was none other than Sir Rhys ap Thomas. Thomas then became guardian to the young heir, Edward Stradling. Jane died in 1485 presumably leaving young Edward in Rhys’ care. There was a suggestion that Rhys took the money from the St Donat’s estates for three years in a row.
This explained to a certain extent the connection between Matthew Craddock and Rhys ap Thomas as Candleston Castle, like Ogmore Castle, is only a few miles west along the coast from St Donat’s. Matthew Craddock would have only been about seventeen in 1485, as it is thought that he was born in 1468, however, it is also thought that he might have been born as early as 1458. He would have been old enough to fight at Bosworth. After Bosworth he began a rapid rise being appointed Constable for life of Caerphilly and Kenfig Castles and Steward of Glamorgan in 1491 and 1497. He married Alice Mansell daughter of Sir Philip Mansell of Oxwich Castle, on the coast west of Swansea. I believe there doesn’t appear to be a record of the date, though some sources give 1489 as their date of marriage. They also report that his wife’s name could have been Jane Mansell. There doesn’t appear to be a complete set of facts about Craddock’s life. However, Matthew and Alice/ Jane’s daughter Margaret married Sir Richard Herbert the illegitimate half brother of William and Walter Herbert.
There are obviously connections through marriage between all these families. So were they Yorkist or were they Lancastrian, or were they doing a Stanley and supporting whoever was in power to get the best deal for their family? I doubt if we will ever know. In the Inventory of Ancient Monuments of Glamorgan, it is reported that Warwick was Lord of Glamorgan and that Clarence claimed it in 1474, however, it was awarded to Anne’s share and Richard became Lord of Glamorgan. It is reported that he raised the salaries of the officials of the Lordship to stop them extorting ancient dues from tenants, so he may not have been unpopular in Glamorgan. After Bosworth, Jasper Tudor was the Lord of Glamorgan.
In 1517 Sir Matthew Craddock married Lady Catherine Gordon, wife of “Perkin Warbeck”. Lady Catherine had been taken into the household of Elizabeth of York after” Perkin’s” arrest and had been treated well by Henry Tudor, however, he had never allowed her to leave court. Some sources report that he kept her a prisoner though he did treat her well. After Henry Tudor’s death Henry VIII gave her property in Berkshire in return for her promise not to leave England. When she married Craddock she was, however, allowed to live in Wales with him. Though it is also reported that they spent their married life at Court, because Lady Catherine was head of Princess Mary’s privy chamber.
There are various stories that Lady Katherine and “Perkin Warbeck” had a son and that he was brought up in Reynoldston on the Gower Peninsular. There is a story that a family named Perkins are descended from him. There is no evidence to prove that Katherine and “Perkin “ had a son, however, it has always seemed odd to me that she had agreed not to leave England and yet she ends up marrying the man who had been the Steward of the Gower and also lived there. I just wondered if she went to spend time with her son.
Unfortunately my idea that Sir Matthew Craddock was a supporter of Richard III came to nothing, however, it led to discovering connections between the families who controlled the coast of Glamorgan and maybe helping to explain how they flourished under the Tudors. In my opinion they probably would have fared just as well had Richard won Bosworth, indeed they might have fared better.
The following article is based on books by Chris Barber and David Pykitt, so I do not claim anything as my own work. The books are The Legacy of King Arthur and Journey to Avalon. It is also based on a third book by Chris Barber called King Arthur: The Mystery Unravelled, which contains more about Henry VII and King Arthur. The illustration of St Armel’s tomb is also from one of the books, the rest I found by Googling. I recommend all three works as fascinating reads about the eternally fascinating King Arthur.
According to the above authors, Henry VII knew that he was not only descended from King Arthur, but also the identity that the king assumed, and exactly where he was buried.
These are astonishing claims, because to this day no one else really knows, so how come Henry VII was au fait with these astonishing details back in the 15th century? I mean, we all know how cunning and secretive Henry was, so he was quite capable of inventing it all, but the inference in the above books is that there was nothing invented at all. Henry was on the level. According to his lights.
The thing about Arthur, has always been that when he was “mortally” wounded at his last battle, now thought to be Camlann (the whereabouts of which is not known), he just disappears. We have the story of Sir Bedivere having to be told three times to throw Excalibur into the water to the Lady of the Lake, and that’s…well, the end of it, really. He was last seen being taken away across water to be healed by magic of some sort. Of course, I’m referring to the later romances, not the real Arthur, who was a Dark Age war leader, but even so, the outcome is the same. No one knows what happened to him. Except for Henry Tudor, who, somehow, had all the facts.
Henry was proud of his Welsh roots. At least, he was when he needed his countrymen’s help to usurp the throne of Richard III. After that, he didn’t do much for Wales or the Welsh…except decide to claim King Arthur for himself. Arthur being Welsh too, you understand. Well, that’s my opinion, but I know there are a lot of other theories about the who, where, what and why of the real Arthur.
