The real King Arthur: why are we so obsessed with trying to solve the mystery?
Was King Arthur a real person? And why we so intent on solving the mystery of King Arthur in the first place? Writing for HistoryExtra, historian Miles Russell separates fact from fiction and explains our enduring fascination with the Arthurian legend…
The tale of Arthur, the “once and future king”, is epic and timeless. With its key themes of magic, chivalric brotherhood, courtly love and the eternal quest (for the Holy Grail) set in a lost golden age, Arthur’s legend has become one of the most potent, successful and well-known stories in world mythology.
Today, of course, there are two separate and discrete Arthurs: the fictional king, whose life is retold and reinvented for every generation; and the historical figure, whose story, we assume, originates in the chaos of post-Roman Britain, sometime in the fifth or sixth century.
Watch: According to archaeologist Miles Russell, the legendary figure (as featured in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth) was based on five real historical figures...
The biggest problem for anyone attempting to uncover the ‘real’ King Arthur is the lack of reliable, contemporary source material. Our best text for the period is On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by the sixth-century sermon writer Gildas. Gildas depicts a period of anarchy and violence in which the degenerate and demoralised Britons are ultimately cowed by their pagan Saxon foe. Unfortunately, he fails to mention Arthur, although he does praise a successful general by the name of Ambrosius Aurelianus, to whom he credits the victory of ‘Mount Badon’ – a battle thought to have occurred between Celtic Britons and Anglo-Saxons in the late fifth or early sixth century.
In the ninth-century History of the Britons, a character called Arthur, described as dux bellorum (supreme commander), is the acclaimed victor of 12 battles. The names of these are garbled and difficult to interpret (and in some instances undoubtedly duplicated), but one in particular stands out: Badon Hill. Here, we are told, Arthur carried “the image of the holy Mary” on his shoulders (presumably painted on a shield), single-handedly killing “nine hundred and sixty men”.
Evidently, this particular battle has not only been significantly dramatised through the addition of fantastic detail, but it has also been taken away from Gildas’s hero, Ambrosius Aurelianus, to whom the victory was originally credited.
It’s not until the early 12th century that we get a whole life-history for King Arthur, thanks to the quill pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey’s work features all of Arthur’s key battles, taken from the History of the Britons, but also adds detail such as his conception at Tintagel in Cornwall; his parentage (the son of Uther Pendragon and Ygerna); his sword (Caliburn); and his struggles against enemies across Europe. Along the way Geoffrey also outlines Arthur’s love for Ganhumara (Guinevere); the epic bravery of his band of brothers; and the final treachery of Mordred, who deals Arthur a mortal blow at Camblam (Camlann), after which his body is conveyed to Avalon.
The History of the Kings of Britain set the template for future stories about Arthur, but unfortunately, Geoffrey provided no clue as to where the story came from, leading many later writers to suggest that he simply made it all up.
The absence of a clear and present origin for King Arthur has created a ‘void’ which many are keen to fill. In recent years, the concept of a hidden, forbidden or secret history has emerged in the quest for the king, thanks, undoubtedly, to the popularity of archaeological detective work combined with the conspiracy-led nature of pop culture fiction (such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003). Every year new books, articles and television programmes claim to have discovered a ‘lost truth’ or exposed a new aspect of King Arthur’s identity. Some are genuinely intriguing; others are clearly delusional, but the ‘quest’ is both enthralling and lucrative, from whichever angle you approach it.
The most recent attempt to identify King Arthur comes from the author David Carroll. His claim, that Arthur was the son of a sixth-century king in what is now Scotland, is particularly eye-catching given that it has been linked with an offer of £50,000 to anyone who can prove his thesis wrong. Carroll’s money is, it is fair to say, safe – for, intriguing though the theory is, the absence of definitive evidence one way or another means that no one will ever be able, in a court of law, to prove the case.
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Of all the various petty British kings jostling for power or fighting invaders in the fifth and sixth centuries, the strongest candidate for a ‘real’ King Arthur will always be Ambrosius Aurelianus. Unfortunately, just as with Arthur himself, we know very little about the man other than the brief comments provided by Gildas: that he was descended from Roman nobility and led a pro-British force against the Saxons, winning a great victory at Badon Hill. It is doubtful that anyone will ever know where Badon was exactly (a number of locations have been identified across England and Wales), but the battle was significant enough to be remembered for generations and later become known as a key moment in Arthur’s career.
If we examine the first detailed life of King Arthur (the account provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth), it becomes clear that Arthur is a composite: a gestalt Celtic superhero formed from the deeds of others. The chronological ‘Dark Age’ anchor is provided by Ambrosius Aurelianus, while other elements in his story derive from the lives of Magnus Maximus [a Roman general illegally made emperor in Britain in AD 383]; Constantine ‘the Great’ [who was proclaimed emperor at York in AD 306], and Cassivellaunus [a British tribal leader who fought against Julius Caesar in 54 BC]. Once you detach these characters from Geoffrey’s narrative, there is simply nothing left for Arthur.
Geoffrey’s History was the medieval equivalent of a best-seller, winning popularity not just with a British audience, but also with Saxon and Norman readers. Within a generation of its publication, significant numbers of Arthurian tales were popping up across continental Europe. Later writers, such as the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, introduced concepts of courtly love to the myth, helping to shift the emphasis away from the blood-soaked world of the warrior. Most potent of all Chrétien’s additions was the introduction of Lancelot, and his adulterous relationship with Queen Guinevere; and Perceval, whose quest for the Holy Grail would further inspire poets, novelists, artists and filmmakers alike.
Over the years, the tale of King Arthur, the flawed hero, and his cast of supporting characters has been successfully reinvented and reimagined, acquiring new detail and changing emphasis along the way. Today, the tale is as strong as ever and shows no sign of fading.
Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University and author of Arthur and the Kings of Britain: the Historical Truth Behind the Myths (Amberley Publishing, 2017)