The central figure of interest in this period of history is the man known as Arthur. A mighty military leader, he led the kings of Britain into battle against the Saxons as they sought to conquer more of the island. Though not explicitly described as a king in the earliest records, he is regularly referred to as one from the 11th century onwards.
Arthur’s campaigns against the Saxons were said to have held them back for a considerable amount of time, resulting in a period of peace from foreign invasions that continued for several decades after his death.
In this article, we will:
- Explore the various claims and knowledge surrounding King Arthur
- Delve into the historical facts that can be discerned about this enigmatic character
Join us as we uncover the truth behind this legendary figure and understand his impact on British history.
Historicity: The Existence of King Arthur
One of the most prominent questions surrounding Arthur is whether or not he truly existed. While not universally accepted, there is general agreement that a historical figure lies at the heart of the myths and legends we now know.
The Debate: Legend or Reality?
Some scholars argue that Arthur was a figure of legend or folklore, later presented as a historical figure in records. However, the reasons behind this conclusion are debatable.
The Absence of Arthur in Gildas’s De Excidio
One reason for doubting Arthur’s existence is his absence in the surviving contemporary source from sixth-century Britain, Gildas’s De Excidio. Yet, Gildas omits most individuals involved in the historical events he references. Notably, he doesn’t mention anyone between Ambrosius (one of Arthur’s predecessors according to later records) and his own time, several decades after the Battle of Badon (later claimed as Arthur’s final victory against the Saxons).
The Sudden Popularity of the Name ‘Arthur’
In contrast, the name ‘Arthur’ becoming popular among royal families after his supposed rule supports the idea that he was real. Furthermore, someone must have led the British armies between Ambrosius and Gildas’s writing.
The sudden popularity of the name, along with the need for a military leader during that period, suggests a prominent figure named Arthur led the Britons during the time the legendary Arthur was said to have lived.
For a more comprehensive analysis of Arthur’s historicity, see the article Was King Arthur Real.
Arthur’s Family: A Comprehensive Exploration of Parentage, Siblings, and Children
King Arthur, a legendary figure in British history, is surrounded by tales of his family, including his parents, siblings, and children. This comprehensive exploration delves into the various accounts of Arthur’s family members as depicted in different sources.
Parentage: The Birth of a Legend
Arthur’s parentage remains consistent in the legends; he is said to be the son of Uther Pendragon and Igerna. Uther, the king before Arthur, took the name ‘Uther Pendragon’ after witnessing a dragon in the sky during his succession. Igerna, the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, becomes the mother of Arthur after Uther, disguised as her husband, sleeps with her.
Uther’s Origins and Rise to Power
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (HRB), Uther is the son of Constantine, the king of Britain. He is the youngest of three sons, with his older brothers being Constans and Ambrosius. Following the deaths of his brothers, Uther ascends to the throne.
Uther’s parentage is also mentioned in Welsh poems such as “Arthur and the Eagle” and “Marwnat Uthyr Pen.” These references strengthen the argument that Geoffrey of Monmouth did not invent the idea of Arthur being Uther’s son. Although Arthur’s father may not have been historically called Uther, the possibility remains open.
Arthur’s Mother: The Enchanting Igerna
Arthur’s mother, Igerna, is central to one of the most famous Arthurian stories. Uther, captivated by her beauty, uses magic to disguise himself as her husband, Gorlois, and sleeps with her. This union results in Arthur’s conception.
Igerna’s parentage is somewhat peculiar. The sources agree that she was the daughter of Amlawdd Wledig, a man with little known history other than being a father to various individuals. He was allegedly from the dynasty of Brittany, a descendant of Conan Meriadoc, the legendary founder of that country.
However, the Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen alludes to Arthur’s mother as the sister of Gwrfoddw Hen, a historical king of Ergyng. This connection implies that Igerna may have been from the dynasty of Ergyng.
Arthur’s Siblings: A Cast of Characters
Arthur had several siblings, according to various sources:
Anna, Gwyar, or Morgawse: The Sister with Many Names
Anna is the daughter of Uther and Igerna in the HRB. She marries Lot of Lothian, and they have two sons, Mordred and Gawain. Geoffrey of Monmouth once refers to Lot marrying the sister of Ambrosius, but this seems to be an error as Mordred and Gawain are repeatedly referred to as Arthur’s nephews.
In Welsh sources, Anna is sometimes called ‘Gwyar,’ especially in the context of her son Gawain (or ‘Gwalchmai’). Later versions of the legend name her ‘Morgawse.’
Elaine: A Sister Introduced by Malory
In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Elaine is introduced as Arthur’s sister, marrying King Nentres of Garlot. The 12th-century HRB mentions that a Breton prince named Hoel was the son of Arthur’s sister, although it does not specify which sister. Hoel’s father, Budic of Brittany, would thus be the husband of Arthur’s sister.
In Welsh sources, Hoel’s father is called ‘Emyr Llydaw,’ potentially meaning ‘Emperor of Brittany.’ Therefore, Malory’s ‘Elaine’ could be the unnamed sister mentioned in the HRB, who married Budic (Emyr Llydaw) and gave birth to Hoel.
Morgan le Fay: A Sister’s Evolution
Morgan le Fay, another sister of Arthur, undergoes an evolution in the Arthurian legends. She first appears in Vita Merlini as the chief of nine magical sisters in Avalon, seemingly benevolent. However, in later works such as those by Chretien de Troyes, Morgan becomes Arthur’s half-sister and eventually an enemy, attempting to overthrow him.
