|Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
King Arthur was a legendary King of England or Britannia during the Middle Ages. The Arthur legends may be wholly mythical or may relate to distorted recollections of one or more real military figures or warlords who took leading roles in the Romano-British resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invasion and settlement of England in the 5th century.
The tradition is heavily tied in with nationalism, with early traditions linking him with the Welsh against the Anglo-Saxons (who became rulers of England in the late 1st millennium); later he featured in Irish myth before becoming a figure of English nationalism. There are also claims that he was Scottish or even French or Breton, or possibly Roman (which maybe ties in with the idea that the British Empire was a successor to the Roman).
The earliest traceable Arthur legends relate to an obviously supernatural figure in Welsh mythology, depicted triumphing over fabulous monsters. One example is Preiddeu Annwfn (The Spoils of Annwfn), an enigmatic poem that was written some time between the late 6th century and around 900 CE, which describes a journey that an unnamed narrator made with Arthur to Annwn, the underworld of Welsh mythology. Perhaps the earliest mention of his name is in the Welsh epic Y Gododdin, set in SE Scotland and written some time after 600 CE, which mentions a brave warrior who was nonetheless "no Arthur" - this suggests Arthur was by then an exemplar of bravery although the poem provides no other details. There is also uncertainty about its date of composition, and there are suggestions the reference to Arthur may be a later interpolation.
The earliest historical account of any relevance is in the Welsh monk Gildas's De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ("On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain"), which probably dates to the the mid 6th century and describes the Saxon invasion of Britain that is now reckoned to have happened around 500 CE. Gildas provides an account of the Battle of Badon (or Mount Badon or Badon Hill), at which the Britons defeat the Saxons; but it doesn't mention Arthur and doesn't name the leader of the Britons at all. Attempts to locate the battlefield or date it have failed, but it became a central event in later Arthurian legend. Nennius's Historia Brittonum ("History of Britain", c. 800 CE) represents an advance: it names Arthur and lists 12 military victories attributed to him (which is an improbably high number of battles to fight), including at Mount Badon against Germanic invaders.
The Annals of Wales, written in the 10th century, mention for c. 516 "The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors" and c. 537 "The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell". Most of the Annals appears to be historically accurate, although not all: a bishop is said to have lived to the age of 350. Later Welsh sources include the Mabinogion, dated anywhere from the 11th to 13th century; this tells stories of a warlord called Arthur which are quite different to other later versions, although figures such as Merlin also appear.
Adamnan's life of St Columba, traditionally dated to the late 7th century, mentions an Artur (or Arturius), son of King Aidan (Áedán mac Gabráin), high king of Dal Riada in the west of Scotland; this Artur died young at the "battle of the Miathi" (possibly against the Maeatae in the upper Forth Valley, maybe c. 590 CE). Although Adamnan is sometimes related to Arthurian myth, it doesn't seem to refer to the same person. Another hagiography, The Legend of St Goeznovius (traditionally dated to 1019 although now more likely thought 12th or 13th century), mentions "the great Arthur, King of the Britons" defeating Vortigern and briefly driving out the Saxons, only for them to return after his death. Coming at least 500 years after Arthur, this text is not historical evidence but indicates transmission of a legend. In contrast, the Life of St Padarn mentions an evil ruler Arthur trying to steal the saint's cloak; he is punished by being swallowed up by the earth and begs Padarn for forgiveness.
Confusing things further, William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings), completed in 1125, appears to be the first text to rebut legendary tales of Arthur: criticising the "nonsense" and "false fables", he describes Arthur as a warrior who helped the Romano-British ruler Ambrosius Aurelianus repulse the Saxons, personally killing 900 people at Badon. This text, with its cut-the-crap attitude (except, of course, when it wants to talk him up by assigning him an impossible body count), seems to be the source for later revisionist stories that depict Arthur as a Roman military commander rather than a mystical monarch who hangs out with wizards.
The version of the Arthur legend which is well known today was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155) some five centuries or so after Arthur's time and probably represents a confabulation of legends, earlier sources of dubious accuracy such as Nennius, and items from his own imagination. R. F. Treherne speculated that Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was of Welsh descent, wished to create a propaganda myth promoting Arthur as a Welsh hero who fought the evil Saxons.
