By James Turner
Cultural heroes much like ogres and onions have layers. So far in this series we have attempted to examine the cultural impact and the often politically motivated construction of the various iterations and re-conceptualisations of Arthurian mythology. Arthur and his legends once suitably cropped and burnished have proven themselves to be remarkably resilient, retaining their entertainment value and relevance within wildly different political and cultural contexts down the centuries.
Some of the elements and intellectual strands contained within the sweeping canon of the Arthurian mythos are either consistently re-applied or at the very least recursive. Cinema-goers in the 1950s were every bit as thrilled by the pageantry and quivering romantic subtext inherent in depictions of the Arthurian legends as the aristocratic audiences of the great European royal courts in say the 14th century. Some features of the legends are more firmly anchored or at their most meaningful in specific times and contexts such as the brief prominence of Galloway or the deliberate conflation of Arthur’s apparent hegemony over the British Isles with English overlordship. Other themes and iconography, present within the Arthurian romances and their adaptations, underwent significant memetic mutation such as the medieval Romances celebration of chivalric practice and light gloss of Christian symbolism that the Victorians latched onto and emphasized in their depiction of Arthur and his knights as crusading paragons of Christian morality and virtue.
In this, our final entry, we will seek to shuck these layers of artifice and reinvention as we examine the case for Arthur’s historicity as well as the pertinacious campaign waged by scholars, amateur historians and enthusiasts to discover the real Arthur. As historians, we should never be ashamed or shy about acknowledging the limitations of our medium or sources. In a way, despite our best efforts, it is very hard to discern the degree or way in which medieval audiences conceived of Arthur as a historical personage.
The majority of people within the medieval period had an essentially isochronal understanding of history, viewing the past as being largely identical to their present in terms of material culture, social mores and structure. Medieval writers and artists visualized and portrayed the great events of antiquity in the same stylized way they did the geopolitical struggles of their own day, transforming Roman generals and dark age warlords into resplendent knights. One of the most notable 14th-century manifestations of this practice was the codification and celebration of the Nine Worthies of Chivalry, a group whose membership was composed of the most puissant and virtuous knights within the canon of Christian Europe. Arthur and Hector of Troy were included in this group alongside such historical luminaries as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Charlemagne. A further three of the Worthies, Joshua, David and Judah Maccabee were Biblical figures who contemporary audiences would have been very familiar with and whose historical existence was readily accepted.
To our eyes the Nine Worthies seem a strangely mismatched fraternity that lumps together the pagan with the biblical and the historical with the literary but in the eyes of its adherents, the cult of chivalry was more than equal to the task of papering over these cracks. As we will see, even the pseudo-historical chronicles that reportedly vouched for Arthur’s historical existence seamlessly blended mundane politics with religious miracles and outright fantastical elements, such as giants and prophecy. Edward I visited Arthur’s tomb and solemnly presided over the legendary king’s reburial and funerary rites at the same time that his daughters were sponsoring troubadours to write stories about the Knights of the Round Table fighting griffins and matching wits with fairy queens. It is a reminder that we should not be too quick to impose strict binaries upon our medieval forebearers.
Just like us, medieval people were perfectly capable of simultaneously holding onto seemingly contradictory thoughts or beliefs. For Edward I, his contemporaries and medieval successors Arthur could be both a historical king from the British Isles’ distant past with an exploitable political legacy and the protagonist of highly stylized and conspicuously artificial works of Romance Literature. The modern equivalent would be if the events of the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer were raised and discussed in the same breath as the Gettysburg Address. Of course, cultural and intellectual attitudes were far from static in the Middle Ages. By the reign of Edward III, the Arthurian Romances had become increasingly ornate and outwardly fantastical, a change which perhaps explains why Edward sought to present himself rather obliquely as the inheritor of Arthur’s chivalric rather than political legacy as his grandfather had.