Madoc: A Mysterious Figure
Madoc is a shadowy figure, appearing in a few Welsh texts, including Arthur and the Eagle. He is the father of Arthur’s nephew Eliwlod. The Book of Taliesin has an elegy for Madoc, but it reveals little about him other than his death being associated with the earth trembling and the world darkening.
Arthur’s Children: Tragic Tales of the King’s Offspring
According to Welsh sources, Arthur had several sons:
Amr: The Son Killed by His Father
Amr, mentioned in The Wonders of Britain, is said to have been killed by his own father, Arthur. His grave was believed to change size whenever it was measured. Some researchers argue that Amr could have been the basis for Arthur’s enemy Mordred. However, this claim is questionable since the sources that describe Mordred as Arthur’s nephew significantly predate those referring to Amr as Arthur’s son.
Duran: A Son Lost in Battle
Duran, about whom little is known, died in battle, possibly at Camlann.
Gwydre: Another Son Fallen in Battle
Gwydre also died in battle against Twrch Trwyth, according to Culhwch ac Olwen.
Llacheu: A Prominent Son in Legends and Poems
Llacheu appears more frequently in legends and poems than Arthur’s other sons but also dies in battle. In later romances, his name becomes ‘Loholt’ or variations thereof.
The only one of Arthur’s sons mentioned in a Welsh source whose fate is not revealed is Kyduan (or Cydfan), the son of Arthur and a woman named Eleirch.
In Le Petit Bruit, Arthur is portrayed as being succeeded by three sons: Morgan the Black, Adeluf, and Patrick the Red. However, their historical basis is unclear.
ARTHUR’S EARLY LIFE
Arthur’s early life varies depending on the version of the legend followed. This exploration delves into those differing accounts, focusing on his upbringing, character, and ascension to the throne.
Historia Brittonum: A Cruel Youth?
In one version of the earlier Historia Brittonum, Arthur is said to be termed ‘map uter,’ which we are told means ‘terrible son,’ due to Arthur allegedly being cruel from his youth.
However, this explanation is likely a mistake derived from the name of Arthur’s legendary father, Uther Pendragon, making this account unreliable.
Historia Regum Britanniae: A Virtuous Youth
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (HRB), Arthur’s childhood is portrayed differently:
- Arthur is described as having ‘unparalleled courage and generosity,’ a ‘sweetness of temper,’ and ‘innate goodness.’
- His father, Uther, dies when Arthur is 15 years old, and he is crowned king almost immediately.
- Arthur campaigns against the Saxons, showcasing his courage even at a young age.
Later Legends: A Hidden Identity
In the later legends, Arthur’s early life takes another turn:
- Arthur is raised in Sir Ector’s household, the father of Kay (or ‘Cai’ in early Welsh traditions).
- His true identity as the heir of Britain is concealed from him.
- Arthur finds the sword in the stone, unknowingly revealing his identity, leading to his coronation as king.
King Arthur’s Reign
King Arthur, a legendary figure in British history, has long captivated the imagination of countless generations. His reign, as described in various historical accounts and Lives of Saints, was marked by warfare, virtue, and unity among his people. This detailed analysis delves into the various facets of Arthur’s reign, shedding light on his early years, court, battles against the Saxons, and the moral and political landscape of his time.
The Life of St Cadoc and Arthur’s Involvement
Arthur’s reign was nothing short of eventful. In addition to his numerous battles against the Saxons, he also appeared in various Lives of different saints. One of these accounts, the Life of St Cadoc, provides a glimpse into the early years of Arthur’s reign. In this story, Arthur intervenes to allow Gwynllyw and Gwladys, Cadoc’s parents, to marry despite the objections of Gwladys’s father, Brychan. Arthur’s involvement in this event suggests that he was quite young during this period.
Civil War, Knights, and the Formation of Arthur’s Court
Arthur faced a significant challenge at the beginning of his reign, as described in the Vulgate Merlin, a 13th-century account. Several powerful kings refused to accept Arthur as their overlord, leading to a civil war. However, with the help of Merlin, Arthur defeated the rebels and formed an alliance with them. Some of these kings went on to become renowned knights in Arthur’s court, such as Urien and Angusel.
It is essential to note that this civil war incident is not mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account or any previous Arthurian source, casting doubt on its historicity. However, the events themselves are not implausible, given the prevalence of inter-tribal warfare before the Roman period.
Warfare Against the Saxons: A Central Aspect of Arthur’s Reign
A considerable portion of Arthur’s reign revolved around warfare against the Saxons. This is partly due to the Historia Brittonum, which designates him as “the Soldier,” and the Life of St Goeznovius, which reports that Arthur held back the invading Saxons, driving them out of the country. It was only after Arthur’s reign ended that the Saxons were able to push their way through the island again.
Arthur’s Character: Virtue, Courage, and Generosity
Beyond his military endeavors, Arthur was known for his virtue, courage, and generosity. Geoffrey of Monmouth provides a consistent portrayal of Arthur as a youth full of courage, generosity, and goodness. This character profile remains unchanged throughout Arthur’s reign, with Geoffrey stating that “the fame of his munificence spread over the whole world.”
Moreover, the Historia Brittonum echoes this portrayal, describing Arthur as “the magnanimous Arthur.” The consistency in the Historia Brittonum and the similar depiction in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account suggest that this image of Arthur might be rooted in authentic tradition.
Lives of the Saints: A Different Perspective on Arthur’s Character
In contrast to the historical accounts, the Lives of the Saints often present Arthur in a negative light. For example, in the previously mentioned Life of St Cadoc, Arthur pursues a man who killed three of his soldiers, ultimately coming into conflict with Cadoc, who provides refuge for the man. This event is often interpreted as an indication of strife between Arthur and the religious institutions of his day.