According to Barber and Pykitt, as far back as the eighteenth century, Arthur was known to be the hereditary leader of the Silures in South Wales, yet the vast majority of modern historians choose to ignore this, placing him anywhere and everywhere except South Wales. Oh, with a passing mention of Caerleon. Hmm, it must be a general failing of modern historians, to ignore obvious truths in order to feed a traditional obsession.
An examination of early Welsh genealogies revealed to Barber and Pykitt that a misinterpretation by academics had mixed up two Arthurs. Gildas, the monk, mentions a charioteer belonging to someone known as “The Bear”. The Celtic word for bear is “arth”, and so it is possible that the name Arthur is a nickname derived from the title Arthwyr. Whatever, the result was that the Welsh Arthrwys, whose title was Arthwyr, to a later century, and thus detaching him from the Arthur of legend and history. Once this mistake was discovered and corrected, the authors were able to locate not only Arthur’s court, the sites of his most of his principal battles and the Isle of Avalon, but even his final resting place in Brittany.
In Nennius’s Historia Brittonem Arthur is described as not only a military leader, but a religious one too, which brings me to another important point in the story. Now, apart from the Arthur we all know, there was also a soldier-saint named Arthmael (Bear Prince), or Armel. He is portrayed wearing armour—in his guise as “Miles Fortissimus” (Mighty Warrior).
He liberated Brittany from the 6th-century tyranny of Marcus Conomorus. This soldier-saint is known to us now as St Armel (Feast Day tomorrow, 16th August), and his tomb can be seen to this day in Armel’s church at Ploërmel. The stone sarcophagus is empty now, but the identification of the saint’s resting place is definite. There is a gilded casket which is said to contain the saint’s jawbone. The church itself has been rebuilt on the site of the original church, and the tomb incorporated.
Barber and Pykitt have concluded that after Arthur was deposed and apparently fatally wounded in England, he actually went into exile in Brittany—“Little Britain”, where so many of his countrymen were to be found. Thus arose the story of the Once and Future King, because Arthur didn’t die as such, he simply disappeared, leaving his fate unknown to his countrymen. They, of course, hoped he would return. Then, in Brittany, Arthur became St Armel, the Bear Prince, using all his warrior skills to lead the Bretons to freedom. Crucially, St Armel was also an exiled Welshman, and so Henry would certainly feel an affinity with him, if nothing else. Is this connection rather a great leap? Who can say? After all, the authors’ reasoning concerning so many names that contain “bear” in one form or another, seems perfectly logical.
St Armel, a dragon-slayer like St George, was most certainly one of Henry VII’s favourite saints, appearing among the many saints in Henry’s amazing chapel in Westminster Abbey. And Henry, in his determination to establish his links to Arthur, made sure that his firstborn son was not only born in Winchester, but also christened with the name Arthur. Winchester was the ancient capital of the Kings of Britain, and believed (by Malory) to be the site of Camelot. Whether Henry VII agreed with the latter is debatable. After all, surely he’d have preferred Camelot to be somewhere in Wales. But what the heck, in the 15th century Winchester was where it was at, as the saying goes. It had even possessed the famous Round Table since the time of Edward I. The table that hangs in Winchester was painted as we know it now by Henry VIII, and so after Henry VII would have known it in its green-and-white guise.
It all went awry, of course, because young Arthur, heir to the throne of England, died before his father. So there wasn’t a second King Arthur, just another Henry. And what a Henry. Say no more. Please.
There is a lot of extra detail and explanation in the books, both of which are well worth reading. When Henry and his uncle, Jasper Tudor, fled from Britain in 1471, he believed that he was saved from shipwreck off the coast of Brittany by none other than St Armel. The dragon-slaying Welsh saint always featured prominently throughout Henry’s life, and is represented in his chapel (more a cathedral) at Westminster Abbey.
Of course, Henry spent a long time as a captive in Brittany, hunted unsuccessfully by two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. In Brittany it was known there was a King Arthur and a St Armel, but the connection between the two had apparently not been made. Ploërmel, where St Armel was buried, is not far from some of the places where Henry was held. (See the example of Chateau de Largoët below – and see more of Henry’s early life in Brittany here)
If nothing else, Henry was a sharp cookie, and quite capable of putting two and two together to make a total that might be true and that definitely suited him. He would have heard the local tales and memories, so maybe—just maybe—he drew the same conclusions that Barber and Pykitt would all these centuries later, to wit, that the saint and King Arthur were one and the same.
We’ll never know the truth, of course. But one thing we can be sure of with Henry, he went out of his way to claim descent from Arthur, and brandished this claim at every opportunity. His purpose was to imprint the belief that his occupation of the throne was justified. Which it certainly wasn’t, except by conquest. His lineage was, if anything, a hindrance. He had no right to the crown of England, and only won at Bosworth through a fluke (by the name of Sir William Stanley).
Were it not for “Judas” Stanley, Henry and his grand Arthurian claims would have been consigned to history. Hardly remembered at all, in fact. A mere footnote – as the loser on 22nd August 1485.