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.

ER

Sources available on request