Would the real King Arthur please stand up

With the BBC's family drama Merlin on our screens over the last few months, we've seen another new take on the Arthur story. Simon Young considers what we really know about the Arthur behind the legends

King Arthur addresses his knights in a 12th-century Arthurian manuscript now held in Rennes, France. (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine

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In the last 20 years the ‘true’ King Arthur has been spotted by avid fans in almost every corner of the world. Fragments of his gravestone were, for example, noticed in the wall of a church in Croatia. Enthusiasts dug up his sword in Connecticut thus proving that the ‘once and future king’ had beaten Columbus to the New World. There were rumours about a visit to a fairyland in the Pacific – it was recently ‘proved’ that the Celts had colonised New Zealand. A group of Slavic nationalists determined that Arthur was really a Russian Tsar and that all his subsequent history had been faked by the dastardly English.

Then there were, of course, domestic sightings. Two British historians who met in the library at Newcastle-upon-Tyne found Arthur’s grave in Glamorgan. A chiropodist from Hull offered the princely sum of fifty thousand dollars to anyone who could prove that Arthur was not Irish – the challenge, to the best of our knowledge, still stands. Some archaeologists at Tintagel thought they’d found Arthur’s name on an inscription, only to discover that the name was Arthuret – not even a close relation. Finally, there’s the druid and eco-warrior, Arthur Pendragon, who, while contesting the seat for Winchester in recent General Elections, has offered a modern solution to the Arthurian problem: namely that he is the great man’s reincarnation.

The candidates

To the present author these Arthurian ‘solutions’ to a problem that has defeated historians of every age have long proved not only a joy but a source of financial security. During a difficult period in his late-twenties he could start the year more or less certain that he would be able to pay his way for a couple of months by writing uncharitable articles about why the latest Arthurian theory was not worth the paper it was written on.

However, this collection of misunderstanding, base dishonesty, wishful thinking and exuberant neo-paganism cloaks (or perhaps complements) the progress that has been made into the origins of the Arthurian legend over the same period. If we today asked one hundred Dark Age historians, archaeologists and Celticists who the historical Arthur really was we would get a lot of mumbling and evasions – scholars of the Dark Ages are necessarily a cautious bunch. But if we held a hundred guns to the hundred heads of these Arthurian professionals and insisted that they give us their best guess it is likely that three solid and respectable candidates would race ahead of the more exotic Arthurs mentioned above. And these three might be reduced to simple monikers: Artur the Gael, Artorius the Roman, and Arthur the Warlord.

The most popular of these three, if not among our hundred scholars then certainly among the general public, is Arthur the Warlord – and his story is quickly told. In Britain c410 the Romans, (depending on which view you take of the end of Roman Britain), left/abandoned/lost the island. There followed the two darkest centuries in British history. But in those obscure years we know that the Anglo-Saxons arrived and made much of south and eastern Britain their own, pushing out/slaughtering/assimilating (again opinions differ) the native British-Celtic population. Arthur the Warlord emerged out of the darkness as the leader or a leader of the native British Celts fighting these Germanic invaders sometime between AD 450–550.

Supporters of Arthur the Warlord point out that later British-Celtic documents situate him in this period. And they also remind us that our ignorance about these hundred years is so vast that there is ample room for a great man to govern an island, win battles and woo the British-Celtic imagination while not being noticed in our very few contemporary documents – all Arthurian references come in later centuries. As to where this warlord lived, different partisans push for Wales, Cornwall, the Scottish Lowlands, the Pennines and almost every other part of what was, in the sixth century, British-Celtic Britain.

The Roman candidate

In the case of the second candidate, Artorius the Roman, we do not have to worry about disputed locations because we are speaking about a concrete, well-situated historical personality. Lucius Artorius Castus was a late second-century Roman commander. Based at Ribchester, Lancashire, he commanded a large contingent of Sarmatian cavalry, Iranian-speaking warriors who had been sucked into the Roman army as mercenaries. (Lest this sound overly exotic, we should remember that this was a time when ‘Ethiopians’ served on Hadrian’s Wall.) We gather from contemporary accounts that Artorius was a well-regarded commander who led his warriors on several campaigns including one in Britain and one in Gaul. He later retired and was buried in Roman Dalmatia – the Croatian grave referred to in our opening paragraph belongs to him.

