The Evidence for King Arthur: Man or Myth? | History Hit

The Evidence for King Arthur: Man or Myth?

Tony Sullivan

11 Feb 2020
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King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler

The figure of Arthur has fascinated people and evolved over hundreds of years. What is perhaps less well known is that many of the themes we associate with Arthur appear 6 centuries after he allegedly lived.

In addition, there are differing views between most academics and amateur historians. A myriad of different theories placed Arthur in every corner of Britain and Europe across several centuries.

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Historians generally have taken the view that he was either a mythical character or there may have been a figure in the 5th or 6th centuries, but that there is insufficient evidence.

Confronted with a confusing mix of competing theories, one turns to the source materials and experts, only to discover just how tenuous those theories are.

They often selectively used details from legends and genealogies written many hundreds of years after Arthur would have likely lived.

King Arthur tapestry

King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detail from the “Christian Heroes Tapestry”, 1385 (Credit: International Studio Volume 76).

The main cause of all this sensationalism was Geoffrey of Monmouth writing his pseudo-historical ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ in the early 12th century. His Arthur was an all conquering king who subdued the Saxons, united Britain and invaded most of Europe: he certainly wasn’t a romantic, noble or chivalrous hero.

The only date he gave was Arthur’s death at Camlan in 542. Most of his story was fantasy but it inspired an explosion in interest and further works. These can be placed into two categories.

The two faces of Arthur

Defeat of the Saxons by Arthur

Defeat of the Saxons by Arthur (Credit: John Cassell)

Firstly the French Romances which introduced many of the concepts we know today: the round table, sword in the stone, the grail, Lancelot, Morgana, Lady in the Lake, Avalon, Camelot, Excalibur.

The second group of stories were the Welsh legends and Saints’ Lives. Our earliest copies post date Geoffrey and have likely been influenced and corrupted.

But some were thought to have originated as early as the tenth century, still hundreds of years after Arthur’s time. However it is possible that these stories inspired Geoffrey to write about Arthur, rather than the other way round.

These tales presented a very different Arthur. He was often petty, cruel and badly behaved.

A facsimile page of ‘Y Gododdin’, one of the most famous early Welsh texts featuring Arthur, c. 1275 (Credit: J. Gwenogvryn Evans).

The tales were full of magic, giants and quests for cauldrons or wild boars. It was very much a mythical Arthur.

So we have a 12th century invention on one hand, and a mythical magical figure on the other.

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Looking at the evidence

If we take the earliest stories then some concepts and characters remain, such as Uther and Gwenhwyfar.

Readers may be disappointed to learn that, as Month Python put it, “strange ladies lying about in ponds distributing swords” are not part of the original legends any more than round tables or knights.

King Arthur

King Arthur in a crude illustration from a 15th-century Welsh version of ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ (Credit: National Library of Wales).

The actual evidence for Arthur’s existence, listed below, was rather sparse:

  1. The persistence of the legend over 500 years to the Middle Ages.
  2. 4 persons called Arthur appearing in the genealogical records of from the late 6th century, suggesting the name became popular.
  3. One line in a possibly 7th century Welsh poem saying a warrior of the Gododdin around Lothian was “no Arthur.”
  4. Two entries in the Welsh Annals possibly dated to the 10th century: firstly Arthur’s victory at Badon in 516, and secondly the “Strife” of Cam llan in 537 where “Arthur and Medraut fell.”
  5. The early 9th century ‘Historia Brittonum’ was the first to mention Arturus, which likely stems from the fairly common Latin Artorius.

Arthur likely derives from the Roman Artorius, or Arturus. Frustratingly Arthur could equally derive from Brythonic Arth– meaning bear. Arthur was described as a dux bellorum, a leader of battles, who fought with the kings of Britain against the Saxons.

In the ‘Historia Brittonum’ he was placed after the death of St Patrick and the Saxon leader Hengist, but before the reign of Ida or Bernicia, which implied a generation either side of 500. 12 battles were listed, among them Badon.

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We do possess reasonably good records prior to the end of Roman Britain in 410 and from after around 600 when the first Anglo-Saxon kings could be confirmed.

We also have contemporary accounts about Britain from the continent from a variety of writers between 400-600.

Yet not one hinted at any figure called Arthur or any aspect of his story.

King Arthur Round Table

The Round Table experiences a vision of the Holy Grail, c. 1475 (Credit: Évrard d’Espinques / Gallica Digital Library).

Possible contenders

Our sole contemporary British writer was Gildas’ account, who in the first half of the 6th century confirmed the battle of Badon of around 500, but named only one person – Ambrosius Aurelianus. Gildas’ account was essentially a polemic on the suffering of the Britons – far from a factual or objective history.

Writing in the 8th century and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in the late 9th, Bede added details to Gildas – but again failed to mention Arthur although Bede dated Badon to around 493.

Despite this, there was some consistency in the stories: after the Romans left, Britain suffered barbarian raids. A council, led by Vortigern requests aid from Germanic mercenaries who later rebel. A fight back by Ambrosius culminated in the battle of Badon. This stopped the expansion of the Anglo-Saxons until the second half of the 6th century.

In this gap of c. 450-550, the ‘Historia’ and later sources placed Arthur.

Another contender for the historical inspiration for Arthur is that of Magnus Maximus, a Roman soldier of Spanish origin, who usurped the emperor Gratian and became a Roman emperor in the western part of the empire between 383 and 388AD. Large parts of the version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur bear parallels to the feats and actions of Magnus Maximus.

Caratacus is the third individual who Geoffrey of Monmouth’s King Arthur figure seems to have been inspired by: a chieftain who resisted the Roman invasion and occupation of Britain. Whilst his guerrilla warfare tactics were relatively successful, battles were his weakness and eventually he was captured by the Romans. His life was spared following an extremely eloquent speech which convinced the emperor, Claudius, to spare him .

The last major individual who Arthur is said to have been based on is Cassivellaunus, who led the major resistance to Julius Caesar’s second expedition to Britain in 54BC. His legacy was long-lasting, and Cassivellaunus appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain on his own merits.

It is quite possible to create a theory out of selective 12th century legends and genealogies. However a better method may be to go through the historical records chronologically, starting with the end of Roman Britain.

That way when the evidence does appear in the timeline, we can assess it in context. It is up to the reader to decide the case for and against a historical Arthur.

Tony Sullivan spent 31 years in the London Fire Brigade before recently retiring. His interest in dark age history inspired him to write King Arthur: Man or Myth – his first for Pen & Sword – from the viewpoint of a sceptical enthusiast on the legend of King Arthur.

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Tony Sullivan

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