There are many questions about King Arthur and the legends about him. Let’s take a look at the answers to some of the most common of these questions.
Who Was Arthur?
According to the earliest sources, Arthur was the military leader who led many other British leaders during part of their ongoing war against the invading Anglo-Saxons. He is renowned for having been exceptionally successful and establishing a long period of peace that even extended for at least two decades beyond his death after his final battle against the Saxons at a location called Badon.
Was He Really a King?
Although he is commonly referred to as ‘King Arthur’, the earliest sources do not specify that he was a king. In fact, one early source calls him a ‘soldier’ and another early source refers to him as ‘leading the kings of the Britons’, which some take to imply that Arthur himself was not a king. The earliest source which directly refers to Arthur as a king is the Life of St Cadoc, written in the late 11th century. Many sources from that time and onwards consistently call Arthur a king.
Do the earliest sources provide a valid reason to doubt that this persistent later tradition? Well, the statement that he led the kings of the Britons does not necessarily imply that Arthur was not, himself, a king. After all, another version states that he led the kings and the military forces of Britain. If the same logic that sceptics use was applied in this instance, we would have to conclude that Arthur was neither a king of Britain nor a military leader, which obviously is nonsensical.
The one statement that does hold some weight is the early source which describes Arthur as ‘Arthur the Soldier’. This might be a description given to a king who was particularly noted for his military prowess, which Arthur clearly was. Alternatively, it may well suggest that he was not a king but merely a soldier in the service of someone else. But if so, then all it proves is that he was not a king at the time that the story in question is set. It does not prove that he never became king later.
The 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae describes Arthur as having a special coronation ceremony after his battles against the Saxons, which lends credibility to the view that he only became a king after the majority of his military campaigns. In any case, there is no reason to seriously question the persistent later tradition that he was a king.
What Did He Do?
As already noted, Arthur was famous for fighting powerfully and effectively against the Anglo-Saxons. He was said to have engaged in 12 battles against them, many of which evidently took place in the north of Britain, though some of them, especially the last one, most likely took place somewhere in the south east of the country. This final battle, at a place called Mount Badon, was the climactic, crushing victory against the Saxons. It established a period of peace which lasted throughout the rest of his reign.
Other records inform us that Arthur also fought against the Picts and the Scots. This is hinted at in a very early Welsh poem, Pa Gur, and is stated explicitly in later records such as the Historia Regum Britanniae and the History of Gruffydd ap Cynan.
According to the abovementioned HRB, after defeating the Saxons, Arthur invaded Ireland and conquered that area. He is then described as sailing over to Scandinavia and engaging in a campaign there. His next campaign took him to Gaul, where he fought against a Roman tribune, killed him, and then conquered that country. Later, Arthur fought a massive battle against the Romans and a coalition of other nations. Although it was an awful and bloody battle, Arthur came off victorious.
This continental tale is commonly said to not appear in any earlier record of Arthur’s life, although an earlier Welsh tale known as Culhwch and Olwen does describe Arthur as having fought in Africa, Corsica, Scandinavia, Greece, and other places. However, the majority of scholars consider Arthur to have done nothing more than fought against the Saxons in Britain.
When Did He Live?
The Annales Cambriae tells us quite explicitly that Arthur fought the Battle of Badon in 516, and his final battle, at which he is said to have died, was fought in 537. Following this, most modern sources state that he was an early sixth century king, or even a late fifth century king according to some.
This earlier timeframe is based on perceived evidence that the Battle of Badon took place earlier than 516. This evidence comes from the fact that a sixth century writer named Gildas mentions the battle in a work called De Excidio, and he states that it took place 43 years before the time of his writing. Most scholars think that he could not have been writing any later than the 540s, meaning that the Battle of Badon must have taken place no later than the first few years of the 500s.
Although Gildas is a contemporary source, understanding when he himself lived relies on much later evidence concerning five kings to whom he addressed certain comments. While most scholars perceive the available evidence to point to an early-sixth century date as the most probable for these five kings, there is some evidence that they lived much later. For example, one of the kings, Maelgwn, was said to have been the brother-in-law of Urien Rheged, a king who definitely lived in the late sixth century.
If the fives kings really did live later than commonly believed, for which there is some evidence, then this would mean that Gildas was writing later than commonly believed, which would in turn bring Arthur’s Battle of Badon further forward into the sixth century. There is also some evidence for this directly concerning Arthur. In a famous story first found in the Life of St Gildas, Arthur is said to have killed the troublesome Hueil, the brother of Gildas, while the latter was away on a preaching trip to Ireland. Other records specifically pinpoint Gildas’s preaching trip to Ireland to the middle of the 560s. If these sources are correct, then they would require Arthur to have still been alive and active in the second half of the sixth century.
But nonetheless, despite this evidence, the majority opinion is still that Arthur lived in the early sixth century. It is evidently not an easy matter to establish. Some authorities place his death in the last few decades of the fifth century, while other theories would place it in the last few decades of the sixth. This is a huge range, spanning almost 100 years. Clearly, there are a lot of different viewpoints.
Where Did He Live?
The most famous of Arthur’s residences is Camelot. This location does not appear in the earliest sources, leading many to conclude that it was never real. However, there is good reason for rejecting this viewpoint, as seen in the article ‘Where Was Camelot?’ There are lots of different viewpoints regarding where Camelot was, but the earliest evidence clearly points to somewhere in south Wales, particularly in the east of the country. It is quite likely that the Roman town of Caerwent was the real Camelot. Another one of the main residences of Arthur according to the records was Caerleon. This was also in south east Wales, quite near Caerwent. So the evidence is consistent in this regard.
Another one of his main residences – this one being the earliest court that is mentioned in any Arthurian source – was Gelliwig in Kerniw. One popular opinion is that this ‘Kerniw’ was Cornwall (since it was known by that name) and therefore Gelliwig was a place in Cornwall. However, Cornwall was not the only region to be known by the name ‘Kerniw’. Several other places, many in Wales, are known to have been referred to by that name. One of these, very interestingly, is in south east Wales. In fact, it appears to have been the name for a large region in Gwent, if not actually being an alternative name for all of Gwent. Within this area is also a site which historically was known by the name ‘Gelliwig’ or various forms thereof, a place which is now known as Llanvetherine. This possibility for the Arthurian Gelliwig is consistent with Caerleon and the likely location of Camelot.
Other evidence also supports the conclusion that Arthur lived in south east Wales. The Lives of various saints from the sixth century include interactions that they had with Arthur. The one region that Arthur appears in more than any other in these records is south east Wales. There are various other sources that indicate that Arthur engaged in military campaigns in the north of Britain, but military campaigns could conceivably have occurred far from Arthur’s home. The Lives of the Saints are far more indicative of where Arthur actually lived.
What Was the First Mention of Arthur?
The earliest surviving mention of Arthur was possibly in a poem called Y Gododdin, from the turn of the seventh century. If so, this would be a mention of Arthur from within 100 years of his death. However, the poem only survives in manuscripts from a much later date, so there is no guarantee that the reference to Arthur was in the original.
The earliest definite mention of Arthur is from a document written in c. 830, called the Historia Brittonum. This contains a passage describing Arthur fighting 12 battles against the Saxons, culminating in the Battle of Badon.
Who Were His Allies?
The earliest definite record of Arthur, the Historia Brittonum, tells us that Arthur led the kings of the Britons into battle against the Saxons. The later legends are all consistent with this basic premise. But which kings in particular were Arthur’s allies? According to the legends, he had a considerable number of them. Some of his most notable allies were Maelgwn of Gwynedd and his father Cadwallon Lawhir. He was also allies, according to the sources, with Urien Rheged and his brothers Llew and Arawn (this poses chronological problems to those who hold that Arthur lived in the early sixth century). Urien’s son Owain and Llew’s son Gawain were also allies of Arthur according to the legends.
Other allies of Arthur include Cador of Cornwall (almost certainly identical to Cadw of Dumnonia) and his son Constantine. He was also said to have been allies with the dynasty that ruled Brittany. King Budic, also known as Emyr Llydaw, was one such ally, as was his son Hoel.