However, it is crucial to recognize that the Lives of the Saints primarily serve as propaganda pieces for the saints themselves, often casting contemporary kings like Arthur in an antagonist role. Consequently, the historical accounts, such as the Historia Brittonum and Historia Regum Britanniae, are more likely to provide an accurate portrayal of Arthur’s character.
Moral Prosperity During Arthur’s Reign
Various sources support the notion that Arthur’s reign was marked by moral prosperity. Gildas, a writer from just one generation after Arthur’s time, laments the decline of truth and justice following the Saxon wars. He praises the virtues of the period during Arthur’s reign, suggesting that it was a time of moral uprightness.
While the Lives of the Saints may portray Arthur negatively, the majority of evidence, including Gildas’s writings, points to Arthur’s reign being famed for its virtue.
Order and Unity: Arthur’s Political Legacy
In addition to moral prosperity, Arthur’s reign was likely characterized by order and unity. The Historia Brittonum and Historia Regum Britanniae suggest that Arthur led an alliance of British kings against the Saxons, fostering a sense of cohesion among his subjects.
Gildas’s writings support this idea, stating that kings, public magistrates, private persons, priests, and clergymen all lived orderly during this time. In comparison, the political situation during Gildas’s time was marked by chaos and instability.
Conquests in the British Isles
While Geoffrey’s HRB seems to imply that Arthur began his conquest against the Saxons immediately after his ascension to the throne, this is not necessarily the case. No statement regarding the passing of years occurs during the account of Arthur’s Saxon wars, and the narrative gives the impression that it all took within a short space of time. This being so, we would be forced to accept that Arthur was still in his mid-to-late teens when he finally defeated the Saxons.
There are a number of reasons why this seems unlikely. One reason is due to some information contained in the 13th century Hanes Gruffydd ap Cynan. This is all it has to say about Arthur:
“Arthur, King of the Kings of the Island of Britain, and an eminent renowned hero, wrought twelve notable battles against the Saxons and the Picts: in the first of them he was vanquished and a fugitive because of treachery in Caer Lwytcoed (this place was Dinas y Llwyn Llwyt): in the other contests he was victorious, and deservedly paid in kind his oppressors, the Saxons and the Picts, although he was an old man.”
According to this source, Arthur was ‘an old man’ when he defeated the Saxons (and the Picts). This is completely incompatible with the implication of the HRB that Arthur was still a teenager when he defeated his enemies. The romance tales generally follow suit in portraying Arthur as very old by the time he died, which certainly would not have been the case if he defeated the Saxons as a teenager (his apparent death is dated in the Welsh Annals to just over 20 years after his triumph over the Saxons).
Additionally, the fact that Arthur is given a number of adult sons during his reign in the Welsh sources, and even a grandson in one source, further suggests that more time passed between his ascension to the throne and his Saxon wars than the HRB implies.
In fact, the Welsh Dream of Rhonabwy presents Arthur’s son Llacheu as being an adult warrior at the time of the final battle against the Saxons. This would mean that, at this time, Arthur would have had to have been close to 40 years old at the least.
Although no single source contradicting Geoffrey of Monmouth’s narrative is perfectly reliable, the sum of all this information concerning Arthur strongly indicates that he was not just a teenager when he initiated his campaign against the Saxons. Furthermore, the HRB inaccurately reduced the passage of time when relating the historical events concerning Carausius’s usurpation of Britain and Gaul during the third century. His seven-year-long reign was presented as if it lasted for almost no length of time at all.
Therefore, the implication in the HRB that Arthur immediately set out to wage war on the Saxons after ascending to the throne can be safely dismissed in favour of the various other pieces of information which indicate that Arthur was actually at least middle-aged at the time of his Saxon wars.
These Saxons wars are certainly the most historical part of Arthur’s life, for they are described in the earliest historical account of the warrior’s life. In the Historia Brittonum, written in c. 830, there is a passage which describes how the Britons were led by Arthur against the Saxons in 12 battles. These battles took place over nine different localities, since four of the battles occurred at just one location.
- First battle: River Glein
- Second to fifth battles: River Dubglas in the region of Linnuis
- Sixth battle: River Bassas
- Seventh battle: Wood of Celidon
- Eighth battle: Fort of Guinnion
- Ninth battle: City of the Legion
- Tenth battle: Trath Tribruit
- Eleventh battle: Mount Breguoin (alternatively called Agned)
- Twelfth battle: Mount Badon
Over the years, numerous researchers have proposed countless different suggestions for the exact locations of these nine battle sites. There is still no consensus on the vast majority of them. The only one for which there is general agreement is the Wood of Celidon, which is generally held to be identical to the Caledonian Forest in southern Scotland.
Interestingly, this location is consistent with the general political situation presented by Geoffrey of Monmouth. At the outset of the Saxon war, he describes how the invaders had subdued the entire northern half of the island, ‘from the Humber to the sea of Caithness’. Thus, if this information is accurate, we would wholly expect to find the majority of the nine battle sites in the north of Britain.
This conclusion is also supported by the fact that, according to the HRB, a result of the Saxon invasions which Arthur was attempting to counter was that Urien, Lot and Angusel were driven from their kingdoms. These three brothers were all rulers of kingdoms around the north of England or the south of Scotland, so this is consistent with Geoffrey’s aforementioned statement regarding the part of the country that the Saxons had subdued. While this does not necessarily mean that this is definitely where the battles took place, the internal consistency of the account is notable.
As well as the Wood of Celidon, there is general agreement that the first battle site, the River Glein, was somewhere in the north. The two most commonly proposed locations are the River Glen in Northumberland or the River Glen in Lincolnshire. Of these, the second is not north of the Humber, but it is not necessarily the case that Arthur only clashed with the Saxons within the area that they had managed to subdue (according to Geoffrey).
The next location is the river Dubglas. This was said to have been in the region known as ‘Linnuis’, though even this is not readily identifiable. The most likely conclusion according to most scholars is that this refers to Lincoln, known in Roman times as Lindum. A region named after this city would be termed ‘Linnuis’, exactly as it appears in the Historia Brittonum. However, there is no record of any river called ‘Dubglas’ in this area.
An alternative possibility which is still in the north is an existing River Douglas in Scotland, by an ancient Roman fort associated with the name Lindum. Just as with the Lindum in Lincolnshire, this would have produced the regional name ‘Linnuis’.
Despite the fact that this Scottish river actually possesses the name ‘Douglas’ (derived from ‘Dubglas’), whereas Lincoln does not, the latter location is supported by the fact that Geoffrey portrays Arthur as reaching the River Dubglas on his way to York. Perhaps there was a river by this name in that area, but there is simply no longer any record of it.
The third battle site, Bassas, has proven to be very elusive and no one has been able to present an especially convincing case for it so far.
We have already addressed the fourth battle site, Celidon, so to move onto the fifth site, this is one for which there is quite an old tradition. In fact, the tradition is present in one version of the Historia Brittonum itself, which claims that the battle was fought in the area of Wedale in Scotland. The ‘castle of Guinnion’ would be the Roman fort in that area. Given that this tradition dates back to at least the early 13th century, it is worthy of consideration.
However, many other suggestions have been made concerning this battle site, given that the name of the fort appears to simply mean ‘white fort’. There are numerous places around the country that could fit this name and that even have extremely similar existing names. So, there is very little consensus on this issue.
The next battle site, City of the Legion, is generally held to either be Caerleon in south Wales, or Chester, near the border of north Wales. These are the only two locations in Britain that are definitely known to have held the name ‘City of the Legion’.
Chester might seem more favourable due to being a more northern location, thus being closer to the other battle sites. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth does claim that the Saxons sailed away from Britain after the battle of Celidon but then returned, arriving in Devon. Thus, a southern location (such as Caerleon) is not necessarily objectionable.
There are a number of other places in Britain at which Roman legions were stationed for short periods of time, but given that there is no definite record of any of these places actually being named ‘City of the Legion’, Caerleon and Chester are held to be the only viable candidates by most scholars.
The seventh battle site, Trath Tribruit, is almost certainly not located in the south of Britain. It is mentioned in a slightly later Arthurian source, the Welsh poem Pa Gur. This mentions Tryfrwyd (a Welsh form of ‘Tribruit’) in the context of several northern locations, such as Edinburgh. It is thus very likely that Tribruit was also in Scotland. A number of scholars have identified it with a location on the Forth.
The penultimate battle site is a curious one, because there are two different names by which it is known in the various manuscript versions. One name is ‘Agned’, while the other is ‘Breguoin’. The first name has proven to be extremely difficult to attach to any locality in Britain, just like Bassas. However, the other name is much more promising. Breguoin seems to be a form of the name ‘Bremenium’, which was the Roman fort of High Rochester in Northumberland.
The final battle is the one that has been analysed the most: Mount Badon. This is the only battle for which there is universal agreement as to its historicity, because it is mentioned by the near-contemporary Gildas. In contrast to most of the previous battle sites, this is generally placed in the south west of the country. Geoffrey of Monmouth implies that it is Bath, as does one version of the Historia Brittonum. Other common candidates include any of the fortifications with the name ‘Badbury’ in that part of the country, such as Badbury Rings in Dorset or Badbury in Wiltshire.
Various less supported sites have been suggested, such as Mynydd Baedan in south Wales, Bowden Hill in Scotland, or Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire. The Dream of Rhonabwy supports a location near the Severn, such as Mynydd Baedan or arguably Bath, but this source is not considered historically reliable by scholars. Unless new evidence comes to light, it seems impossible to identify with absolute certainly the location of this final battle between Arthur and the Saxons.
In the HRB’s account of Arthur’s life, the king travelled north to subdue the Picts and the Scots, who were causing trouble in the region of Alclud in Scotland. After re-establishing peace there, he voyaged to Ireland to reduce that country under his power. While there is no record of these events elsewhere, it is worth noting that several other Arthurian sources do claim that he fought against the Picts and the Scots. For example, the aforementioned Hanes Gruffydd ap Cynan mentioned Arthur fighting against the Picts.
Conquests on the Continent
After this point, a significant portion of the HRB is devoted to a series of events which scholars believe have no factual basis at all. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur became aware of the fact that leaders over ‘the whole world’ were in fear of him and were preparing themselves for war against him. Ironically, this is then said to have motivated Arthur to subdue all of Europe.
He started by invading Norway and restoring his brother-in-law, Lot, to the throne of that country. Interestingly, this reference to Lot points towards a particular explanation for how this story may have a basis in fact. Lot was historically the king of an area of southern Scotland, probably Lothian. There is no basis to conclude that he had any sovereignty over Norway. However, the Welsh word ‘Llychlyn’ was often used to refer to Norway, or Scandinavia in general. Significantly, it was also used (at least some time before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s era) with reference to Scotland, due to the intensive Scandinavian settlement of that country.
This fact, combined with Lot’s historical connection to Scotland, strongly indicates that the ‘Norway’ in this story is a mistake for Scotland, due to confusion over the word ‘Llychlyn’. Viewed from this perspective, there is nothing at all improbable about Arthur assisting Lot to recover his throne in the north of Britain.
