King Arthur: the big questions

As a new film about King Arthur premieres in cinemas across the UK, Nick Higham answers some of the most pressing questions on the iconic warrior-king...

The Knights of the Round (Miniature from La Quête du Saint Graal et la Mort d'Arthus), c1220. Found in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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Is it possible to say with any certainty whether or not a historical Arthur existed?

There is no shortage of modern books claiming to reveal the ‘real’ Arthur. They place him in locations and historical periods as wide-ranging as pre-classical Greece and Roman Dalmatia to ‘Dark Age’ Britain. British Arthurs remain the most popular but they are far from mutually compatible – identified with regions as far-flung as Cornwall and Argyle. In fact, there are so many of them that they tend to cancel each other out.

Academic specialists often argue that Arthur was purely a figure of mythology, or they suggest that, while he may have existed, we’re not in a position to say anything more about him. Such fence-sitting overlooks the fact that it is the responsibility of those coming up with theories to prove them, not of others to disprove them. Until there is a broadly accepted theory on offer that sits comfortably with the evidence, we should be sceptical of an Arthur doing any of the many things attributed to him.

What are the earliest sources we have for King Arthur, and how is he described in them?

Potentially the earliest material to name Arthur is Y Gododdin, a collection of Old Welsh verses in the Book of Aneirin. Arthur appears in a verse honouring a British hero, Gorddur, about whom it’s written, “though he was not Arthur”. The Book of Aneirin was written in the second half of the 13th century but the reference to Arthur is in the least ‘modernised’ passages, copied perhaps from a text dating to c800–1000.

It’s not clear what kind of figure the Y Gododdin had in mind when it referred to Arthur – was he a man or a demi-god? – but this poetry comes from the British Old North and is based loosely on sixth-century events. It is not impossible that this referred to Artúr, a Scottish prince who died fighting the Miathi (a people around Stirling) in c596.

Arthur is better known, though, from the History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum), written in 829/30 in Gwynedd. Chapter 56 portrays Arthur as a British dux bellorum (‘general of battles’), listing 12 ‘God-given’ victories over the Saxons, which close with the battle on the “mountain of Badon”, where he single-handedly kills 960 of the enemy.

The History of the Britons was written 12 generations after the time in which the deeds were set, so it’s essential that we explore what sources underlie it. It’s been argued that the list of victories was extracted from a battle-catalogue poem of a type linked with other early Welsh leaders. But this doesn’t seem particularly plausible to me. Many of the 12 battles in the History of the Britons are associated with other leaders and appear to have been lifted from earlier works. This implies that the list was made up by the author.

Finally, there’s the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), a 10th-century chronicle written at St Davids, which has two entries for Arthur. One reference – for his c516 victory at Badon – probably derives from the History of the Britons. But the entry for c537 introduces new material (“The battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell…”) so presumably came from a different source. Given that the Welsh Annals are 16 generations removed from events, there seems little reason to think the dates bear much historical weight.

There seems to be a paucity of sources for Arthur in the centuries after he is said to have lived. Why is this?

Assuming that we place him around AD 500, one explanation is that there is little material of any sort written in Wales that survives from this period. That many works have been lost is obvious. The majority of surviving texts are short inscriptions on stone, none of which name Arthur.

We are aware of narratives written by only two British writers of the period – Patrick and Gildas. Patrick’s interests centred on his mission to Ireland and he was probably earlier than the conventional dating of Arthur. Gildas wrote a ‘historical’ introduction to his sermon urging the Britons to return to the Lord and put aside their evil ways. This includes a brief account of the British/Saxon war up to the “siege of Badon mountain”, in the year of his own birth. The History of the Britons described the battle of Badon as Arthur’s finest victory but, in Gildas’s account, Ambrosius Aurelianus was apparently the British leader, not Arthur

There is, of course, another explanation for why Arthur is all but invisible in contemporary sources – and that’s because he was not a real person doing important things at this time.

Which figures are most often put forward as the historical inspiration for King Arthur? How persuasive are these claims?

The earliest historical figure to be identified as the ‘original’ Arthur is Lucius Artorius Castus, whose career is set out in two inscriptions from Roman Dalmatia, discovered at Podstrana in modern-day Croatia. Since the 1920s there have been various attempts to portray him as the individual around whom the Arthurian legend developed.

More recently, it’s been suggested that Castus led a group of Sarmatian warriors moved to Britain by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in AD 175, then commanded them in a war against the Caledonians. But he served only as third-in-command of the legion at York, so is unlikely to have had experience of leadership in war in Britain.

Those wishing to establish a link between Castus and Arthur have interpreted the longer inscription to suggest that Castus led ‘British’ troops to Armorica (ie Brittany) – which is later reflected in the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth’s depiction of King Arthur leading his armies into Gaul to fight the Romans. However, the better reading of this inscription has “Armenia”, not “Armorica”, suggesting that he led ‘British’ troops to war in the east.

Another figure sometimes identified with Arthur is the British king Riothamus, who was defeated by the Goths near Bourge, central France in c470. Riothamus means ‘most-kingly’, which led the 20th-century historian Geoffrey Ashe to suggest that this was a title, rather than a name – and that Riothamus’s true name was Arthur.

Conversely, it has been suggested that ‘Arthur’ is a title, and that the ‘real’ name of this elusive man was Owain Ddantgwyn, an obscure figure known only from a late Welsh genealogy. Another theory is that Arthur should be identified as Arthwys ap Mar, a name that occurs in the later medieval ‘lineages of the saints’. While each theory has committed supporters, none stand up to close examination.

What does the name ‘Arthur’ tell us about his possible origins?

It allows three possible sources. There is the Old Welsh ‘Arth-’ and Old Irish ‘Art-’ meaning ‘bear’, and so perhaps suggesting a Celtic origin. But Old Welsh ‘Bear-man’ gives us ‘Arthwr’, not the ‘Arthur’ that we find in all the early texts, so this appears unlikely.

Could ‘Arthur’ be derived from the Greek name Arktouros? It’s possible. However, this was known in the west only as a star-name (Arcturus is the brightest star in the northern night sky), never as a personal name.

A stronger case can be made for the Roman family name Artorius, which was used from the late Republic through to at least the third century AD, and shows up on inscriptions in various western provinces – though in neither Gaul nor Britain. The shift from Artorius to Arthur fits sound changes in Brittonic/Old Welsh that we know were occurring in the late Roman and sub-Roman periods. There were several figures called Arthur or Artúr (the Irish equivalent) from the late sixth century onwards, one of whom may have been the source of the name used in the History of the Britons.

Much of the Arthurian legend comes from later medieval writers. Why did he become such a celebrated figure at this time?

The architect of Arthur’s fame was Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin in the 1130s, built on the vision of history offered by the ninth-century History of the Britons. The new work proved immensely popular and was translated/adapted into French by Wace in c1150 and English by Layamon in c1200–20. The legend provided an ideal space in which to explore such contemporary issues as the source, nature and obligations of royal authority, chivalry and knighthood, and Christian behaviours appropriate to the lay aristocracy.

We find Arthurian storytelling in virtually every language spoken in medieval Europe but its focus was French, which was the most important language of the period and the one most closely connected with the crusades and knightly activity more generally. By the 13th century, his stories were increasingly imbued with Christian meaning, and no longer a narrative account of his supposed reign.

How much of the medieval Arthur might be based on earlier sources, as opposed to pure literary invention?

There have been numerous attempts to see ancient origins in various aspects of the medieval Arthur, including the sword in the stone, the grail, and the sword in the lake. But for any of these to be convincing there has to be a credible line of descent from the earlier occurrence to its arrival in French literature around 1200. Take the claim that the medieval sword in the stone and grail stories derive from Scythian (nomadic people from central Asia) practices, which were documented in the works of Herodotus in the fifth century BC. This requires a complex explanation as to how they were carried to western Europe in the Roman period and remained embedded there until reappearing almost a millennium later in France.