What Artorius has in his favour is his name. In fact, of the thousand odd names we know from Roman Britain, there is only one Artorius, and this is very probably the basis of the familiar British-Celtic ‘Arthur’. Supporters of the Arthur as Artorius theory also claim that the Sarmatian cavalry were Arthur’s knights. And there have even been attempts, in a book with the wonderful title From Scythia To Camelot, to find Sarmatian material in early Arthurian legend.

The third candidate, Artur the Gael, also had the fortune of having the right name. In the sixth century there were a series of Gaelic or Irish settlements on the western coast of what is today Scotland, especially in the inner Hebrides and Argyll. And one of the sons of sixth-century Aidan Mac Gabrain, the most famous of all the early kings of the Gaelic settlements there, was a certain Artur. Supporters of the Gaelic Artur point out that this Hebridean prince is the only well-attested individual in Dark Age Britain with a name like Arthur’s. And, as a Gaelic warlord, he may have fought in battles that earned him a place in later legend.

These same supporters are not worried by the fact that Artur is Gaelic rather than British-Celtic. Heroes from one culture are easily adopted into another, they argue, and there are also features of the Arthurian legend that could be said to be Gaelic in origin. That the same parts of the Arthurian legend are also said to be Sarmatian in origin is maybe a warning, though, about the unreliability of these kinds of deductions.

What is perhaps most striking about these three candidates is just how varied they are. In the late Sixties, in the wake of Leslie Alcock’s inspiring digs at the hill-fort of South Cadbury (which was, according to early modern legend, Camelot) the Warlord Arthur was very much in the ascendant. Alcock’s excavations allowed us, for the first time, to peer into the years 450–550 at a British-Celtic stronghold such as one that a Warlord Arthur might have used. But in 2008 we have two contenders who lived as many as two hundred years before or after the Warlord (respectively Artorius and Artur). Given this, it is reasonable to ask whether we have made any progress at all. By admitting three so very different figures to the canon of Arthurian possibilities, aren’t we confessing our total and embarrassing ignorance of Arthur’s true identity?

Knowing what we don’t know

In fact, we know more about Arthur today than ever. The trouble is, that knowledge – and this is admittedly paradoxical – is about how very little we know.

The single greatest step in Arthurian studies, a step that has opened the way to these three so very different candidates, is the understanding of how unreliable our earliest Arthurian sources are. In the 1960s, it was believed that the earliest references to Arthur appeared in certain British-Celtic poems that dated to c600, chiefly the Gododdin. It is now accepted though that while these poems might be early, they might equally be from 700, 800, 900 or perhaps even later. That means that our earliest certain source is the Historia Brittonum, written in 829 or 830 in northern Wales. This source used to be the jewel in the crown of Arthuriana, the gold under the mountain. But as recent studies have shown, the Arthur found there is, above all, a folklore figure, a Celtic Hercules who fought in 12 battles, in the last charging and killing 126 of the enemy. According to this source, he was a western-dwelling Puck (a mythological spirit) who is associated with giant-sized objects in the wilderness including a shape-shifting tomb.

We understand better now than a generation ago that the Historia Brittonum does not transmit history but legend, or, at best, history churned through the sausage machine of British-Celtic legend. Take, for instance, the fate in the Historia of a fifth-century, probably southern British-Celtic warlord, named Ambrosius Aurelianus. We know about Ambrosius from a five-star reliable, near-contemporary source, which states that he was related to an emperor and was “the last of the Romans” in Britain. Yet, by the time Ambrosius appears in the Historia Brittonum, he has become the son of a demon who is taken to a mountain lake to be sacrificed by magicians, but who manages to avoid being killed by digging up two dragons, dragons that proceed to fight each other on a piece of cloth.

Scholars’ newfound freedom

In other words, if the Historia Brittonum is gold, then it is fool’s gold. And the dating offered by the Historia and the associated Welsh Annals for Arthur have all the characteristics of an attempt to situate a legendary figure in history: something that can be paralleled elsewhere in early medieval Irish and British-Celtic writing. For example, the all-too legendary Irish divine hero Fionn is wheeled out by medieval Irish storytellers to fight the all-too historical Vikings.