The next part of the account is much more inexplicable from a historical perspective. Arthur is said to have sailed over to Gaul and started subduing that country. It was governed by a Roman tribune named Frollo, who went out with an army to meet Arthur. Unfortunately for the Roman tribune, the majority of the youth of Gaul, including most of Frollo’s army, joined Arthur.
Frollo is said to have fled to Paris, which Arthur then besieged. After some time, the two men agreed to settle the matter by means of a jousting battle, which Arthur prevailed in, slaying Frollo. Over the course of nine years, the British king subdued all the various provinces of Gaul, dividing the country up between his men. At this, he returned to Britain.
The next event described by Geoffrey is a grand feast of Pentecost which Arthur holds at his court at Caerleon-upon-Usk. He invited all his allied kings, princes and noblemen to join him, and he also used this opportunity to hold a special coronation, where Archbishop Dubricius placed the crown upon his head.
Word then came to Arthur that the Romans were demanding that he present himself at Rome before the Senate to have justice executed upon him because of his conquest of Gaul. This infuriated Arthur, impelling him to head out for Rome, but for the purpose of conquest, not penitence.
After some skirmishes between Arthur’s men and the Romans partway through Gaul, the two opposing sides met, with a vast company of allied nations, at a valley called Siesia. Initially, Arthur was not present at the actual battle, staying in the rear quarters. However, he eventually appeared on the battle lines and led his army to victory, defeating the Romans. Despite this victory, the battle proved to be devastating for Arthur’s side, resulting in the deaths of such major associates as Bedivere and Kay, along with others.
It is interesting to note that in later versions of the Arthurian legend, such as that found in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur is actually made the Emperor of Rome after defeating the Romans. Nonetheless, this is not present in the earliest surviving version of the story, which actually claims that Arthur never reached Rome.
There has been extensive speculation about what may have been the historical basis for this legend. Such a story does not explicitly appear before the 12th century HRB, leading many to assume that Geoffrey created it from his own imagination. However, a number of scholars have noted that Geoffrey does not seem to have entirely invented any major part of Arthur’s life story, but merely embellished the information he did have.
For example, much of Geoffrey’s account is seen, albeit in extremely condensed form, in the Historia Brittonum and the Welsh Annals. It seems inconsistent that such a large portion of his account of Arthur’s life – about half, in fact – would be without any foundation at all.
Some scholars (notably, Geoffrey Ashe) have theorised that the origin of Arthur’s Gallic campaign comes from the activities of Riothamus, a fifth century king of the Britons who fought against the Visigoths in Gaul. This event took place in c. 470, and there is one primary record of it, in the writings of Jordanes. This theory has gained a considerable amount of popularity over the years, but most scholars remain unconvinced.
In truth, it is difficult to see how Riothamus’s battle in 470 could have led to this account of Arthur’s conquest. The two are on such extremely different scales that it seems highly unlikely for one to have led to the other. Riothamus merely fought one battle against the Visigoths, which he lost, whereas Arthur was said to have conquered all of Gaul and successfully waged war against the Roman Empire. Notably, Riothamus was actually an ally of the Romans.
A more extensive consideration of this theory could be undertaken, but these are the main objections that suffice to place extreme doubt on its plausibility.
Another theory is that this part of the Arthurian tale comes from the activities of Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman general in Britain in the second century. There is an inscription which reveals that he battled against the ‘Arm_____s’, which could be a reference to the Armoricans in Gaul. On the other hand, most scholars today generally accept that the word on the inscription originally read ‘Armenios’, referring to the inhabitants of Armenia, well away from Gaul.
Additionally, even if Lucius Artorius Castus did battle in Armorica, we still have the glaring problem that he was actually a Roman officer, which in no way corresponds to Arthur fighting against the Romans.
More plausibly, many scholars suggest that the inspiration for Arthur’s European conquest were the activities of Magnus Maximus, a Roman general in Britain who usurped the Empire in 383. His activities do bear some significant resemblances to those of Arthur in the HRB, and he is known to have become a Welsh hero, being mentioned in numerous Welsh records and placed at the head of a number of pedigrees.
If there is any historical basis to this story at all, then it is very likely to be found in the usurpation of Magnus Maximus, from 383 to 388. However, what can be definitely established is that the actual Arthur, of the sixth century, never conquered Gaul and warred against the Roman Empire.
We now return to a more securely historical event in Arthur’s life. This is the battle of Camlann, mentioned as early as the tenth century in the Welsh Annals. The entry there reads:
“The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.”
‘Medraut’ is more commonly known in English as ‘Mordred’. According to the HRB, Arthur left Mordred, his nephew, in charge of Britain while he went away to wage war in Gaul. However, after he defeated the Romans at Siesia and started to continue on his way to Rome itself, he received news that Mordred had seized the throne of Britain for himself and had also married Guinevere, Arthur’s wife. At hearing this, Arthur returned to Britain to recover the throne.
Of course, none of this extra information is present in the Welsh Annals. It does not mention the cause of the battle, nor whether Arthur and Mordred were even on opposing sides. It has been argued by some that Mordred likely was not actually an enemy of Arthur, on the basis that he appears in a number of Welsh sources (such as the Triads) as one of Arthur’s men.
However, this does not really contradict the HRB, since he is definitely portrayed as one of Arthur’s faithful men prior to his usurpation of the throne. There does not seem to be any real objection to the idea that he was Arthur’s enemy at Camlann, though admittedly, the earliest evidence for this is late.