In many ways it was a view of Arthur that never fully dissipated. The historians and antiquarians of the Enlightenment era and their successors wrestled with the alarming disparities they found between the historical material they were gathering and the culturally highly prized traditions of Geoffrey of Monmouth which had been invoked and added to throughout the early modern period. The increasingly confident assertion of historians that Arthur was a fiction prompted cries of outrage in England and accusations of malicious historical revisionism.
We have previously seen how the Victorians while initially dismissive of the lurid kitsch of the Arthurian legends and inclined to disbelieve claims of Arthur’s historical existence were eventually swept away by a growing craze for Romance of a reimagined medieval past. An enthusiasm which led to the creation of a new almost messianic version of Arthur who duly took his place alongside Alfred the Great and the luminaries of Republic Roman in the serried ranks of people the Victorians had arbitrarily decided they were heirs to. It is apparent then that the legendary Arthur of the fantasy-infused Romances can thrive when shorn of his more grounded and nominally historically plausible alter ego. It yet remains to be seen if the opposite is true. We turn now from our search for the once and future king to look for something entirely different. A man.
In a way the layers of invention and artifice heaped upon the Arthurian legends by successive re-imaging have insulated the notion of a historical Arthur within the popular imagination. The imagery of Arthurian stories and the portrait of the legendary king contained within them have since the 12th century a tendency to become muddled and prone to bleeding into each other. This vagueness and lack of distinction has done much to preserve the idea of the real Arthur for much of the laity throughout the vast period this series has covered. Arthur’s existence is seemingly vouched for by the ubiquity and persistence of stories about him, stories that have become so blended together that they are set simply in a generic formless past. Arthur lived a long time ago and ruled a kingdom far, far away. An inhabitant of 15th century England or even the average Victorian when pressed for historical details on Arthur’s life would more than likely shy away from any exact dates and just pointed to the churning and indefinable imagery-strewn wasteland that formed their conceptions of the distant past. A few would point to the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his sources as evidence that anchored Arthur’s life in a historic context.
While we do not appear to be appreciably smarter or any more enlightened than our medieval forebearers, we do have substantially increased access to knowledge as well as benefiting from the systems to contextualize and apply this information. Part and parcel of this system of education and the accessibility of historical information is a responsibility for historians to maintain certain standards of scholarly rigour, not to mention the whole edifice of academic debate and review. This means that any scholar who wishes to seriously argue for the existence of a historical Arthur and have this contention considered by their peers, is going to have to present a compelling argument for a new interpretation and recontextualization of the existing sources or more likely unearth new and corroborating evidence.
Something of a cottage industry has grown up in the last sixty or so years around efforts to do just that by scholars, Arthurian specialists and amateur historians alike. To the occasional bemusement or disdain of the university dons and the academic establishment, a great deal of blood and sweat has been shed in attempts to positively identify the key sites and battlefields associated with Arthur in the scant and questionable sources in which he appears. While certain schools of thought have inevitably emerged over time, many of these authors can be characterized as rugged individualists and there are potential Camelot’s and Badons scattered across the length of Britain. The legacy of Arthur seemingly lurking behind every hill and ruin.
If like me, you regard the search for a historical Arthur as something akin to academic history’s equivalent of the Flat Earth movement I would urge you to bite your tongue and keep an open mind. Surely the most important lesson to take away from that fascinating and perplexing cultural phenomenon is that if you do not take the time to engage with people and bring them with you then they will go their own way. Derision is not a particularly useful analytical tool or communicative strategy, so with that in mind let us examine the main sources for Arthur’s existence as a historical personage before turning to briefly survey the form and range of the numerous modern historical works which make use of them.
It probably behooves us to begin with the earliest pertinent written source and work forwards from there so that we can clearly evaluate the additional elements added to this tradition as they are constructed. Gildas was a 6th-century monk and one of the most influential and renowned churchmen in Sub-Roman Britain. Gildas’ viciously acerbic masterpiece the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is devoid of significant biographical details outside of the intriguing detail he was born the year that the Battle of Badon took place, so we must turn to the hagiographies for information on his life of which there are two wildly divergent versions.
