Who was Arthur? 21

Arthur rampant on Glastonbury Tor (Andruss)

This is a companion piece to Arthur: King or Pawn on Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord: Variety is the Spice of Life


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.

21 thoughts on “Who was Arthur?

  1. Reply patriciaruthsusan Sep 25,2017 5:13 pm

    I admire the extensive research you did on Arthur, Paul. The various histories have certainly given a lot of material for stories, books, plays, movies, etc. Well done. 🙂 — Suzanne

  2. Reply dgkaye Sep 23,2017 3:16 am

    Fascinating research and theories Paul. As I was never one to read much about King Arthur et al, I’m finding it fascinating learning through your summations. I suppose theories abound since nobody is left who lived to tell, lol. 🙂 x

    • Reply Paul Sep 23,2017 8:05 pm

      That’s a very good observation Debby and equally when people were alive who should have knew him… no-one mentioned him. Px

  3. Reply Robbie Cheadle Sep 22,2017 7:17 pm

    The story of Arthur has always interested me, Paul, and this article is a real eye opener about this man and the myths and stories that are his documented life.

    • Reply Paul Sep 23,2017 12:01 am

      Dear Robbie, I know this would interest you from your earlier comments on my Arthurian themed posts. I hope you are not bored because I haven’t finished with him yet! Px

  4. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – Who Was Arthur – Part Two by Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  5. Reply Christy B Sep 20,2017 11:53 pm

    Isn’t it interesting how different storytellers have various bits to add to legends such as this one about Arthur. I do believe he existed but not exactly sure of the details.. I thank you for the info provided here and it’s so well written too, Paul

    • Reply Paul Sep 22,2017 11:58 pm

      It is Christy and I agree with your point entirely. It would be interesting to go back in time to be around during that period to see what went on. I think it would be entirely unrecogniseable to us. then we would of course have to jump forward in time to she how each successive layer was added on to build up the myth we know.

  6. Reply Brigid Gallagher Sep 20,2017 2:25 pm

    This was a fascinating post Paul.I have never read any of these books but I do love the movies. I particularly enjoyed the television series “Merlin” starring Sam Neill. I guess we will never learn the true story of Arthur, but I do love the idea of the sword in the stone and the knights of the round table.

    • Reply Paul Sep 22,2017 11:55 pm

      Hi Brigid, again the TV show Merlin was another great example of how each generation reinvents the stories to keep them meaningful and incorporates elements that are not necessarily related but simply too good to waste.

  7. Reply D. Wallace Peach Sep 20,2017 1:46 am

    Excellent companion piece, Paul, with some fascinating research. I like the magical elements that weave through the legends of Arthur. Mention of Mordred and Morgan reminds me of the Mists of Avalon, a book I read years ago. It was enthralling.

    • Reply Paul Sep 22,2017 11:53 pm

      I think you hit the nail on the head thee Diana with the mention of the Mists of Avalon – we tend to assume the reinterpretation of old myths to make them relevant to the new generation is something modern, whereas it has probably always been going on since time immemorial.

  8. Reply Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, MCC, SCAC Sep 19,2017 4:13 am

    I FINALLY found the time to actually read this amazingly full-featured piece I “liked” a bit earlier so I could get back to it from my behind-the-scenes “liked posts” list. The graphic is magical – saving to my Blogs and Bloggers Board (if it will let me pin it).

    My head swims, wondering how much reading you had to do to compile this post, Paul. I’m also curious to know if you have an Arthurian Legend-based WIP that is prodding you to investigate so thoroughly. I’d love to see how you would tackle this myth.

    Thanks for sharing – and adding to my education beyond what I learned from Shakespeare’s plays and a few musicals. 🙂
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    • Reply Paul Sep 20,2017 12:48 am

      Dear Madelyn, firstly thank you for the gorgeous comment. Thrilled you like the graphic and feel free to use it any way you want. I AM FLATTERED! I am a big fan of the search for the historical Arthur, read a lot over the years and blessed with a good memory (except ironically except for remembering where I found the information in the first place, so that takes time). There is a project linked to Horatio Grin (you know him) which is extracts from his ‘new book’ about British myth focusing on Glastonbury and Arthur. I wrote it a year ago and never knew what to do with it. It all relates to the 3rd Jack Hughes book 13th Treasure. Books 2 and 3 need some more editing and hopefully I’ll sort them out for Christmas. When ready I’ll get them over to you.
      Luv Paul x

  9. Reply John Fioravanti Sep 18,2017 4:08 pm

    Thanks, Paul, for this report on the possible origins of the Arthur legend. Years back, I read a series of books that depicted his origins as a leader of one of the last Roman legions to evacuate Britain. He and some followers stayed and set up their own fortified settlement that preserved some of the Roman culture in Britain. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the author nor any of the books’ titles. Perhaps these novels were based upon the figure Lucius Artorius Castus mentioned above.

    • Reply Paul Sep 19,2017 12:15 am

      Dear John, you are right as in my research I did come across something. Hang on… Definitely the film King Arthur from a few years back with… 2004 With Clive Owen… (god bless Wikipedia). I also thought I came across an author who wrote Arthur books based on the hero, but sorry I can’t find the reference.

  10. Reply sally cronin Sep 18,2017 10:00 am

    Thanks Paul…great piece and I believe there was an Arthur of one variety of another.. Life was very hard with hordes invading and the common people were pagans and it must have been tough to sustain that belief so they needed a hero. Roaming storytellers will have told the story of the battles, all trying to outdo each other until someone wrote it down.. the embellished version. We need hope in times of adversity and he was it for the time.. and to be honest since.. we still talk of him with pride and I hope wherever he is he is having a damn good chuckle at his exploits..

    • Reply Paul Sep 19,2017 12:20 am

      I remember being so excited when they found a roman pottery shard in Tintagel With a name that could have possibly been Arthur on it (it wasn’t unfortunately) but it would be marvellous if we could just prove some unambiguous historical association to old legends. But I guess it is as you say Sally Story tellers elabourate and if there are two or three tales with a character called Arthur, or even if they have a good story but the old hero is forgotten then it gets improted into the popular legend. And yes it would be nice to think of his having a good old chuckle over how he has grown in stature!

  11. Reply Paul Sep 18,2017 1:32 am

    This extended version of a piece comes from a insightful comment by Mary Smith (http://www.marysmith.co.uk/)made on Arthur: King or Pawn on Sally’s Smorgasbord(https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/).
    Mary Raised the point about Artùir mac Aedan,a prince of the Dâl Riata, as being the original Arthur, highlighting that I better mention some of the most likely contenders or at least contributors to the legend.

    Follow Mary’s blog My Dad’s a Goldfish- https://marysmith57.wordpress.com/

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