Arthur and Mordred are said to have first clashed swords when the latter opposed the former’s landing in Britain at the port of Rutupi. This is in Kent, and it is exceedingly unlikely that Arthur would ever have been present there in the sixth century, for it was thoroughly in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons. This is probably a mistake for some other location.
After Arthur fought his way ashore, the two armies eventually met at the valley of Camlann (according to the HRB, this was in Cornwall, though there are many theories as to its real location). There, a terrible and bloody battle was fought, resulting in the deaths of many of Arthur’s men. In fact, Geoffrey’s account states that ‘many thousands’ were slain that day.
Mordred, however, was the true loser of the battle. He himself was said to have been slain by Arthur, and all of his best men were as well. His army was defeated. One of his men who was said to have perished in the battle was Cheldric, a Saxon leader (for Mordred was said to have allied himself with the Saxons). It is possible that this Cheldric matches Cerdic of Wessex, who is said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have died in 534. This is quite close to the date of 537 given for Camlann in the Welsh Annals.
On the other hand, it was speculated in the article on Cerdic of Wessex that Cerdic may actually match the earlier Cheldric, the one who was slain just after Badon. There is no way to be certain about the matter.
In the Welsh Annals, it is strongly implied that Arthur died. The word it uses does not literally translate to ‘died’, but it means ‘fell’, as is shown by the English translation above. This certainly could imply a death, but it does not necessarily require one. According to the HRB, Arthur was severely wounded and was famously taken away to Avalon to be healed. If anything at all like this really happened – if Arthur was badly injured and had to cease from being king – then this would certainly constitute a ‘falling’.
We may never be sure what really happened to Arthur, if the battle of Camlann is historical. However, it is very likely that he did die at least shortly after the battle, if not at Camlann itself.
Interestingly, the words of Gildas shed some very interestingly light regarding the possible historical context to this battle. As we examined earlier, he claims that those in the previous generation lived ‘orderly according their several vocations’, and lived according to certain ‘laws of truth and justice’ as well as ‘virtues’, consistent with how the legends portray Arthur’s reign.
However, he makes the point that those laws of truth and justice were pushed aside by those who grew up after the Saxon wars, because they had not experienced the hardships of that period. He relates this as an explanation of the current civil wars that were afflicting the country. Thus, according to Gildas, the era of the Saxon wars was full of kings and others living orderly and virtuously, but then when a new generation arose after those Saxon wars, this order was cast aside, bringing in the current era of civil troubles.
This is remarkably consistent with the Arthurian legend. Camlann in placed, according to the Welsh Annals, 21 years after Badon, the climax of the Saxon wars. This is about one generation later. More specifically, the HRB describes Gawain, Mordred’s brother, as being twelve years old a little over twelve years after Arthur’s victory at Badon. Thus, Gawain was allegedly born shortly after this victory. No information about Mordred’s age or year of birth is given, but we can probably assume that he was more or less the same age as his brother.
The significance of this is that this would make Mordred of the generation who grew up after Badon, or after that ‘troublesome time’, as Gildas terms it. Gildas attributes the casting aside of the orderly arrangement of kings and noblemen to that very same generation. Therefore, the historical facts according to the only contemporary source we have are perfectly in agreement with the idea of Mordred rising up and plunging Arthur’s orderly kingdom into civil war, from which it never really recovered.
Arthur in The Faerie Queene
Not only does he have a lot of screen time, but he is also the embodiment of all virtues that each book represents. He was the paragon of these virtues according to Edmund Spenser, who viewed him as the perfect warrior and royal exemplar.
Arthur, though he does have a lot of time on the page, is not very well developed. This is due to the fact that King Arthur was already a well-known figure at the time that Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene. His backstory within the poem is intentionally vague as a result, and he harbors an abstract love for the Faerie Queene that we never really see fulfilled.
To avoid a lot of the baggage that comes with King Arthur’s already well-known storyline, Edmund Spenser depicted him as a prince, i.e. before all of that main history has happened. This was a clever ploy, as it meant the Edmund Spenser didn’t have to deal with all of that storytelling baggage.
Additionally, being a younger version Arthur makes him a more youthful and vigorous warrior, and we frequently see him resolving conflicts with both his brawn and his brain.
Within the pages of The Faerie Queene, Arthur is depicted in two distinct roles:
- A powerful warrior
- A pensive leader and arbitrator
The former is more unusual, as King Arthur would have been depicted more as a ruler and leader than as a warrior in previous incarnations of the character. He was rarely involved in the street-level activities of his knights. But in The Faerie Queene, we consistently see him get his hands dirty.
In essence, we see him to be the perfect exemplar of a great man.
One of the most intriguing questions about Arthur is the matter of his identity. Who really was he? There have been countless theories about this, and no consensus at all has been reached. Let us examine the main theories that have been proposed, starting with the two we have already briefly considered:
According to Jordanes, Riothamus was the ‘king of the Britons’. However, it is impossible to know for sure whether the ‘Britons’ he was referring to were those of Britain or those of Brittany. It has been claimed that Riothamus must have been based in Britain (like Arthur) because he is said to have come to the state of the Bituriges (in Gaul, where he fought against the Visigoths) ‘by way of the ocean’. This suggests to some that he came from outside Gaul, thus meaning that he must have been the king of the Insular Britons.
However, the statement that he came to the state of the Bituriges by way of the ocean does not necessarily exclude the possibility that his starting point was also in Gaul, for it may be that sailing was simply the fastest mode of transport between the two locations. His starting point could easily have been Brittany.