The first of these, the Life of St Gildas, was written sometime in the 9th century by an anonymous monk from Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys. According to this work, Gildas was the younger son of the King of Strathclyde and was educated by the most eminent churchmen of his day. Following the completion of his education, he became involved in missionary work in England and was then reportedly charged with the reorganization and administration of the Church in Ireland. After this arduous task, he traveled to Rome where he performed a number of miracles before finally founding a series of monastic institutions in Brittany.
All in all, it reads very much like a standard hagiography, emphasizing the virtues of its subject and attesting to the saintliness of its subject by rendering an account of the miracles they performed. While Gildas’ divinely assisted slaying of a dragon may look strange now, the feat was surprisingly common in the lives of saints and formed something of a staple for the genre. St Romanus of Rouen, to pick one example of many, supposedly tamed or killed a dragon by letting it munch on a condemned criminal while he bound the distracted monster with his bishop’s stole. The monastery of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys traditionally maintained that Gildas, their founder, was buried there. The Life of St Gildas therefore would have been written in part to assert and defend Gildas’ status as a Saint, a contention which if accepted would imbue the foundation with additional wealth and prestige. Indeed, in the tenth century the monastery came into conflict with the Norman-backed abbey of Saint-Gildas of Châteauroux over ownership of the Saint’s Relics.
The second version of Life of St Gildas was written in the twelfth century by Caradoc of Llancarfan, a Welsh cleric and associate of Geoffrey of Monmouth. The concluding segments of Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the lynchpin of the pseudo-historical tradition, actually name-checks Caradoc, who it identifies as the author of an upcoming sequel that will continue the account of the history of the British Isles up to their present time. Similar to the previous iteration of his Life, Gildas is portrayed as a member of Brittonic royalty, although here he is one of King Nu of Scotia’s veritable army of sons. According to Caradoc, while Gildas was being educated in Gaul and establishing a reputation as a wise man and teacher, his twenty-three brothers were busy resisting the sovereignty of King Arthur. These violent clashes eventually led to the death of his eldest brother, Hueil, at the hands of Arthur but in a display of forbearance and Christian mercy, Gildas forgives the legendary king in a dramatic face-to-face meeting.
Following this, Gildas returns to Britain, resumes his role as a teacher, experiments with the hermetic traditions, and has a narrow miss with piracy before being returned once more to Arthur’s orbit. Gildas is presented as playing an integral role in the brokering of peace between Arthur and King Melvas following the rebellious sub-kings’ villainous abduction of Queen Guinevere. Following the conclusion of this incident, Gildas reportedly rededicates himself to the life of a hermit and upon his death is buried not in Brittany but in Glastonbury.
In terms of both tone and content Caradoc’s rendition of the Life of St Gildas synergies well, some would say suspiciously so, with the work of his friend and collaborator Geoffrey of Monmouth who, as we shall see, also depicts King Arthur as a historic personage. Interestingly, the death of Hueil, the son of Caw of Prydyn, and his implacable resistance to Arthur’s rule, is mentioned in the eleventh-century Welsh poem Culhwch and Olwen. Although this earlier work, which clearly gives a different account of Hueil’s parentage, contains no reference to Gildas.
Instead, it seems that, in what we shall see is a pseudo-historical tradition, the work’s author has fused elements of existing legends and histories with stories of his own invention. Caradoc ties Gildas, who is a major source and inspiration for the Historia Regum Britanniae, into the rapidly growing Arthurian mythos in several ways. Gildas should, given the date of composition of his great work, the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, be roughly contemporary of the historical Arthur presented by Geoffrey of Monmouth and his contemporaries, so Caradoc presents him interacting directly with the legendary king at different points across a relatively large span of time. His familial association with the Brittonic kingdoms of northern Britain is broadly preserved but is infused with a bit more Arthurian colour and flavor by introducing an association with the already extant story of Hueil. Finally, Gildas is detached from his real career and status as founder of monastic institutions and instead is said to be buried in Glastonbury, a site that had numerous Arthurian associations.
