Sunday 31 January 2010

Contenders for the Real King Arthur

'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.

Owain Ddantgwyn
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.

St Arthmael
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.

Breton Arthur
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.

Arthur's Bones
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.

Malory's Arthur
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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Friday 1 January 2010

Arthur: The Eternal Enigma (2)

Part Two

"and more and better besides...."

And to what came first: were the legends appended to a historical figure who flourished in Post-Roman Britain, or was it a mythical figure who became historisiced? The available evidence tends to suggest the later is the case.

In a major article clearly aimed at addressing this question, Oliver J. Padel, opens his account by stating: “Did Arthur exist? The only honest answer is, ‘We do not know, but he may well have existed.’” [8] Padel cites two studies from Celticists Thomas Jones (The Early Evolution of the Legends of Arthur [9] ) and Kenneth Jackson (The Arthur of History [10] ) writing around the same time but independantly came to the same conclusion. Jones and Jackson both examined all the evidence which is likely to be before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain with its glorification of Arthur as King and an international warlord, completed before 1139AD.

Padel's article has been described as an attack on the "historical Arthur". Padel cites the dualistic nature of the Arthurian material in the Historia Brittonum; the Arthur of the battle list and the folkloristic Arthur of the Mirabilia, as discussed above, as evidence of the historisation of a mythical figure:

“This contrast, found in our earliest Arthurian text [Historia Brittonum], needs to be emphasized. It has usually been explained on the basis that here we also see the historical Arthur already becoming a figure of local legend. This begs the question of what can be known of Arthur before the date of this, our earliest text; but for the time being what is important is the dual nature of the legend at its first appearance – the mixture of magical folklore and apparent history." [11]

Padel concludes “that Arthur occupied a role in folklore across the Brittonic lands before being historicized at least as early as the Historia Brittonum in 829-830, and perhaps before that, this figure was then developed by Geoffrey of Monmouth and provided the beginnings of the fully grown Arthurian cycle of the 12th Century.” [12]

In an article entitled “Concepts of Arthur,Rachel Bromwich briefly touches on the “magical meaning” of Arthur, in quoting Welsh Arthurian scholar Thomas Jones, she states:

“How exactly did it come about that a figure about whom we know nothing with certainty, and whose historical existence we cannot prove, should have grown into the centre of so many tales throughout the whole of Europe”.[13]

Bromwich continues, stating that by the seventh century, Arthur had become the great national hero of the entire British people “...a defender of his people against witches, monsters, giants, and external invaders”. [14]

Qualified opinions such as these as expressed by eminent scholars such as Padel, Bromwich and Dumville are obviously unpopular with supporters of the paperback Historical Arthur factory, but when the early medieval sources are examined, the absence of this enigmatic figure is very noticeable. In the long list of books attempting to identify this enigmatic figure, Arthurian scholar Thomas Green continues in the vein of Padel in producing the latest study on the Arthur of Celtic legend and reveals that in origin he was a mythical, folkloric figure, the defender of Britain, with Otherworld connections.

Green's Concepts of Arthur: The Nature of the Early Arthurian Legend (Tempus 2008) is a detailed study of the ultimate origins of Arthur and the nature and development of the early Arthurian legend, presenting a comprehensive overview of recent scholarship, including the author's own academic research into the sources of the early Arthurian tradition.

From the back cover:
“Ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain in the twelfth century, there have been numerous attempts to prove that the Arthur of Celtic legend was in fact based on an actual historical figure. This trend continues to the present day, although as yet no definitive literary or archaeological proof has emerged for Arthur's existence.

In this new and vigorous re-examination of the Arthurian legend Thomas green considers the earliest surviving literary and folkloric sources for Arthur and contests the belief that he was an actual person. Far from being an historical figure, Arthur emerges as a mythical and folkloric figure, who over the course of history has been transformed into an historical king by a series of authors with their own political agenda. The evidence reveals that from an early period Arthur was clearly defined as a supernatural defender of Britain, who defended its borders from all threats. Moreover, he had an intimate connection with the Otherworld and a long history of folkloric tradition attached to his name. This thought-provoking and engaging study challenges the long-standing fascination with proving that King Arthur was real and is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Arthur.”