In reality, the fact that Jordanes felt compelled to include the statement that Riothamus came by way of the ocean could be taken to suggest that he was not based in Britain. If he had been based there, then it would have been obvious that he must have sailed to his destination, or in fact, to any part of Gaul. So the fact that Jordanes included that statement could be taken as evidence that Riothamus was actually the king of the Britons in Brittany. If so, then his similarity to Arthur is seriously weakened.
Furthermore, it is claimed that ‘Riothamus’ was simply a title, its meaning being ‘Highest King’. While this descriptive title would aptly apply to Arthur, many names of this period were rich in meaning, without actually being titles. The fact that ‘Riothamus’ was actually the man’s personal name is indicated by the fact that a letter to him from Sidonius Apollinaris addresses him by that very name.
Thus, it is most likely that Riothamus was simply Riothamus, and that he was a king of the Britons in Brittany. However, this theory does still have its supporters.
Lucius Artorius Castus
As we have already seen, this Roman officer was based in Britain during the second century. He was stationed at York, as the Praefectus of the Legio VI Victrix. This location has some Arthurian connections (for example, the HRB portrays Arthur as celebrating Christmas at York after his victory against the Scots). Furthermore, his name ‘Artorius’ could easily have evolved into ‘Arthur’ (many scholars believe that this Latin name really is where ‘Arthur’ originates from).
However, recall the evidence discussed earlier for Arthur’s historicity. There is good evidence that a war leader named Arthur did live in the sixth century, just as the legends say. At best, Lucius Artorius Castus could be the origin of just one part of the legend. The part that is most commonly attributed to him is the invasion of Gaul, which we have already examined. In view of the better connections to the Arthurian legend that are to be found in Magnus Maximus’s campaign (and even in Riothamus’s), there is no reason to give any weight to this explanation of Arthur’s European campaign.
On the other hand, there is additional evidence that is generally given to support Lucius’s connection to Arthur. According to proponents of the theory, he was in Britain during the late second century, after 175. That was the year in which 5000 Sarmatians were said to have been transported to Britain. Later in the Roman period, we find records of Sarmatian troops, supporting this and indicating that they were used by the Romans.
The reason this is significant is that the Sarmatians may have had tales which were very similar to the tales of King Arthur, and if Lucius was active in Britain with the Sarmatians under his control, this could indicate that their tales would have found themselves attached to him, a man with the name ‘Artorius’. The similarity between the two groups of tales is discerned by existing tales that exist among the Ossetian people, first recorded just a few hundred years ago. It is assumed that these tales, among a people who are related to the ancient Sarmatians, accurately reflect the legends held by the Sarmatians themselves more than 1500 years previously.
These assumptions are quite large, and it may well be that the transmission of stories actually went in the other direction, from Britain to Ossetia. After all, the Ossetian tales were only recorded a few hundred years ago, leaving plenty of time for this transmission to happen. On the other hand, it may be that they did travel from Ossetia to Britain, but centuries after Lucius’s time.
Notably, most of the similarities that the Ossetian legends have with the Arthurian legends concern elements that appear in the Arthurian lore relatively late, after the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Really, there is no reason to conclude that the similarities between the Arthurian legends and the Ossetian tales reveal anything significant about Lucius Artorius Castus. Even if the late elements of the Arthurian tales that do share similarities with those from Ossetia are the result of the Sarmatians coming to Britain in 175, there is no reason to conclude that they would have found themselves attached to Lucius Artorius Castus.
In addition, most scholars believe that the Roman officer had left Britain in the 160s, having travelled to Armenia. This would mean that he was already gone by the time the Sarmatians arrived.
Thus, it is very unlikely that Lucius Artorius Castus had anything to do with King Arthur.
Artuir mac Aedan
Arthur has many associations with the north of Britain. Nennius’s battle list is one example, and the allied kings of Arthur listed in certain Welsh tales as well as HRB support this notion. On this basis, some have theorised that Artuir mac Aedan, an Irish prince of Dal Riada in Scotland, was the historical Arthur.
Artuir was active in the sixth century, but not as a contemporary of Arthur. He lived in the late-sixth century, after Arthur’s time according to the majority of interpretations. He was also never king, though admittedly this does tie in with interpretations that claim Arthur was never actually a king (mostly on the basis of Nennius’s words). However, he does not seem to have even been an important or powerful individual.
For example, in the Annals of Tigernach, Artuir is listed last among his father’s sons who died that year. In the Annals of Ulster, Artuir is not mentioned in this entry at all. The lack of prominence given to him certainly argues that he was not the powerful, famous war leader Arthur. This, combined with the fact that he lived so much later than any interpretation of the evidence regarding Arthur would allow, strongly argues against him being the historical Arthur.
Rather, it appears that he was merely one of the several royal individuals who was named after Arthur.
A theory advanced by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman is that Arthur was a historical king named Owain Danwyn. He was the father of Cuneglasus, one of the kings to whom Gildas directed some comments. It is actually these comments that have been taken as evidence that Owain was Arthur.
Gildas refers to Cuneglasus as “the guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear.” Just what this means is difficult to ascertain, but Phillips and Keatman believe that it indicates that Cuneglasus’ father, Owain, was known as ‘the bear’. Given the possible connection between the name ‘Arthur’ and the Welsh word for ‘bear’ (which is ‘arth’), this is taken as evidence that Owain was Arthur.
The case is transparently thin already, and there are a number of glaring errors in the theory as a whole. For example, Phillips and Keatman claim that Owain was the king of Powys, whereas the genealogies are clear that he was the king of Rhos.
Their interpretation regarding the meaning of ‘the receptacle of the bear’ has also been criticised. Other scholars would consider this to indicate, not that Cuneglasus was the son of ‘the bear’, but that he lived at the fort of Din Arth.
