Constantine (Briton)

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Constantine /ˈkɒnstəntin/ was a minor king in 6th-century sub-Roman Britain, who was remembered in later British tradition as a legendary King of Britain. The only contemporary information about him comes from Gildas, who calls him king of Damnonia (probably Dumnonia) and castigates him for his various sins, including the murder of two "royal youths" inside a church. Much later, Geoffrey of Monmouth included the figure in his pseudohistorical chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae, adding fictional details to Gildas' account and making Constantine the successor to King Arthur as King of Britain. Under the influence of Geoffrey, derivative figures appeared in a number of later works.

Additionally, several churches and chapels in Southwestern Britain and elsewhere were dedicated to a "Saint Constantine", who was generally held to have been a king. While these do not all necessarily refer to the same person, at least some of them appear to reflect back to Gildas' Constantine.


Southern Britain in c. 540, the time of Gildas. Constantine's likely kingdom of Dumnonia is in the southwest; the territory of the Damnonii is in the northwest

Gildas mentions Constantine in chapters 28 and 29 of his 6th-century work De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.[1][2] He is one of five Brittonic kings whom the author rebukes and compares to Biblical beasts. Gildas calls Constantine the "tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia", a reference to the books of Daniel and Revelation, and apparently also a slur directed at his mother. This Damnonia is generally identified as the kingdom of Dumnonia in Southwestern Britain.[3] Scholars such as Lloyd Laing and Leslie Alcock note the possibility that Gildas may have instead intended the territory of the Damnonii, a tribe in present-day Scotland mentioned by Ptolemy in the 2nd century, but others such as Thomas D. O'Sullivan consider this unlikely.[4]

Gildas says that despite swearing an oath against deceit and tyranny, Constantine disguised himself in an abbot's robes and attacked two "royal youths" praying before a church altar, killing them and their companions. Gildas is clear that Constantine's sins were manifold even before this, as he had committed "many adulteries" after casting off his lawfully wedded wife. Gildas encourages Constantine, whom he knows to still be alive at the time, to repent his sins lest he be damned.[1][2]

Scholars generally identify Gildas' Constantine with the figure Custennin Gorneu or Custennin Corneu (Constantine of Cornwall) who appears in the genealogies of the kings of Dumnonia.[5] He is mentioned as the father of Erbin and the grandfather of the hero Geraint in the Bonedd y Saint, the prose romance Geraint and Enid, and after emendation, the genealogies in Jesus College MS 20.[6][7] Based on Custennin's placement in the genealogies, Thomas D. O'Sullivan suggests a floruit for Constantine of 520–523.[8]

Saint Constantine[edit]

Saint Constantine's Church in Constantine, Cornwall, perhaps connected to the historical king of Dumnonia

The historical Constantine of Dumnonia may have influenced later traditions, known in Southwestern Britain as well as in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, about a Saint Constantine who is usually said to have been a king who gave up his crown to become a monk. The Cornish and Welsh traditions especially may have been influenced by Gildas' screed, in particular his adjuration for Constantine to repent; the belief may have been that the reproach eventually worked.[9]

The two major centers for the cultus of Saint Constantine were the church in Constantine Parish and the Chapel of Saint Constantine in St Merryn Parish (now Constantine Bay), both in Cornwall. The former was established by at least the 11th century, as it is mentioned in Rhygyfarch's 11th-century Life of Saint David. At this time it may have supported a clerical community, but in later centuries it became simply a parish church. The Chapel at Constantine Bay had a holy well, and was the center of its own sub-parish.[9]

The Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) and the Annals of Ulster record the conversion of a certain Constantine; these may be a reference to the Cornish saint and therefore to the historical figure.[9] A number of subsequent texts refer to Constantine, generally associating him with Cornwall, often specifically as its king. The Life of Saint David says that Constantine, King of Cornwall gave up his crown and joined Saint David's monastery at Menevia. The Vitae Petroci includes an episode in which Saint Petroc protects a stag being hunted by a wealthy man named Constantine, who eventually converts and becomes a monk. Here Constantine is not said to be king, but a 12th-century text referring to this story, the Miracula, specifically names him as such, further adding that he gave Petroc an ivory horn upon his conversion which became one of the saint's chief relics.[10] These references are only a few to the various shadowy saints and kings named Constantine attested across Britain, and suggests a confusion and conflation of various figures.[11]

Other sites in Southwestern Britain associated with Constantine or others of that name include the church of Milton Abbot, Devon; a chapel in nearby Dunterton, Devon, and another chapel in Illogan, Cornwall. The two Devon sites may have been dedicated instead to Constantine the Great, as the church in nearby Abbotsham was, like Milton Abbot, subject to Tavistock Abbey, dedicated to Helena of Constantinople, Constantine the Great's mother. In Wales, two churches were dedicated to Constantine: Llangystennin (in Conwy) and Welsh Bicknor (now in Herefordshire, England).[9] The church in Govan in present-day Scotland was also dedicated to a Saint Constantine.[12]

Geoffrey of Monmouth and the chronicle tradition[edit]

Historia Regum Britanniae[edit]

Geoffrey of Monmouth includes Constantine in a section of his Historia Regum Britanniae adapted from Gildas. As he does throughout the work, Geoffrey manipulates his source material, recasting Gildas' reproved kings as successors, rather than contemporaries as in De Excidio.[13] In addition to Gildas, Geoffrey evidently knew the Dumnonian genealogy essentially as it appears in Geraint and Enid and similar sources. He adds a number of other details not found in earlier sources, identifying Constantine as a son of Cador, a Cornish ruler known in Welsh tradition as Cadwy mab Geraint. Notably, Geoffrey's Constantine is King Arthur's kinsman and succeeds him as King of the Britons.[14] Norris J. Lacy and Geoffrey Ashe suggest Geoffrey made this Arthurian connection based on an existing tradition locating Arthur's birthplace in southwest Britain.[15] However, noting that the earliest references place Arthur in northern Britain rather than the southwest, Rachel Bromwich considers the connection an arbitrary invention by Geoffrey, perhaps suggested by his earlier inventions of familial ties between Arthur and Constantine the Great and the usurper Constantine III.[16]

