From marrying ‘Guinevere’ to his invasion of Gaul, many of the landmark events in the King Arthur story may have happened – but to other people. Here, archaeologist and historian Miles Russell reveals the five key characters whose lives have been absorbed into the Arthurian story.
The character of King Arthur, the heroic leader, gradually evolved in oral tradition as people celebrated and commemorated the very real fifth-century warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus. Aurelianus was “a gentleman”, the sixth-century writer Gildas assures us, being “one of the last of the Romans” whose parents had undoubtedly “worn the purple”. Wearing the purple was a euphemism for being emperor, the clothing dye being so expensive that it was reserved for the leader of state.
The fact that Gildas describes Aurelianus’s parents in this way suggests that they possessed significant authority, probably as fourth-century usurpers or rebel emperors holding power in Britain. Gildas notes that Aurelianus was a successful general, defeating Saxon armies on many occasions, the greatest victory being the siege of Mount Badon. Unfortunately, we don’t know who was besieging whom, nor indeed where ‘Mount Badon’ was (although Geoffrey of Monmouth later claims it was at Bath), but it was clearly a major engagement and was much celebrated, later becoming a key moment in Arthur’s career.
By the ninth century, it is clear that the historical Aurelianus and the legendary Arthur were already starting to take different paths. In the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) compiled by Nennius, ‘Arthur’ has acquired a number of battles, chief among which was Aurelianus’s victory at Mount Badon.
Nennius also tells us that Aurelianus was fighting British enemies, worst of which was King Guorthigirnus (Vortigern), the man who first invited the Saxons to Britain. Geoffrey of Monmouth (who calls his hero Aurelius Ambrosius), says that Vortigern tried to hide in “the castle of Genoriu” but was besieged there, dying as his fortress burnt around him. Having defeated the tyrant, Ambrosius Aurelianus established himself as master of Britain, rebuilding London in the process. In a grand ceremony, staged within Stonehenge, Aurelianus was crowned king.
Interestingly, archaeological evidence suggests that the internal bluestone setting at Stonehenge was modified in the post-Roman period. By the time Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote down the coronation story, it was the great sarsens of Stonehenge that were transported to Salisbury Plain from Ireland (with help from the wizard Merlin).
Camelot, the legendary court and castle of King Arthur, was a peerless seat of chivalry. If it did exist, where might it have been built?
Arvirargus, or Togodumnus, was a British king from the first century AD who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, joined forces with the Roman emperor Claudius to subjugate the Orkneys. Returning home, Arvirargus married the Roman lady Gewissa, a ‘great beauty’. In the Historia, Arthur joined forces with Hoel to subjugate Ireland before returning home to marry Ganhumara, a ‘great beauty’.
Constantine (later ‘Constantine the Great’) was proclaimed emperor by his men at York in AD 306. Taking troops from Britain and Gaul, he marched on Rome, killing the western emperor Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in AD 312, before defeating the eastern emperor Licinius 12 years later. Much of his campaign, from York to Rome, is later mirrored in that of Arthur.
In AD 383, Magnus Maximus, a Roman officer in Britain, was illegally proclaimed emperor. Determined to capture Rome, Maximus took an army to Gaul where he fought and killed the emperor Gratian. Later, in the Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur, determined to capture Rome, takes an army to Gaul where he fights and kills the emperor Lucius Hiberius.
A warrior king from the first century BC, Cassivellaunus refused to pay tribute to Rome, only to see his kingdom attacked. On the verge of defeating the Roman army, Cassivellaunus was betrayed by his treacherous nephew, Mandubracius. Later, in the Historia, we hear that Arthur, refusing to pay tribute to Rome, sees his kingdom attacked. On the verge of defeating the Roman army, he is betrayed by his treacherous nephew Mordred.
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)