The reason then that we can pick three so divergent Arthurs is that whereas in the 1960s we appeared to have firm historical evidence about the original Arthur, that evidence has now passed into the realms of folklore and legend. What’s more, Arthur is no longer anchored to the years 450–550. This has freed interested parties to look further afield for the historical Arthur and, in plucking Gaels and Romans out of our meagre records, scholars are enjoying their newfound freedom.

But the truth is that even these three candidates are limiting. We have written so far as if the search for the historical Arthur approximates to a Christie murder mystery. There is a body in the library and we have to choose which of three members of a dinner party ‘did it’. But early medieval history is not a murder mystery with a limited number of suspects, where the butler conveniently locked the doors before the killing.

In the Sixties we appeared to have firm historical evidence about the original Arthur. This has now passed into the realms of folklore

If we had access to a digest of what had happened in every year in the Roman centuries and the Dark Ages we would find that there would be up to two hundred credible candidates. It is a product of our execrably poor records that we can name only two individuals and a generality (a warlord from c450–550). Take occurrences of ‘Artorius’, likely the name from which the British-Celtic ‘Arthur’ derives. Artorius is not a particularly rare Latin name. It is found in most provinces of the Empire. If the population of Roman Britain was, say, a million strong: in any generation there were probably a thousand British-based Artoriuses. And in each of those thousand Artoriuses we would doubtless find details that could be construed as being ‘Arthurian’. So if Artorius the Roman is reckoned to be Arthur because his Sarmatian cavalry were ‘knights’, what is to stop us saying, when archaeologists tomorrow dig up the gravestone of a Cornish Artorius who happened to have a wife with the British-Celtic name Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), that he was not the true Arthur?

The ‘sensible’ answer would be that the Arthur of British-Celtic legend, and later of European legend, was such an enormous figure that he must have been a great man, he must have done something that was outstanding. But in legend – and I am tempted to write especially in Irish and British-Celtic legend – historical figures take on a life of their own independent of their original deeds. An individual is remembered and is then celebrated on the basis of how important his children became or how important the tribe or monastery he is associated with make themselves in later generations. So, to give an ecclesiastical example, saints in Ireland and Britain are often spoken of not because they were particularly well-known, but because their foundations became famous after their deaths and history was changed to take this into account. In fact, a good rule for the Irish and the British-Celts is that their antiquarianism in the early Middle Ages tells the present not the past. It embodies contemporary realities; it is not the study of years gone by.

Reality and legend in British-Celtic culture often then have nothing to do with each other. And so Arthur could indeed have been a mighty fifth-century warlord who turned the tide in the battles for Britain. Yet he could equally have been, say, a third-century cross-dressing gladiator who scandalised a provincial British town, but who was then elevated from memory (“do you remember when Arthur…”) to myth (“once upon a time, Arthur…”) because his sons and grandchildren became important magnates in the region.

Wouldn’t we though then have details about gladiatorial fights in his legend? Wouldn’t something of his life survive? Parallel examples suggest otherwise. We have already seen how general Ambrosius Aurelianus from southern Britain became a demon’s bastard and a dragon hunter in Wales. If we had only the legendary ninth-century Historia Brittonum to recreate his historical fifth-century acts our search for the truth would fail miserably.

Given this extraordinary lack of good historical material for Arthur it is not surprising that a fourth candidate has emerged in recent years, pushing Artur, Artorius and the Warlord to the side: a mythological Arthur, an Arthur that never existed outside of the British-Celtic imagination. Proponents of the Mythic Arthur point out that everything that our hero does in British-Celtic writings can be paralleled in the works and lives of other mythological heroes from the British-Celtic and closely-related Irish pantheons. Arthur like the Irish Fionn and Dagda or the British-Celtic Bran and Gwynn ap Nudd is, Mythic Arthurians insist, a figure passed down from the Celtic Iron Age, when he and his supernatural colleagues stood as the guardians and gods of their people.

