King Arthur History
The historical truth of the
King Arthur legend has long
been debated by scholars.
One school of thought, based on
references in the Historia
Brittonum and Annales
Cambriae, would see King
Arthur as a shadowy historical figure, a Romano-British
leader fighting against the invading Anglo-Saxons sometime in
the late 5th to early 6th century.
The Historia Brittonum
or History of
the Britons, a 9th century Latin historical compilation
attributed in some late manuscripts to a Welsh cleric called
Nennius, gives a list of
12 battles fought by King
Arthur, culminating in the
Battle of Mons Badonicus, or
Mount Badon, where he is
said to have single-handedly killed 960 men.
studies suggest that the Historia Brittonum cannot be considered
a reliable source for the history of this period.
The other text that is usually used
by this school of thought is the 10th century Annales Cambriae
or Welsh Annals, which also links King Arthur with the
of Mount Badon.
The Annales dates this battle to 516–518, and
also mentions the Battle of Camlann, in which King Arthur and
Medraut or Mordred were both killed, dated to 537–539.
This has often been
used to bolster confidence in the Historia Brittonum's account
and confirm that King Arthur really did fight this battle.
Problems have, though, been identified with using this source to
support the account of Historia Brittonum.
The latest research into the
Cambriae shows that this chronicle was based around one which
was started in the late 8th century in Wales, around 300 years
after King Arthur would have lived.
Additionally, because of the
complex textual history of the Annales Cambriae there can be no
certainty that the Arthurian annals were added to it even that
early. As a result, it is more likely that they entered it at
some point in the 10th century and that they had no existence in
any earlier set of annals, with the
Mount Badon entry probably
being derived from the Historia Brittonum.
This lack of convincing early
evidence is the reason that many modern historians prefer to
avoid including King Arthur in their accounts of post-Roman
Britain. Thomas Charles-Edwards commented that:
"at this stage of the enquiry, one can
only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur
[but]… the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him".
It is not even certain that
Arthur was considered a king in these texts: neither the
Historia nor the Annales calls him "rex", with the former
calling him instead "dux" or "dux bellorum" (leader of battles).
These modern admissions of ignorance
are a relatively recent trend; earlier generations of historians
were less sceptical. Historian John Morris went so far as to
make the putative reign of King Arthur at the turn of the 5th
century the organising principle of his history of sub-Roman
Britain and Ireland, The Age of Arthur (1973).
Even so, he found little to say of an historic King Arthur.
Athrwys ap Meurig, is one of many
candidates for the historical Arthur. Partly in reaction to such
theories, another school of thought emerged which argued that
King Arthur had no historical existence at all.
Morris's Age of Arthur prompted
Nowell Myres to write "no figure on the borderline of
history and mythology has wasted more of the historian's time".
It is often noted that Gildas'
6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae or
Ruin of Britain, written within living memory of the
Mount Badon, mentions that battle but does not mention King
King Arthur is not mentioned in the
Anglo Saxon Chronicle or explicitly named in any original
manuscript written between 400 and 820. King Arthur is entirely
absent from The Venerable Bede's early 8th century
Ecclesiastical History of the English People, another
major early source for post-Roman history which mentions
As historian David Dumville
has written, in perhaps the most famous scholarly quotation on
the "historical Arthur": "I think we
can dispose of him [Arthur] quite briefly. He owes his place in
our history books to a ‘no smoke without fire’ school of
thought... The fact of the matter is that there is no historical
evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories
and, above all, from the titles of our books."
Some academics argue that King
Arthur was originally a fictional hero of folklore – or even a
half-forgotten Celtic deity – who became credited with real
deeds in the distant past, citing parallels with the supposed
change of the sea-god Lir into King Lear, the Kentish totemic
horse-gods Hengest and Horsa, who may have been historicised by the time
of Bede's account and given an important role in the 5th century
Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern Britain, the founder-figure of Caer-fyrddin, Merlin or in Welsh
Myrddin, or the Norse demigod Sigurd or Siegfried, who was historicised in the Nibelungenlied
by associating him with a famous historical 5th-century battle
between Huns and the Burgundians.
Historical documents for the post-Roman period are scarce, so a
definitive final answer to this question is unlikely. Sites and
places have been identified as "Arthurian" since the 12th
century, but archaeology can confidently reveal names only
through inscriptions found in secure contexts.
