'Here lies the renown King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon'
Just about anyone who was anyone in Dark Age Britain has at sometime or other been proposed as the historical Arthur. We must be prepared to consider these contenders for the crown and not just casually dismiss them out of hand. But any proposal put forward in the argument for a historical Arthur must of course stand up to scrutiny. The following is a selection of some the contenders for consideration. This list is not exhaustive by any means and later articles will discuss the merits of each as a realistic contender for the crown of Arthur, King of the Britons.
Lucius Castus Artorius
This controversial theory argues for a 2nd Century Roman cavalry officer stationed in North Britain with an auxiliary troop of Sarmatian cavalry who left Britain to fight in Gaul as the origin of the Arthurian Legend. Character upon which the figure of Arthur is based upon in the historically inaccurate movie King Arthur, (2004).
Theory favoured by Kemp Malone, P. F. J. Turner, C. Scott Littleton & Linda Malcor and more recently John Matthews has jumped on the bandwagon.
Arthun, son of Magnus Maximus
Magnus Maximus is well known as a historical character of the late Roman period in Britain, he restored Roman control over the Northern Wall and was elected Emperor by the British Roman Garrison. Maximus left Britain to fight a campaign in Gaul in 383 AD.
According to Alan Wilson & Baram Blackett in The Holy Kingdom (1998) with Adrian Gilbert, there were TWO King Arthurs, six generations apart but came to form one composite figure known as "King Arthur". Wilson and Blackett's “first” Arthur, who they refer to as “Arthur I”, or Arthun, was son of Magnus Maximus c.346-400 AD and his general who the Romans called Andragathius.
Dux Bellorum: A mercenary?
In his recent book Warlords (2009) Stuart Laycock suggest that Arthur may have been a foriegn mercenary employed by the Kings of Britain quoting Nennius saying he was not a king but fought for them.
Vortimer was one of the sons of Vortigern and won several battles against the Saxons in the South East of Britain according to the Kentish Chronicle.
The Last of the Romans; the title Dux Bellorum, which translates literally as Duke of Battles, sounds similar to the Roman title Dux Brittania, the commander of the field armies of Northern Britain. Gildas and Bede, along with Nennius and even Geoffrey of Monmouth all credit Ambrosius as the British Dark Age resistance leader. As the Harlian Manuscript 3859 twice mentions Arthur as the victor at Badon in accordance with Gildas, our only contemporary historical source, Ambrosius equates as THE Historical Arthur.
Left Britain “by way of ocean” to fight a campaign in Gaul against the Visigoths in 468AD. Betrayed by the Prefect of Gaul, last seen heading towards Avallon in Burgundy, he disappeared from history. Geoffrey Ashe argues that King Arthur was an historical King in Brittany known to history as Riothamus, a title meaning "Greatest-King".
Cerdic is an enigmatic character; a Germanic warrior with a British name. He is credited as the founder of Wessex, landing c.495AD. He is then relatively inactive for nearly 20 years before expanding Wessex; a timespan curiously corresponding with the dates of the Battles of Badon and Camlann. This correlation of dates seems to suggest that he was Arthur's adversary but John C. Rudmin & Joseph W. Rudmin, propose that the 6th century Welsh king, Caradoc Vreichvras, is identified as Cerdic of Wessex, and the origin of the Arthurian legend.
In King Arthur - The True Story, (1992) Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman propose there is compelling evidence that Owain Ddantgwyn (whitetooth), the king of Powys c.500 AD, was known by the battle name “The Bear.” Tracing his genealogy Phillips and Keatman derive at Ddantgwyn as the father of Cynglas (Cunegulasus) and uncle to Maelgwyn (Maglocunus). Significantly Maelgwyn was termed by Gildas as the “dragon of the Island”, who killed the King, his uncle, fitting in with the treachery of Mordered, according to later Arthurian Romance Arthur's son by his sister. Phillips and Keatman identify his burial place as The Berth in Shropshire.
Powys warlord and according to Gildas, writing less than half a century after the battle of Badon, known as the “Bear” and “Driver of the Bear's chariot,” commonly taken to mean Din Arth in North Wales. Together with other compelling biographical convergences this is seen as evidence for identifying Cunegulasus (Cynglas) with Arthur.
Blackett & Wilson's second of the two characters forming one composite Arthur, who they refer to as Arthur II, King Athrwys of Glywyssing & Gwent, the Son of King Meurig. In Artorius Rex Discovered (1986) Blackett and Wilson argue that several ancient British Manuscripts, Llandaff Cathedral Charters and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, state very plainly and unmistakable that Arthur II successfully fought against the Saxons. Born in 503 AD and his death in 579 AD, funeral, and burial are copiously recorded. He was a grandson of King Tewdrig (Theoderic), and Tewdrig was buried at Mathern Church after being mortally wounded in a battle at the Tintern Ford on the River Wye in 508 AD.
Chris Barber & David Pykitt in Journey to Avalon (1993), like Blackett & Wilson, identify the historical Arthur with King Athrwys of Glywyssing & Gwent. However, the major divergence in their theory is that after Camlann, Athrwys abdicated and retired to Brittany where he became known as St. Armel (Arthmael = Iron Bear) with his shrine at St.Armel-des-Boschaux.
A Strathclyde General
Many claim the Arthurian battles occur up and down the country, others assert there is a concentration in southern Scotland and the Borders with Arthur contesting all his battles on the borders of the Dark Age kingdom of Strathclyde defending the territory from other Northern Britons. Hence, Arthur has been identified, not as a king, but as a general from 5th and early 6th century Strathclyde who fought all his battles in southern Scotland and Northumberland.
Arthur of the Pennines
Many of the exploits of Arthwys ap Mar, Arthur of the Pennines, who ruled from York seem to fit well with the deeds of the historic King Arthur. Indeed, the Arthurian Battle List can comfortably be made to fit a Northern bias and Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur fight the battle of the River Douglas outside of York. But in vernacular sources Arthur was always recorded as 'Arthur', not Arthwys.
The Arthur of Saints Lives
The Arthur of the Saints Lives is often portrayed as someone at odds with the church and very much a warrior figure like the Arthur of early Welsh tradition. Caradoc of Llancarfan, associates Arthur with the monk Gildas and writes of this in the Vita Gildae (The life of St Gildas). The tale from Caradoc states that a dispute between king Melwas of Somerset and Arthur over the abduction of Guinevere was resolved by the Abbot of Glastonbury. This is the first connection of Glastonbury with Arthur, although no connection is made with Avalon.
The same story told on the Modena Archivolt constructed prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Oddly Geoffrey refers to Caradoc at the end of some versions of his History as being the only person capable of continuing the writing of British history.
William of Leon, Chaplain to Bishop Eudo, claiming to have used the now lost "Ystoria Britannica” as his source, in the preface to the "Legend of St. Goeznovius" c. 1019 AD states that the Saxon advance was checked by the great Arthur, king of the Britons. He says the Saxons were cleared from the island and reduced to subjection. After many victories in Britain and in Gaul, Arthur was was finally summoned from human activity, and the destruction of Britain continued once more. Debate continues as to whether William's work was the source of Geoffrey's Historia, (he claimed to have been given “certain ancient book”), as the two works have many clear similarities.
William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury seems to have used Nennius' Historia Brittonum as the primary source for his Gesta Regum Anglorum (Acts of the Kings of the English), 1125AD. William mentions the spread of oral tradition about Arthur but disregards this as pure myth. Williams's work identified Arthur assisting Ambrosius Aurelianus in fighting the Saxons and refers to his victory at the siege of Mount Badon, but fails to mention Camlann as Arthur's final battle.
Henry of Huntingdon
Writing c.1130, Henry's History of the English (Historia Anglorum) states that Arthur was commander of the soldiers and kings of Britain and fought against them (the Saxons) invincibly. Probably following Nennius, Henry mentions twelve times Arthur led them in battle and twelve times he was victorious in battle, but the twelfth and hardest battle that Arthur fought was Mount Badon.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthur
Writing his History of the Kings of Britain c.1136 Geoffrey created an “Arthur” very different to what we has seen prior to the emergence of his work. His source he claimed to be a “certain ancient book” given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, which he translated from the British tongue. Geoffrey changed Arthur for ever and in the process added much confusion to the tales. Following Geoffrey there appears to have been an explosion of Arthurian literature, notably on the Continent; whether Geoffrey was the direct inspiration for this seems debatable as there was evidently a groundswell developing prior to Geoffrey, but certainly he was responsible for creating the Arthur of Romance.
A grave was excavated by the monks in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey in 1191 AD, claimed to be Arthur, King of the Britons. A cross was found during excavation which subsequently disappeared many years ago, but a surviving depiction is from a drawing by William Camden in 1607, cited by many as evidence of the event as a genuine occurrence. Without the cross it is of course difficult to ascertain whether it is a fake or not, but several, different transcriptions were recorded by various contemporary historians. It is well known that the monks of the Abbey were in desperate need of funds at the time following the fire in 1184. The finding of Arthur's grave also had political significance and was no doubt meant to put an end to the Britons insistence that the Great Arthur would one day return. But today we have no bones and no cross.
Arthur of Continental Romance
Wace is generally the first European writer considered influenced by Monmouth's work and he composed a long poem in the Chronicle tradition entitled Roman de Brut (The Romance of Brutus) in 1155. Wace was the first to introduce the 'Round Table' around which Arthur sat with his fifty greatest knights. Geoffrey of Monmouth's work was probably read throughout the courts of Britain and Europe inspiring a flourish of continental writers …....and the Arthurian Romances were born.
The most famous being the five Arthurian tales by Chretien de Troyes who also introduced a pagan “Graal”, later Christianised by Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie in the late 12th century as the cup used by Christ at the last supper. De Troyes had left his Story of the Graal unfinished, which led to four continuations of Chrétien’s poem to bring the story to a close and an Elucidation (introduction) which just seemed to confuse matters further. The German Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which attempted to adapt the holiness of De Boron's Grail into the framework of Chrétien’s pagan story. The French introduced us to Lancelot in the Vulgate Cycle. The first treatment of the Lancelot tradition in German, Lanzelet, a medieval romance written by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven around 1194, contains the earliest known account of the hero's childhood with the Lady of the Lake in any language. The Three Welsh Romances, normally included in the Mabinogion, are versions of Arthurian tales whose themes appear in the work of Chrétien de Troyes, but including very striking differences from it. Debate continues as to whether the Welsh Romances are derived from Chrétien's work or a common shared original. In all probability it seems likely that the surviving Romances derive, directly or indirectly, from Chrétien, who in turn based his tales on older, Celtic sources. For example the Welsh romance Peredur, preserves elements of pre-Christian traditions such as the Celtic cult of the head. But by now Arthur had ceased to be the central figure of these tales; Gawain and Lancelot had taken central stage.
Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur) completed from his prison cell by 1470. First printed by Caxton in 1485, it is the best known work of Arthurian literature in the English language. This was Malory's compilation of the French and English Arthurian romances, but also containing some of Malory's own original material, including Arthur's birth, and the sword in the stone stone to prove his heir apparent and retelling the older stories with Malory's own interpretations, portraying Arthur as a knight in shinning armour, ruling from a grand court, creating the Arthur we know today.
And the rest, as they say, is history..........or is it?
*Updated May 2016
Copyright © 2010 Edward Watson
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