A Renaissance fair jouster. Brennan Phillips/Western News

Lost ancient kingdom sparked myths of King Arthur

The real history is most likely more interesting than the legends

There’s a lost kingdom buried in the map of Great Britain.

Actually, there are several, from Alt Clut up in what is now Scotland to Deira in the northeast, but today I’m thinking of one that has particularly fed modern mythology.

Long before England and Scotland and Wales existed, there was Roman Britain, a cluster of provinces that included much of the southern part of the island.

Then, in 410 C.E., the Romans left. Just picked up, took their legions, and went back to the continent where they were having some serious problems with civil wars and barbarians. (Spoilers – things did not go well for them!)

Britain fractured. The population spoke a mixture of Latin and Brythonic languagues – ancestors of modern Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, and more distantly related to Gaelic.

Down in the southwest, in sparsely populated Cornwall and Devon, a kingdom called Dumnonia was born.

It seems to have come into being by, at the very latest, the late 400s. It certainly existed by sometime in the early 500s, when a very, very angry monk called Gildas wrote a sermon excoriating five Brythonic kings, including Constantine of Dumnonia.

Now, if you go down to the library or bookstore, the historical Dumnonia will come up fairly frequently in what we might kindly call “speculative history,” particularly in books with the words “King Arthur,” in the title.

Tintagel Castle in Cornwall is one of the sites that was later connected to Arthurian stories, and speculations about the “historical Arthur,” if there ever was such a person, have often gravitated towards this region.

Truth is, we know almost nothing about this kingdom, despite the fact that it endured for centuries

Shortly after the birth of Dumnonia, Saxon mercenaries/invaders started carving their own kingdoms out of the eastern side of the island. That’s where you get Wessex (West Saxons) and Essex (East Saxons). Eventually, Wessex would become the kernel of a recognizable England, particularly under Alfred the Great.

Meanwhile, Dumnonia… survived. It existed for about 400 years, losing land a bit at a time to Wessex, before finally being extinguished sometime in the late 800s or early 900s.

But we know almost nothing about its kings, its politics, its alliances and internal struggles. Names, stories, few hard facts. Which is why it’s so easy to put an Arthurian gloss on everything.

But then we go back to Gildas’ sermon.

He slandered (maybe) Constantine, calling him “the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia.”

(Note Gildas’s alternate spelling. Slip of the pen or trying to get in another dig at Constantine?)

Was Constantine really a petty tyrant, or was he holding together a new and fragile country? And was Gildas’ insult a simple jab at the king’s mother – or was she someone as fearsome as a lioness in her own right?

Forget King Arthur. That’s a myth worth writing about.


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