The so-called "Arthur Stone"
discovered in 1998 in securely dated 6th century contexts among
the ruins at Tintagel Castle
in Cornwall, a secular, high
status settlement of Sub-Roman Britain, created a brief stir but
proved irrelevant, and there is no other inscriptional evidence
for King Arthur which has not been tainted with the suggestion
Although several identifiable
historical figures have been suggested as the
for King Arthur, there is as yet no way of proving these cases
to the satisfaction of the sceptics.
So who was the real “King Arthur”?
Did he exist as a flesh and blood historical character? If so,
where was he born? Where did he live and where was his power
base? Was he a king at all? If he was, was he the agreed king of
the resisting British tribes?
How many of the exploits and
legends attributed to him are true and how much is exaggeration
or simply false? Where are the sites of his many exploits and
battles? Did the supporting characters attributed to his legends
really exist and in the relationships to him as described?
Finally, where was he laid to rest?
Up to a decade or so ago, many historians decried the existence
of King Arthur as a real life character, preferring to consign
him to the ranks of mere legend and myth.
Over recent years
attitudes have changed and the consensus of opinion amongst
respected historians seems to accept the reality of King Arthur
as at least a leading battle chief, a dux bellorum, of the
Britons, if not actually the king. However it should come as no
surprise that often today’s “historical fact” can become
tomorrow’s “myths" and "legends".
no surviving written accounts contemporaneous with the period,
the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD, of the British
resistance to the encroachment by the Angles, Jutes,
Saxons and others.
Britain had been under increasing siege from
both raiding parties and colonists since the withdrawal of the
Roman legions at the end of the 4th or early 5th century AD.
The earliest account we have in our museums and libraries are
copied manuscripts of Gilda's’ writings of the 6th century,
De excidio conquesta Britanniae; by his own account, born at the
pinnacle of one of the great victories of the Britons attributed
to King Arthur, the Battle of Badon.
It is also true, however, that Gildas (in his book of complaints
against his fellow contemporary British kings and leaders)
mentions the Battle of Badon but does not state who was the
British leader - a ‘sin’ he is guilty of in many of his
It has also been suggested that King Arthur was not popular with
the clergy in his own lifetime and later, that he had already
become invested by the populace with the virtues and powers of a
pagan god; invincible, eternal and capable of resurrection, full
of a magical strength and possessed of magical artefacts such
as Excalibur or Caliburn.
Gildas would certainly have frowned upon
such superstition, barbarism and competition to his own God.
Perhaps this is the reason for his failing to mention him by
name. This would also explain the wealth of legend which seems
to have been attached to King Arthur so soon after his demise.
In Nennius’ 9th century copy or version of an original work
which he names as the Historia Brittonum, we have the first
known written account of the warrior leader of the Britons who
took over from Ambrosius: “Arthur fought against the Saxons
alongside the kings of the Britons, but he himself was leader in
the battles.” Then follows a list of King Arthur’s major
The Annales Cambriae compiled in the 10th century mentions King
Arthur in at least two places
For the year 518 it records:
Battle of Badon in which King Arthur carried the cross of our
Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his
“shoulders” and the Britons were the victors.”
For the year
539: “The Battle of Camlaun (Camlann) in which King Arthur and
Medraut were slain and there was death (plague) in England and
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s
Historia Regum Britanniae of 1135 is
worth quoting in full on the matter:
“The strength of the Britons decayed
straight away; they would have come to ruin had not Ambrosius,
the survivor of the Romans who was monarch of the realm after
Vortigern repressed the overweening barbarian through the
distinguished achievements of the warrior Arthur. This is the
Arthur of who the trifling of the Britons talks so much nonsense
even today; a man clearly not to be dreamed of in fallacious
fables but to be proclaimed in veracious histories as one who
long sustained his tottering country and gave the shattered
minds of his fellow countrymen and edge for war.”
William of Malmesbury, writing some 10 years before
of Monmouth makes mention of King Arthur aiding Ambrosius
fighting the Angles and Saxons and of leading the Britons at
The worrying thing is that all these accounts, excepting that of
Gildas, who makes not mention of King Arthur, were written from
400 to 600 years after King Arthur’s supposed death.
purports to have obtained much of his account from a venerable
and ancient document, the Historia Brittonum, but no copies of
it exist today.
