The Arthurian Legend
brief mention of Arthur occurs when he describes him as being the
British leader who fought against the Anglo-Saxons. The battle culminated
in a victory for the Britons at the Battle of Mt.Badon (Mons Badonicus)
possibly near Bath* (Bath-Hill, Wellow) in 493 A.D. or 516 although many
other sites have been suggested.
Nennius lists twelve battles with which Arthur was involved:
i) Gleni at the mouth of the river.
ii)-v) Dubglas (Douglas?) meaning "blackwater" near Linnius (?Lincoln)
vii) Celidon (Catcoitcelidon) The forest of Celidon in Scotland
viii) Castellen Gunnon
ix) Caerlegion (City of the legion, Caerwent or Chester)- see latest hypothesis
x)Trebuit (river) possibly at Caerleon.
xi) Mt. Badon (not definitely identified) A.D. 493 /516 in which the Welsh/British won a decisive battle over the Saxons and Arthur died fighting1
(although others say this occurred at Camlann) Besides Bath, sites suggested for Mons Badonicus are Badbury Rings near Wimbourne, Dorset,and the Swindon Gap, Berkshire/Wiltshire, the latter two being hill forts reoccupied in the 400-500's
Badon was important as this battle halted the Saxon advance who then withdrew for over 40 years even retro-migrating to the continent17.
* Bath was called Bathanceaster by the Saxons in 577.
The Celtic Christian monk, Gildas in De excidio et conquestu
Britanniae (The Loss & Conquest of Britain) AD 545 mentions
the Battle of Badon occurring in about AD 500 (but does not mention
Arthur) which in 730 Bede dated to 493. Thus Arthur's life may
have overlapped Gildas'17.
Geoffrey of Monmouth a Welsh cleric gives the earliest story of Arthur's life in Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) in 113511, but Geoffrey is now much maligned for his 'embellished' history and probable fabrications.6 However Geoffrey was the first to popularise the legend.
About 30 years later, probably as a result of the popularity of Monmouth's work 'Rex Arturus' was depicted in a mosaic on the floor of Otranto Cathedral, Southern Italy [1163-1166]:
Morville had his castle at Eamont Bridge and it is here that a raised
earthen structure is found called "The Round Table". This site seems
to be prehistoric but was used as a meeting point between the Scots and
English in Athelstan's time. Near Plumpton Wall was a lake, now drained,
which was reputed to be where the 'Lady of the Lake' appeared.
The story of Arthur found its way to France during the "Chivalrous
Period" and returned to England through Malory (Mallory) written
in the vernacular.
On the north coast of Cornwall on cliffs overlooking the sea. In the 1100's this was recorded as the traditional birthplace of Arthur. What we do know as fact is that Tintagel was the site of a British (so-called 'Celtic') monastery where imported Mediterranean pottery has been found. In 1991 the first major excavation since the 1930's took place at Tintagel Castle directed by Professor Chris Morris of the University of Glasgow. In 1983 a smaller excavation here had found the remains of dozens of huts dating from the 400's. During the1998 excavation in August some evidence of a Latin inscription on a piece of slate dating from the 500's supposedly mentioning Arthur ('Artognov')* was located12. Arthur's birth site is reputed to lie beneath the Norman castle originally sited here by Richard earl of Cornwall in 1233, not for any defensive reason but, it is suggested, in order to associate himself with the Arthurian legends. The present day economy of Tintagel is closely built on the myth of King Arthur.10 * 'Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, had (this) made.'
Local tradition says this was part of Camelot where Arthur had his court and lived with Queen Guinevere. (both these names are French and do not bear much relation to Celtic nomenclature). Merlin was reputed to have lived in a sea cave under the castle. Cornish tradition places the battle of Camlann at Slaughter Bridge on the Camel River17. This tradition finds its literary roots in John Leyland's Itinerary (1542) and is evidence of Leylands strong patriotism and imagination, coming to associate West Camel and Queen Camel with Cadbury Castle.
"At the very south ende of the chirch of South-Cadbyri standeth Camallate, sumtyme a famose toun or castelle, apon a very torre or hille, wunderfully enstregnthenid of nature. . .The people can telle nothing ther but that they have hard say that Arture much resortid to Camalat."
Castles reputed to be
Eamont Bridge, Cumbria here an earthworks is named the "Round
Table". Later in 927 Aethelstan received the submission of the Scots
and Northumbrians here
A Scottish castle near Ayr.
Cybwr in South Wales.
sites for Arthur have been suggested at Arthuret, Glastonbury, Bridgend,
Caer Melyn & Baschurch.
