Geraint is one of the characters who appears in both the medieval romance tales and the earlier Welsh material. For this reason, there is quite a diverse range of information available about him.
Let us take a look at that information and also see what can be said about him historically.
Dynasty of Geraint
Geraint belonged to the dynasty that ruled Dumnonia, the region now composed of Devon and Cornwall. In the Welsh genealogical tracts, such as the Jesus College MS 20, he is shown to be the son of Erbin. This parentage is supported by a Welsh poem about Geraint, entitled ‘Geraint son of Erbin’. Not much is known about his father, but according to the genealogies, he was a descendant of Conan Meriadoc, the British prince who founded Brittany in the time of Magnus Maximus according to legend.
According to Culhwch and Olwen, a Welsh tale probably from the 11th century, Geraint was not Erbin’s only son. Geraint had at least two brothers, Ermind and Dywel. Nothing appears to be known about Ermind, but Dywel was said to have been killed in battle, and his burial place was recorded in the Stanzas of the Graves.
Geraint’s own son is much more extensively recorded than any other member of Geraint’s immediate family. His name is usually recorded as Cado, though some other records spell the name ‘Cadw’, ‘Cadwy’, or even ‘Cador’. He can almost certainly be identified with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Cador of Cornwall’. He appears in the Life of St Carannog as one of Arthur’s allies. This dovetails with the fact that Geraint himself, and his brothers, were said to have been allies of Arthur in Culhwch and Olwen. Furthermore, Cado’s son, Constantine, is described in the 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae as the one whom Arthur appointed to succeed him.
Therefore, it is clear that the ruling dynasty of Dumnonia was definitely allied to Arthur. This alliance extended through at least three consecutive generations.
When Did He Live?
The question of when Geraint lived is not too difficult to establish in a relative sense, because he and his relatives are closely tied to King Arthur. For example, the Welsh Mabinogion tale Geraint and Enid shows Geraint’s father Erbin to have still been alive during Arthur’s reign, but he is described as abdicating in that story in favour of his son Geraint. Presumably this was because he had grown old. If that was so, then Geraint himself would have been getting older at this time, perhaps around 50 years old or thereabouts.
The fact that his son Cado is described as ruling over Dumnonia in the Life of St Carannog (along with Arthur himself) indicates that Geraint died during Arthur’s reign. This is supported by the Welsh poem Geraint son of Erbin, which describes Geraint dying in battle at a place called Llongborth. Arthur’s men are described as being there at the battle, supporting the conclusion that Geraint’s death occurred during Arthur’s reign.
If Geraint was about 50 years old and his son Cado was about 25 years old at the time of Geraint succeeding Erbin, then if we imagine that Geraint died after a reign of at least 10 years, that would mean that Cado was at least 35 years old at the time of his succession to the throne, during which Arthur was still alive.
For Cado’s son Constantine to have succeeded Arthur, he would presumably have had to have been at least 20 years old. For this, his father Cado would have been about 45 years old, which would place us about 10 years after our estimate for Geraint’s death.
Obviously these estimates are only that – estimates. They could potentially be adjusted by a reasonable number of years either way. But they cannot be adjusted too much. If they are adjusted too much in one direction, Constantine would not have been old enough to succeed Arthur. If they are adjusted too much in the other direction, Erbin would have already died before Arthur’s reign.
Therefore, from the information about all of these kings of Dumnonia, we can see that Geraint’s rule overlapped Arthur’s for some years, but he evidently died before the end of Arthur’s reign, perhaps preceding it by a decade or so.
In terms of his absolute dates, these would be easier to establish if there was any consensus on the dates of Arthur himself. One thing that appears to help us, though, is the fact that Geraint’s appearance in the Life of St Teilo is tied to an event which is given a specific date in the Annales Cambriae. The account reports that Britain was struck by a terrible ‘Yellow Plague’ which caused many of its inhabitants to flee to Brittany.
The plague was said to have lasted about eight years. Teilo, the focus of the account, is described as meeting Geraint, the king of Dumnonia, upon returning to Britain. But then Geraint is said to have died. Therefore, according to this account, Geraint died about eight years after the Yellow Plague struck Britain. According to the Annales Cambriae, the Yellow Plague struck in 547 CE. Eight years later would take us to 555 for the death of Geraint.
Although that seems simple enough, it does not tie in with the dates generally assigned to Arthur, which have him die in about 540 or earlier. This is not unusual, since numerous figures connected with Arthur actually lived later than Arthur himself is commonly believed to have lived. Nonetheless, Geraint’s death according to Geraint son of Erbin and the other information we have considered about his son and grandson definitely places Geraint’s death within Arthur’s reign. So the matter is far from simple.
Historicity of Geraint
One important question that we will deal with now is this: Was Geraint a real king? We can be assured that his dynasty was real, for Constantine, the alleged grandson of Geraint, was mentioned by a contemporary writer named Gildas, who specifically identified Constantine as being the ruler of ‘Damnonia’.
However, Gildas did not give a history of the country, so he did not give any information about the previous rulers. Nonetheless, this contemporary testimony at least proves that the dynasty was a historical one.
But regarding Geraint in particular, it must be acknowledged that he is at least as well attested as almost any other king of the era. For example, he appears in one of the earliest genealogical records, the Jesus College MS 20. He also appears in Welsh tales such as Culhwch and Olwen. He also appears in Welsh poetry, the poem entitled ‘Geraint son of Erbin’ mentioned previously. This poem is thought to date from perhaps the 10th or 11th century. If the earlier date is correct, then this poem would date from only one century after the Historia Brittonum.
Geraint also appears in the Lives of the Saints. Specifically, he appears in the Life of St Teilo, where he is again clearly presented as the king of Dumnonia, showing consistency with the other tales.
Any reasonable assessment of this evidence would lead to the conclusion that we can have about as much confidence in Geraint’s existence as we can for any other king of the sixth century (apart from those five kings mentioned by Gildas, whose existence cannot be questioned at all). Although he does not appear in any source as early as the poems of Taliesin, as is the case with Urien Rheged, the fact that he appears in such a wide variety of sources, and most of them from a relatively early period, means that there is no valid reason to doubt his existence.
As we have seen, Geraint was supposedly one of Arthur’s allies, so we can expect that he was one of the ‘kings of Britain’ mentioned in the Historia Brittonum as being led by Arthur into battle against the Saxons. The fact that Geraint was active in battle is supported by his mode of death as described in his elegy, Geraint son of Erbin.
In the Welsh Triads, Geraint is listed as one of the ‘Three Seafarers of the Isle of Britain’. Given that he was the king of Dumnonia, which had frequent contact with Brittany across the sea, this is a logical and reasonable description. Also worthy of note is the fact that his elegy refers to him as the ‘great son of his father’, indicating that he was a powerful king.
Beyond this, very little is known about his activities from texts that are authentically about him. There is one other major source for his life that gives a few more details, but this is possibly not a reliable source about the life of Geraint. This is the Mabinogion tale Geraint and Enid. The problem with this text is that it may be a Welsh version of an earlier romance tale from the continent, entitled Erec and Enide.
This continental tale was written around 1170 by Chretien de Troyes. The Welsh tale, on the other hand, dates from some time after this. The two stories are very similar and it is thought by many that the Welsh tale is an adapted version of Chretien de Troyes’ poem. However, it is possible that Chretien’s Erec was, in fact, based on the Welsh Geraint, and he simply adapted the name for his audience. In which case, this tale could well reveal genuine traditions about Geraint.
The tale tells us that Geraint and Enid fall in love and get married. After this, there are reports that his relationship with Enid is making him soft. Enid becomes upset about this, but her response and her comments in particular cause Geraint to suspect that she has been unfaithful to him. He then gets her to go on a long and dangerous journey with him. On the way, they go through many difficult and perilous experiences, and their love and devotion for each other is finally proved. After this, Geraint succeeds his father as the king of the kingdom, as mentioned previously.
