How much of the story of King Arthur is true?
The life and identity of the ‘once and future king’ – if he ever existed – are shrouded in mystery. But there’s one incident that we can be sure of, says Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, as he examines the documentary and archaeological evidence for King Arthur
Professor Ronald Hutton was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, alongside Professor Ad Putter, answering questions about Arthurian legends submitted by our readers and the top online search queries. A selection of his answers have been transcribed and edited for clarity, and are shared below…
Q: What are the first documentary sources to mention Arthur?
A: It really boils down to four pages in a manuscript at the British Library called Harleian 3859, from two different documents.
The earlier and the most important document is the general history of the Welsh people, the Historia Brittonum, which has the first clearly dateable mention of Arthur. It is from AD 830, written in North Wales by a good scholar. The passage is a list of battles in which King Arthur, or maybe the ‘General’ Arthur, was the leader. It provides information about how he killed 960 people, apparently single-handed at [the battle of] Mount Badon and at another battle at Castle Guinnion, he carried the Virgin Mary's image on his shield or his shoulders.
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The second of the earliest sources is about 100 years later than the Historia Brittonum. It is the Annales Cambriae, the Cambrian Chronicles, which are from West Wales in the AD 950s. It's the first attempt to set Arthur in an actual chronology. And there are two dates that refer to him: AD 516, the battle of Mount Badon, where it describes Arthur carrying the image of the Virgin Mary at that battle and winning it. And then AD 537, the battle of Camlann where Arthur met Medraut and perished.
This is the first mention of a character who later becomes Mordred, who is called Medraut in this story. We aren’t told, however, if he was Arthur’s enemy, or if they were on the same side, but that is the only mention we have the early sources of that particular battle, the fatal battle of Camlann, or Arthur’s death.
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Q: Is there any good archaeological evidence for King Arthur?
A: Strictly speaking, there isn't any archaeological evidence for King Arthur at all. There's absolutely nothing that has been dug up that can be firmly linked to Arthur or any kind of text that mentions him, which is one good reason why we can't say for sure that he ever existed.
There is, on the other hand, a vast amount of excellent archaeological evidence for the people and culture in which Arthur would have lived; in other words, for the native British in the period between around AD 450 and AD 550. And we have more of that every decade. But as yet, Arthur himself still escapes us.
Q: How is the Arthurian story linked to the end of the Roman period?
A: If there is an Arthurian history at all, then the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain really kicks it off, because until the Romans pull out round about AD 410, we have a history of Britain. In other words, we have coinage; we have rulers of the empire whom we can identify. We occasionally hear of actual events in Britain connected to real people. But as soon as the Romans leave, that's it: there's no more coinage, there's no more contemporary history.
We enter what can still be called the Dark Ages, in which we really don't know politically what is going on. And that is why the contrast is so vivid to this very day between the Roman period and that which a lot of people would like to call the Arthurian. One of them is firmly historical. The other exists almost outside history.
Q: What of the Arthurian story can we be certain of as factual?
A: Just one thing, and that's the battle of Mount Badon, which is recorded in both of our earliest texts as one of Arthur's greatest victories.
We know that this battle actually did happen because of a near-contemporary text, the list of complaints against current kings of the British by a man called Gildas, which mentions the battle and anchors the time at which Gildas himself was born. So this battle is a historic fact.
The real problem is that we're still not certain if there was a historical Arthur actually linked to it and he won it. We haven't yet found a credible contender to win it instead of Arthur. But it is the one point at which history and the early Arthurian story connect.
Ronald Hutton is a professor of history at the University of Bristol and an expert in British folklore, medieval paganism and magic.
He was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast about Arthurian legends, alongside Professor Ad Putter, as part of our 'Everything You Wanted To Know' podcast series. They were talking with HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove. Listen below, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts
This content was first published on HistoryExtra in 2020