I should say at this point, to anyone annoyed that I have so easily dismissed Caradoc’s version of the Life of St Gildas or candidly discussed the artifice of its creation, that I have thus far avoided discussing the content of Gildas’ own work in order to conceal a rhetorical flourish. Gildas does not mention Arthur at all. Prefaced by a brief history of the Britons and an account of the Romans’ withdrawal from Britain in the face of barbarian invasion, the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is a railing polemic that attributes the Saxons’ arrival and present military success to the sins and iniquities of the Britons. To Gildas, the Saxons are a plague that has been unleashed upon the Britons as a manifestation of God’s wrath and it is only through repentance and the rejection of these vices that their present misfortunes can be reversed. As well as taking aim at the unsavory behavior of his fellow Churchmen and the general population, Gildas lambasts and decries the degeneracy and ineffectiveness of five contemporary Sub-Roman kings.
Interestingly Gildas rhetorically compares these five kings and their part in the ruination of Britain to the apocalyptic beasts of the Book of Revelation. One of these rulers, Maelgwn of Gwynedd who Gildas compares to a biblical dragon, may have occupied a position amongst his contemporaries that was akin to what was roughly analogous to that of High King; a conflation which may have influenced later authors’ creation of Uther Pendragon and use of the beast in prophetic imagery. Gildas in establishing a rhetorical link between the misconduct or moral foibles of these rulers and waxing power of the Saxon invaders, contrasts the dire situation of the present with the recent past in which the Saxon menace was held satisfactorily at bay by more effective and upstanding leadership.
The greater success and allegedly superior character of these preceding generations are embodied by Gildas in the perhaps allegorical or highly idealized form of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a general with some familial connection to the Roman establishment who heroically led the resistance against the Saxons. The De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae describes a period of warfare in which the fate of the British Isles hung perilously in the balance until the year of the author’s birth, the Britons scored a surprising and devastating victory against the Saxons. This victory brought the Britons many years of renewed dominance and safety but was, Gildas declaims, squandered and gradually undermined by the pernicious behavior and moral failings of the subsequent generation.
With the complete absence of Arthur in an account of the Saxon invasion by a supposedly contemporary or near contemporary account, it seems that the case for the existence of a historic Arthur has fallen at the first hurdle, unless you are content to contend that Gildas merely chose to exclude Arthur for some unknown reason. Others have rather reasonably, but perhaps somewhat anticlimactically, put Ambrosius Aurelianus forward as the Ur Arthur, the Saxon slaying Brittonic warlord upon whom layers of invention and linguistic distortion would be piled atop.
Arthur and the central motifs of his legend are likewise nowhere to be found in the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Written sometime in the early eighth century, long after the Saxon conquest of England, by the Jarrow monk, the first section of the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum is an overview of the history of the British Isles prior to the establishment of the then contemporarily recognizable incarnation of the Church. This section begins with the invasion of Julius Caesar, covers the Saxon invasion of England, their conversion to Christianity in the sixth century and concludes just prior to the death of Pope Gregory the Great in 604. Of course, while it may be doing Bede and his historical integrity something of a disservice, if you were so inclined you could always argue that his Saxon forebearers failed to properly commemorate or differentiate their Brittonic enemies. To do so, however, would be to underestimate and misconstrue the level of detail and research Bede invested into his work, a major theme of which after all was the ongoing tension between the Saxon-backed Roman Rites and those of traditional insular Celtic Christianity.
The first arguably historical source in which Arthur actually appears is the Historia Brittonum written in the early ninth century by the Welsh monk Nennius. Frustratingly, little is known about Nennius himself outside of the fact that he lived in Powys and was clearly extremely well educated. The prologue to the Historia Brittonum, which contains an outline of the rationale and purpose behind the book, is sadly almost certainly a twelfth-century addition that is entirely absent from older editions of the work.
The early section of the Historia Brittonum draws heavily upon the Frankish Table of Nations, a work of pseudo-historical lineage from around 520 AD written either within the Eastern Roman Empire or the heavily hybridized Ostrogothic kingdom. The Frankish Table of Nations was a speculative attempt to impose order to the political chaos and tumult of the sixth century by assigning traceable origins to the major peoples of the period such as the Romans, Goths, Gepids, Bretons and Franks. These lineages stretched through classical antiquity all the way back to the sons of Noah, from whom all the current peoples of the world are ostensibly descended. A modified version of this work was included in the early sections of the Historia Brittonum through which Nennius imbues the Britons with a heroic linage and pedigree, on a par with that of the imperial Romans and Franks, by tracing their origins to Brutus, a Trojan exile and grandson of Aeneas the legendary protagonist of Virgil’s Aeneid.
Arthur, now the inheritor of a formidable biblical and classical legacy, is a major figure within later sections of the Historia Brittonum. Notably, he is described not as a king but rather as a general and warlord who led the Britons and their kings in battle against the Saxons. The names and a few sparse details of the twelve battles that Arthur fought against the invaders are also included, culminating with the Battle of Badon. At his battle, which was first mentioned sans Arthur by Gildas, a great slaughter was raised against the Saxons with Arthur alone apparently killing close to a thousand men. Alas while the exact time frame given in the work is ambiguous, the drubbing that the Saxons received at Arthur’s hands reportedly led them to seek help from their brethren overseas, bringing about the arrival of Ida Flamebringer and the foundation of the Saxon kingdom of Bernicia in northern England.
The Historia Brittonum also introduces one of the traditional villains of the Arthurian legends, King Vortigern who is reportedly responsible for inviting the Saxons into Britain and can be found in the story clashing with a young Ambrosius Aurelianus. In addition, two of the thirteen wonders of Britain that Nennius writes about, in an attempt to further enhance the prestige of his native land, have strong Arthurian associations, most notably the tombs of his beloved dog Cavall and son Amhar who for some reason Arthur himself killed.
William of Malmesbury was a monk and historian of mixed Norman and English heritage. William’s first great work of history, the Gesta Regum Anglorum, went through several versions, the first of which was probably completed around 1125. The Gesta Regum Anglorum brings together and synthesizes a number of previous chronicles and other sources in order to reconstruct both the history of England and the lives of legendary kings of the British whose legacy the Anglo-Normans were already starting to conflate with the English throne. While much of the account is structurally and stylistically based upon Bedes’ Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, William nevertheless elects to replicate Nennius’ account of Arthur’s war against the Saxons. Further, he attempted to unify and reconcile Gildas’ account with the emerging popularity of the Arthurian legends by presenting Ambrosius Aurelianus as an almost Merlin-like mentor figure to Arthur.
The Historia Regum Britanniae written by the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 1130s is the first source to positively identify Arthur as a king. Indeed, according to Geoffrey’s account, Arthur was not just any king, he was King of the Britons; part of an ancient line of legendary rulers that began with Brutus of Troy who led the first human settlers to the British Isles and ended with Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon of Gwynedd in 682. The Historia Regum Britanniae draws heavily upon the works of Gildas, Nennius and William of Malmesbury, subtly reworking and fleshing out their narratives with a glut of new material. Nennius’ version of Britain’s founder is a grandson of Aeneas who finds in the British Isles a paradise and refuge far from the cutthroat politics and bloodletting in the Mediterranean.
For some reason Geoffrey tweaks this story, casting Brutus as the great-grandson of Aeneas and in a twist typical of Geoffrey’s highly developed sense of drama adds that the young prince was prophesied to kill both his parents. After these tragic events came to pass, Brutus and his followers warred against the odd Greek king or two until a divine vision led him to Britain. The mist-wreathed island he arrives at is far from empty, however, and before properly establishing his new kingdom, Brutus must wage an epic war against the giants that already called it home.