This though is almost certainly going too far. True, Arthur might as well not have existed. There is no reason at all for thinking that his personality or achievements have survived in the accounts we have, and good reasons for thinking that they do not. But nor is there any need to submit Arthur to the final indignity of non-existence, ripping off the last fig leaf of history. For there is one suggestive proof that he did once walk and breathe. And that proof is his name – a name that, as we have seen, very likely derives from the Latin ‘Artorius’. If ‘Arthur’ derives from that Latin word then something hard and real must be shining at the bottom of the well because the British Celts would not have created a hero or a god from a Latin name without a historical original.

Arthur could have been a third-century cross-dressing gladiator who scandalised a provincial British town

The legendary Arthur must then have grown out of someone who lived in Britain between the Roman conquest in AD 43, when Latin arrived, and the time of better historical records c700. The harsh reality, however, is that save a miracle – a tomb, a forgotten Byzantine manuscript, or an engraving – we will never know the whos or hows or whens of this Arthur’s life.

BOOKS

Concepts of Arthur by Tom Green (Tempus, 2008); Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature by Oliver Padel (University Wales Press, 2000); From Scythia to Camelot by C Scott Littleton and Linda A Malcor (Routledge, 2000); Arthur’s Britain by Leslie Alcock (Penguin, 2001); “The nature of Arthur” from Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies (27) by Oliver Padel (1994)

Simon Young wrote his first book (with Jon Coe) while he was still at Cambridge in 1995: The Celtic Sources of the Arthurian Legend (Llanerch, 1995). He has since published numerous other works of fiction and fact (and some peculiar hybrids) including AD 500: A Journey Round the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland (Phoenix, 2006)


On the trail of King Arthur

It seems that Arthur was nothing if not well-travelled. Here are just some of the sites in Britain with links to him


1

South Cadbury, Somerset

This south Somerset village is the location of an impressive prehistoric hill-fort that was reused by the Britons after the fall of Roman Britain. Local legend has claimed that Cadbury was also the site of King Arthur’s legendary court, Camelot.


2

Iona, the Scottish Hebrides

Iona was the home of the monastery of Colm Cille, a sixth-century Irish saint who came to Britain to lead a life of religious exile. It has been argued that Artur son of Aidan, the best Gaelic candidate for Arthur, was buried there.


3

Caledonian Forest, Scotland

The Battle of the Caledonian Forest is one of the many clashes in which Arthur is supposed to have led British forces. The name suggests that it was fought in Scotland, perhaps in the Highlands. If the battle is anything more than legend it will have involved British Celts and Picts.


4

Mount Badon, Dorset

Mount Badon was a famous battle between the British Celts and Anglo-Saxons in which Arthur may have fought. It has been located at tens of different points up and down the island but Badbury Rings in Dorset is one of the more convincing candidates.

5

Glastonbury, Somerset

Legend says that Arthur was buried in Glastonbury and that his grave was discovered by 12th-century English ‘archaeologists’ (monks with spades). Glastonbury’s Arthur was said to be a giant, while recent research suggests that the story of his discovery in the Somerset town contains memories of an ancient Irish legend.


6

Tintagel, Cornwall

Tintagel is another location in southwest England associated with Arthur: legend says that he was conceived there. This dramatic cliff stronghold was certainly inhabited in the Dark Ages and it is possible that it was once the seat of the kings of Cornwall in their battles against the English.

7

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh clearly recalls the great British leader. Whether this is a Dark Age memory or a medieval invention no one knows: some cynics suggest that the name was originally ‘Archers Seat’. Arthur’s Seat is only the most dramatic of several sites in Lowland Scotland that recall the ‘once and future king’.


8

Caerleon, South Wales

Caerleon was a southern Welsh Roman settlement that may have been defended into early medieval times by the native British Celts of the region. In the 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that it was here that Arthur held his court: a Welsh Camelot.

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9

Ribchester, Lancashire

Ribchester (or Bremetennacum, as it was known in Roman times) was a fort where the Roman candidate for Arthur, Lucius Artorius Castus, dwelt with several thousand Asian Steppe cavalry who had been conscripted into the Roman army. Attempts have been made to explain some references in Arthurian geography to sites around Ribchester and more generally in the north where Artorius campaigned.