Arthuret [Arthur's Head]:
It is now considered that the suggestions for Glastonbury being
the site of Arthur's burial are hoaxes perpetrated by the medieval
monks who wished to obtain money for building during the Crusades.
Others however have cast doubt upon this assertion saying that the monks
never used this as a means of procuring money.
|Archaeological Evidence for
The general thesis is that Arthur (Latin: Arthurius) was a Romano-Briton
of the 500's who welded the Romano-Britons,
A theory on the origins of King Arthur (Artorius Rex) suggests that he was king of Glamorgan & Gwent (Arthur ap meurig ap Tewdrig*). This person was an early Christian centred on Caerleon and a string of hill forts. He died about 575 A.D. possibly at Merthyr Tydfil. His body was taken to the coast by ship to Ogmore up the River Ewenny. * Phonetic of Tewdor or Tudor.
The evidence is found in: i) The Llandaff Charters ii)Nennius MS. in 700's iii) In "The Life of St. Illtyd ca. 1140.
Each source refers to "A Holy Man" brought by sea & buried in a cave by the saint who was Arthur's cousin and his body was left in a cave for some years in order to keep his death a secret until his son Morgan came of age.
Alan Wilson & Buram Blackett found a cave in a wood near the Ewenny River which is called Coed-y-mwstwr and is described as a man-made cavity or grave. The body was finally buried in St. Peter's Church4. The church is now roofless. They found a 5 cwt. sword shaped stone with the inscription "REX ARTORIUS FILI MARICIUS" on it ("King Arthur son of Meurig") the stone was removed to Cardiff. In May 1986 these two investigators also uncovered a stone slab which they believe may be part of the burial crypt of Arthur.
However for a different view of Arthur read "Arthur's Britain" by Prof. Leslie Alcock.
|Geoffrey of Monmouth11 gives the Welsh
version of lineage and events:
Geoffrey recorded that Arthur lived in N.W. Wales (Gwynedd)
in the 400's and was titled "Prince of Gwynedd", his father was Uther
Pendragon# of Gwynnedd. Nennius in his "Historia Brittanum" in 830
A.D. recorded that the kings of Gwynned originally descended from Cunedda
a warrior from Gododdin the kingdom of the Votadini
tribe in S.E. Scotland.
|A Scottish version of Arthurs antecedants involves the Old Kingdom of Strathclyde which flourished after 400 A.D. This kingdom ran S.E. from its capital Dunbarton. Alwyn og mac Mureadhac's (Murdoch) daughter married Gilchrist Btretnach (The Briton) in 1193 this led to the Clann-a Bhreatannich (Children of the Britons) whose arms bore three bears. The British heroic name "Arth"(ur) means "bear"5 Celtic warlords assumed the battle name of an animal e.g. wolf, hound, horse. Gildas also mentions a "charioteer of the bears stronghold" (Cuneglasus)|
St. George & the Dragon
To the 'Celtic' Christians the dragon represented the Devil or "Satan". The Saetan were regions settled by Anglian and Saxon folk from Dorset (Dornsaete) through Somerset (Sumorsaete), Hwicce, Magonsaete, Wrocensaetan (Wroxeter), Pec Saetan (Derbyshire) to the Elmete Saetna ("Elmete dwellers"). All these areas were in the front line of Anglian and Saxon pagan advances west into British ('Celtic') held territory.
Nennius was a Welsh Christian monk like many of those in the west of Britain who had been influenced by the Celtic church in Ireland.
St. George vanquished the dragon using the sign of the cross.
The dragon probably represented the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Arthur is recorded
as having the image of Mary seated upon his shoulders during battle
for 3 days.
discern fact from fiction?
1100’s the folk tales of Arthur were known in Western Europe,
especially in Brittany.19
who murdered Constantine, a leader of the Britons, whose two sons
Aurealius Ambrosius and Uther
Pendragon, escaped to Brittany. Apart from existing tribal /
genetic links between Britain and Brittany, this helps to explain
why the tales are known across the channel. Vortigern, who may
have held his capital at Gloucester, invited
Saxon mercenaries to assist him in his struggle against the Picts
who were pushing south. This had the unanticipated effect of
increasing the rate at which the Saxons entered Britain.