Green, a post-graduate researcher at the University of Oxford and a part-time teacher of history, has been producing Arthurian articles on his website [15] since 1998, the first major article being ‘The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur’. An up-to-date expansion, development and revision of the views presented in this article can be found in Chapter Six of 'Concepts of Arthur'. This important article has been cited in various recent Arthurian publications, such as N. J. Higham’s King Arthur, Myth-Making and History (2002), N. J. Lacy (ed.) The History of Arthurian Scholarship (2006) and G. Anderson's King Arthur in Antiquity (2004).

Continuing to explore the mythical element of the Arthurian legend, Green concentrates on the Arthur of early litertaure, denouncing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s (Galfridus Monemutensis) Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) which glorified Arthur and made him an international warlord, as being of no use in the search for a historical Arthur. Geoffrey's work rapidly became a major influence throughout western Europe and affected the Arthurian legend in all areas with the result that scholars must look to sources written before Geoffrey’s Historia, termed ‘pre-Galfridian’, for the ‘original’ Arthur. As Green says in the introductory pages:

“In what follows, the major early sources for a concept of Arthur as a figure of history will be examined in some detail, in order to establish whether they can provide the necessary proof for us to be able to believe that the Arthur they tell of did, in fact, exist. The focus here is solely on those sources that modern historians accept as potentially reliable and useful, that is those texts which pre-date the publication of the Historia Regum Britanniae”.

In the early, pre-Galfridian, Arthurian sources, in the tales of 'Culhwch and Olwen' and 'Preideu Annwfyn' for example, we find Arthur's companions are a retinue of deities: Bran; Mabon; Gwynn ap Nudd; Lugus/Lleu/Lug; Manawydan; Gwalchmei; involved in a raid on the otherworld fighting giants and witches. Although Arthur does not appear as a god himself.

Of the Nennius battle list, discussed above, Green suggests it was fought against supernatural figures. Green admits that most of the battle sites are largely unidentifiable, though the tenth, the ‘battle on the bank of a river which is called Tribruit’, is recorded elsewhere (Pa Gur) in very early sources as a traditional battle against werewolves, thus casting further doubt on the Historia’s value. The battle at Cat Coit Celidon Green suggests is the mythical 'battle of trees' recorded in the archaic poem from the Book of Taliesin, Kat Godeu. Green continues in that other elements of Nennius Section 56 look similarly suspect.

A collection of early Welsh heroic death-songs, known as Y Gododdin, is often cited as the first early reference to Arthur with the line that states although Gwawrddur ‘fed black ravens on the rampart of the fort, he was no Arthur’. The allusion in the poem to Arthur, who is clearly not present at the battle, is often claimed as a later addition to the manuscript by the opponents of the historical Arthur. However, there are several texts of Y Gododdin, known as the A and B texts, the earliest composition of which has been suggested recently by John Koch as the mid-7th Century, although this controversial view has not gone unchallenged by other scholars. [16] This Arthurian reference in Y Gododdin may well be from the 7th or equally the 10th Century, but this does not detract from the fact that Gwawrddur’s valour is being compared to the tradition of a Brittonic superhero known in Northern Britain as Arthur. As Green states, “...he is not envisaged as being present at the battle ...he is a military ‘superhero’, someone to whose heights of valour not even a man who killed 300 could compare. Arthur is therefore in a different league to the rest of the figures who appear in Y Gododdin”.

After the continual onslaught of books claiming “the true identity of Arthur revealed” this book comes across very refreshing. Green has produced a fine scholarly work that blows away the myths of later Arthurian Romance, presenting a folkloric or mythical figure of Arthur who became historicised at least by the 9th century, and possibly much earlier, and delivers the most common sense approach yet to the eternal enigma of Arthur.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

Copyright © 2010 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
8. Oliver J. Padel, "The Nature of Arthur", Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies No 27, (1994).
9. Thomas Jones, The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur, Nottingham Medieval Studies #8 (1964) – translated from an original article from the Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies (1956-58).
10. Kenneth H Jackson, The Arthur of History, in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by R S Loomis (1959).
11. Padel, op.cit.
12. Ibid.
13. Rachel Bromwich, “Concepts of Arthur.” Studia Celtica, No 10/11, pp. 163-181. (1975/1976.).
14. Ibid.
15. Thomas Green's Arthurian Resources 
16. John Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain (1997).

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