In Geoffrey, Arthur passes his crown to his relative Constantine after being mortally wounded by the traitor Mordred in the Battle of Camlann. Geoffrey identifies Gildas' "royal youths" with Mordred's two sons, who, along with their Saxon allies, continue their father's insurrection after his death. After "many battles" Constantine routs the rebels, and Mordred's sons flee to London and Winchester, where they hide in a church and a friary, respectively. Constantine hunts them down and executes them before the altars of their sanctuaries. Divine retribution for this transgression comes three years later when Constantine is killed by his nephew Aurelius Conanus (Gildas' Aurelius Caninus), precipitating a civil war. He is buried at Stonehenge alongside other kings of Britain.[17]

Latin scholar Neil Wright considers Geoffrey's changes to Gildas to be deliberate reformulations that produce a more sympathetic picture of Constantine and his successors. For Wright, identifying the "royal youths" as traitors justifies the killing, reducing Constantine's offense from murder to sacrilege (for killing the traitors in sanctuary).[13] Scholars regard Geoffrey's depiction of Constantine as pessimistic overall, however, highlighting how little of Arthur's legacy survives his death.[18]

Later chronicles[edit]

Geoffrey further recounts Constantine's struggles and untimely murder in his later work Vita Merlini.[18][19]

Variants of Geoffrey's version of Constantine appeared in the numerous later adaptations of the Historia, which were widely regarded as authentic in the Middle Ages. Such variants include Wace's Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut, the Welsh Brut y Brenhinedd, and Layamon's English Brut.[20] These typically reflect Geoffrey's cynicism, although Layamon adds a touch of optimism, writing that Constantine successfully if briefly answered Arthur's charge to rule in his manner.[18]

Later traditions[edit]

Medieval romance and prose tradition[edit]

Constantine does not figure strongly in the Arthurian romance traditions or prose cycles. He is absent in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles, in which Lancelot and his kin kill off Mordred's sons, and no successor to Arthur appears.[21][22] Some scholars find this omission significant. Rosemary Morris suggests these versions downplay the issue of a designated heir to Arthur to heighten the stakes of Mordred's usurpation and magnify Lancelot's role in the story.[21] Richard Trachsler finds that the exclusion of an heir adds a sense of finality to the Arthurian story after Arthur's death.[22] Constantine does appear in some medieval works. In Jean d'Outremeuse's 14th-century Ly Myreur des Histors, Lancelot installs Constantine on the throne after Arthur's death.[20] He is king of Britain in some versions of the Havelok the Dane legend, beginning with Geoffrey Gaimar's 12th-century Estoire des Engleis.[23] He is also mentioned as Arthur's successor in the 14th-century English alliterative poem known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure.[24]

He also appears as Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, including sections adapted from the Alliterative Morte.

Modern literature and media[edit]

Constantine features in some modern treatments of the legend. Katrina Trask's Under King Constantine, an 1892 book comprising three long romantic poems, is set in his reign.[25] He is an important unseen character in Henry Newbolt's 1895 play Mordred in his usual role as Arthur's successor.[26] He similarly appears in Rosemary Sutcliff's 1963 novel Sword at Sunset, in which the grievously wounded "Artos" voluntarily passes the crown to him.[27] He is the chief protagonist of the 1990 computer game Spirit of Excalibur.[28]


  1. ^ a b De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, ch. 28–29.
  2. ^ a b Giles, pp. 24–26.
  3. ^ Lloyd, pp. 131–132.
  4. ^ O'Sullivan, p. 92 & note.
  5. ^ O'Sullivan, pp. 92–93.
  6. ^ Bromwich, pp. 318–319; 356–360.
  7. ^ Geraint and Enid.
  8. ^ O'Sullivan, p. 95.
  9. ^ a b c d Orme, pp. 95–96.
  10. ^ Jankulak, p. 17.
  11. ^ Bromwich, pp. 318–319, discusses the confusion of some of these various Constantines. Notable in the context of "Saint" Constantine is Custennin Vendigeit (The Blessed), the name for the historical usurper Constantine III in the Welsh Triads.
  12. ^ Clarkson 1999.
  13. ^ a b Wright, p. 10.
  14. ^ Bromwich, p. 319.
  15. ^ Lacy, Ashe, and Mancoff, p. 301.
  16. ^ Bromwich, p. 319, 358.
  17. ^ Historia Regum Britanniae, Book 11, ch. 2–4.
  18. ^ a b c Morris, p. 138.
  19. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini lines 1128-1135. See: Geoffrey of Monmouth (2007). "Arthur from the Vita Merlini". In Huber, Emily Rebekah. The Camelot Project, University of Rochester. Retrieved July 8, 2014. 
  20. ^ a b Bruce, p. 218.
  21. ^ a b Morris, p. 139.
  22. ^ a b Trachsler, p. 31.
  23. ^ Spence, p. 55, 83–85.
  24. ^ Benson & Foster, Alliterative Morte Arthure line 4316.
  25. ^ Lupack & Lupack, p. 12.
  26. ^ Fisher, p. 166.
  27. ^ Taylor & Brewer, p. 303.
  28. ^ Thompson & Lacy, p. 590.


Legendary titles
Preceded by
Duke of Cornwall Unknown
Next known title holder:
Preceded by
King of Britain Succeeded by
Aurelius Conanus