Thursday, August 4, 2016

Legend or Fiction: The Historical Evidence for Arthur

by Richard Denning

King Arthur, the Round Table and Camelot hold a central place in British mythology thanks to the 11th and 12th century romances/ fantasy stories penned by  Geoffrey of Monmouth  and Chretien de Troyes. It was these works that created a world filled by Chivalry, heroic quests, Merlin, Guinevere and  the Holy Grail.

Historians differ on the likelihood of a historical Arthur ever existing, but they generally agree that if he did exist he was not a figure from the age of chivalry but rather a warlord from the Dark Ages, desperately fighting battles to hold back the tide of the encroaching Anglo-Saxons whose spread across what is now England threatened to sweep all of the Celtic Britons away.

Today I am going to look at what evidence there is for an historical Arthur. When you begin to look into this period a reader or writer is immediately presented with an immense problem. That is that the mentions of Arthur refer back to that period between the departure of the Romans in the early 5th Century and the Establishment of a degree of order and organisation, and with that a return of literacy during the 7th Century. It is these - the Darkest Years of the Dark ages - as I tend to refer to them to which Arthur belongs if he did exist.

Let us look then at the evidence in a roughly chronological order.

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain).

Gildas wrote this in the mid 6th Century (he died around 570). He records the coming of the Saxon invaders and their temporary defeat and the turning back (for a while) of the tide of conquest at a very significant battle.

...sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, ... until the year of the siege of Bath-hill, when took place also the last, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was ... forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity. 

Gildas does not mention Arthur but does record the date, fairly precisely to the  late 490's of a terrible battle and slaughter of the invaders. He says it was at Bath Hill. This has generally been identified as the Battle of Badon c500.

Historia Brittonum

The Historia Brittonum, usually attributed to Nennius, is a Welsh ecclesiastic writing  around the year 828 and the earliest work that clearly refers to Arthur. It lists twelve battles when the Britons were commanded by Arthur, using the title 'dux bellorum' or 'war commander'. The Historia Brittonum does not say that Arthur was a king - indeed it implies that he was not, but that he was appointed the role of commander, presumably due to his prowess.

Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.

It is this entry from which we can draw out certain facts; Arthur was a warrior and commander rather than a king. He fought battles across the length and breadth of Britain - implying a general alliance of the British tribes against the Saxons (that list of battles has been identified with locations as far apart as Cornwall and Carlisle.) The final battle listed here - Badon - has been associated with various locations including Bath (here relying on the words of Gildas). It is seen as being the critical battle that led to the turning back of the Saxon tide for as long as two generations.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Ecclesiastical History of the English People

It may seem strange that Arthur is not mentioned at all in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c. 890s), nor in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) (c. 731). However there is perhaps an explanation. Gildas and Nennius were both Britons. To them Arthur and the struggle against the invader were to be respected and celebrated whilst the ASC was penned by Saxon scribes, and of course Bede was also a Anglo-Saxon, and their version of history to some extent wanted to portray the Britons as being the enemy and not worthy of praise. Maybe there was no place for a great Celtic warlord in that version of history, so maybe he was ignored.

Annales Cambriae

The Annales Cambriae are chronicles of events recorded in Welsh monasteries. The earliest surviving versions date to the 10th century, and we do not know when they were recorded.

516 The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.

537 The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

The date for Badon is somewhat adrift of that given by Gildas, but one has to remember that they were written at least four hundred years later than the events to which they refer. That said, here again are TWO references to the existence of Arthur.

Welsh Poetry

Y Gododdin, written by the poet Aneirin around the year 600  survives from an 11th-century manuscript. In it is a reference to a warrior who "...glutted black ravens [i.e., killed many men] on the rampart of the stronghold, although he was no Arthur ..."

Saint's Lives or Vitas

The Legenda Sancti Goeznovii is a saint's life or hagiography of Saint Goeznovius. It appears to date back to 1019 and includes a segment dealing with Arthur and Vortigern:

..In the course of time, the usurping king Vortigern, to buttress the defence of the kingdom of Great Britain ... summoned warlike men from the land of Saxony and made them his allies in the kingdom. Since they were pagans and of devilish character, lusting by their nature to shed human blood, they drew many evils upon the Britons.

