The Historical Arthur

Mosaic of King Arthur Detail from The Life Tree in Otranto's Cathedral, Lecce (Italy)
Mosaic of King Arthur
Detail from The Life Tree in Otranto’s Cathedral, Lecce (Italy)

The story of King Arthur has captivated people for centuries, but is there a grain of truth in the legend?  Now before everyone gets all bent out of shape, these are theories that are grounded in research.  I am not trying to prove the romanticized versions of the Arthur stories that came from medieval times on into the Victorians.  No one is trying to say the Britons were out flying on carpets or any such nonsense.  So all I ask is before you dismiss this post out of hand, please read through it.

The one of the first references we have to Arthur is in The History of the Britons, written by a monk named Nennius of Wales in the 9th century.  He writes:

“The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth were on another river called the Douglas, which is in the country of Lindsey. The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas. The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Celyddon Coed. The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his [shield,] and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The ninth battle was fought in the city of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns.”

(Nennius, 1980, pp. 35)

There is some debate as to whether this was written as an historical account or if it was fiction.  There are arguments on both sides.  The place names mentioned by Nennius are difficult to identify even if we go back to the 9th century names.  If this was a fictional account, the reasoning goes that Nennius would have used place names he was familiar with.  However, historian N.J. Higham believes Nennius was writing a fictional saga as the lines in the original Brythonic rhyme.  

The monk Gildas makes reference to the Battle of Badon as happening around 500 CE.  Gildas was writing within living memory of the battle, but he does not mention the leader of the Britons.  What is known is the Battle of Badon pushed back the Saxon invaders for several decades.  Britain at this time was not the unified kingdom it was under the Romans or in later history, but divided into many smaller tribal units.  The theory goes that to have a decisive victory at Badon, there needed to be a leader to unify the tribes to stand against the Saxons.  The timing fits the Arthur legend, so it is not a far leap to say it was him.

There is one other brief mention of Arthur from a series of poems praising the exploits of a 7th century Welsh chieftain named Cynddylan.  In the Song of Llywarch the Old, the court poet Llywarch names Cynddylan as a direct descendant of Arthur.  This could be a chieftain just building on a legend, like all Greek heroes being sons of Zeus, or it could be more.  The theory runs that since Cynddylan ruled his kingdom from Viroconium that Arthur may have had the same capital.  Viroconium was the fourth largest town in Roman Britain, but the other large cities were in the eastern part of Britain and had fallen to the Anglo Saxons.  Viroconium became one of the most important cities in non-Anglo Saxon Britain at this time.  Also, unlike the other Roman towns Viroconium was not built over so it can excavated more easily.  Archaeological evidence has shown there was a major rebuilding at Viroconium around 500 CE, which coincides with the victory at Badon against the Anglo Saxons.  The chieftain ruling Viroconium around this time was named Owain Ddantgwyn.

But wait, that guy’s name isn’t Arthur.  Your theory falls apart, says the reader.  Oh ye of little faith.  We go back to the writings of the monk Gildas again.  He praises Owain Ddantgwyn as a fearless and powerful warrior and refers to him as “the bear”.  Apparently, warriors adopted real or mythical beings to represent them in battle, like the standard on a Roman legion.  Owain was called “the bear”, which was “ursus” in Latin but “arth” in Brythonic.  It’s a short step from “arth” to latinizing it to “arthur”.

So why do we have these stories of Arthur and his knights in shining armor?  Because these stories were collected by Geoffrey of Monmouth and enhanced for propaganda purposes.  Geoffrey was writing in 1176, seventy years after the Normans kicked out the Anglo Saxon aristocracy at the Battle of Hastings.  The Normans needed a new hero to put an additional stamp of legitimacy on their conquest.  Hello, Arthur.  The armor was included as a anachronism as there was no thought to what would be historically accurate.  Geoffrey, much like Shakespeare after him, was more interested in a good story.  Therefore, he took most of the details of courtly life from the twelfth century instead of the fifth.