In both instances it seems likelier that the medieval stories had more recent origins. The grail arguably derives from depictions of St Mary bearing a dish from which the Holy Ghost rose as flame, an image later combined with the cup of the last supper. The ‘sword in the stone’ may have originated in a miracle that was associated with St Galgano in late 12th-century Italy.

How does the Arthur legend add to our understanding of ‘Dark Age’ Britain?

The Arthur legend is unlikely to tell us anything much about the British ‘Dark Ages’, unless and until we are reasonably sure that we can identify him as a historic figure. That time seems a long way off, and may never come.

And what does it tell us about the medieval period when much of it was written?

The Arthurian legend sheds a lot of light on the later periods in which the story was written and rewritten. For example, it provides an important reservoir of the medieval languages in which it was set down. It also illustrates ways in which ideas were changing. In the mid-12th century we experience Arthur as a king and commander but, by the final decades of the century, the spotlight had fallen on his court. For example, writers like Chrétien de Troyes focussed on secondary figures such as Perceval, Gawain and Lancelot and debated issues like attitudes towards women, the role and responsibilities of high birth, the foundations of knightly esteem, lay education and training for knighthood.

The grail stories linked Arthur to the last supper and the crucifixion. Such stories illustrate contemporary concerns regarding conduct appropriate to elite Christian society.

Aside from Arthur himself, which parts of the legend might be drawn from historical events and figures?

Many Arthurian characters are likely to have had a literary life before they were sucked into Arthur’s world, and a few may have been real people. King Mark of Cornwall (the uncle of Tristan and husband of Iseult) bears an obviously Roman name (Marcus), which occurs on sub-Roman inscriptions. Tristan may derive from Drustan, a name known from a ‘Dark Age’ inscription near Fowey in Cornwall but equally perhaps from legendary Pictish material (as Drust or Drest). That Chrétien de Troyes claimed to be telling his own version of the story suggests that it was circulating in France in the 12th century, perhaps told by Breton raconteurs.

The knight Sir Kay (also Cei, Cai) may come from Gaius, a common Roman forename (his is one of the earliest names associated with Arthur in Welsh stories).

Culhwch – the central character of a medieval Welsh Arthurian prose narrative, who courts Olwen, a giant’s daughter – probably draws on other categories of folktales, not Arthurian storytelling. Whether or not real people underlay these literary characters is, though, far from clear.

Where might Camelot have been based?

Camelot first appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ late 12th-century French romance Lancelot or the Knight in the Cart. Given that this story was very much his creation, the name is likely to have been made up, presumably based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Camblan’ or Wace’s ‘Camble’, with ‘-lot’ added to fit the rhyme (meaning ‘share’, ‘fate’). There have however been numerous attempts to identify Camelot. Winchester was a candidate in the later Middle Ages, then South Cadbury Hillfort in the reign of Henry VIII, based presumably on nearby names such as the river Cam.

Colchester in Essex and the Roman fort at Slack near Huddersfield have also been put forward as possible Camelots, because they were called Camulodunum (literally ‘fortress of the god Camul’) in Roman Britain.

Before taking any of these too seriously, we surely have to show that there is a good chance that Chrétien had drawn the name from a reliable and near-contemporary source. That seems highly unlikely.

Will you be watching the new film on Arthur? And what are your favourite modern depictions of him?

Yes, I will probably go to see the new film – I enjoy discovering what each director makes of the story, what aspects he/she chooses to prioritise, and what messages there are for a contemporary audience.

As for my favourite recent depictions, Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur (2004) was entertaining, though hardly “the untold true story that inspired the legend”! The greatest ‘Arthur’ films, though, have to be Disney’s Sword in the Stone and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which still makes me laugh.

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Nick Higham is emeritus professor in early medieval and landscape history at the University of Manchester. His books include King Arthur (Stroud, 2015).