King Arthur: was he, and if so who?

Pub History 102

This screed was brought on by similar causes to the last one, when my then-partner, who was visiting Tintagel, rang me from King Arthur's Coach Park, looking at King Arthur's Castle and having been past any number of King Arthur's Shops and King Arthur's Hotels, and asked her tame early mediævalist, what do we actually know about Arthur and Tintagel? And I said to her, no evidence that he had any connection with the place at all, sorry. In fact not much evidence that he even existed. And then I wound up writing out the long version for her later perusal. And because it's another of the questions that mediævalists get asked again and again, at least in Britain, I've been meaning since then to stick this one on the web too. So now I do. Again, this is not my best academic-quality output, and some of it needs checking, but for now, you can satisfy your curiosity with this maybe. Enjoy! (Update: as of 18 August 2017, all the links in this piece again work, but I haven't updated the text since I wrote it in 2006. This is not up-to-date thinking any more!)

Some sites of King Arthur

The Cornish town of Tintagel was probably a going concern at the time Arthur is usually supposed to have been around, mid- to late-fifth century, but we're not sure that it was a royal site at that point, rather than just a coastal fishing port with a sideline in mining. There are arguments and there is certainly archaeology. The sideline in mining however must involve quite a lot of precious metal, and I personally don't have a problem with fifth-century Tintagel being a king's vill or whatever the sub-Roman British `tyrants' had.

In the same way, `we' (by which I mean right-thinking early mediævalists, naturally) are sort of happy with the identification of Camelot as South Cadbury in Somerset, which is something that `everyone's known' since the sixteenth century, and which was reoccupied in the fifth century and has a defensive perimeter that would need hundreds of men to man effectively. That obviously implies that someone was in a position to raise that number of men, and so there's a historiographical space into which yer King Arthur would nicely fit. But actually, ironically, proving Camelot is a lot easier than proving Arthur. And this is basically the flavour of Arthurian studies: we can say a lot more about his supposed times than we can about him, but that doesn't stop people using the one as support for the other...

That is to say, we shouldn't go round saying that Cadbury is Camelot, because it implies a belief in Arthur and the whole set of Arthurian stories from which people draw the meaning of the word 'Camelot'. But if one does accept those, South Cadbury looks like evidence. It's not of course: it's evidence for a major fifth-century warlord. But Arthur? What evidence is there of the man himself?

Sources for Arthur

Y Gododdin

First mention of Arthur is naturally controversial. There is an old poem called Y Gododdin, which tells of the defeat of a British army sent to Catterick to repel the Anglians of Deira. It's by a poet by the name of Aneirin, or at least claims to be, and he was one of the survivors so that half the poem is his death laments for the fallen, a stanza per hero, so if it does have anything to do with him, and tells the truth about his involvement, all of which is only presumed, it's contemporary or nearly so. However, our actual manuscript is a thirteenth-century copy, so dating the reference is a problem. The date of the actual event has been debated: Kenneth Jackson reckoned that the kingdom of Gododdin should be identified with Manau, roughly the supposed kingdom of Lothian, because of the king the poem places there, and so saw it as the last stand of an independent British Lothian. He therefore placed Catterick narrowly before King Edwin of Northumbria's capture of Edinburgh (do you see what he did there?) in 632, say c. 600. Others think that Manaw Gododdin was actually south of that, around the old hillfort of Traprain Law, but the political circumstances could be similar even so. John T. Koch has argued, and been argued with for it, that the language of the poem actually suggests an earlier Urtext, c. 570, which means pushing Catterick back, and David Dumville has pointed out that the poem mentions Deira but not Bernicia, through which the British warriors would have had to travel to reach Deira, and therefore argues for a date before the recorded establishment of Bernicia under King Ida in 547, of which we know from Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. That however seems to me to fail because both Deira and Bernicia are Celtic words, implying a pre-Anglian existence for the units, and indeed the Welsh Triads, which I'll discuss in a minute, list Celtic-named rulers of both (in Triad 10 on this page). I myself think Jackson's date still fits what we know of the rest of the period better than the others, but there's really no way to tell.

The significance is simply that in the manuscript, which may therefore hold a text going back to the seventh century, there is a single reference to Arthur, inserted into the elegy for one Gwawrddur:

He charged before three hundred of the finest,
He cut down both centre and wing,
He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,
He gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.
He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
Though he was no Arthur.
Among the powerful ones in battle,
In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

The obvious problems with this are firstly that it looks, and reads, like an insertion into the text later on, and with the manuscript being so late there's no way to rule that out. On the other hand, the name of the hero in question is so close to Arthur that one could understand why a throwaway reference like that might be added to explain that they were two different people. On the third hand I don't have, that could have occurred to any redactor between seventh and thirteenth centuries... So this is not much cop, but if it can be trusted at all, by the seventh century Arthur is already a bardic byword for warlike heroism. That is to say, when we first see him he's a legend. Now there is no more detail until the ninth century.

The Welsh Triads

From the ninth century, there are two things. First and most intriguing but also most ambiguous, there is a group of texts called the Welsh Triads. These are mnemonics for bards, little sets of three things for the apprentice bard to spin a song round: three heroes who crossed the Irish Sea, the three tallest men of the Britons, three beasts that were defeated by Bran, that sort of thing. The idea seems to be that you pick your host's great achievement, find the appropriate triad and compare him in verse to three other heroes and obviously find in his favour, then you get fed and asked to come back again. There are quite a lot of these texts, and although the manuscripts are again late, one might just be ninth century and the woman who has done most of the work on these texts, Rachel Bromwich, argues that linguistically and topically the earliest ones seem to belong to the seventh century. That is, a lot of the people they mention are identifiable, and they have sell-by dates of relevance that suggest that they were recorded fresh around then, although some other references to über-legendary heroes like Bran the Blessed go back to the third century.

Now, as they survive an awful lot of the Triads mention Arthur, but there are two problems with this. Firstly, although we might not remember it, the hero of Y Gododdin should remind us that there were several people in this period called Arthur, some more studied than others, and in any given Triad it's not clear that it is our King Arthur who is meant rather than one of the others; in fact some as you will see from the link before last look more likely to be someone else, because of how much they contradict the testimony of the others about children, locations and so on. Secondly, in the ninth century the Triads are being revised. The old heroes, third to sixth centuries, are frequently replaced in the triads by heroes from what will become the Arthurian Cycle, Arthur himself, Parzival, Cei (especially Cei in fact, but not Lancelot or Galahad who are much later arrivals). We know this, because we have both or several versions of the same triads over different manuscripts. That is, people both more ancient and more recent, from whom descents were claimed by the Welsh and British rulers of the seventh century, are being set aside in favour of Arthurian stories. In part this is because new families have taken power (and the English have taken Dumnonia (Cornwall) and Elmet and thus killed off two of the ancient lineages). But in part it seems to be just that the stories are telling better, stories of people who won rather than the family, for example, of Urien of Rheged (a big kingdom around Carlisle), who fought a long life of bitter battles and whose sons then reached various pacts with the Anglian Northumbrians that more or less ended their political influence, or of Constantine of Dumnonia, or of Bran the Blessed who was killed in battle against the Irish (another pagan god being Christianised into mortality...). So we are by now firmly into the realm of legend, folktale and hearsay, which makes any "new" information about Arthur rather difficult to trust. (And for this reason I don't consider any of the literature from later on as evidence here.)

Nennius's Historia Brittonum

The other thing we have from the ninth century opens just that sort of can of worms, it being a text called the Historia Brittonum, by a man who may or may not be called Nennius. and this gives a list of Arthur's Battles and tells how he fought the Saxons. There's a useful analysis of Nennius's account here For Nennius, Arthur never lost a battle, in part perhaps because the battles were all completely made up later on. But even if they weren't, note from that page that they're all in the North except possibly Badon. Nowhere in there is any reason to suppose he was ever at Tintagel. Sorry.

It's all just a case of there being swingeing gaps in what we know about how the British kingdoms of this island after the Romans left became Saxon or Anglian, gaps into which someone like the man Arthur is supposed to have been fit very nicely. But when we first see him he's a legend and the legend just gets added to and added to until eventually we have Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle which is better than most of the Arthurian stuff in as much as we know it was made up. Now if you want to assume that this stuff was all being talked about from the fifth century upwards, and that it's just that we don't have anything in which it's written down until much later, when the details are finally put down where we can see them, but that through the power of oral tradition this stuff could have been handed down from bard to bardling for centuries and still be historical, well, OK. (Such things are proven possible, by fairly dodgy anthropological research, but distortions of such things to make for better-flowing stories, not out of desire to exaggerate even but just to remember more easily, are also well proven by similar and also better methods.) But, from the evidence we have there's no way to make that more convincing than the absolute opposite, that he was a story to start with and people add more on as the situation gets more and more polarised and the political reality it evokes further and further off.

I go on to provide something less well-linked-up on the contexts of the time in which Arthur is supposed to have lived and into which he has been fitted.

Arthur's Context

It's the Saxons, basically. Known to the Romans since the 3rd century as a right menace along the coasts of the Channel (hence the Saxon Shore forts along the South Coast, Pevensey maybe being one you've seen), they were also recruited into Roman forces at a fair old rate. Many of them served in Britain and in what was probably the very early sixth century a very embittered cleric or maybe monk called Gildas wrote down for us why that was a bad idea.

The Romans periodically had to withdraw troops to the mainland to deal with crises or coups there—the latter often led by those troops current general—and by the very early fifth century Britain's defences were, if not weak, not up to the job of the Saxons, the Picts and the Scots (who are at this stage of course Irish). When in the early fifth century several of these attacked at once the Britons sent for help and were told that there was none to give and they would have to defend themselves. (When Bede wrote this up—and how he got hold of Gildas's work is something we would still several of us commit considerable crimes to know--he added in the letter in which this is said, which would be fine if it wasn't otherwise only preserved in north Italy, where it may well originally have been sent--again, how did Bede get hold of this? This may come from Rome, in fact, but anyway.)