According to the legend as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was the son of Uthur Pendragon,[note 1] married to
Guanhumara Gwenhwyfar Guineviere (or possibly three queens of the same name in succession), was given a sword called "Caliburn" by the Lady of the Lake, ran the Round Table (a fanciful replica of which can be seen at Winchester, UK), around which an assortment of knights (which would not exist for about five hundred years) told tall tales; gave employment to Merlin the Wizard, went to war with Rome because his own kingdom conquered lands in Gaul, and died in a battle with Mordred - who might have been his own nephew but the text is somewhat vague. (The original text says that Arthur and Mordred died in the battle - not that they were on opposite sides.) Supposedly sent by numerous fairies including his (later) half-sister Morgan to Avalon - now known as conflated with Glastonbury, the centre of much New Agery.
In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, England, announced the discovery of the grave of King Arthur. This led to a large increase in revenues from curious visitors. It was also soon followed by a generous grant from King Henry II. Given that the Abbey was in sore need of funds following a disastrous fire in 1189, and that the news of the discovery of Arthur's grave undermined a Welsh rebellion against Henry II (which had been encouraged by rumours that Arthur had returned to life to lead the revolt), modern historians consider that the alleged grave was a fabrication. (You don't say!)
Arthur was a hugely popular figure from the 12th century, especially in France, with Chretien de Troyes contributing much to the legend. The English criminal Sir Thomas Malory also reworked the tales to great popular acclaim in the mid 15th century (although very little is known about Malory and his authorship isn't universally accepted).
Even sillier stuff
Another legend says that he didn't actually die but "sleeps" under a hill somewhere from whence he will return when Britain faces danger. However, so far, the UK has had to manage events like the Battle of Britain, Viking occupation, and the Normans supplanting the entire monarchy without his help, not to mention the original Saxon incursion that the historical Arthur, if there was one, would have been fighting in the first place.
He had a sword named
Caliburn Excabil... Esclabi... Exclab... Ecksalib... well, he definitely had a sword anyhow.[note 2] He either found it stuck in a stone or was given it by a rather dodgy woman in a lake. (Possibly the solo precursor of today's synchronised swimmers.) If it was the lake woman she rather meanly demanded its return when Arthur returned from the Castle of Aughhhh died. The whole "lady of the lake" bit may be an echo of the practice of laying votive offerings (often swords) in bodies of water in ancient Britain, and our modern tradition of throwing coins in pools may be a faint echo of the latter. The "sword in the stone" may have been a linguistic corruption: the word for "Saxon" sounded much like the word for "stone", and it might have been said that the kingship would go to he who could take the sword (i.e., the fight) out of the Saxon.
So much of the legend is covered by obviously fake later additions it is difficult to find a core that may be true. The idea of him as a knight in armor is
almost certainly a medieval invention, based on ideas of chivalry in the high medieval period. In contrast, the stuff about Merlin and magic probably derives from older Welsh legends into which he may have been inserted subsequently.
Arthur of the gaps
Attempts to place him historically generally rely on the fact that, in the absence of any clear historical record showing he certainly did exist, he necessarily must be fitted into a time when there was no historical record or when historical records are ambiguous. Clearly he wasn't post-Norman Conquest, or even from later Anglo-Saxon Britain, which pushes him back from the medieval period when the tales were written into the early dark ages; the Romans also kept pretty good records so it's hard to believe there was a British King Arthur while they were around (until 4th century).
Therefore, the most common assessment by Arthur fans is that he probably lived around 500 CE. Geoffrey of Monmouth links him to the Saxon invasions of Britain, which are generally placed around that date; likewise despite the lack of clear references the Battle of Badon (or Badon Hill) is placed in the late 5th or early 6th century.
All this assumes that he was the hero of Badon, of which the earliest evidence is apparently the various partial manuscripts of Nennius which still survive; if he wasn't then feel free to equate him with any minor soldier from any historical period you feel is sufficiently obscure.
Was he Roman?
One version, popularised by the otherwise-distinguished historian R. G. Collingwood in the 1930s, and later featured in such films as the 2004 King Arthur holds that he was a Roman, who stayed behind in Britain to defend the brave locals and thump the evil Germanic invaders. Based on the fact that the most likely etymology of Arthur is from the Roman name Artorius, he is often identified with Lucius Artorius Castus, a distinguished soldier in the late 2nd century CE. There are a number of obvious problems with this: firstly it's far too early for him to have fought the Saxons, and secondly Artorius did most of his soldiering in Croatia, which is a long way from Britain. But he is still reckoned one of the best, if not the leading, candidate(s). Which shows how likely any of it is.
As mentioned above, there is a tradition going back to William of Malmesbury (early 12th century) that Arthur at least fought alongside the Romans, although William is vague as to whether Arthur was himself Roman or Briton. And with William saying Arthur was a contemporary of Ambrosius, placing him around 500 CE, he cannot be Artorius Castus. Then again, another explanation for his name may be that it was in fact a byname, a nickname taken to show how tough he was, since "arth" was the British word for "bear". That would fit in more comfortably around 500 CE as a native Briton leader of some sort.
Places associated with King Arthur
Many places around the British Isles and even further afield claim to have connections with Arthur. The main sites of Arthurian legend are listed below, together with alleged real world counterparts.
- Tintagel: where Arthur was conceived after Uthur sneaked in and had his way with Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall, resulting in the birth of Arthur. Tintagel is a real village in Cornwall, with a 12th century castle and some older archaeological sites. The story may well have been made up by Geoffrey of Monmouth though.
- Camelot: the supposed location of Arthur's castle, apparently made up by Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century; most historians believe it's
only a modelfictional but many woo-peddlers think otherwise. Despite being made up, candidates for the "real" Camelot include: Caerleon, site of a former Roman legionary fort in South Wales (according to Geoffrey and Chretien); Cadbury Castle, an iron age site in Somerset; Tintagel Castle, Cornwall (the castle is 12th century but may have replaced an earlier building); Winchester, Hampshire (per Thomas Malory); Camboglanna in Cumbria; Colchester on the east coast of England (Camulodunum to the Romans); Wroxeter, site of a Roman settlement in Shropshire; Edinburgh, site of a hill known as Arthur's Seat (whose etymology is obscure); Roxburgh Castle in the Scottish Borders; or Camelon near Stirling. Or perhaps it's a confused memory of his capital being in the then-important town of Londinium.
- Avalon: the island where the dying Arthur was treated after his final battle at Camlann, and where Excalibur was forged. Traditionally said to be Glastonbury Tor, which was formerly an island in the often-flooded Somerset Levels; it was inhabited since neolithic times. Alternative theories include that it was the Isle of Man (which is undeniably an island); the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth; or Emain Ablach, an afterlife paradise in Irish mythology; But possibly it's another of Geoffrey's inventions, as the Chronicle of Wales suggests he died at Camlann.
- Badon: site of an Arthurian victory. Candidates include: Badbury or Bowden Hill in Wiltshire, Bathampton Down in Somerset, Badbury Rings in Dorset, or even Bath (as it was sometimes written "Baddon" early on, and "dd" is the Welsh equivalent of English "th".
- Camlann: where Arthur was defeated. Often said to be Camboglanna in Cumbria, England. Geoffrey puts it at the other end of England, by the river Camblam in Cornwall.
- Brocéliande: an enchanted forest that features in later versions of the story, site of castles belonging to Viviane and Morgan le Fay, probably in Brittany, where tourist authorities boast of a Fountain of Eternal Youth.
- Lyonesse (in Cornish, Lethowsow): an ancient land off Cornwall, home of Tristan (of "...and Isolde" fame), supposedly lost beneath the waves some time after Arthur's death (the same trope of magical underwater realms as Atlantis and a lot of Celtic myth e.g. Ys, Cantre'r Gwaelod). It is associated with various areas in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles which have experienced erosion and coastline changes.
Most modern depictions of the Arthurian myth in literature and film are focused on the subject for its mythical qualities or themes such as the corruption of virtue, and don't even pretend to be historically accurate (see e.g. The Sword in the Stone, Boorman's Excalibur, the BBC TV series Merlin), including works from the Romanticism that expand upon other parts of the myth as some Alfred Tennyson's poems like The Lady of Shalott. However there are some versions that claim to tell the real story.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
The lulzy version of the legend.
King Arthur (2004)
Despite being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the man behind such historical nightmares as Pearl Harbor, numerous Pirates of the Caribbean, and the National Treasure franchise, this presented itself in trailers as offering "the true story that inspired the legend", and claiming to tell a story based on what recent archaeological discoveries had shown was the truth about Arthur. Obviously this was just a marketing stunt and the film is full of historical bloopers and questionable theories. Some of the basics are mainstream; Arthur was a Roman officer fighting the Saxons, culminating at Badon. But it promotes the fringe theory that Arthur's men were Sarmatian horsemen from the steppes north of the Black Sea, which contrary to the promotional claims wasn't even based on recent archaeological evidence but had been discussed since the 1970s with little mainstream support.
Other things are even sillier. Arthur teams up with what the film calls the "Woads", who are maybe supposed to be Picts, although it seems intentionally vague. Keira Knightley, then a rising starlet, portrays a semi-naked Woad warrior. It's not impossible to have a female in battle: she's probably partly influenced by the Briton queen Boudicca who led an earlier revolt against the Romans. But it's unlikely that she would be semi-naked when perfectly good leather armor would be available. Arthur's men are referred to as "knights" despite that being a medieval feudal concept not something in Britain c. 500 CE. The Sarmatian knights also have names from Arthurian myth: Lancelot, Tristan, Gawain, Galahad, Bors, Dagonet. These names aren't Sarmatian and some of the origins are a bit obscure but seem a mix of Celtic (Tristan, Gawain), Old French (Lancelot, Galahad), and Germanic (Bors, possibly Dagonet), some of which are very improbable for 5th or 6th century Britain though very reasonable as later Anglo-French additions. It also suggests that Knightley's character was tortured on the rack, which didn't arrive in Britain until nearly 1000 years later.
- Uther tricked the wife of his enemy Gorlois, Lady Igraine, and slept with her. Thus Arthur was a bastard.
- The Welsh in their wisdom know the sword as the much easier to spell and pronounce Caledfwlch.
- King Arthur's Scottish Camelot, The Scotsman, 31 May 2006
- Legend of King Arthur 'is NOT a British tale and was stolen from the French', The Daily Express, Oct 17, 2017
- King Arthur: His Role in France, Connexion France
- "So Much Smoke", Tom Shippey, London Review of Books, Vol. 40 No. 24 · 20 December 2018, pages 23-24
- See the Wikipedia article on Preiddeu Annwfn.
- The Raid on the Otherworld, The Book of Taliesin XXX, From The Four Ancient Books of Wales, online at Celtic Literature Collective
- See the Wikipedia article on Y Gododdin.
- King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Nicholas J. Higham, Yale UP, p 168
- King Arthur, 'Once and Future King', Michael Wood, 2011
- How King Arthur became one of the most pervasive legends of all time, The Conversation
- See the Wikipedia article on Battle of Badon.
- Medieval Sourcebook: The Annales Cambriae 447-954 (The Annals of Wales), Fordham University
- See the Wikipedia article on Annales Cambriae.
- The Arthurian Handbook: Second Edition, Norris J. Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra N. Mancoff, Routledge 2014, p 17
- See the Wikipedia article on Mabinogion.
- Medieval Sourcebook: Adamnan: Life of St. Columba, reproduced from Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. Written by Adamnan, Ninth Abbot of that Monastery, ed. William Reeves, (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874)
- See the Wikipedia article on Áedán mac Gabráin.
- See the Wikipedia article on Goeznovius.
- The Arthurian Handbook: Second Edition, Norris J. Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra N. Mancoff, Routledge 2014, pp33-34
- The Arthurian Handbook: Second Edition, Norris J. Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra N. Mancoff, Routledge 2014, p 18
- Vita Sancti Paternus (The Life of St. Padarn), Celtic Literature Collective, reproduced from Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae. ed. A. W. Wade-Evans. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1944.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, trans. Michael Faletra, excerpted in The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Broadview, 2007
- Treherne, R. F. 'The Glastonbury Legends' Cresset London 1967
- See the Wikipedia article on Thomas Malory.
- See the Wikipedia article on Drake’s Drum.
- Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, King Arthur: the True Story
- "The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon (Bath). In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance." HISTORIA BRITTONUM 9th century, by Nennius
- Arthurian Passages from The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth(Author), J. A. Giles (Editor, Translator), reproduced on website of University of Rochester
- See the Wikipedia article on Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain.
- See the Wikipedia article on Historicity of King Arthur.
- See the Wikipedia article on Lucius Artorius Castus.
- Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, King Arthur: the True Story
- See the Wikipedia article on Tintagel.
- See the Wikipedia article on Camelot.
- Camelot, Historic UK, accessed 18 Dec 2018
- Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, King Arthur: the True Story
- Glastonbury Tor, BBC
- Avalon: Real Island, Obscured Legend, Or Just Legendary Island, Ancient Origins
- Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, King Arthur: the True Story
- Surviving Camlann, Helmut Nickel
- See the Wikipedia article on Brocéliande.
- The Forest of Brocéliande, Brittany Tourism
- The Lyonesse Project, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeological Society, accessed July 14, 2020
- See the Wikipedia article on Lyonesse.
- King Arthur (2004), Roger Ebert
- King Arthur: Keira and the grumpy knights of the unsound table, Alex von Tunzelmann, The Guardian, 27 Jan 2011