Although we have already referred to it, let us examine in more detail what Geraint’s elegy tells us. The poem Geraint son of Erbin tells us about Geraint’s final battle, which took place at a location called Llongborth. The identity of this place has been debated, but the most likely location would be a coastal region in Ceredigion which was recorded as Llongborth until modern times. The poem does not explicitly identify who is being fought, but the fact that Arthur is present suggests that it may be the Saxons – on the other hand, the Saxons being present so far west at this period could be viewed as unlikely.
In any case, Arthur is not just presented as being present at the battle, but actually as being the ‘conductor of the toil’, indicating that Geraint was fighting under the leadership of Arthur. One theory connects this battle to the prelude to Camlann. Recall that Geraint was said in the Life of St Teilo to have died when Teilo returned to Britain after he and many others from Wales had been gone for about eight years.
Therefore, combining these two sources, it would appear that this coastal battle of Llongborth, at which Geraint died, occurred while people were returning to Britain after a long absence. To some researchers, this would fit the coastal battle fought by Arthur against Mordred as he and many others were attempting to return to Britain after a long absence, mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Thus, according to this theory, Geraint died during this battle, meaning that his enemies at Llongborth were Mordred and his alliance of Britons and Saxons.
Of course, this theory cannot be confirmed, and it would require a revision of either Arthur’s regnal years or the dating of the Yellow Plague, or both.
Potential Mention in the ASC
There is a fairly popular theory that claims that Geraint is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In the entry for 501, the ASC reports the following:
“This year Port, and his two sons Bieda and Mægla, came to Britain with two ships, at a place which is called Portsmouth, and they soon effected a landing, and they there slew a young British man of high nobility.”
Because of the etymology of ‘Llongborth’, possibly meaning ‘sea-port’, some scholars believe that it may actually have been Portsmouth. If this is so, then one can see the appeal in identifying Geraint with this ‘young British man of high nobility’ who was slain in battle at Portsmouth.
While this is a popular theory, it is not without its problems. For one thing, the identification of Llongborth with Portsmouth is highly questionable. Many alternative locations have been put forward, and as we said previously, the most likely location would appear to be Llongborth in Ceredigion. Probably not by coincidence, there is a grave mound not far from that Llongborth called ‘Bedd Geraint’, meaning ‘grave of Geraint’. The presence of this grave mound, known locally by this name, supports the conclusion that the Llongborth of Welsh poetry was there, and was not Portsmouth.
In addition, the fact that the ASC refers to the one who died as a ‘young man’ also counts against him being Geraint. As we have seen, the evidence regarding his son and grandson as contemporaries of Arthur requires Geraint to have been fairly old while his was king in Arthur’s time. Thus, he could not have been a young man at the time of his death.
The timing is also an issue, because if Geraint died in 501, then he would have been dead more than half a century before he was supposed to have interacted with Teilo upon the end of the Yellow Plague. Therefore, the weight of evidence indicates that this battle at Portsmouth in the ASC was not the same as Geraint’s battle of Llongborth.
In summary, we have seen that Geraint was a member of a dynasty that was firmly allied to Arthur. In fact, he allegedly died in Arthur’s service. During his reign, he was apparently a powerful king and controlled a significant naval force. He was very likely one of the kings referred to by the Historia Brittonum as fighting under the leadership of Arthur.
What is more, there is every reason to accept him as a historical king. However, the identification of Geraint with the ‘young Britain man of high nobility’ who was slain by the Saxons in 501 is almost certainly mistaken. In any case, his historicity is not dependant on such an identification.
We have also seen that Geraint likely died in Ceredigion. His final battle, at the place called Llongborth, has been connected by some with the initial coastal battle between Arthur and Mordred when the former was trying to return to Britain, though there is not enough information to state this with certainty.
All things considered, we can see that the available information leads us to the conclusion that Geraint was a powerful, historical ally of Arthur, and that his whole family was strongly associated with the reign of King Arthur.
- Norris Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra Mancoff – The Arthurian Handbook (Second Edition)
- Alan Lupack – The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
- Ronan Coghlan – The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
- Anonymous – Lancelot-Grail, the French Vulgate
- Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte d’Arthur