Immigration has always been both a curse and a blessing for
Britain, it has displaced or intermarried with the resistant indigenes whilst bringing
in a new genetic pool to create ‘hybrid vigour’ within the
population. Aurelius and Uther returned from Brittany to Britain
and Aurealius then proceeded to remove Vortigern as the leader of
the Britons whilst Uther became Aurealias’ commander-in-chief.
or Ambrosius Aurelianus was possibly an historical personage20
It is suggested that he was a former Roman citizen of Britain
living in the 400’s. In Welsh his name is given as Emrys Wledig who
became high king of the Britons, some have equated him with the
legendary figure of Arthur. As a Briton he opposed the
Picts from the north and the incursions of the Anglians and Saxons who were
streaming in from the east after the Romans withdrew their forces
from Britain in A.D. 420.
has been described by Geofferey of Monmouth as the father of
Aurelius died Uther succeded him. Uther convened a
meeting of all his tribal leaders one of whom was Gorlois
who was said to hold a fortress at Tintagel and large areas of
Cornwall. This seems to be the reason Tintagel has become
associated with the legend of Arthur for if we follow the
processes of land inheritance taken by the sword, Arthur would
have been the eventual beneficiary. Gorlois was married to a much
younger Ygernia whom Uther greatly coveted, and by
trickery, Uther managed to inseminate Ygernia at Gorlois’
fortress by disguising himself as Gorlois himself whilst the war
lord, who was away from his fortress, was killed fighting
resultant child born to Ygernia and Uther was Arthur and
with Gorlois’ death, Uther married Ygerne. Gorlois’ death and
Uther’s marriage to Ygerne would have allowed Uther to take
Tintagel and Cornwall for himself. However, the people were not
convinced that Arthur was Uther’s son, some claiming that he
was Gorlois’ son, either that or Arthur was a natural son, or
at worst illegitimate. For this reason Arthur was not made
Uther’s heir immediately and was despatched with Merlin to
Northern Britain where he was kept in ward to a trusted Briton, Ector
and his wife. This period in the North seems to have left a
trail of oral folk history relating to Arthur in what is now
Cumberland such as at Arthuret, Carlisle, Penrith, the Roman fort of
Camboglanna, Sewingshields etc.
never had another son by Uther and so as Uther aged he
recalled Arthur to his household where he was finally made his
heir before Uther died. Such a late decision might suggest that
indeed, Arthur was Goriolas' son. It was at this juncture that the young
Arthur is said to have drawn the sword ‘Excalibur’ from the
stone and thus secured his inheritance from rival claimants.
Realistically, and evading any recourse to ‘magic’,
if this did occur it would have been a test of physical
strength for a boy in is nonage who had to prove that he could
defend his father’s lands. The occasion, if it ever occurred
(for Excalibur is a later French addition to the tale) would more
than likely have been one of symbolic ceremonialism signifying
that Arthur, being under the age of twenty-one, was physically
capable of doing so. Again if a smidgin of truth lies within this
oral history, then the iron sword was a long and heavy one,
though it is unlikely that it was sealed within a stone. With
Uther’s death, Arthur would have inherited his father’s lands
which included Cornwall and ostensibly Tintagel.
was crowned as High King of the Britons and began a series of
campaigns with the invaders which on the face of it were very
successful. In the interim, Arthur was ostensibly seduced by Morgan
le Fay his half-sister, Morgan, perhaps trying to give birth
to a son who could succeed Arthur, did in oral history, bear a
son whose name was Mordred, who was to become Arthur’s
nemesis. Morgan went with her child and hid away so that the boy
could not be identified. Arthur realising he had been deceived,
followed King Herod’s example and had all boys, born in the
appropriate time frame, pushed out to sea in a boat. Mordred was
amongst those in the boat but after the boat washed up on rocks,
Mordred alone was saved by a fisherman. Eventually, Mordred was
settled in the household of King Lot of Orkney and his
wife Queen Morgause, Mordred’s uncle and aunt through
his mother’s marriage to Urien of Rheged. Here Mordred was
raised with King Lot’s four sons including Gawain.
won many battles Arthur succeeded in gaining a treaty and an extended period of peace with the Anglians and Saxons. According
to later French versions during this time of peace Arthur
established a fortress, the so-called ‘Camelot’. Local oral history in Somerset says that
this fortress was built on a hill overlooking ‘The Island of
Apples’ which we know today as Glastonbury [known to the Saxons
as Gestingaburg] lying at the foot of
Glastonbury Tor. The hill fort is supposed to be Cadbury Hill
with its Iron Age hill fort, which has archaeologically been
shown to have been occupied in the 500’s by post-Roman Britons
who re-used the site. From this time Arthur is supposed to have
attracted a number of war lords who swore allegiance to Arthur,
including Lancelot du Lake who was said to have been raised as a
foster child of the ‘Lady of the Lake’.
was betrothed in an arranged marriage to Guenevere who brought
with her a dowry called the ‘round table’. The possibility is
that this ‘round table’ included a bodyguard of warriors sent
with Guenevere by her father Leodegan. Lancelot was appointed to
escort Guenevere whom Arthur then married, but Lancelot and
Geuenevere were in love with each other. Arthur and Geuenevere
produced no surviving children, this set the scene for Arthur’s
illegitimate son Mordred to begin making claims.