In all, there is not really much to recommend this theory. If their interpretation of the ‘receptacle of the bear’ is wrong, and it simply refers to Cuneglasus’ residence at Din Arth, then the entire theory is without any foundation at all. It is not a theory which has many supporters.
Arthwys ap Mar
A more promising theory is that a man named as ‘Arthwys’ in the genealogies was the historical Arthur. He appears in the Descent of the Men of the North, a Welsh tract concerning the genealogies of certain northern princes. Again, Arthur’s legendary connections to the north of Britain come into play here, and it is not implausible that he could have been from the north (however, Arthur’s connections to Wales, particularly the south, are very strong and should not be ignored).
Very little is known of Arthwys. The primary pieces of information that can be discerned about him is his place in the genealogies, which would place him in the period from c. 470 to c. 540, which is a very good fit for most interpretations of Arthur’s chronology. It would certainly accommodate the dates given in the Welsh Annals for Arthur’s battles, as well as the dates most scholars give to Gildas.
On this basis alone, the theory has a certain appeal. Arthwys lived at the same time as Arthur and ruled a part of Britain in which Arthur was apparently very active, and his name is also quite similar to ‘Arthur’ and may be a corruption of it.
Some of the other evidence for Arthwys being Arthur is the information concerning his relatives. For example, Simon Keegan, the main proponent of this theory, claims that Arthwys’s wife was Cywair, a Welsh saint. He sees a similarity between this name and that of Arthur’s legendary wife, Guinevere (or ‘Gwenhwyfar’ in the Welsh sources).
Additionally, it appears that Arthur’s cousin Culhwch (from the tale Culhwch ac Olwen) was alternatively known as Einion. Interestingly, Arthwys is recorded as having a brother named Einion, whom Simon Keegan believes is the same person as the legendary Culhwch.
While this theory is very appealing, it is not without its problems. For one thing, Arthwys does not appear in all the genealogies. In fact, the only early genealogy that he appears in is the one already mentioned, The Descent of the Men of the North. While the genealogies do sometimes omit certain individuals (so this would not necessarily mean that Arthwys did not exist), it would be very peculiar for them to have done so with an individual who was as famous and mighty as King Arthur.
Nonetheless, this theory has a fair amount to recommend it, and Arthwys can likely be considered a plausible candidate for the historical King Arthur.
Athrwys ap Meurig
One more notable candidate for the historical Arthur is Athrwys ap Meurig, a king of Gwent and Glywysing. This theory relies on the connections that Arthur has to south Wales, which are admittedly very strong. Athrwys had dominion over Caerleon-upon-Usk, one of Arthur’s main courts according to the legends. And one possible match for Arthur’s court of Gelliwig in Kerniw is a location in Gwent, again falling within Athrwys’s realm.
Some of the evidence presented to argue that he was the real Arthur is the fact that his family members allegedly match certain family members of Arthur. For example, both Arthur and Athrwys are described as having a sister named Anna. Furthermore, Culhwch and Olwen attributes a maternal uncle to Arthur named Gwrfoddw Hen. A king of that name is recorded as having ruled over Ergyng, which is where Athrwys’s mother came from.
Another similarity between Athrwys and Arthur is seen from their predecessors. The story of Uther’s death is intriguingly similar to the story of the death of Athrwys’s grandfather Tewdrig (whom Athrwys is listed immediately after in the earliest Welsh king lists). They both involve the old king leaving the kingdom in the hands of their son (in Tewdrig’s case) or son-in-law (in Uther’s case), before returning when this new ruler was struggling against the Saxons. The old king aided the Britons to victory, but then his condition deteriorated and he died by a spring a few days later. For much of the aforementioned, he was carried in a cart.
Another familial similarity is the fact that Athrwys had a son named Morgan, who succeeded him. This would match Arthur’s son Morgan in Le Petit Bruit, though admittedly this is a late source. Additionally, Arthur’s son ‘Adeluf’ in that version could be derived from Athrwys’s historical son Ithel.
The theory as a whole is very appealing, but it relies on Athrwys actually having been a contemporary of Arthur. While this is argued by Wilson & Blackett, Barber & Pykitt, and Caleb Howells, the current academic consensus is that he lived in the seventh century. This is supported by such scholars as Peter Bartrum and Wendy Davies.
One of the main pieces of evidence that Athrwys lived in the seventh century is the fact that the Welsh Annals record the death of ‘Ffernfael ap Ithel’ in 775, and Athrwys had a great-grandson by that name. This would definitely place Athrwys in the seventh century, if the identification of the ‘Ffernfael ap Ithel’ of that entry with Athrwys’s great-grandson by that name is correct.
On the other hand, one piece of evidence that he actually lived in the sixth century is the fact that the Life of St Cadoc claims that Tewdrig, Athrwys’s grandfather, was the great-great-grandfather of Cadoc, a saint who was born in the early sixth century. If this is true, then Athrwys must have been born in the early sixth century at the latest.
There is conflicting evidence, and there will probably continue to be debate for some time about which chronological scheme is supported by the majority of the evidence. Nonetheless, there remains the distinct possibility that Athrwys was a contemporary of Arthur. In which case, the aforementioned similarities would seem very significant. Of course, this is if we can accept that ‘Athrwys’ could be a corruption of ‘Arthur’ (perhaps through the Latin form ‘Arthurus’), which most scholars reject.
In summary, despite the apparent problems with the theory, we can say that Athrwys ap Meurig is one of the leading candidates for the historical Arthur, along with Arthwys ap Mar.