It would be comforting to be able to take the accounts of
William of Malmesbury and
Geoffrey of Monmouth at face value as
being based on what has been passed down to them as historical
facts relating to well-known characters, but Geoffrey’s
in particular is full of wildly erroneous and fanciful accounts
of the Britons, including one that the British Isles were
originally peopled by Trojan colonists fleeing the Greeks, that
the Romans never managed to conquer England, and that Merlinus
was the son of a demon.
Are there any earlier accounts that we may rely upon? Most of
the earliest stories relating to the exploits of King Arthur are
found in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch
and the Black Book of Carmarthen (these books were named after
the colour of their bindings). The earliest copies we have of
these are from 1400, 1325 and 1567 respectively. However each of
these accounts purports to be a compilation of earlier stories
and today linguists believe that by the style and content of the
stories there are of a much earlier date than the compilations
themselves and were almost certainly memorised and communicated
through the oral traditions of the bards.
In the Spoils of Annwn Arthur is depicted as
having to steal a magical sword and cauldron from the other
world, thus suggesting a pre-Christian legend which later became
Christianised into the form we know today as
Excalibur or Caliburn and the
Many other pre-Christian tales are attached to the name of
Arthur which, again, from linguistic style and content are
believed to be from a very early date. He is mentioned in
various bardic triplets including the Three Wicked Uncoverings,
a reference to the digging up of the head of Bran the Blessed,
thereby allowing the conquering of Britain by invaders, the
Three Famous Prisoners and the Three Red Ravagers, in many of
which Arthur is depicted as neither the king nor in a positive
A number of the biographies of the saints also refer to Arthur,
though most of these were written some 300 to 400 years after
King Arthur’s supposed death, including, ironically, the Life of Gildas written by
Caradoc who recounts how Melwas kidnapped
Gwenhwyvar or Guinevere and held her at his fort at
Glastonbury and how King
Arthur was unable to storm the fort and of Gildas' intervention
and successful conclusion of the matter.
Probably the earliest
written reference to King Arthur as a sing at all (far less King
of the Britons) is in a legend from Brittany, the Legend of St Goesnovius, written in the early 11th century.
The name Arthur is contained in a poem Goddodin written down in
the early 9th century but in an earlier style. It is a battle
poem of the Votadini bard Aneirin from what are now the lowlands
of Scotland, describing an epic battle against the Anglo Saxon
advance into their territory at the end of the 6th century; a
battle in which though they fought bravely they eventually lost.
In describing the exploits of one hero Gwawrodur, Aneirin wrote:
“Gochone brein du ar vur, Caer ceni bei ef Arthur”
or “He glutted
black ravens on the wall of the fort, though he was no Arthur”.
In a masterly and well argued book by Graham Philips and
Martin Keatman, they argue that King Arthur was
a descendant of the Votadini clan invited to colonise
the mid 5th century to act as a buffer against raids by the
Irish and that the name Arthur was a descriptive epithet or
title rather than the hero’s given name, taken from the
Brythonic Arth and the Latin Ursus, both meaning Bear, in the
same was that Uther was called Pendragon.
Certainly no previous
name King Arthur exists in a British genealogy except as a rare
roman reference to an Artorius of the 2nd and 3rd centuries,
from which many authors have assumed, perhaps wrongly, that the
name Arthur originated by the end of the 6th century; by
comparison, no fewer that six of the British royal genealogies
show members given the name Arthur, which is quite convincing as
further evidence that a war leader who came to be known as King
Allowing therefore that he did exist, where was he born, where
was his power base, what of his companions and exploits and
where, if at all!, did he die?
Philips and Keatman argue for King Arthur’s origin as being in
the Kingdom of Gwynedd as the descendent of Cunedda and of
Enniaun Girt, warrior kings of the Votadini tribe, the same
tribe as that described in the Goddodin, and that his power base
was at Viraconium in east Wales or the West Midlands, now
Geoffrey of Monmouth gives us
Ygerna or Igraine of
Tintagel as the mother
of King Arthur and his birth place as being at Tintagel; however
early excavation of the Norman castle there has so far revealed
only an earlier monastic community. In Le Morte d’Arthur by
Thomas Mallory, published
in 1485, Mallory equates Camelot with
Winchester, though due to his patronage and sponsorship this is
Other modern authors have been happy to allow King Arthur’s
birth anywhere between north Wales and the south west of
England, based on the proliferation of
Arthurian legends and early writings
from these parts of Britain, on
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s and
William of Malmesbury’s accounts and on an almost complete lack
of decent evidence to the contrary.
Favourite candidates for
Camelot are those given above, and
Leslie Alcock and Geoffrey
Ashe’s claims for Cadbury Hill in
Norma Lorre Goodrich
votes for Carlisle and for King Arthur having been born in
Galloway in south west Scotland. J Morris sees Camelot as being
sited at Camulodunum, or Colchester in Essex, and R Barber states that
the oldest reference to a historical King Arthur is that or
Arthur MacGabron, King of Dalriada, in Argyllshire,
Leslie Alcock, in a well-researched and written though sadly
outdated book The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, draws us a map of
suggested sites for King Arthur’s famous battles based on the
work of respected historians, which perhaps unconsciously, put
such arguments into perspective, offering us six possible sites
for the Battle of Badon, two each for Coit Celidon,
Urbis Legionis and three for Linnius.
What about the characters and exploits surrounding King Arthur?
Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini describes
Avalon as being the place
where Caliburn was forged and also where
Morgan led a sisterhood
of nine maidens and where King Arthur was taken after
have his wounds tended. For many readers the association of
Avalon and Annwyn with Glastonbury
Tor and its legends will be
well-known. Suffice it to say that in the early Celtic tale
Spoils of Annwyn, nine maidens are the custodians of the magic
sword and of the cauldron.
Furthermore, the 1st century Geographer Pomponius Mela describes
an island to the west of what is now Brittany wherein live nine
priestesses able to heal the sick and foretell the future. The
magic sword and cauldron that King Arthur had to recover perhaps
gives rise to the later Christianisation of
Excalibur and the
Grail. There are too many accounts of magic cups, cauldrons of
plenty, of rebirth and of wisdom to go into any detail in a
short article. Interested readers should refer to the stories of
the warrior Cuchulain, of the Cauldron of Dagda and of
to name a few such tales.
Certainly the first mention of the world grail comes in the
French Le Conte del Graal by
Chrétien de Troyes, possibly
referring to the medieval French word for a platter of dish. It
is not until the later Robert de Boron that it is converted into
the chalice or cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.
On the subject of late additions,
Chrétien de Troyes first
introduces Lancelot on his own admission from a story given to
him by his patroness, Countess Marie de Champagne. Again,
Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century adds
Camelot to the growing legend.
In his writings sponsored by Henry II for his wife, Eleanor of
Aquitaine, Robert Ace added the
Round Table and by the end of
the 12th century we are in a Disneyland of Norman castles,
drawbridges, wimples, chargers and plate armour, culminating in
Thomas Mallory’s late 15th century
Le Mort d’Arthur.
Why was there such a huge increase in interest in King Arthur in
the 12th century and onwards? One possibility is that there was
a desire for legitimacy of rule by the Normans over the
Anglo-Saxons in their ruling of Britain.
There had been a
fleeing of some people from Wales and south West England to
Brittany in the 5th and 6th centuries to escape the influx of
Germanic peoples into England, but more importantly anything
that portrayed the resident Anglo Saxons as invaders and
usurpers was useful political propaganda for the Norman
The name Gwynhwyvar or
Guinevere appears in early but undatable Welsh triads
as being the name of each of King Arthur’s three wives but
possibly modelled on an earlier, pre-Christian, goddess
Gwenhwyfar meaning White Spirit, possibly a name for Epona in
her form as a white lady on a white horse. Geoffrey names King
Arthur’s wife as Ganhumara from a noble Roman family though
there is no mention of her from other, or indeed earlier,
However the same can be said of many of the characters that have
become associated with King Arthur. None of the texts or triads
written down before the 12th century romances include
Morgan Le Fay,
Sir Gawain, Kay or
Bedivere, though it is
possible that both Morgan and Gwynhwyvar are based upon Celtic
goddess legends, just as Percival may well be based upon the
Celtic hero Peredur and Merlin on an historical Welsh bard
Myrddin, mentioned in the year 575 in the Annales Cambriae,
though probably post-dating the lifetime of a historical King
Arthur. Sir Bedevere makes an appearance in any early tale as a
spearman in Culhwch and Olwen with Sir Kay or Cei in the same story
as possessing supernatural powers.
Thus many stories and legends of heroes and of gods have
attached themselves to the Arthurian flag staff, some between
his lifetime and the medieval authors who came to write about
his life, but many others from before his lifetime and arising
from earlier beliefs and traditions.
And of the manner of King Arthur’s death and of his final
resting place? Just as many possible sites abound for the
of Camlann as for the site of Camelot. The
Romances tell us that
King Arthur’s nephew Mordred (or his son through incest with his
sister Morgan) attempts as regent in King Arthur’s absence,
fighting in the Crusades, extending his kingdom or pursuing
Guinevere’s lover Sir Lancelot, to usurp the throne and kingdom.
King Arthur hears of this and fights Mordred at
Somerset, west central
Wales or Cambo Glana
fort or Hadrian’s Wall) and kills him but receives his own fatal
wound and is then taken to the Isle of Avalon to die.
The earliest written reference we have to the Battle of Camlann
in the Annales Cambriae simply says for the year 539:
of Camlann in which King Arthur and Medraut perished and there
was a plague in Britain and in Ireland.” There is no mention of
the relationship between Mordred or Medraut and King Arthur or indeed that
the actually fought against each other.
As for the location of King Arthur’s final resting place, the
best and most accurate reference to it occurs in the Black Book
of Carmarthen which translates simply as
“a mystery, the grave
There is such a wealth of legend and symbolism surrounding King
Arthur and many well written and well thought out (and many not
so) attempts to cast light on a field of which the one thing we
know is that we know so very little for definite. At the end of
this article please refer to a short bibliography which may well
help you to unravel for yourself some of the many matters I have
only been able to touch upon.
In conclusion is seems at first glance ironic and not a little
mysterious that the figure of King Arthur, of his knights and of
the Holy Grail should appeal to so many pagans when based on what
little we do know of him he was the last bastion of the
Christian Britons against the invading pagan Saxons. However I
believe that he is relevant on many different levels of
In 6th and 7th century Britain there was clear
division between Christianity and paganism; however, the beliefs
and practises of our pagan Celtic forebears would have been
continued in the
rituals, beliefs, superstitions and legends and worship of local
gods and goddesses and the practices of the Britons in a way
that did not run counter to their Christianity.
Much of this can be seen in the earlier stories of King Arthur,
the Grail and his knights and indeed even in the later
of Christian England, France and Germany of some
600 to 700 years later.
The fact that he had already passed into
legend before Nennius’ rendition of the ancient manuscript he
claimed to have discovered and that supernatural and magical
powers were being attached to him in local legend may well
explain some of the early church’s slighting of him in their
Thus in these earliest Arthurian Romances and
Arthurian Legends we hear echoes of
our earlier pagan heritage which both enlighten and teach us. It
is almost certain that King Arthur existed as a real character
and that he was a battle chieftain if not a king (or the King of
Britain) leading a resurgence of the Britons against the
invaders. It is also certain that many earlier and later legends
have been built around his person as a useful repository or
foundation. Indeed, the symbolical or archetypal
King Arthur is
in many ways more important than the historic flesh and blood
King Arthur. It is this level that has generated the magic for
At various times, King Arthur has been depicted as
the ideal ruler or leader, as the saviour of his people, as an
example of all that is good, holy and just, as a god of the
and of the fertility of the land, as consort of the White
Goddess, Epona or Gwenhwyvar, and as the spring, summer and
winter king (winter being his betrayal, degradation thus causing
a blight upon the land, ultimate sacrifice in death and the
recover of the Grail or cauldron as being the hope of rebirth
and plenty in spring).
Woven around this symbolic King Arthur are the characters of
Gwenhwyvar or Guinevere,
Round Table, Caliburn or
Excalibur and the
Holy Grail itself and what these figures
represent for us. Thus, irrespective of historical certainties,
it is perfectly legitimate for us to borrow from the Arthurian
material for Arthurian art,
and Arthurian literature, for symbolism in ritual or for
inspiration on which to base our values of right action, honour,
compassion and generosity of spirit.