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Historical King Arthur

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  • Arthur mac Aedan (556 - 590)
    [][[]][[]]There is a theory that he was was the inspiration for King Arthur . No proof, just a theory. aka Arturius of MANANN; Prince in CAMELOT; Dux Bellorum of BRITONS against Picts and Saxons; (al...
  • Athrwys ap Tewdrig, King of Glywyssing & Gwent (540 - d.)
    For a discussion of the confusion concerning Arthwys ap Tewdrig and his nephew Arthwys ap Meurig, please see Darrell Wolcott, (April 10, 2017; Anne Brannen, curator) There has been some speculation t...
  • Ambrosius Aurelianus (c.385 - 454)
    Ambrosius Aurelianus (Welsh, Emrys Wledig ); called Aurelius Ambrosius in the Historia Regum Britanniae and elsewhere, was a war leader of the Romano-British who won an important battle against the Ang...
  • King Arthur, Geoffrey of Monmouth Text (460 - 518)
    See also: Arthur ab Uthyr, {Fictional, Early Welsh Texts} King Arthur, Vulgate Cycle King Arthur, Chretien de Troyes Text King Arthur, Malory Text Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittann...

Was King Arthur a Real Person?

divers men hold the opinion that there was no such Arthur, and that such books as be made of him be but feigned and fables . . . all these things foresaid alleged, I could not well deny but that there was a noble king name Arthur and reputed one of the nine worthy, and first chief of the Christian men. -- William Caxton, publisher of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485)

King Arthur is a legendary British leader of the late 5th and early 6th centuries, who, according to medieval histories and romances, led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the early 6th century. The details of Arthur's story are mainly composed of folklore and literary invention, and his historical existence is debated and disputed by modern historians.

Tradition

The traditional story of King Arthur was set out by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the kings of Britain, c1136). In this story, Arthur is the grandson of Constantine -- apparently the same Constantine who declared himself Emperor of Rome in 407. He was a member of the Breton royal family. He crossed the Channel and established a new dynasty in Britain in the aftermath of the Roman withdrawal. Constantine's son was Ambrosius Aurelianus, who supplanted the usurper Vortigern as High King of Britain. Ambrosius was succeeded by his brother Uther, and Uther was succeeded by his son Arthur.

Historical Basis

Geoffrey's story is suspect because it was first recorded 600 years after the events it describes, and there are no earlier versions. There are, however, earlier fragments that make it likely some parts were based on history.

The sparse historical background of Arthur is gleaned from various sources:

  • Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (Concerning the Ruin of Britain, c540). Gildas was a British monk. This sermon laments the decline of manners and morals in his generation. Gildas says he was born the year of the Seige of Mount Badon (obsessionis Badonici montis). A great battle there was attributed to Arthur by later writers. Gildas praises Ambrosius Aurelianus, condemns five contemporary kings, Constantine, Aurelius Conanus, Vortiporius, Cuneglas, and Maelgwn, who had usurped Imperial power and degraded Christian values. Gildas does not mention Arthur, but he does mention a British king Cuneglasus who had been "charioteer to the bear". Later writers have made much of the reference because Arthur's name appears to derive from the Gaulish word artos (bear).
  • Nennius (attributed), Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons, c829), the earliest explicit mention of Arthur. Nennius describes Arthur as a dux bellorum ('military leader') and says he fought "alongside the kings of the Britons", not as a king himself. Nennius names the twelve battles that Arthur fought and tells how he carried the image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulder (or perhaps his shield).
  • Annales Cambriae (mid-10th century). These Welsh tables for calculating the date of Easter contain brief entries for each year. The entry for 516 says, "The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights upon his shoulders [or shield] and the Britons were the victors". The entry for 537 says, "The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished".
  • Y Gododdin (7th to 11th centuries), by Aneirin. This poem praises the men at the battle of Catraeth (c600). One warrior is said to have "glutted black ravens on the ramparts of the fort, although he was no Arthur". This might be a reference to King Arthur, or to one of the other, later Arthurs.
  • Saints LIves. Arthur is mentioned in five British and two Breton saints' lives that are thought to be independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth -- Cadoc, Carantoc, Illtud, Gildas and Paternus in Britain, and Goeznovius and one other in Brittany. Of these, the Legenda Sancti Goeznovii is apparently the earliest, dated to 1019.
  • Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Welsh "Triads" ). The Triads are a group of texts that appear to be a mnemonic device for preserving traditional history by grouping three famous people or events under a common theme. The Triads often name people and events that are otherwise unknown, which suggests the antiquity and authenticity of some of them. By their nature, they are impossible to date individually but the earliest collections seem to have been first recorded in the 11th or 12th century. Arthur and his court appear in many of the Triads. For example, "The three heroic sovereigns of the Isle of Britain: Cynfelyn Wledig, Caradog the son of Bran, and Arthur;because they conquered their enemies, and could not be overcome but by treachery and by plotting" (Triad 23).
  • Geraint, son of Erbin (perhaps 10th or 11th century), a Welsh poem, mentions Arthur in passing: "In Llongborth I saw Arthur / And brave men who cut with steel. / The Emperor, ruler of our labour."

Arthur's Name

John Morris pointed out that the name Arthur is frequently attested in southern Scotland and northern England in the 7th and 8th centuries, but not earlier. He suggests this brief popularity of the name might be due to a famous man of that name in the 6th century. (The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, 1977)

Other writers have argued instead that arthwys, the usual Celtic form of Arthur's name was perhaps a title borne by Ambrosius Aurelians and many others.

