Home » History » On the historicity of Arthur
Short of finding an inscription along the lines of "hic erat Arthur," it is unlikely given the current state of knowledge of the fifth and sixth centuries of British history that whether or not the magnanimous soldier Arthur, victor on twelve occasions against the Anglo-Saxons according to the Historia Brittonum (HB), existed can be proved conclusively. Certainly the much later portrait of a magnificent king and his retinue of knights is a fantasy, featuring the accretions of many centuries, and can be reasonably dispensed with. But can we now safely say that the Arthur lauded in the HB was likewise fictitious?
The question depends upon one's approach to a couple of sources in particular, which will be the primary focus here. These are the aforementioned Historia Brittonum, which lists Arthur's accomplishments sandwiched between the death of Hengist and arrival of Octha in the south and the appearance of the Angle Ida on the coast north of Hadrian's Wall, and a series of poetic elegies grouped together under the heading Y Gododdin, lamenting the deaths of the final flowering of Northern British warriors, probably primarily from the Edinburgh region, after a glorious struggle with the Angles of Deira at Catraeth (almost certainly Catterick, in modern North Yorkshire), in which Arthur is briefly mentioned in association with the deeds of the warrior Gwawrddur.
While some of the stanzas of Y Gododdin may date from as early as the latter half of the sixth century, a generation or two after the generally-accepted period for Arthur's floruit, the work has been redacted and updated, with manuscript evidence dating from centuries afterwards. The same is the case with the HB, which seems to have been originally collected some time around the 820s. Additionally, Old Welsh poetry is often notoriously difficult to decipher, whilst, in the case of the HB, it is often unclear as to precisely how accurate the information provided by the compiler is as a picture of the period in question.
The Annales Cambriᶒ (AC) add further details and diverge from HB, in that they have Arthur carrying "the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders" during the conflict at Badon, whilst they also mention "[t]he battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell" twenty-one years afterwards.
The apogee for the positivist approach to these sources, as well as others which make mention of Arthur and his deeds - including the often negative portrayal of Arthur which appears in the Vitae of various British saints - was undoubtedly The Age of Arthur, a monumental work by John Morris which appeared in 1973. Morris' work, however, garnered a great deal of criticism from his peers, who caution against his overconfident use of the sources and his overly-optimistic reconstruction of the period.
"The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books."
- David N. Dumville
Subsequently, and doubtless inspired in part by a reaction to Morris' views, the downplaying of Arthur as a figure with a historical basis re-emerged in the late 1970s, most notably in the work of David N. Dumville, and has since become the scholarly orthodoxy. The annoyance of the likes of Dumville and his academic heritors is perhaps understandable, especially given the welter of books written by non-specialists, of varying degrees of merit (and, indeed, honesty), which appear with some frequency, and focus almost exclusively upon this rather peripheral figure, and seem inspired by the later visions of Arthur which diverged strongly from the sparse notice in HB and Y Gododdin. Oftentimes, these writers make identifications based upon the flimsy evidence of names in genealogies written centuries after the fact and show unwarranted confidence in their ability to decipher the names of Arthur's battles and to find their "true" locations (which, in a number of cases, coincide with the writer's own region). A number of other well-known books attempt to make Arthur a title used by some other personage presumed to be active during this period, people who, in certain cases, are even more flimsily attested than Arthur himself.
As a reaction to Morris and the legion of Arthur-finders, specialists in the field, following on from Dumville's dismissal of the sources, develop their own theories for exactly how Arthur came to be in the HB. These focus on the two pieces of Arthuriana from De mirabilibus Britanniae, an appendix to the HB written shortly after the compilation of that work, as well as legendary and poetic material of uncertain date which correlate with these accounts of Arthur's son and dog. De Mirabilibus Britanniae lists thirteen topographical marvels, two of which explicitly mention Arthur. These are: Carn Cabal, which supposedly bore a pawprint of Arthur's dog Cabal from during the hunt for the gigantic pig Troynt; and Licat Anir (or Amr), the grave of Arthur's son who was killed by his father, which was reputed to change its dimensions frequently.
Some revivify a theory first put forth in the 1920s, which, noting similarities between the roles played by Arthur and the great Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill in the literature, suggest that Arthur shared similar origins with Fionn as a culture hero, keeping the land protected from monsters and monstrous invaders.