Presently their pride was checked for a while through the great Arthur, king of the Britons. They were largely cleared from the island and reduced to subjection. 

The significance of this Vita and those of six others is that they all mention in passing the existence of Arthur. Their dating implies that they were independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth's invention of a fantastical Arthur in Historia Regum Britanniae.

The significance of the name: Arthur.

The historian John Morris wrote a book last century called The Age of Arthur which was criticized by other historians in attempting to lay out a chronology for a historical Arthur.  One therefore has to read it with a degree of caution. Nevertheless Morris argued that the name Arthur became popular in the 6th and 7th centuries whilst it does not seem to have been popular before. Several significant individuals from the period bore the name. Could it be that they were named after a figure who was already a hero and significant individual in their recent past?

So did he exist?

If we peel away the confusion and distraction caused by the evolution of the post 11th century Arthur with its enchanting legends and tales of chivalry, I believe we can argue that there are enough references to a historical figure who lived in the later 5th and early 6th century perhaps called Arthur. He won a series of battles against the Saxons and in particular crushed them in a decisive victory at Mons Badonicus or Badon Hill, possibly near Bath.

This post is an Editors' Choice and was originally published on 19th Jan 2015

Richard Denning is a historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord.

Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.


  1. Interesting, thanks! I have the urge to go place-name chasing...

  2. Is 'Cair Lion' Caerleon in South Wales? There was a big Roman fort there, so it may have retained some strategic importance after the Romans left.

    1. Mre likely Chester BUT I accept there are other candidates for the City of the Legion.

  3. Well, I believe in his existence, so you'll get no argument from me on this! :-) There was certainly somebody who made enough difference for the annalists to make passing reference to someone they assumed everybody had heard of.

  4. This Cair Lion is thought to be Chester, still known as Caer in Welsh today.

  5. A great introductory article to the histrical Arthur, Richard. I have a three part ebook in process (if I ever finish it) on the subject.

  6. It's worth remembering that England nor Wales can truly lay claim to Arthur. He existed before the countries were formed. However, the language he would have spoken would have been an earlier form of present day Welsh. The original language spoken prior to the arrival of the Anglo Saxons.

  7. I spent 11 years researching and writing my Guinevere Trilogy in the 1980's which was one of the first attempts at framing the Matter of Britain from Guinevere's point of view in an historically accurate period. It was marketted in the UK as romance (which is not what I write) but think you can find them in ebook form recently reissued by Sourcebooks. Love your long quotes, Richard, and appreciate both your thoroughness and concisenesss (if that's not a contradiction). Morris was one of my mainstays as were the Welsh Triads by the time I reached the end of the third volume and it's great fun to find modern bards are still feasting off the stories of the Bear.

  8. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  9. I think that Richard knows my views on this. The only surviving versions of the manuscripts which may (or may not) mention "Arthur" date from long after Geoffrey of Monmouth invented the Arthurian cycle as a clear work of fiction, around 1150. So anybody copying manuscripts after that date would be very likely to simply edit and amend older versions to include this, only then, popular character. And it's too simple to write off the almost contemporary chronologers, Gildas and Bede, by saying that they weren't "Britons." They might not have been, but Gildas certainly mentions all the significant "British" warlords during the period in which Arthur is supposed to have existed - and "Arthur" isn't among them. And why does the name Arthur suddenly become popular in the 6th and 7th Century?? Because, over the preceding hundred years, there was wave after wave of incomer settlers from Laigin and other parts of Ireland, all along the western coast. And, guess what?? Art, Arth, Arthur was already a popular name among Irish men, with several significant legends about Irish heroes bearing the same name. I fully understand everybody's attachment to the Arthur legend. It's a nice one. But it' s along stretch towards saying there's any hard evidence for his existence as a historical entity.


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