Many indiscretions and family intrigues followed involving
Lancelot, Guenevere and Elaine with Morgan as the trouble-maker. Arthur condemned
Guenevere to the stake for her concubinage with Lancelot but
Lancelot rescued her and took Guenevere off to the safety of his
fortress. Arthur then travelled to war on the Continent. Mordred, who had been left in
charge of Britain now took the kingship for himself. Arthur
returned to Britain and after a number of battles against his
illegitimate son, Arthur met Mordred at Camlann.
Arthur killed Mordred by running him through with his
lance but in his final moments Mordred killed his father with a
fatal blow to the head. In his final order, Arthur instructed
Bedwyr to hurl Excalibur into the lake. Arthur was then taken in
a barge to Avalon, so the story goes, so as to heal Arthur that
he might return one day and save Britain. With such internal
deception and turmoil being exposed, civil war broke out and
disunity allowed the invaders to gather momentum, the kingdom of
Britain was finally lost to the invaders.
Of course much of this oral history
and embellishment is as much metaphorical as it
is morally instructive. Yet the perception remains that at the
heart of the story there was a real person represented by the
folk hero, Arthur.
for Arthur’s actual existence is thin on the ground. There are no
historical references to him by:
work ascribed to Nennius writing The History of the
Britons in the 800’s makes the first mention of Arthur. He
refers to him as dux bellorum who fought with the British
kings against the Saxons in twelve large battles which ended with
final success at Mt. Badon in A.D. 516. here is no reference to
him being a king. Arthur was said to have
been a warring Christian who carried the image of the Virgin Mary
into battle for three days and nights. Then in the 900’s the Annales Cambriae
refers to Arthur as the Christian leader who succeeded at Mt.
Badon in 516 and was also at the battle of Camlann in 537 where Arthur
and Medraut [Mordred] killed each other.
suspicion is that each reference to Arthur was drawing not only
upon oral history but also the works of previous authors along with a
little additional material for good luck.
our ‘knowledge’ of the Arthurian tales comes from Geoffrey of
Monmouth writing in his History of the Kings of Britain, completed
about 1136, long after the action had presumably taken place. Although
he was not the first medieval writer to mention Arthur, in
England his manuscript was extremely popular and copied by
scribes many times over. As such it popularised the Arthurian
legend in England and became the basis for additional material by
writers who embellished the heroic tales. Thus Geoffrey, if he
was not embellishing the folk tales himself, which is improbable, was giving the whole affair a medieval setting. Here he
introduced gallantry and chivalric behaviour, the White Tower of
London and lances, all trappings of the post-Norman invasion of
1066. There were no knights in Monmouth’s work nor ‘Holy
Grail’, the latter was a later addition imported from a French
writer, Chretien de Troyes. The French version also introduced
Lancelot, Camelot and Excalibur and thus are irrelevant in
trying to determine if there was an historical person represented
in the early British folklore. In the common parlance of today,
Arthurian tales from the 500’s underwent a ‘makeover’, a
refurbishment of epic proportions by Monmouth and French writers.
France had their hero in Charlemagne, why couldn’t Britain have
one in Arthur too?
of Malmesbury, a near contemporary of Monmouth4
writing about 10-12 years before, saw Arthur as a fable, this
would be supported by the fact that the sources which Monmouth
claimed as the basis of his work have never been located. However
in this respect, some believe that his source may have been Nennius’ History of the Britons
which Monmouth may have been alluding to when he referred
to ‘a certain very ancient book.’ Again, like Gildas
and Bede, Malmesbury refers to Aurealius
the ‘barbarians’ at Mt. Badon but this time with the
additional assistance of the
1133 Henry of Huntingdon re-stated Nennius' claim that Arthur was
a warring Christian, not
a king, who carried the
image of the Virgin Mary into battle and fought in twelve battles
culminating with that at Mt. Badon. In this respect Arthur was
perhaps not unlike the medieval bishop princes of Durham.
the 1400’s Thomas Malory had combined both the romantic French
versions of the Arthurian tales with those of Britain which is the
basis of so many popular imaginings and fiction today.