Gildas' Revenge

One of the strongest arguments against an historical King Arthur is that he is not named by Gildas, who was his contemporary. Later writers explain that Gildas hated Arthur. The Life of St. Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan (12th century) preserves a tradition that Gildas was a brother of Hueil mab Caw, an enemy of King Arthur who was slain by him. The enmity between Arthur and Hueil in also mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen (11th century). Gerald of Wales (c1146-c1223) says Gildas destroyed "a number of outstanding books" praising Arthur after hearing of the death of his brother.

Problem of Cernyw

Cernyw (or Cerniw) appears as an important region in the Arthurian material. It is usually taken to mean the western part of Dumnonia, the modern Cornwall, but there are indications that it might often mean that part of Glywysing which was merged into Gwent to form Morganwg, and later became Glamorgan.

Theories

The historical fragments allow many different reconstructions of what might have happened. Some of the reconstructions are as follows:

  • Ambrosius Aurelianus. The traditional explanation for the origin of King Arthur is that he was based on Ambrosius Aurelianus, a war leader of the Romano-British who won an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, according to Gildas. Ambrosius also appeared independently in the legends of the Britons, beginning with the 9th-century Historia Brittonum by Nennius. According to this theory, the character of Arthur was created from Ambrosius Aurelianus, who was himself eventually transformed into the uncle of King Arthur, the brother of Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, and predeceases them both.
  • Artaius. Thomas W. Rolleston concluded that Arthur is based on Artaius, a Celtic god attested in France. The Romans equated Artaius with Mercury. Rolleston believed Artaius was an alternative name for Gwydion, his sister Gwyar corresponded to Gore, her husband Lot to Lludd, her son Gwalchmai (Gawain) to LLew Llaw Gyffes, and Medrawt (Mordred) to Dylan (Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911)
  • Arthur ic Uibar. W. F.Skene believed that Arthur was the legendary ancestor of the Scottish Clan Campbell, Arthur ic Uibar. He argued that Arthur fought his 12 famous battles in the north (The Four Ancient Books of Wales, 1868). More recently, the same theme has been developed by Prof. Norma Lorre Goodrich (King Arthur, 1986). Other authorities have suggested that the Campbell ancestor has been confused with another northern king.
  • Arthwys, son of Mascuid Gloff. His father was probably a King in the Elmet region of modern West Yorkshire. He seems to have been a contemporary of King Arthur, but there is nothing to suggest he was a ruler in his own right.
  • Arthwys ap Meurig. Chris Barber and David Pykitt suggested that King Arthur was based on Arthwys ap Meurig, a 6th century Welsh king (Journey to Avalon: The Final Discovery of King Arthur, 1997).
  • Arthwys ap Mor. Simon Keegan suggested that King Arthur might have been Arthuis, king of the area around York. He was a descendant of Coel Hen, and seems to have have lived a generation earlier than the traditional Arthur. (Pennine Dragon: The Real King Arthur of the North, 2016)
  • Artúr mac Áedáin. David F.Carroll suggested that King Arthur was based on Artúr mac Áedáin, a war leader who led the Scoti of Dál Riata in a war against the Picts, separate from the later war with Northumbria. Under this hypothesis, Artúr was predominantly active in the region between the Roman walls — the Kingdom of the Gododdin. He was ultimately killed in battle in 582. (Arturius-A Quest for Camelot, 1996)
  • Cuneglasus (Cynlas). Mark Devere Davies suggests that Arthur was Cuneglasus.son of Owain Danwyn (see below),who lived at Din Arth in Rhos. He was one of the five kings condemned by Gildas
  • Lucius Artorius Castus. In 1924 Kemp Malone suggested that the character of King Arthur was ultimately based on Lucius Artorius Castus,a career Roman soldier of the late 2nd century or early 3rd century. This suggestion was revived in 1994 by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor and linked to a hypothesis that the Arthurian legends were influenced by the nomadic Alans and Sarmatians who settled in Western Europe in Late Antiquity.
  • Owain Danwyn. Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman identify Arthur as Owain Danwyn, a descendant of Cunedda. Their theory is that Owain's son Cuneglasus, who lived at Din Arth in Rhos, was actually son of Arthur (King Arthur: The True Story, 1999).
  • Riothamus. Geoffrey Ashe argued that King Arthur was based on Riothamus, a historical figure active in the late 5th century. Riothamus was a correspondent of Sidonius Apollinaris. He was called "king ot the Britons" in The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, written in the mid-6th century by the Byzantine historian Jordanes, only about 80 years after his presumed death. (The Discovery of King Arthur, 1985). In contrast, Léon Fleuriot argued that Riothamus was identical with Arthur's uncle Ambrosius Aurelianus (Les origines de la Bretagne: l’émigration, 1980).
  • Vortigern. In 1984 Prof. David N. Dumville argued that Arthur was the unnamed superbus tyrannus mentioned by Gildas. This man is usually identified as Vortigern, the predecessor of Arthur's uncle Ambrosius Aurelianus. However, there is a story that Arthur dug up the head of Brân the Blessed so that he himself would be the only protector of Britain. he was one of three men whose foolish pride allowed Britain to be conquered ("Thee Unfortunate Disclosures", Triad 37R). This is what Vortigern is supposed to have done by allowing the Saxons to settle in Britain so it suggests a confusion between Vortigern and Arthur.

Sources

Turning to Fiction

Geoffrey of Monmouth (c1136) put the story of King Arthur into a coherent story, as part of a national epic that demonstrated the long history of Britain. Subsequent generations embroidered the story. For more information, see the Arthurian Fiction Project

Resources

For additional resources see: