As we saw the more historians try to track down King Arthur, the more he slips through their fingers.
’On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ (De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae), by the British monk Glidas, is the only surviving document from around Arthur’s time (about 500 AD). The work contains a historical section written from memory, but is basically a rant against 5 British kings ruling a generation after Arthur. Gildas mentions the Battle of Badon against the Saxons, but not Arthur. The Venerable Bede relied on Gildas when writing his Saxon history almost two centuries later and does not mention Arthur either.
The first surviving mention of Badon as Arthur’s greatest victory comes from a compilation of ancient documents copied out in 1100. In it are two works: the ’History of the Britons’ (Historia Brittonum) and the ‘Welsh Annals ’– which are a year list with events noted against some of them. Between them they mention Arthur’s 12 battles – ending with Badon – and record the Battle of Camlann in 537 – where Arthur and Mordred fell. The ‘History of the Britons’ is thought to be written in 830 by a Welsh monk called Nennius. Although historians doubt this, they think the date is correct. The accompanying ‘Welsh Annals’ were written about 900.
William of Malmsbury wrote ’Deeds of the English Kings’ (Gesta Regum Anglorum) in 1125. He briefly mentions Arthur as aiding Ambrosius and winning the battle of Badon, but gives no more details than those found in Nennius. He writes…
‘It is of this Arthur that the Britons fondly tell so many fables, even to the present day; a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but by authentic history. He long upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war.’
Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to provide a biography of Arthur in his ‘History of British Kings’ (Historia Regum Britanniae – 1138 AD), where two whole sections are devoted to him. It is not entirely the story we know – there is no Sword in the Stone, Camelot, Grail Quest, Round Table or Launcelot for Guinevere to have an affair with. There is not even a Guinevere, Geoffrey calls Arthur’s wife Ganhumara.
However he does bring Merlin into Arthur’s story. Even though Merlin originally lived around a century later, and was associated with an entirely different hero. Geoffrey recounts how Merlin’s magic allowed Uther Pendragon to have his way with the Duke of Cornwall’s wife at Tintagel, resulting in Arthur’s birth.
In Geoffrey’s story, Arthur battles the Saxons into submission, subjugates Scotland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and France. While battling the Romans, he is called home to fight his nephew Mordred, who usurped the throne in his absence. He is wounded at Camlann and taken to Avalon.
Historians know Geoffrey jumbled up all sorts of semi-historical personages into his story of Arthur, some living hundreds of years out of time. Even during Geoffrey’s time contemporaries doubted his accuracy.
Arthur is mentioned in collections of early Welsh poems and stories, the lives of some Celtic saints (called hagiography) and the Welsh Triads – lists of three names grouped under a common heading. The ancient Welsh books they are found in were written a little earlier, or even much later, than Geoffrey’s book. A couple of the stories actually seem copied into Welsh from later Arthurian fiction.
It is believed there were legends of Arthur in the 800s, around 300 years after his time, but no one is sure what they were. Some evidence suggests Arthur was no more than mythical hero who fought supernatural beasts, giants and even raided the underworld. His companions like Kai, Bedivere, Gawain, Morgan le Faye and even his wife Guinevere seem versions of old Celtic gods and goddesses.
There is only one place Arthur is not mentioned as a supernatural hero. And that is the Welsh poem ‘Y Gododdin’. It is an elegy to the fallen warriors of an elite war band in the Battle of Catterick, North Yorkshire (fought around 600 AD). Arthur’s bravery and fierceness in battle is praised in one solitary line….
‘He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
Though he was no Arthur’
The only existing copy was written in 1300, but scholars argue the date of composition is earlier… anywhere from immediately after the battle to around 900. Due to a lack of supporting evidence either way, the arguments rage on.
All that said, after the time Arthur lived, his name became very popular in the genealogies of Welsh and Breton Royal families. However, as character’s name is often all the information known about them, it is impossible to say if they were added in later centuries, when the lists were compiled, to fill in gaps and claim descent from a great hero or even a Celtic god.
There are certainly a couple of Arthurs living around a hundred years after the legendary hero who are well documented. The argument goes if the original hero had not made Arthur such a prestigious name, then why was it given to royal princes in the period after he lived? While the argument has merit, unfortunately it tells us nothing about the man himself.
Various historians investigating Arthur have listed likely contenders for Arthur: here is a brief summary of them:
Lucius Artorius Castus lived around 140-210. Little is known of this Roman General except for a few inscriptions. He is called Camp Prefect in Britain (based in York and possibly Hadrian’s Wall) and Dux Legionum (Leader of Legions) – Arthur was the Dux Bellorum (Battle leader). His legions were in Britain during the revolt against the Emperor Septimius Severus and the subsequent defeat of the rebels, but it is not known if Artorius was involved.
Riothamus is a title believed to mean ‘Great King’ in old Welsh. He died around the time of the Battle of Badon, but in Gaul. There is a letter to him from a Bishop, who was also a Roman diplomat, asking help to quell unrest in the colony of Brittany (Little Britain).
A Byzantine historian records he later went to help the Roman Emperor against the Visgoths (a northern tribe who settled in Spain). The Visgoths ambushed and killed him with the connivance of his subordinate. Geoffrey of Momouth says Arthur went to help the Roman Emperor twice and was also betrayed by a subordinate Mordred.
Arthwys ap Mar, (Arthur of the Pennines) is a shadowy figure living around the same time as Gildas and possibly responsible for some of the battles later attributed to Arthur that might have been fought in Yorkshire.
Artùir ap Pedr (of the South West Welsh kingdom of Dyfed) is a similarly shadowy figure living about 100 years after Gildas. In ancient Welsh books King Arthur hunts a giant boar, Twrch Trwyth, in Dyfed. The name in Irish means ‘King of Swine’ and the Arthurian story might have originated from Artùir battling the Irish slavers who plagued his lands.
Athrwys ap Meurig, of the Southern Welsh Kingdom of Gwent on the English border, lived a little later. He is sometimes considered the basis of the Arthur found in the ancient Welsh books because they mention Arthur at Caerleon – an important Roman town in his territory. Today it still preserves the finest remains in Britain of a small amphitheatre – the possible model for King Arthur’s Round Table?
Artùir mac Aedan was a prince of the Dâl Riata, located in the west of Lowland Scotland between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine wall. He became Battle-leader when his father the king became a monk, and was killed in battle before taking the throne. He has been called one of the greatest warlords in the British Isles during the Dark Ages. He may be responsible for at least two battles associated with Arthur: those of the Caledonian forest and a place identified with Edinburgh.
British royalty often had nicknames of animals for instance Maelgwn (Princely Hound) and Cuneglas (Tawny Hound). The name Arthur is often identified as a nickname meaning ‘Bear’ from the Welsh word Arth. In ‘King Arthur: the true Story’, the authors identify Arthur as the little known Owain Whitetooth. He is the father of one of the kings Gildas berates called Cuneglas. He calls Cuneglas: ‘you bear and guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear.’ As Cuneglas is too young to have fought at Badon, they believe ‘the bear’, or Arthur, is his father Owain.
It is perfectly possible all these characters contributed elements ultimately incorporated into the legend of King Arthur. It is equally possible Geoffrey of Monmouth did indeed just make it all up.