Later generations added more layers to the romanticism of Arthur, and by the Victorians things had gotten way out of hand.  However, one things was good about it.  We never forgot the story of Arthur, even if it got buried under a lot of silt.

Again, all of this is in the realm of conjecture, but I hope I have presented what is known in a way that makes you stop and think about the possibilities.


Sources available on request


Search for the Tomb of Boudicca

12208461_178440989164658_8581996423985244928_nAfter Richard III was found in a parking lot, there has been a bonanza for finding the final resting places of the monarchs of Britain. To round out the series on Boudicca, it seems a natural progression to discuss where her tomb is located.  (For more on Boudicca, please see this post: )

Reports are mixed as to whether Boudicca left the battlefield alive. Roman historian Tacitus said she and her daughters escaped and took poison. Greek historian Cassius Dio recorderded that she died from illness. No matter how she died, Boudicca would have been given a burial befitting her high status.

Legend give many places for her possible burial- Stonehenge, Norfolk or Hampstead. Some even claim she is buried under either platform 8, 9 or 10 at King’s Cross Station. An interesting theory for Harry Potter fans, but there does not seem to be much archaeological evidence for that.

A discovery of a grave in 2006 in Birmingham next to a McDonald’s seemed promising, but as yet there is no evidence tying it to Boudicca.

The most promising site to date is in Birdlip in Gloucestershire, where the graves of three high status women were found. The grave was dated to the mid 1st century, which is the correct time period. In the central grave, a significant hoard of treasures was found including bronze bowls, knives, jewelry and an exotic stone thought to be from China. The gem of the find was a polished bronze mirror with a handle decorated with red enamel. This is said to be the finest Celtic mirror found in Britain so far.

While the high quality goods indicate the grave of a person of status, a few other things point to the grave being Boudicca’s. The jewelry was made from amber, which was from North Anglia, the area ruled by the Iceni. Also, Birdlip was under the control of the Dobunni tribe, which is thought to be Boudicca’s homeland. They were certainly allies of the Iceni and may have given her sanctuary.

Unfortunately, no hard evidence connects this or any other grave with Boudicca. Wherever she is, she escaped the jeering crowds of a Roman Triumph and slipped into legend.


Boudicca’s Revolt

"Boadicea Haranguing the Britons" by John Opie. Photo Credit- Google Images
“Boadicea Haranguing the Britons” by John Opie. Photo Credit- Google Images

Things seemed to be going well in Britain after the conquest, for the Romans that is. However, if you were a member of a native tribe, things could be tricky indeed, even if you promised to play ball with the invaders.  (For more on the invasion, please see this post: )

The king of the Iceni tribe, Prasutagus, had done just that. He had taken over the Iceni after some bumps with a policy of conciliation towards Rome. When he died in 60 CE, he left as his heirs his two daughters as well as Emperor Nero. Prasutagus was hoping this act of submission to Rome would keep his family and his tribe safe even after his death. Unfortunately, he was spectacularly wrong.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus reports in his history The Annals, that when the Roman officials came to collect they treated the Iceni “like slaves”. Boudicca was flogged and her two teenaged daughters were raped. He goes on to say, “The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if the Romans had been given the whole country. The king’s own relatives were treated like slaves. And the humiliated Iceni feared still worse, now that they had been reduced to provincial status. So they rebelled.” So much for appeasement.

Boudicca summoned her tribe and urged them to war with the words, “Nothing is safe from Roman pride and arrogance. They will deface the sacred and will deflower our virgins. Win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman, will do.” The Iceni as well as the Trinovanti, Cornovii, Durotiges, and other tribes, who also had grievances against the Romans including grants that had been redefined as loans flocked to her banner and they marched on the Roman capital at Camulodunum, now modern Colchester.

The colonists who lived there saw the army coming and appealed to the procurator for help. He sent a lightly armed unit of two hundred who were easily routed. Then the capital city was looted and overrun. When the survivors took shelter in the Temple of Claudius, they burned the hated temple, symbol of Roman rule, over their heads.

The sacking of Camulodunum got the attention of the governor, Suetonius Paullinus, who was far to the west stamping out the druids on the island of Mona. He raced back with his legions, but for some reason he left the populous city of Londinium and Verulamium undefended while he searched for a more advantageous battle ground. He did offer the citizens of Londinium a retreat with his soldiers, but the very old and the very young who could not or would not leave were left to meet their fate against the angry tribes.

Undefended, Londinium and Verulamium met a similar fate as Camulodunum. Tacitus describes it as “The natives enjoyed plundering and thought of nothing else. By-passing forts and garrisons, they made for where loot was richest and protection weakest. Roman and provincial deaths at the places mentioned are estimated at seventy thousand. For the British did not take or sell prisoners, or practice war-time exchanges. They could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn, and crucify—as though avenging, in advance, the retribution that was on its way.”

Finally, after the looting of three major cities, Boudicca’s army met the Roman force commanded by Suetonius. No-one is exactly sure where the Battle of Watling Street took place. Watling Street was a major Roman road, which is now the route of the A2 and the A5. Most historians place it between Londinium and Viroconium, modern Wroxeter.

Each commander made speeches to inspire their troops. Tacitus reports Boudicca’s:

“‘But now,’ she said, ‘it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.'”

Boudicca Statue Westminster Bridge, London. Photo Credit- Google Images
Boudicca Statue Westminster Bridge, London. Photo Credit- Google Images

Suetonius was a bit more practical telling his legions:

“Ignore the racket made by these savages. There are more women than men in their ranks. They are not soldiers – they’re not even properly equipped. We’ve beaten them before and when they see our weapons and feel our spirit, they’ll crack. Stick together. Throw the javelins, then push forward: knock them down with your shields and finish them off with your swords. Forget about plunder. Just win and you’ll have everything.”

The battle was fierce and Suetonius was outnumbered, but had chosen his battlefield well with a gorge that narrowed the field. Boudicca lead the attack from her chariot, but the Romans were able to stop the advance and cut off their retreat. The British had been so confident that they had brought their women along to watch the victory. Now they fled in disarray ahead of the conquering Romans. Tacitus reports 70,000 British were killed and only 400 Romans lost their lives.

Boudicca is said to have taken poison after the disastrous defeat, but no one knows. She could have died from wounds taken in the battle. In any case, she was buried in an unknown location, but her memory was not forgotten.  Please this post for more on the search for her tomb.


Claudian Invasion of Britain

The Romans had been lusting after Britain for quite some time. Julius Caesar had made two passes according to Dio Cassius in 55 and 54 BCE, but did not make much headway. The first only established a beachhead, but the second established a king friendly to Rome. However, Caesar had bigger fish to fry and headed back to Rome and glory leaving Britain alone in the mists.

Caligula had tried again in 40 CE, and had a lighthouse built in preparation at Gesoriacum, modern Boulogne-sur-Mer. However, according to the tale told by Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars, he made less progress than Caesar. According to this story, he had the legions line up in battle formation on the Gallic shore facing Britain against the English Channel. He then declared war on Neptune, the god of the sea, and commanded his soldiers to attack the waves. After they had done their duty and stabbed the errant waves, he had the drenched and probably bewildered men collect shells, which were shipped to the capital as spoils of war. There is some doubt cast upon the veracity of this story, but it goes to show Caligula’s reputation for unstable behavior, can be considered as possible.

It was Claudius who finally added Britain to the Roman Empire in 43 CE. The invasion was ostensibly to restore Rome’s ally Verica, the exiled King of the Atrebates. However, once Rome landed and began to meddle with local politics it was a short step until they took over. They sent 20,000 men under the command of Aulus Plautius. The force included the future emperor Vespasian, who commanded one of the legions.

In short order, they had the resistance beaten and Claudius himself came to receive the official surrender. Suetonius reports Claudius received the surrender of the British kings with no blood shed, and the Claudian arch shows him receiving the surrender of eleven kings. Claudius declared Camulodunum, modern Colchester, as the new capital then returned to Rome.

He left his legions who continued to mop up any resistance in his absence. However, only time would tell if Britain was truly subdued.  For more on this please see this post: