Historical basis for King Arthur
The historical basis of King Arthur is a source of considerable debate among historians. Due to the poverty of British records in the period 450-550 CE, historian Thomas Charles-Edwards noted that "at this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur [but …] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him". Historian David Dumville summed up his position by saying, "I think we can dispose of him [Arthur] quite briefly. He owes his place in our history books to a 'no smoke without fire' school of thought ... The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books."
Some have suggested that Arthur was a mythological or folklore figure, that other mythological figures also may have become historicised: one suggestion is that Hengest and Horsa were originally Kentish totemic horse-gods, ascribed a historical role by Bede. There is, however, no more early trace of this fictional Arthur than there is of a historical one.
Arthur appears in a historical context as a British soldier (miles in the original Latin) fighting alongside British kings against the invading Saxons in a Latin text of the 9th century, more than three centuries after his supposed floruit in 5th-6th century Sub-Roman Britain. The legendary king of the Britons of Arthurian legend develops from the 12th century after Geoffrey of Monmouth's influential Historia Regum Britanniae.
- 1 The name "Arthur"
- 2 Early sources
- 3 Alternative candidates for the historical King Arthur
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Literature
- 7 External links
The name "Arthur"
The etymology of the Welsh name Arthur is uncertain, though most scholars favour either a derivation from the Roman gens name Artorius (ultimately of Messapic or Etruscan origin), or a native Brittonic compound based on the root *arto- "bear" (which became arth in Medieval and Modern Welsh). Similar "bear" names appear throughout the Celtic-speaking world. Gildas does not give the name Arthur but he does mention a British king Cuneglasus who had been "charioteer to the bear". Those that favor a mythological origin for Arthur point out that a Gaulish bear goddess Artio is attested, but as yet no certain examples of Celtic male bear gods have been detected.
John Morris argues that the appearance of the name Arthur, as applied to the Scottish, Welsh and Pennine "Arthurs", and the lack of the name at any time earlier, suggests that in the early 6th century the name became popular amongst the indigenous British for a short time. He proposes that all of these occurrences were due to the importance of another Arthur, who may have ruled temporarily as Emperor of Britain. He suggests on the basis of archaeology that a period of Saxon advance was halted and turned back, before resuming again in the 570s. Morris also suggests that the Roman Camulodunum, modern Colchester, and capital of the Roman province of Britannia, is the origin of the name "Camelot".
The name Artúr is frequently attested in southern Scotland and northern England in the 7th and 8th centuries. For example, Artúr mac Conaing, who may have been named after his uncle Artúr mac Áedáin. Artúr son of Bicoir Britone, was another 'Arthur' reported in this period, who slew Morgan mac Fiachna of Ulster in 620/625 in Kintyre. A man named Feradach, apparently the grandson of an 'Artuir', was a signatory at the synod that enacted the Law of Adomnan in 697. Arthur ap Pedr was a prince in Dyfed, born around 570–580. Given the popularity of this name at the time, it is likely that others were named for a figure who was already established in folklore by that time.
Arthur is not mentioned in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c. 890s), Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731) or any other surviving work until 820, the date ascribed to the Historia Brittonum, usually attributed to Nennius, a Welsh ecclesiastic. Nennius lists twelve battles fought by Arthur and gives him the title of "dux bellorum", which can be translated as "war commander", saying that Arthur fought "alongside the kings of the Britons", rather than that Arthur was himself a king. Other accounts associating Arthur with one of those battles, that of Mount Badon, can be shown to derive directly or indirectly from the Historia Brittonum. The list is inserted between the death of Hengist and the reign of Ida in Bernicia, which suggests that the Historia Brittonum's compiler believed Arthur's floruit to have been in the early-mid 6th century.
The battle of Mount Badon (Mons Badonicus) appears to be that great British victory mentioned by Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). Badon appears in several other texts but Arthur is not associated with it until the Historia Brittonum. Recent scholarship has further questioned the reliability of the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae.
Gildas and Badon
A message traditionally dated to c. 446, known as the Groans of the Britons, is recorded by Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae and later by Bede. It is a plea to Agitio ter consuli ("Agitius, thrice consul"), believed to be Aëtius, military leader of the Western Roman Empire who spent most of the 440s fighting insurgents in Gaul and Hispania, an attempt to persuade the late Western Roman Empire to help defend Britain from the rebelling Jutes, Angles and Saxons after the Roman withdrawal.
A variety of sources after Gildas name Arthur as the victor of the Battle of Mount Badon, at which the Saxons were routed and their invasions halted for many years. Historians regard it as a probable historical event. Gildas' Latin is somewhat opaque: he does not name Arthur, or any other leader of the battle. He does discuss Ambrosius Aurelianus as a great scourge of the Saxons immediately prior, but seems to say some time passed between Ambrosius' victory and the battle of Badon. He also tells us that he was born in the same year as the battle (which he describes as taking place "in our times" and being one of the latest - and greatest - slaughters of the Saxons) and that, at the time of his writing, a new generation born after the battle of Badon, has come of age in Britain.
According to Gildas, Aurelianus stayed calm despite the fact that his parents had been killed in the attacks and became leader of the remaining British, organised them, and led them in their first victory against the Saxons, although subsequent battles went both ways. Gildas also writes that Aurelianus’ parents "wore the purple", and thus were apparently descended from Roman emperors. The Aurelii were a noted Roman senatorial family and it is possible that Ambrosius was descended from them. Owing to a possible mistranslation of a word from Gildas, describing Aurelianus as either the "ancestor" or the "grandfather" of his descendants of Gildas’ generation, it is possible that Aurelianus lived in the generation before the Battle of Badon. According to the Major Chronicle Annals, he rose to power in 479.
The date of the battle is uncertain, with most scholars accepting a date around 500. The location is also unknown, though locations have been proposed over the years, including southwest England, perhaps near the city of Bath or the nearby Solsbury Hill, where an ancient hill fort existed, and somewhere to the north, in or near modern Scotland. Some believe Badon Hill was fought between the British and the invading South Saxons under their Bretanwealda Aelle. It is theorised that Aelle may have died in the battle and that Sussex did not again attack the Celts until 571.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain also states that Arthur led the forces at Badon. Geoffrey makes Aurelianus (whom he calls Aurelius Ambrosius) a king of Britain, an older brother of Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, thus relating Aurelianus and Arthur. He also states that Aurelianus was the son of a Breton ruler named Constantinus, brother of Aldroenus.
The 10th century Annales Cambriae give the date of Mons Badonicus as 516, and Arthur's death as occurring in 537 at Camlann. These annals survive in a version dating from the 10th century. All other sources relating to Arthur by name are later than these; that is, they were written at least four hundred years later than the events to which they refer.
Legends of the saints
The Legenda Sancti Goeznovii, a hagiography of the Breton saint Goeznovius that claims to date from 1019, includes a brief segment dealing with Arthur and Vortigern: this early vita is one of only five insular saints' lives and two Breton ones that include a mention of Arthur that seems to be independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth's myth-making in Historia Regum Britanniae. Among other saint's vitae that mention Arthur are those of Cadoc, Carantoc, Illtud, Gildas and Paternus.
There are a number of mentions of a legendary hero called Arthur in early Welsh and Breton poetry. These sources are preserved in High Medieval manuscripts, and cannot be dated with accuracy. They are mostly placed in the 9th to 10th century, although some authors make them as early as the 7th. The earliest of these would appear to be the Old Welsh poem, Y Gododdin, preserved in an 11th-century manuscript. It refers to a warrior who "glutted black ravens [i.e., killed many men] on the rampart of the stronghold, although he was no Arthur".
The Welsh poem Geraint, son of Erbin, written in the 10th or 11th century, describes a battle at a port-settlement and mentions Arthur in passing. The work is a praise-poem and elegy for the king Geraint, usually presumed to be an historical king of Dumnonia, and is significant in showing that he was associated with Arthur at a relatively early date. It also provides the earliest known reference to Arthur as "emperor" Geraint son of Erbin is earliest found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, compiled around 1250, though it may date to the 10th or 11th century. Y Gododdin was similarly copied at much the same time. The two poems differ in the relative archaic quality of their language, that of Gododdin being the older in form. However, this could merely reflect differences in the date of the last revision of the language within the two poems. (The language would have had to have been revised for the poems to remain comprehensible.)
The History of the Kings of Britain
In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth's list of kings of the Britons, which was partially based on the chronology found in the Historia Brittonum, placed Arthur and Uther Pendragon in sequence between Aurelius Ambrosius and a Breton ruler named Constantinus (often erroneously identified with Constantine III), all of them Romano-British rulers placed in the Sub-Roman period of the 5th to 6th century. Geoffrey's historiography was ruled by an aim of proving a primordial line of British kingship that entirely bypassed the Anglo-Saxon kings.
Alternative candidates for the historical King Arthur
Some theories suggest that "Arthur" was a byname of attested historical individuals.
Lucius Artorius Castus
In 1924 Kemp Malone suggested that the character of King Arthur was ultimately based on one Lucius Artorius Castus, a career Roman soldier of the late 2nd century or early 3rd century. This suggestion was revived in 1994 by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor and linked to a hypothesis (below) that the Arthurian legends were influenced by the nomadic Alans and Sarmatians settled in Western Europe in Late Antiquity. Littleton had earlier written about this hypothesis in 1978 together with Ann C. Thomas.
All that is known about Artorius’ life comes from two Latin inscriptions discovered in the 19th century in Podstrana on the Dalmatian coast. After a long, distinguished career as a centurion and then primus pilus in the Roman army Artorius was promoted to praefectus legionis of the VI Victrix, a unit that had been headquartered at Eboracum (York) since c. 122 AD. The praefectus legionis (or praefectus castrorum) served as third-in-command of the legion and was responsible for the general upkeep of the legionary headquarters, a position normally held by older career soldiers who did not command soldiers in battle.
When Artorius's term as praefectus legionis ended he was assigned the temporary title of dux legionum and was put in charge of transferring some units of unknown size with British associations to the Continent for an expedition against either the Armorici or the Armenians. Later he became civilian governor (procurator centenarius) of the province of Liburnia, where he seems to have ended his days.
Malcor, in a hypothetical reconstruction of Artorius’ life based in part on Malone and Helmut Nickel, proposes that he fought against Sarmatians in eastern Europe early in his military career and this led in 181 AD to his being assigned in the command of a numerus of Sarmatians based at Ribchester (Bremetennacum) that campaigned around Hadrian’s Wall. 5,500 Sarmatians had been sent to Britain by the emperor Marcus Aurelius in 175 AD. Artorius led these Sarmatians against invading Caledonians, who overran Hadrian’s Wall during the period 183–185. Then, after the collapse of his legion, he returns to Eboracum, then is sent by the governor of Britannia to lead cavalry cohorts against an uprising in Armorica. Medieval sources often place Arthur’s headquarters in Wales at Caerleon upon Usk, the "Fortress of Legions" (borrowed from Latin Castra Legionum). Eboracum, in the Vale of York, was sometimes referred to as Urbe Legionum or the "City of the Legion", and was the headquarters of the legio VI Victrix.
Malcor also suggests that Artorius’ standard was a large red dragon pennant (auxiliary forces did not use eagle standards), which is proposed as the origin of the Welsh epithet Pendragon “Dragon Chief/Head” (alternately, "Leader of Warriors") in Arthurian literature. According to both Malone and Littleton/Malcor, Artorius' alleged military exploits in Britain and Armorica could have been remembered for centuries afterward, thus generating the figure of Arthur among the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons. This is linked to the original theory of Littleton, Thomas and Malcor which suggests that folk narratives of the Alano-Sarmatians settled in Western Europe formed the core of the Arthurian tradition.
The Sarmatians had a near-religious fondness for their swords: tribal worship was directed at a sword sticking up from the ground, similar to the sword in the stone. They carried standards in the form of dragons. Ossetian Nart sagas contain a number of interesting parallels to the Arthurian legends. First, the life of the Nart warrior (batraz) is tied to his sword, which must be thrown into the sea at his death. When one wounded Batraz asks his last surviving comrade to do the task for him, his companion tries to fool him twice before finally hurling the weapon into the sea; rather like Arthur's wondrous sword Excalibur which had to be returned to the Lady of the Lake at his death by his last surviving knight, Bedivere. The Nart heroes Soslan and Sosryko, collect the beards of vanquished enemies to trim their cloaks like Arthur's enemy Rience: both have one last beard to obtain before the cloak is complete. Two other similar motifs are the Cup of the Narts ("Nartyamonga"), which appeared at feasts, delivered to each person what he liked best to eat, and which was kept by the bravest of the Narts ("Knights") - somewhat similar to the Grail - and the magical woman, dressed in white, associated with water, who helps the hero acquire his sword, similar to the Arthurian Lady of the Lake.
There seems to be little reason for Artorius to have become a major legendary figure: no Roman historical source mentions him or his alleged exploits in Britain, nor is there any clear evidence that he ever commanded Sarmatians. Neither of Artorius’ inscriptions from Podstrana mention command of any full legions (as proposed by Malcor, et al.), or establish his command of the VI Victrix (nor any numeri), nor do the inscriptions provide any evidence of command of, or association with, Sarmatians, or indicate anything about his standard.
Unlike dux legionum, dux bellorum or dux belli were not titles or ranks in the Roman Army but generic Latin phrases. Joshua was called dux belli of the Israelites in the Latin Vulgate Bible, Hanno the Great was dux belli of Carthage in Justin's Historiarum Philippicarum. Closer to the time and place, Saint Germanus of Auxerre was twice styled dux belli by Bede). Artorius is not recorded as having fought in any known battles to match against those in the Historia Brittonum. However Geoffrey adds that Arthur twice took troops across the sea to Armorica, once to support the Roman emperor and once to deal with his own rebels.
The theory of a connection between the Alan and Sarmatian peoples and the legend of King Arthur depends upon the fact that the Alano-Sarmatians were steppe nomads known in the 2nd century for their skill as heavy cavalry. In 175, Marcus Aurelius, after defeating the Sarmatian Iazyges tribe during the Marcomannic Wars, took 8,000 Sarmatians into Roman service, of whom 5,500 were sent to the northern borders of Britain. The 5th century Notitia Dignitatum mentions a "Formation of Sarmatians" (Cuneus Sarmatarum; cunei were small auxiliary units in the late Empire) being present at Bremetennacum (Ribchester), where we find inscriptions dating to the 3rd century AD of a "Wing of Sarmatians" (ala Sarmatarum) and a "Company of Sarmatian Horsemen" (numeri equitum Sarmatarum).
Many of the parallels or similarities between Arthurian and Sarmatian tales only occur in writings dating from and after Geoffrey of Monmouth and do not affect the core issue of historicity. Some of the strongest similarities of Arthurian and Sarmatian tales occur in Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, when Arthur and his warriors had already evolved into "knights in shining armor". Critics conclude that Sarmatian influence was limited to the post-Galfridian development of the tales instead of historical basis, if at all.
Riothamus (aka Riotimus, apparently meaning Kingliest or "Great King" (from Brittonic *rigo- "king", plus the Brittonic superlative suffix -tamo-) was a historical figure whom ancient sources list as "a king of the Britons". He lived in the late 5th century, and most of the stories about him were recorded in the Byzantine historian Jordanes' The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, written in the mid-6th century, only about 80 years after his presumed death.
About 460, the Roman diplomat and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris sent a letter to Riothamus, asking his help to quell unrest among the Brettones, British colonists living in Armorica. This letter still survives.
In the year 470, the Western Emperor Anthemius began a campaign against Euric, king of the Visigoths who were campaigning outside their territory in Gaul. Anthemius requested help from Riothamus, and Jordanes writes that he crossed the ocean into Gaul with 12,000 warriors. The location of Riothamus’s army was betrayed to the Visigoths by the jealous praetorian prefect of Gaul, and Euric defeated him in a battle in Burgundy. Riothamus was last seen retreating near a town called Avallon.
Geoffrey Ashe points out that, as above, Arthur is said by the early sources to have crossed into Gaul twice, once to help a Roman emperor and once to subdue a civil war. Assuming that Riothamus was a king in Britain as well as Armorica, he did both. Arthur is also said to have been betrayed by one of his advisors, and Riothamus was betrayed by one of his supposed allies. Finally, it is well known how King Arthur was carried off to Avalon (which Geoffrey of Monmouth spells "Avallon") before he died; Riothamus, escaping death, was last known to have been in the vicinity of a town called Avallon.
It is unknown whether Riothamus was a king in Britain or of Armorica; as Armorica was a British colony and Jordanes writes that Riothamus "crossed the ocean", it is possible both are correct. The name Riothamus has been interpreted by some as a title "High King", though there is no evidence for such a title being used by ancient Britons or Gauls and the formation of the name (noun/adjective + superlative -tamo- suffix) follows a pattern found in numerous other Brittonic and Gaulish personal names (for example, Old Breton/Welsh Cunatam/Cunotami/Condam/Cyndaf [Brittonic *Cunotamos "Great Dog"], Old Welsh Caurdaf [Brittonic *Cauarotamos "Great Giant"], Old Welsh/Breton Eudaf/Outham [Brittonic *Auitamos "Great Will/Desire"], Uuoratam/Gwrdaf [Brittonic *Uortamos "Supreme"], Old Breton Rumatam [Brittonic *Roimmotamos "Great Band/Host"], Gwyndaf [Brittonic *Uindotamos "Fairest/Whitest/Holiest One"], Breton Uuentamau [Brittonic *Uenutamaua: "Friendliest or *Uendutamaua: "Little Fairest/Whitest/Holiest (One)"]).
Cognates of the name Riothamus survive in Old Welsh (Riatav/Riadaf) and Old Breton (Riatam).
Ambrosius Aurelianus (also sometimes referred to as Aurelius Ambrosius) was a powerful Romano-British leader in Britain. He was renowned for his campaigns against the Saxons, and there is some speculation that he may have commanded the British forces at the Battle of Badon Hill. At any rate, the battle was a clear continuation of his efforts.
Scholars such as Leon Fleuriot identified Ambrosius Aurelianus with the aforementioned Riothamus figure from Jordanes, an idea which forms part of his theory about the origins of the Arthurian legend. Others, such as Geoffrey Ashe, disagree, since Ambrosius isn't called "king" until the somewhat-legendary Historia Brittonum.
Artúr mac Áedáin and others
Though he was the eldest son of Áedán mac Gabráin, Artúr mac Áedáin never became king of Dál Riata; his brother Eochaid Buide ruled after his father's death. However, when Áedán gave up his role and retired to monastic life, Artúr became war leader, though Áedán was officially still king. Thus it was Artúr who led the Scotti of Dál Riata in a war against the Picts, separate from the later war with Northumbria. By this theory, Artúr was predominantly active in the region between the Roman walls — the Kingdom of the Gododdin. He was ultimately killed in battle in 582. This is the solution proposed by David F.Carroll in his book Arturius-A Quest for Camelot published 1996 and 11 years later by Michael Wood.
- Lloegyr (historical basis for Logres)
- End of Roman rule in Britain
- Sites and places associated with Arthurian legend
- Wales in the Early Middle Ages
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-  (March 2011)
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- C. Scott Littleton and Ann C. Thomas expanded on the ideas of Vasily Abaev and Georges Dumezil and published in 1978.
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