The vast regnal list that follows is in many ways a continuation of the traditions of the Frankish Table of Nations and its imitators, ordering and edifying the present through the imposition of a structured narrative upon the past. The Historia Regum Britanniae is formed of the history of this line of kings, complete with a full list of monarchs’ names and regnal dates from the 11th century BC onwards. Springing from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fertile imagination and perhaps stitched together with elements from other legends and sources in the same manner as Arthur, this exhaustive procession of monarchs is punctuated by scattered accounts of their sundry conflicts and succession disputes. Among the most famous and enduring of these creations was King Lear whose attempted tripartite division of Britain later formed the basis for one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Occasionally at key moments in this millennia-long march of political continuity, such as during the Romans invasion or the establishment of Arthur’s immediate predecessors, this narrative broadens.
Arthur, now established as the king of the Britons, is by necessity depicted as the son of another great king, Uther Pendragon. Uther first appears in passing within some surviving fragments of ninth-century Welsh poetry and although already intimately associated with Arthur, it remains unclear how much of the information contained within Historia Regum Britanniae about Uther is derived from this post Nennius literary tradition or invented by Geoffrey. Uther, who here fathers Arthur thorough explicitly supernatural not to mention thoroughly unsavory means with the help of his wizard Merlin, is presented as the younger brother and successor of Ambrosius Aurelianus in another attempt to reconcile the scattered material that the Arthurian legends were built around. Magic and prophecy play a huge role within the narrative of Historia Regum Britanniae which is replete with fantastical elements. Ambrosius Aurelianus, or rather Aurelius Ambrosius as Geoffrey confusingly refers to him, is instead of the proto-Merlin figure envisioned by William of Malmesbury, a king and the first beneficiary of Merlin’s advice and abilities which are then inherited by his brother and nephew.
In addition to defeating the Saxons, the newly crowned Arthur advances the pseudo-historical power and prestige of his people yet further by leading them into a war against the corrupt and tyrannical Roman Emperor Lucius Tiberius. In doing so, Arthur creates something of a continental empire. More importantly for the reader, this great European adventure establishes the Britons as a people now on par with, or superior to, their distant Roman cousins while symbolically paying back the debt incurred by Caesar’s invasion of Britain.
Possibly the Historia Regum Britanniae’s single greatest contribution to the growing canon of Arthurian legends was in furnishing Arthur with something he had never had before, an ending. Instead of merely riding off into the sunset at the conclusion of the battle of Badon, presumably sated by the immense slaughter and satisfied that his legacy was in good hands, the Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth is a king who reigns over a unified but ultimately doomed Britain.
Arthur is the inheritor of the legacy of the great kings of the Britons; indeed, he unambiguously proves himself to be the greatest of their number. But just as this ancient line and the kingdom of Britain reach the zenith of its power and glory under Arthur, his death led to a sudden and precipitous decline. The ending of Historia Regum Britanniae is a microcosm of Arthur’s place within this pseudo-historical tradition. Arthur returns from his great triumphs in Gaul only to find that his nephew, Mordred, has usurped the kingdom in his absence. Arthur slays Mordred, not to mention a host of his fellow Britons at the Battle of Camlann but is mortally wounded in the process and is whisked off to the magical and otherworldly isle of Avalon, perhaps one day to return. The line of kings continues on through a cousin, but none hereafter are a match for the legendary king and they suffer greatly at the hands of the resurgent Saxons before fading into irrelevancy.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae is built upon narrow and shaky foundations. It brazenly reworks and alters its own widely divergent source material while layering on increasingly fantastical elements derived from both the author’s imagination and the post-Nennius Welsh poetic traditions that flourished in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
It is also an incredibly entertaining read and compellingly ambitious literary endeavor. For all its blended bombast, pseudo-historical heirs and fantastical affections, Geoffrey of Monmouth shapes an enchantingly bittersweet and poignant ending. It is these elements, the mystique of a vanished world and the lost glory of the past, more than any other that have resonated with audiences long after descriptions of battle and feats of daring-do have grown stale. It is in this wistful searching of an imagined past for some lost quality or facet, a fading ember of glory, the glint of legitimacy or the legacy of an identity constructed or otherwise that the Arthurian legends’ true appeal and capacity for reinvention can be found.
