The legendary character known as Arthur is a romanticized character in the modern world, but in reality, Arthur is a mysterious, elusive character. In the book The Life of King Arthur (1825), Ritson states, “No character, eminent in ancient history, has ever been treated with more extravagance, mendacity, and injustice, than the renowned Arthur, the illustrious monarch and valiant commander of the Britons.” When searching through the historical documents, one is faced with many issues such as political and religious motivations of the authors, chronological discrepancies, the lack of uniformity among titles and personal names, and an attempt to translate a variety of languages without losing the context of the message. The works of Gildas, Bede, Nennius, Monmouth, Troyes, Mallory, and others show us the evolution of this figure throughout the ages as well as these issues facing the research of Arthur.
Many events and actions attributed to Arthur were discussed by a British cleric known as Gildas. In his document De Excidio Britanniae, Gildas never mentions or uses the name Arthur, but rather speaks of Ambrosius Aurelianus, but this is not sure if designating him Roman was to refer to his ethnicity or political inclination. Gildas’ work is vague and falls short of giving appropriate detail such as who the commander was at the famous battle of Mt. Badon. His poor record-keeping may be due to the fact that he was not motivated to write this document for posterity or for future ages, but as a social and religious commentary of his time and the troubles facing Britain because of their sinful ways.
Britain had been occupied by Roman forces since the first half of the 1st century AD and with the decline and end of the Roman Empire the “protective legions were gone.” In her last days, Rome gave some assistance to England when they were invaded by the Saxons, the Scots, and the Picts, but eventually, Rome refused to assist and the citizens were put between a rock and a hard place or, in this instance, between barbarians and the sea. Without the assistance of the Roman legions, a vacuum was created as problems could no longer be referred to a higher authority, but a man is said to have emerged that would rally the Britons and halt the invasions. Gildas refers to a “proud tyrant” who made an agreement with the Saxons to stop the northern invasion. When the alliance fell apart, the people fled and one of those was Ambrosius Aurelianus who would organize resistance against all invaders, including the Saxons. Some speculate that since Ambrosius was the only one named by Gildas that he may be the man who commanded the troops at Mt. Badon.
Bede, another historian and cleric in Britain, wrote a document that was very similar to Gildas’, but this one seems to be historically motivated. Bede does give a name to the “proud tyrant” and he is known as “King Vortigern” and the Saxons who he allies with gain names as well. Just like Gildas, he does not name Arthur as the commander at Mt. Badon. According to Sheila Brynjulfson, the first mention of Arthur in recorded history did not occur until the compilation by Nennius was published around 796 AD. In Nennius’ writing, a man referred to as “Arthur dux Bellorum” was in charge at Mt. Badon as well as eleven other battles that had led to a climactic battle at Mt. Badon. There are some inconsistencies found in Nennius’ work as he compiled his information from a number of sources, but did not reconcile any of the information after he compiled it chronologically. With these errors, what is known is that the Arthur named was not king, but the commander of the troops; it may be for this reason that Gildas did not name him as he may not have been one of high status. The concern is could this Arthur have been the same person as the timeline of the 12 battles would have spanned several years, and would be highly unlikely that one person led for all of the campaigns. Nennius’ writing may be an example of interpolation as numerology of 12 is powerful in Christianity and Nennius may have attributed other battles to his Arthur to give it importance within the Christian community. It is probable that he took battles from previous documents.
As the years went by Arthur would transform from a military commander to a legendary king, and with the evolution of “courtly love” and “chivalry,” Romantic notions would be attached such as the tales of Lancelot and Guinevere as well as the Knights of the Round Table as seen in the works by Monmouth and Troyes. The legacy of such tales and stories stood as a standard for future chivalric orders. These tales may have been exaggerated to increase the pedigree of their order by promoting it as something reminiscent of the Knights of the Round Table.
There are many issues when researching this figure and one such issue is that with the chronology as there conflicts with the dates of events. Though she was referring to the Easter Annals, Leslie Alcock makes an excellent statement with, “Despite this chronological problem, no reasonable arguments can be advanced for regarding the British Easter Annals as anything other than a trustworthy historical document.” Timekeeping is not nearly as advanced as it was and it is reasonable that events and persons named did in fact happen, but that they have been using erroneous methods to tell the dates. Critics do warn against interpolation as compilations that are written long after the event are “susceptible to amendment.”
The language barrier plays a part in the confusion and errors found in the historical documents. Among different languages of the day or the same language over time, slang and phrases, change and vary, taking on new meanings and interpretations. Past historians and writers may use a certain phrase that seems highly unlikely to a modern reader, but in its own time may have not been taken literally and instead used to impart the importance of that person in the event. With the complexity of languages, we fall into the trouble of taking references as literal names or titles of office. An example is seen with Vortigern which translates into “high chief”.
It is highly likely that the figure today known as Arthur is a compilation of actions by several men through Arthurian England. According to Mike Ashley, there are 12 men who could have been the mythical Arthur, the most likely having been Arthrwys ap Meurig who lived in the 7th century and fought against the Normans and Saxons. He did not fight at Mt. Badon and he also lived centuries after many Arthurian events happened which supports the idea that Arthur is a character of many historical men.
In conclusion, Arthur is more than just a fictional character, but has become a standard for knighthood and in some instances acted as a source of legitimacy for kings attempting to justify their reign. He has transcended history as someone who has been portrayed as performing great acts of heroism as well as making foolish, very human, decisions. The Arthur of legend is most likely a composite of acts of several men who over time have been stacked upon one another and through the acts of motivated writers and historians has morphed into the common story of a boy who pulled the sword from the stone, the boy who would be King of England, and who would establish an order of knighthood whose fabled deeds would stretch far across borders and time.
1. Alcock, Leslie. Arthur’s Britain. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
2. Ashe, Geoffrey. “The Origins of the Arthurian Legend.” Arthuriana 5, no. 3 (1995): 1-24.
3. Ashley, Mike. The Mammoth Book of King Arthur. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005.
4. “Building Blocks: Interesting Events in Early British History.” Britannia.com. Accessed March 16, 2014. http://www.britannia.com/history/bb438.html
5. Gildas. De Excidio Britanniae. Translated by J.A. Giles. Edited by Karen Wadley. 2013.
6. Hopkins, Annette B. “Ritson's Life of King Arthur” Periodicals of the Modern Language Association 43, no. 1 (1928): 251-287.
7. Kurt Hunter-Mann. “The Last of The Romans: The life and times of Ambrosius Aurelianus.” The Heroic Age. Accessed March 16, 2014. http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/4/Hunter-Mann.html
8. Sheila Brynjulfson. “Artorius, Ambrosius, Arthur: Questing for the historical Arthur, King of Britons.” Vortigern Studies. Accessed March 16, 2014. http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artgue/guestsheila2.htm
9. Williams, Mary. “King Arthur in History and Legend.” Folklore 73, no. 2 (1962): 73-88.