This article was first published in the December 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
The warrior-king wasn’t a historical figure but the product of a Welsh author’s desire for Britons to regain lands they deemed rightfully theirs
As legends go, it’s got the lot. There’s blood and glory, thanks to our hero, Arthur’s, against-the-odds victories over the Anglo-Saxons on the battlefield. There’s love and betrayal (Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, leaves him for his greatest friend). There’s glamour and chivalry, courtesy of some of the most celebrated knights in literary history. And, of course, there are dragons, wizards and a supernatural sword, all topped off by a quest for an elusive grail with miraculous powers.
Given these ingredients, it’s hardly any wonder that the tale of King Arthur has proved one of the most alluring in all of western civilisation – one that has inspired everything from medieval romances to role-playing computer games. But strip back the magic and the monsters, and there’s another reason that the story has proved so enduringly attractive. That’s the tantalising possibility that the man at the centre of the legend may, just may, have been a historical figure – that this wildly popular drama might have been inspired by the real-life exploits of a fifth-century British freedom fighter.
But could this be the case? Is there a historical foundation to the legend of King Arthur? It’s a question that’s puzzled historians for centuries. And at the heart of that question lie just a handful of medieval texts. They are the key to establishing whether we are are dealing with pure fiction or something inspired by true events.
The legend of King Arthur with which we are so familiar today isn’t, of course, the product of one medieval author. Instead, it’s the handiwork of many writers – each layering their own embellishments on to the tale over a period of hundreds of years.
The earliest known account of Arthur’s deeds is in The History of the Britons, written in Wales in 829–30 (some historians attribute the text to a Welsh monk called Nennius, though others believe its author is best considered anonymous). The History sets the template for much of what was to follow, presenting Arthur as a valiant warrior who, with divine aid, led the Britons to 12 victories over the Saxon invaders who were occupying what we now think of as England.
Next, in the mid-10th century, came the Welsh Annals. Like The History of the Britons, the Annals hails Arthur’s military prowess, crediting him with a great victory at a place called Badon. In fact, the Annals seems to use The History, or something closely related, as its primary source.
If The History of the Britons and the Annals established Arthur as a Celtic hero, then it was a later manifestation of the Arthurian tale – as the hero of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s rip-roaring History of the Kings of Britain, written in the 1130s – that transformed him into an international superstar. It was Geoffrey who gave us Guinevere, Merlin and the sword Caliburn, which would later become famous as Excalibur. It was Geoffrey who first plotted out Arthur’s life story, from his birth at Tintagel to his final resting place at Avalon.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century account of King Arthur’s life gave us Guinevere, Merlin and (above) the sword that would come to be known as Excalibur. These embellishments helped turn Arthur into an international superstar. (Illustration by Georgie Gozem for BBC History Magazine)
Such was the power of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s rendition of the Arthur story that, in the 1150s, the Norman poet Robert Wace felt moved to translate the tale into French, adding the story of the Round Table into the mix in the process.
The legend proved hugely influential on the continent, a fact reflected in the work of the French romance poet Chrétien de Troyes in the second half of the 12th century. Chrétien dramatically reshaped and extended the earlier story of the abduction and rescue of Guinevere. And it is to him that we owe three other famous elements of the Arthur story: Lancelot, the Grail and Camelot. The ‘sword in the stone’ and ‘sword in the lake’ were added around 1200.
So historians in search of the ‘real’ King Arthur have a number of sources to work with. The question they have to answer is, which ones qualify as potentially reliable sources? In some respects, that’s not such a difficult task: modern commentators are pretty well all agreed that we should dismiss as fiction everything from Geoffrey onwards. (He was clearly attempting to dress up a fantastical drama as history – and most later renditions were inspired by his work).
We can set aside the Welsh Annals as a witness, because the ‘Arthur’ entries were clearly not based on near-contemporary sources.. That leaves us with just one contender. If we are to find a historical Arthur buried beneath the fabrications, it’s to The History of the Britons we must turn. But does this ninth-century text stand up to the historian’s scrutiny?
You won’t find Merlin, Camelot or the Holy Grail in The History of the Britons, but what you will find is an annotated list of Arthur’s military triumphs over the Saxons. The History tells us that “in those days Arthur fought with the kings of the Britons against them [the Saxons] but he himself was the commander of battles”. It then attributes 12 battles to him. One of the most dramatic is the eighth, which was fought – so we’re told – “in the castle of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of St Mary the perpetual virgin on his shoulders, and on that day the pagans were put to flight, and a great slaughter was upon them through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of Saint Mary his holy virgin mother”.
The drama builds until the final, climactic clash in Arthur’s campaign against the Saxons at Badon. Here, The History tells us, “there fell in one day 960 men from one charge [of] Arthur; and no one slew them except him alone, and in all battles he was the victor”.
It’s a stirring celebration of Arthur’s prowess as a warrior and leader. But there’s a problem: the author is describing battles that supposedly occurred three centuries earlier – in fact, he was as far away from the ‘Age of Arthur’ as we are from the reign of George I.
It goes without saying that oral testimony cannot be relied upon across so long a period. So did our author have at his disposal near-contemporary written accounts of Arthur’s campaigns? The answer is almost certainly not. True, the British monk Gildas referred to the clash at Badon in his own sixth-century history of Britain – but he never even mentioned Arthur. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of The History of the Britons’s status as a repository for genuine evidence for the British Dark Ages.
It has been suggested that the names of the battles described in The History of the Britons were taken from a poem written in Old Welsh (and hence nearer the events it describes). Surely this would establish a firm connection between the ninth-century chronicle and Arthur’s fifth-century wars.
The fact that some of the battle names rhyme – Dubglas and Bassas; Celidon and Guinnion – appear to support the hypothesis that they were taken from a poem. Even so, it requires an enormous leap of the imagination to conclude that any such poem was penned by a well-informed near contemporary of Arthur’s. Wars don’t tend to feature rhyming battle-names. What’s more, several of these names appear to have been borrowed from earlier texts: Badon, as we’ve heard, was used by Gildas (though he described it as a siege, not a battle), while Tribruit – the site of Arthur’s 10th battle – is probably Traeth Trywruid, a battle named in the Old Welsh poem Pa gur.
In short, The History’s author appears to have cherry-picked a number of notable military campaigns from pre-existing texts and recycled them as Arthur’s.
Worse still for those who believe that The History of the Britons provides a window on a historical Arthur, the author patently makes up both people and events in the distant past. Read any number of passages in the text and you’ll find that he was frequently cavalier in his descriptions of historical events. Take his account of Julius Caesar’s first expedition to Britain. In his attempts to chronicle the events of 55–54 BC, the author borrows heavily from the fifth-century Spanish/Roman writer Orosius, whose history rested on earlier accounts right back to those written by Julius Caesar himself. But the author makes his own, entirely fictional changes, converting the well-known Roman aristocrat Dolabella to the British general fighting Caesar and conferring on the British king authority over islands in the western Mediterranean. He even tells us that the Romans landed in the Thames estuary, when they, in fact, came ashore on Kent’s east coast. He concludes his description of the invasion by telling us that “Julius returned without victory, his soldiers killed and his ships broken”. It’s a heavily massaged, pro-British rewriting of the facts as he knew them. And it’s pertinent to King Arthur. For, if the author saw fit to twist the facts in his descriptions of Caesar’s campaigns, then surely he was capable of doing so in his account of fifth-century Britain.
So, what was the author of The History of the Britons seeking to gain from falsifying the past? Well, to be fair, he did not see himself as a historian; he termed his work a sermon (“sermo”). And, like any good sermon, this one was primarily about the present and near-future. History is subordinate, used to set out a particular vision of the relationship between God, his British people and their ‘foreign’ enemies (the Saxons). The History is much better approached as a reflection of racial politics and religious thinking in its own day.
The author of ‘The History of the Britons’ did not regard himself as a historian, argues Nick Higham. Instead he saw his work as a “sermon”, describing God’s relationship with the British in the past as a means of addressing that relationship in the present. (Illustration by George Gozem)
One example of this sermonising in action is the author’s description of the birth of Roman Britain. In AD 768, the British church had given up its long struggle against Catholic practices, and accepted the Roman dating of Easter. Welsh intellectuals, our author among them, were now engaged in rewriting the past in a bid to establish connections between the Britons and Romans, and to reveal the Britons as great warriors, equal to the Romans.
What we get, therefore, is an extraordinarily inaccurate account of Roman Britain. Augustus, we are told, was the only Roman emperor to whom the Britons paid taxes – despite Britain not being a part of the empire during his reign. According to the author, these payments ceased in the time of Claudius – when they actually began. The History describes the baptism of “Lucius, the British king, with all the under-kings of the whole British people”, following envoys sent to the Roman emperors and Pope Eucharistus. Again, this is pure fiction, based on a mistake by the English historian Bede (for a start, Pope Eucharistus never existed), but it chimes nicely with the objective of linking British and Roman Christianity from an early date.
The History tells us that the missionary Patrick was sent to Ireland “by Celestine the Roman pope and an angel of God named Victoricus” (though the Irish source the author drew on also depicts Victoricus as a man). It also claims that the conversion of the Northumbrian king Edwin was the work not of the Roman bishop Paulinus (as Bede wrote) but a British priest called Rhun. These stories fitted the political agenda of ninth-century Wales very well but they are no more historical for that.
Aside from the convergence of the British and Roman churches, there was a second issue that our author was seeking to address – the Saxon takeover of so much of Britain. At the time of The History’s writing, the Welsh had been forced to acknowledge the supremacy of the West Saxon king Ecgberht, who briefly established his superiority over all England as well. Its author’s dismay at this turn of events informs swathes of The History of the Britons, once again resulting in passages of text that are more political manifesto than reliable history – and leading to the creation of Arthur.
The author never mentions the West Saxons, but he disparaged three other Anglo-Saxon peoples: the Kentish, Mercians and Northumbrians. Hengest and his brother Horsa, leaders of the first Saxons to arrive in Britain, are said to have descended from a god who was “not the God of gods, amen, the God of hosts but one of their idols who they worship”. He thereby contrasts Saxon paganism with the early and ‘Roman’ conversion of the Britons, and denounces the Saxons as treacherous pagans.
Just as The History decries the Saxons, it promotes Merfyn of Gwynedd as a potential leader of Welsh resistance to their dominance. And it does so via references to Maelgwyn, a sixth-century “great king among the Britons”, and his predecessor as king, Cunedda, who, we’re told, expelled the Irish from Wales. It’s an implicit declaration of support for Gwynedd’s aspirations to superiority throughout the Celtic west – and Merfyn’s designs on becoming the Britons’ senior king.
Once again, the author is creating a highly partisan interpretation of the past to look to the future – towards the time when God would relent and his British people seize back what was justly theirs from the Saxons. If Cunedda could free Wales from the yoke of foreign invaders, he is implying, so could Merfyn.
All of these factors – the plagiarism, the fabrications, the sermonising – have led me to the conclusion that we should see The History of the Britons for what it is: one man’s creative vision of the Britons’ past glories. What it is not is a historically accurate account of the Dark Ages. Arthur, one of its most prominent characters, wasn’t a historical figure but a fictional character – a valiant, charismatic freedom fighter created by its author to support his central message. This message was that the Britons had resisted invaders before, each time winning their land back. The hope was that they would do so again, as soon as God restored his protection to his British people.
Nick Higham is professor emeritus at the University of Manchester. He is the author of King Arthur: The Making of the Legend (2018).