The hunt for Troynt is a major feature in Culhwch ac Olwen, a major Middle Welsh work which describes Arthur's court and furnishes interesting descriptions of his often preternaturally-gifted retainers. Culhwch ac Olwen is a major reference point for the Arthur-as-mythic-hunter theory, though it is also possible to my mind that, rather than Arthur becoming historicised, Culhwch ac Olwen instead represents a stage in the mythologisation of a historical figure.
"The most legendary material in the whole work, with prophetic worms, fatherless boys and councils of wizards, concerns the undoubtedly historical Ambrosius. Similarly, the very real Germanus of Auxerre is shown destroying whole fortresses with fire from heaven. To turn an incredibly famous, non-historical Welsh culture-hero into a mundane Saxon-fighter is simply bathetic."
- Christopher Gidlow
However, others, notably Christopher Gidlow, continue to offer a more optimistic view on Arthur's historicity, with Gidlow dismissing the doubts of his peers with regards to the sources. The concerns outlined above, Gidlow suggests, namely the long-standing and continuing popularity of Arthur as a great hero, the "once and future king" and the author of a golden age, presiding over a vast realm with his colourful band of knights, and the desire by hordes of laymen to have their two-penn'orth on the subject, inspires scholars with a desire to disprove Arthur's existence outright, or at the very least to downplay it.
Take one example: the combined forces of academe do not, for example, make a point of dismissing the historicity of the warrior Dutigern (or Outigern), the third of the HB's trio of great Saxon-fighters. Dutigern remains obscure, is not the subject of a large volume of published material, and is of seemingly little interest to non-academic authors. Not did he, from the evidence of the sadly meagre sources from the period remaining to us at present, capture the imagination of the early people of Wales in the same manner that Arthur did: no poems and stories survive which tell of his deeds and the striking array of warriors he had at his disposal.
But does that later popularity of Arthur the hero among the descendants of the Britons who fought alongside him and managed to gain the upper hand, curtailing the Anglo-Saxon expansion, derive from his earlier status as a mythological hunter and culture-hero, or is it a consequence of his prowess on the battlefield?
The mid-sixth century produced one notable work with bearing on the story of Arthur. This was De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, commonly ascribed to the British clergyman St. Gildas. DEB does not mention Arthur (indeed, the actual personal names which appear are few in number - and Ambrosius Aurelianus may only be named to provide a reference point for his possible descendant Aurelius Caninus, excoriated by the saint), but it does record a sequence of events which are familiar from readers of the HB. Firstly, the Britons, under imminent threat from the depredations of the Picts and Scots, summon three keels worth of Saxons to their aid. This was not uncommon: Germanic warriors were used during the Late Roman period in large numbers, and many would have already made their homes on the island of Britain. Then comes the rebellion, with catastrophic effects for the Britons, until the appearance of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the "last of the Romans," under whom the Britons rallied and managed to gain as many victories as they suffered defeats, culminating in a notable triumph in the siege of Mons Badonicus - the Badon ascribed to Arthur in HB - after which an uneasy peace prevailed between the two peoples for almost half a century until the time when DEB was written.
"If the paragraph-break is removed, and the whole passage taken as one, then Mount Badon reads naturally as the victory which crowned the career of Ambrosius Aurelianus himself."
- Oliver Padel
Oliver Padel's work on the Mons Badonicus passage in DEB from the earliest surviving manuscript, the Cotton Vitellius A.vi, leads him to conclude that this victory should be ascribed to Ambrosius Aurelianus.
This leads, however, to a number of difficult questions being raised.
Firstly, Ambrosius - given variously as Embris or Embreis Guletic - is known to the author of the HB and, while he is not a notable warrior (the only battle in which Ambrosius appears is that at Guoloph against one Guitolinus), the sections in which he appears are among the most "mythological" in the entire work, with Ambrosius being depicted as a boy with no mortal father, possessing otherworldly knowledge about the two dragons beneath the ground upon which Vortigern - who is accompanied by a conclave of wizards - wishes to build. Arthur meanwhile - notwithstanding the claim that he killed 960 men singlehandedly, about which much is made by minimalists - is presented in very prosaic terms, as a magnanimous soldier appointed dux bellorum by the British leadership, in spite of the fact that "there were many more noble than himself."
Secondly, Cotton Vitellius A.vi was written during the 10th century in a monastic context in Wessex, based upon a Welsh or Cornish exemplar. Assuming that this ur-text was relatively recent (which is not guaranteed), it would be produced by a culture in which the battle of Badon was already ascribed to Arthur.
Thirdly, the fact that the great victory at Mons Badonicus came to be associated not with Ambrosius but with Arthur suggests that the DEB was always ambiguous on this point. Otherwise, why would Ambrosius' greatest achievement - indeed the only contemporary battlereferred to by name in DEB - have required the invention of another commander? Surely, given the author of DEB's admiration for Ambrosius, were he intended as the victor at Mons Badonicus, he would have stated this outright?
Furthermore, Padel leans heavily upon the two marvels associated with Arthur in the Mirabilia, but even here Arthur is referred to as nothing more marvellous than a soldier. Additionally, the main text of the HB has St. Germanus summoning fire from heaven to destroy fortresses, which need not necessarily mean that he was mythical in origin.
In favour of Padel's view, however, it must be noted that St. Bede, in his Chronica Majora, places the activities of Ambrosius during the reign of the Emperor Zeno, dated to between AD 476 and 493. The same author synchronises the Adventus Saxonum with the beginning of the joint rule of Martian and Valentinian in 449 (HEGA) or 452 (Chronica Majora), meaning that the 44 years allocated by St. Bede as having separated the Adventus and the British victory at Badon would logically have taken place in the years after Ambrosius began his resistance efforts.
Even so, whether or not Ambrosius had anything to do with Mons Badonicus or nay, the presence of both he and Arthur during the battle need not be excluded. Arthur is described as nothing more than a soldier elected to command the Britons during the conflict and thus he can perhaps be seen as a magister militum-type figure, perhaps operating in a similar capacity with regards to Ambrosius as Hengist appears to have done vis-à-vis Vortigern during the period prior to the Saxon revolt.
It is very likely that the account of Arthur's battles from the Historia Brittonum originated as a poetic emendation of his exploits, along the lines of such opera as Arddwyre Reged and Cadau Gwallawc from the Book of Taliesin, which praise the successes of Urien Rheged and Gwallog ap Lleenog. The Welsh Arthurian poem Pa gur yv y porthaur? proceeds in a similar vein, presenting Arthur & his henchman Cai approaching Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr, listing various battles in which they had fought.
It should be noted that certain Arthurian battles have similar names to places mentioned in these pieces ascribed to Taliesin, as well as other sources. Arthur's battles at Breguoin & Guinnion have been associated with Urien's encounters at Cellawr Brewyn & Gwenystrad (which is associated with a place name Garanwynyon), though places of strategic importance in Urien's day would also be of the same import in the time of Arthur. A more outlandish suggestion is that Arthur's battle at Caer Legion was inspired by the later battle of Chester, in which the Bernician Æþelfriþ inflicted a decisive defeat on the Britons of North Wales and north-western England. How this ignominious defeat should come to be transformed into an earlier victory is mysterious and it seems more likely that two separate episodes are intended.
Caitlin (or Thomas) Green makes ingenious suggestions regarding the Arthurian battles of Cat Coit Celidon and Castellum Guinnion, which she associates with episodes attested in the works of the Welsh poets, namely Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees) and Preiddu Annwfn respectively. Whilst Green's reasoning is certainly sound, and her theory interesting, it seems more likely to this writer that the notices of these battles are based upon historical sources, simply due to the probable identification of the sites as the Caledonian Forest and the Roman fort of Vinnovium.
The poem Preiddu Annwfn presents a far more mythologised Arthur leading an expedition to the otherworld from which only seven warriors return. The otherworld, a depicted as a series of fortresses bearing a variety of descriptive titles, is accessed by means of Arthur's magical ship Prydwen and the warrior Lleminawg distinguishes himself in the conflict, from which he returns with "a sword bright gleaming" of "the flashing sword of Lleawch" (cledyf lluch lleawc) as part of the spoils.
This escapade bears a number of similarities with material from the first two branches of the Mabinogi in particular, especially the warrior Pwyll's exchanging places with the ruler of the otherworld, Arawn, for a specific period, and especially with Bran's expedition to rescue his sister Branwen in the branch bearing her name: both works involve a magical cauldron and in each case only seven men are stated to have escaped with their lives.
The content depicted in Preiddu Annwfn need not, however, impact negatively on the historicity of Arthur. While it is true that it recalls a similar adventure to that contained in the mythology of Bran and Branwen, it must be noted that Bran and his men's destination is specified as Ireland, while one of his surviving companions was none other than Taliesin, the great bard of the sixth century - of whom scholars credit to varying degrees a number of the poems ascribed to him in the Llyfr Taliesin. This proves how otherwise historical people and places might become associated with legendary events and it must be stated that, by the time the poetry mentioning Arthur - as well as the Mabinogion - was finally committed to writing, it had already undergone perhaps centuries of oral transmission and development.
Yet another association of Arthur with an episode from the Mabinogion appears in Culhwch ac Olwen, where Teregud, Sulyen, Bradwen, Moren, Siawn and Cradawc, the sons of Iaen, are described as Arthur's kinsmen on his father's side, hailing from Caerdathal, presumably one and the same as the Caer Dathyl in Arfon described as having served as Math ap Mathonwy's base of operations.
Whether or not we recognise in the likes of Manawyddan and Mabon euhemerised deities or no, it matters little: the authors of these and other relevant texts, who finally put them into writing, and who redacted putative prior versions, certainly regarded these figures as flesh and blood human beings. Their presence in Arthurian material - which, as the minimalists rightly point out, appear in the forms we have them in several centuries after Arthur's supposed career - need not make a case for a fictitious Arthur. In a similar vein, Urien Rheged is made the husband of Mabon's mother Modron, which has not prevented sober academics from seeking to locate the heartland of Urien's realm.
Neither should the apparent presence of cynocephali and other wondrous enemies in Pa gur mitigate against a historical Arthur. On the one hand, such entities - ultimately bequeathed from the accounts of the ancient Greeks and Romans - were widely believed during the periods in question to dwell at the outer edges of the world. Thus, it could be argued that their presence indicates that already Arthur was taking on the role of conquerer on a global scale (an image of Arthur which would reach its apogee with Sir John Dee's use of Arthurian material to further his case for the construction of a "Brytish Impire" during the reign of Elizabeth I). More prosaically, one could argue that dog imagery was in vogue during Arthur's sixth century: of the five tyrants fulminated against in the DEB, three bear names which include references to the animal.
Though the suggestions made by various scholars of the utmost standing should be taken seriously, I feel that, judging by the evidence, there is a strong probability that there was a historical figure bearing the name of Arthur who came to be regarded as the most successful British general during the wars against Anglo-Saxon encroachment fought during the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Taking the HB at face value, describing as it does a heroic warrior and little more, one is left with the conclusion that the more mythological elements of his story came later. But how?
The compilation of Welsh materials having a bearing upon the age of Arthur most likely continued in earnest (if not proceeded) during the reign of Hywel Dda's son Owain, while the reign of Hywel Dda is the probable context for the writing of the two prophetic poems Armes Prydain Fawr and Armes Prydain Bychan, seemingly motivated in part by Hywel's submission to English overlordship. These works conjure the shades of long-dead heroes - Cadwaladr and Cynan Garwyn - as well as the sons of Beli Mawr and Arthur's henchman Llyminawg, and, certainly in the case of the former, the Welsh and other Brythonic groupings are fated to lead an alliance including the Irish, Picts and Norse of Dublin in driving out the English conclusively. While Arthur is not mentioned, the later view of him as the "once and future king," secreted in what Geoffrey of Monmouth termed Insula Avallonis nursing his wounds, ready to rise against the descendants of his former foes, could conceivably have emerged during this period of tumult. Arthur - the HB's Saxon-fighter par excellence - would be an apt figure for deployment in such a context and, like Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, represents the twilight glories of a lost age.
The further development of Arthur into a king presiding over a golden age in the history of Britain grew and grew, becoming popular on the continent (derived primarily from Breton sources, it would seem), enabling the use of the figure of Arthur by the Plantagenet rulers of England to promote their imperial vision of gaining control of the entire island and beyond. The apotheosis of this development appeared during the 16th century, when, subsequent to the European discovery and the beginnings of the colonisation of the Americas, Arthur's exploits came to extend to this New World, leading the Welshman John Dee to implore his queen to follow in his footsteps and emulate the Transatlantic reach of Arthur's power.