The legends also speak about many allies who were not kings, though many of them were princes. For example, there was Cai and Bedwyr (found in the later romance tales as Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere). These two appear in some of the very earliest records of Arthur. There was also Illtud, who was said to have been in Arthur’s service for a time after he first arrived in Britain. A prince and poet from the north of Britain named Llywarch was also one of Arthur’s allies according to at least some records, and it is quite possible that he was the origin of the character ‘Sir Lamorak’ in the later romance tales.
Who Were His Enemies?
The records concerning Arthur are not particularly consistent when it comes to describing his enemies, though that may be partially due to multiple different people being involved in the same events and different records taking different viewpoints.
The 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, claims that there were three main rulers of the Saxons during the reign of Arthur. One was named Colgrin, another was named Badulph, and the third was named Cheldric. These figures do not clearly match with any independently-attested rulers of the time, although it is just about possible that Cheldric was the same as a figure known as Cerdic of Wessex, especially if a later date for Arthur is accepted (see the article ‘Cerdic of Wessex’).
In the late Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, the main leader of the Saxons is presented as a figure named Osla Big Knife. Again, he does not clearly correspond to any particular leader from Saxon sources, but it is interesting that the grandfather of Cerdic of Wessex appears in the records as Esla, easily an alternative form of ‘Osla’. Therefore, perhaps Cerdic was the young man leading his grandfather’s armies, explaining why Geoffrey referred to Cheldric while the Welsh tale referred to Osla.
In other tales, Arthur is shown to have additional, non-Saxon enemies. For example, in the HRB, Arthur travels to Ireland and subdues that country, defeating a king named Guillamurius. Later, he travelled to Gaul, where his first main enemy was a Roman tribune named Frollo, who had been in control of the country until Arthur defeated him and conquered it.
During the final part of his continental conquests as recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth, his principal enemy was a Roman military officer named Lucius Tiberius (also spelled ‘Hiberius’). Along with this military officer were numerous kings of allied nations fighting against Arthur.
In later romance tales, Arthur also has an enemy named Rience, generally portrayed as a king of Ireland and north Wales. His counterpart in Welsh legend is Rhitta Gawr.
Was He Real?
The question of Arthur’s historicity has been debated for centuries and will probably continue to be debated until an inscribed stone from the sixth century with his name on it is unambiguously found by modern archaeologists. For now, scholars still disagree as to whether he existed or not. Many scholars believe that he did exist, probably as a Romano-British military leader (though we have already seen that there is no good reason to doubt that he was a king).
There are many other scholars, on the other hand, who firmly believe that Arthur was simply a character of folklore who became historicised in the records over time.
However, there is some good evidence that Arthur was a real, powerful figure of the sixth century. One piece of evidence is the fact that both archaeology and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle testify to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons were prevented from moving further through the country throughout the middle of the sixth century. This strongly indicates that the Britons had a powerful leader who was very effectively keeping their enemies at bay, just like the legends claim about Arthur. This leader cannot have been Ambrosius, because that leader must have lived in the fifth century, not the sixth (see the article ‘Aurelius Ambrosius’).
Another well-known piece of evidence is the fact that the name ‘Arthur’ appears to suddenly become a popular name for royal princes in the latter half of the sixth century through to the seventh century. What could explain this suddenly burst in popularity of the name ‘Arthur’ right after the period in which King Arthur was supposed to have lived? Well, if we assume that he was real, then this phenomenon makes perfect sense.
Who Were His Parents?
According to the legends, Arthur’s parents were Uther Pendragon and Igerna (better known as Igraine in the later legends). Uther was the king who ruled Britain before Arthur, and he was the brother of Ambrosius. He and his brother were taken away to Brittany as children to protect them from King Vortigern, the murderer of their older brother Constans. Years later, Uther and Ambrosius returned to Britain and fought powerfully against Vortigern and the Saxons. Ambrosius became king after that, and he was then succeeded by Uther.
Igerna was originally the wife of Gorlois, the duke of Cornwall. Uther became impassioned with her, and eventually went to war against Gorlois, killing him and taking Igerna as his wife. Arthur was the result of this union.
Did He Have Children?
Arthur’s offspring do not generally feature very prominently in the famous romance tales. However, they do appear at times. Perhaps the most famous is Loholt. According to Perlesvaus, he was killed in his sleep by Sir Kay. This son also appears in Welsh records as Llacheu, and there is a poem which suggests that he may have died during the Battle of Llongborth.
Another son of Arthur’s was Amr. He first appears in an appendix to the Historia Brittonum, where he is said to have been killed by his father. Nothing about this event is known from other sources, although Amr himself does appear very occasionally.
A third son is Duran. Almost nothing at all is known about him, but he was also said to have been killed, possibly during Arthur’s final battle of Camlann.
Additionally, there is Gwydre, a son who appears in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen. In this tale, he is killed in battle against Twrch Trwyth, the boar that Arthur’s men were hunting.
Other records give him additional sons. For example, Le Petit Bruit gives Arthur three sons who succeeded him: Morgan, Adeluf and Patrick.
Who Was Arthur’s Wife?
Arthur’s wife was the famous Guinevere. However, things are not actually quite that simple. Although generally only one Guinevere appears in the romance tales, the Welsh accounts explain that there were actually three wives of Arthur called ‘Gwenhwyfar’ (the Welsh form of ‘Guinevere’). This might explain the fact that the romance tales give her several different fates – they may have unknowingly been talking about different women.
Where Did He Die?
According to the Annales Cambriae, Arthur and Mordred fought at a place called Camlann. It states:
“The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”
This is commonly understood to mean that both Arthur and Mordred died, and this is perhaps the most logical understanding of the word ‘fall’ in this context. If this is the correct understanding, then Camlann is the site of Arthur’s death.
The problem, however, is that no one actually knows for sure where Camlann was located. Some theories place it in the north, at the site of a Roman fort known as Camboglanna in the Roman period, situated along Hadrian’s Wall. Others identify it with a place in mid-Wales known as Gamlan, whereas still others locate it in the far north of Wales at a place called Cwm Llan. There is no universal agreement as to where it was.
However, later legends consistently portray Arthur as not dying at the Battle of Camlann itself, but as simply being wounded and then being taken away to a place known as the Isle of Avalon to be healed, with his eventual fate generally left unmentioned – although readers many assume, and many tales strongly imply, that he died at Avalon. Yet, once again, no one knows for sure where Avalon was, with theories spanning from the Americas to continental Europe. So, no one can say with certainty where Arthur died.
Where Is He Buried?
The most well-known answer to this question is that Arthur was buried at Glastonbury, a town in Somerset, in the south west of Britain. This popular belief is based on the fact that the monks of Glastonbury claimed to have uncovered his grave in the 12th century. However, it is now widely believed that this ‘discovery’ was just a hoax for the purpose of increasing tourism to the site, which had been going through financial difficulties shortly before the ‘discovery’.
Another fairly popular theory is that Arthur’s grave is at Baschurch, an ancient site in Shropshire, just outside the north east corner of Wales. This is based on the theory that Arthur was actually Owain Danwyn, and that this Owain was a king of Powys, since there is a poem which may suggest that the kings of Powys were buried at Baschurch. However, both fundamental parts of that theory – that Arthur was Owain and that Owain was a king of Powys – are unproven. In fact, it is widely agreed that Owain was actually the king of Rhos, not Powys, so this theory is entirely without foundation.
A theory that is much better supported by the evidence is the idea that Arthur was buried on Mynydd y Gaer, on the basis that the descriptions of Arthur’s burial site in the romance tales fit quite well with this location in south Wales. Most tales which comment on Arthur’s specific burial site describe it as being within a chapel or hermitage, and other details derived from the tales include the fact that it was on top of a mountain and yet ‘between two cliffs’. This could describe the pass at the top of Mynydd y Gaer.
Another detail is the fact that there was said to have been a hermitage and a chapel within the area ‘between two cliffs,’ while within the pass on Mynydd y Gaer there are the scant remains of a rectangular structure which could have been a small chapel, similar to the nearby St Peter’s Church, and on the other side of the pass there are the ruins of a structure which might have been a hermitage. Additionally, the pass is said to have been known as the ‘Pass of the Soldier’, just as how Arthur was known as ‘the Soldier’ in one of the earliest sources.
Still, this is just one site which matches well with the information provided in the tales. It appears that no excavation work has ever been carried out on either of the structures within the pass, so nothing has been proven yet, and it may be that another site matches the details in the romances even better. But certainly, of all the theories so far presented, this appears to be the most convincing one yet.