So the Britons took up arms, their great citizens raised private armies and they threw back the invaders, this time. And they appointed someone Gildas calls only `the great tyrant' (tyrant being standard Latin abuse for a ruler you don't approve of), but whom Bede was happy to name Vortigern, whom from inscriptions we know was King of Powys, or at least, the father of kings of Powys. But Vortigern decided, says Gildas, that he couldn't control or maintain those private armies, and he hired a Saxon prince by the name of Hengest, who arrives with his son fresh from the Fight at Finnsburgh which is a whole other story. And he based them on land in the north, whose taxes paid their wages, and they did a good job of keeping the Picts and Scots out and Vortigern ruled happily, though from what Gildas says his subjects weren't necessarily so happy. What exactly Vortigern was we're not sure, but some kind of high or over-kingship seems implied. He may just have been a governor of some kind however. Maybe there was no difference then. If he called himself `rex' where Gildas thought he should be a governor that might well have been enough for Gildas to call him tyrant. Anyway. And meanwhile Hengest keeps bringing in extra men...

One day, Hengest and his men came along and said, "we want more". They demanded Kent for a separate kingdom and Vortigern, with little choice and according to later versions of the story under the sinister influence of his wife Rowena, who was firstly Hengest's daughter and secondly a sorceress, agrees. And as soon as Hengest was installed there, he gathered further troops and took over. Vortigern was toppled, and British resistance eddied and centred eventually around one man, Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom Gildas says was one the last of the Romans in Britain (which is odd as by now all persons living inside the Empire have Roman citizenship, so what distinction he was making is hard to say) and also `the last in Britain to wear the purple', by which he seems to have meant that Ambrosius was related to the Imperial family. We (well, I) have no idea beyond this who this man was. Anyway, Gildas tells us that this man was the focal point of resistance against the Saxons, and that the Britons, spoilt by the Roman army's presence had, a hard time learning to fight again but some of them, and eventually enough of them got it together. As Gildas wrote, after an epic battle at Badon Hill (if that's where he meant by `Mons Badonicus'), there had been peace for nearly fifty years. This ties up well with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to suggest that by then the Saxons were being led by Ælle King of the South Saxons, and were presumably defeated and forced to terms, terms that also presumably involved a concession of large amounts of territory.

Gildas wrote to lambast the kings of his day, also tyrants, for their stupidity and luxury, perpetrating the very kind of moral failure that left the Britons vulnerable in the first place. Because it's a political tract, he very often gave no details where they would have been obvious to the readers of the time. He didn't name any of his `tyrants', but we can work out who some of them are (and conveniently, at the same time will-be-St Patrick is writing to another one saying similar things and also naming him). This also means that Gildas gave no details about the battles, other than Badon, that saw the Saxons fought back to terms. And of course many archaeologists now don't believe that settled soldiery was a significant part of the Saxon settlement. I could go on about that for ages.

But from this you can see how when Nennius speaks of Arthur's battles in the ninth century, and gives Badon twice ("I realise that technically speaking that's only one battle, but it was such a biggy it was worth mentioning twice"), immediately people reading it know just where this Arthur fellow fits into the story.

Since then there have been a lot of compromise solutions: Ambrosius was Arthur; Ambrosius started what Arthur finished (the `Rosemary Sutcliffe' solution); Arthur is an invention and Ambrosius led the whole campaign; Arthur fought the lot and Ambrosius was merely the figurehead who gives him initial legitimacy. But we don't know. We know, to a fair degree of certainty, that there was organised British fighting against the Saxon invaders, some of whom had doubtless been settled by British order even if Hengest is a legendary figure and Horsa appears to be a girl's name, and the Kentish kings actually traced their ancestry from one Oisc, who is later tied in as son of Horsa, or maybe Hengest. We know that Vortigern was a Welsh prince and that his name was subject to some kind of `damnatio memoriae', as it's been erased from some of the memorial stones it's on. But there've been hundreds of years for that to happen, most of them post these legends... We know that somewhere in there it all fell apart to Gildas's several tyrants, one of whom, Constantine, almost certainly knew Tintagel well and is the head of the line of the kings of Dumnonia, `the South Welsh', that the Saxons finally drive out three hundred years later. We know that there was a battle at somewhere called Badon, and then there was localised peace for fifty years (we don't know where Gildas was to write this alas) but that at the end of this time the ancestors of the eventual kings of Wessex and Northumbria probably arrived (or maybe were appointed to local kingships as heads of soldiery or even, in the case of Wessex, as heirs through their mothers) and the offensive from the south started again and it all finished English. But somewhere in there was probably a man called Arthur, and when there are so few things that we know, people try and shunt the bits we have together and make them explain each other.