As previously stated, the overwhelming majority of scholars writing today are not only extremely skeptical about any argument concerning a historic Arthur but are often downright exasperated by them. Notable for his willingness to engage with the material as well as for a refreshing transparency and clarity, Nicholas Higham’s King Arthur: The Making of a Legend published in 2018 was an exhaustively well-researched attempt to land a dolorous blow against proponents of Arthur’s historic personhood.
However, there still remain a few diehards in one form or another who have an expansive, if aging, body of work to draw upon for support. For instance, 2018 also saw the release of Arthur: Warrior and King by Don Carleton which argued for the existence of a historic Arthur, albeit in a refreshingly atypical manner and presenting a very different version of Arthur. A number of candidates for the genuine historical Arthur or original Arthur-like figure have been proposed at various points. Artuir mac Áedán was a warlord from the 6th century, Dál Riata who did not fight the Saxons, was not Brittonic and was born far too late to fit the classic profile. It has nevertheless been suggested by Michael Wood, amongst others, that he may have served as an inspiration for Arthur, conflation and invention by subsequent writers transforming him into a more familiar form.
Helmunt Nickell, C. Scott Littleton and their respective adherents have brought forward the case that the legends of Arthur were based on a Roman, Lucius Artorius Castus who commanded a unit of auxiliary Sarmatian cavalry posted to Britain in the early third century. This argument runs that rather than a combination of the twelfth and thirteenth-century aristocrats, held for the structure and practices of knighthood with the medieval practice of visualizing the past as culturally and material homogenize with the present, Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table were a distorted memory of the practices imported by these Sarmatian cavalrymen. Others identify Arthur with a Brittonic King which the Byzantine historian Jordanes described in passing as having invaded Roman Gaul in his sixth-century work De Origine Actibusque Getarum.
The notion has even been advanced, with some significant variances, by Adrain Geoffery Gilbert and others that there were two separate Ur Arthurs. Different authors have proposed a variety of candidates, separated by a considerable chronological span, who were mistakenly conflated within the collective memory and then by subsequent generations of writers.
While it can be interesting from a purely technical standpoint to witness attempts to wrestle and wrangle jigsaw pieces while marshaling obscure and fragmentary sources, I think on a larger level the ‘Two Arthurs Theory’ rather misses the point. The search for the historical Arthur is as self-defeating as it is endlessly fascinating for those who mix a forensic mindset with a streak of romanticism. Whatever the initial creative impetuous for the Arthurian legends, the vague memory of one or more warlords or simply the culturally edifying invention of a monk or bard, the Arthur of literature and popular culture outgrew it so rapidly and so completely as to be unrecognizable. The hunt for a historic basis of Arthur is academically irrelevant precisely because it is so impossible. It is like building a castle upon quicksand, no single facet can support itself let alone securely sit with another.
This is probably a grave disservice but what struck me first about King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe written by Caleb Howells was its title and the timing of its release in 2021. The current political climate seems not to have been a significant influence upon the author who is true to his word primarily concerned with examining the sources pertaining to Arthur’s Wars in Europe and their historical plausibility, partly as a means of identifying Arthur. While not reflecting in the content of book or the author’s intentions, I found that there was something perversely intriguing at a time of significant strain in the relations between the UK and its European neighbours in the idea of symbolically unleashing the ghost of Arthur to relive past wars and victories.
There is no single historically verifiable or definitive individual at the heart of the Arthurian legends. Instead, the real Arthur is to be found in the world of myth and literature, of entertainment and popular culture. There is a whole pantheon of real Arthurs, differentiated from each other often by a matter of degrees, each of which was created to better reflect and fulfill the needs and eccentricities of changing regional and global cultures. We live in uncertain and frighting times but there is no point in simply waiting for the return of the Once and Future King. It is for us to conjure him up.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.
Top Image: King Arthur shown in the Nine Heroes Tapestries, ca. 1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art