Historical evidence for the battles:
Although there were undoubtedly battles between the Angles and the Britons during the 400's, particularly after Ida landed at Bamburgh and Urien of Rheged successfully pushed him back to Lindisfarne, the earliest historical record for a battle during the 'Dark Ages' occurred in A.D. 491. This took place at the former Roman 'Saxon shore' fortress of Anderida/Anderitum afterwards called Andredescester and now Pevensey, Kent. Here the Saxon invader Aelle was victorious over the Britons. After this the known battles which are recorded are as follows:
|Locational name - ancient||Locational name - modern||Approx. Year of Battle||Comment||Source|
|Portesmutha||Portsmouth/Portchester, Hants.||501||Jutes captured Portchester||Anglo Saxon Chronicle|
|Natan Leag||Netley Marsh / Tatchbury Mount, Hants.||508||West of Southampton, a Saxon victory||Anglo Saxon Chronicle|
|Camlann||Birdoswald but more likely Castlesteads, Cumbria.||537||Near Hadrian's Wall. Where folklore tells us Arthur and Mordred died fighting each other.*||Annales Cambriae. 900's|
|Searoburg||Old Sarum, Wilts.||552||Saxon victory.||Anglo Saxon Chronicle|
|Beranburh/Beranbury/Beran Byrig||Barbury Castle, Wilts.||556||ENE of Bath, a Saxon victory.||Anglo Saxon Chronicle|
|Baenesingtun/Bedcanford||Bedford||571||Saxon victory||Anglo Saxon Chronicle|
|Armterid/Arfderydd/Arderydd||Arthuret, Cumbria.||573||Folklore says Arthur or at least his head, is buried here. Arthuret lies N.W. of Castlesteads.||Annales Cambriae. 900's|
|Cair Ceri||Cirencester, Gloucs.||577||Saxon victory||Nennius, Historia Brittanum, A.D. 830.|
|Deorham||Dyrham, S. Gloucs.||577||North of Bath, a Saxon victory||Anglo Saxon Chronicle|
|Fethan Leag||Stoke Lyne, Oxon.||584||N. of Oxford, a Saxon victory.||Anglo Saxon Chronicle|
|Wodnes Berg||Woden's Barrow, Wilts.||592||E. of Bath, a Saxon victory.||Anglo Saxon Chronicle|
* Briton appears to have fought Briton here.
'Mons Badonicus' supposedly fought between 493 and 516, perhaps about the year 500, thus pre-dates most of the known battles in the 500's. Thereafter Saxon and Anglian victories increased as shown in the table.
Perhaps any evidence for the twelve battles Arthur is supposed to have been involved in might be sought by identifying more precisely where these were located. For example 'Searoburg' in old English is Saelesberi which rather than being Salisbury could conceivably be Salesbury in Lancashire which stands on an important river crossing of the River Ribble, a long standing boundary between the later English and Scots. Equally 'Dubglas' could be the River Douglas ['Duglas'] in Douglasdale, Lancashire. If Lancashire was the site of battles II to IV then this was fought to retain a connection between the North Welsh Britons and those of Rheged [Galloway & Cumbria] and Strathclyde.
However, there seems little to relate the Arthurian tales to recorded (historical) events, thus we might suspect that the tales are metaphorical moral lessons but possibly based upon a real person who was relatively successful as a minor war leader or commander-in-chief whom the Britons held in high regard.
The more probable site of Camlann known to the Romans as 'Camboglanna' lies seven miles east of Birdoswald. The Roman fort site is on a high bluff overlooking Cam Beck, a deeply incised stream with a large headwater that originates south of Bewcastle. When this stream is in full spate it is a formidable obstacle. The Roman engineers seem to have chosen the site for its outlook and impregnability. This impregnable position commanded:
i) The gap on the mosses to the N.W. which carried the road from Brampton to Longtown, an important line of approach to the Roman wall.
ii) The east bank of Cam Beck which could impede raiders from the Bewcastle area to the north.
|The location of the site of Castlesteads Roman fort, suggested to be the location for Camboglanna and Camlann|
In 1791 the site was levelled for the construction of gardens near Castlesteads House. The 1934 excavations of the site revealed a small stone fort no more than 400 feet square [3.75 acres]. Walls were found on the south, east and west sides but the north wall was lost due to the erosion caused by Cam Beck. The fort walls were defended by a single ditch whilst the east and west gates were doubled. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the fort was manned by the 4th cohort of Gauls and later the 2nd cohort of Tungrians. However, it has been noted that a whole cohort of 1000 men would not be able to be accommodated in this small fort.
From the map above we can see that the site of the fort is also protected to the south by the Roman vallum which deviates to accommodate the fort. This is the only fort associated with the Roman wall which causes the vallum to be deviated. Altars to Jupiter and Mithras and the North-British god, Maponus were found during the excavations, the latter dedicated by four Germanic irregular soldiers. Despite this evidence of Roman occupation, there is one major obstacle to this fort being occupied by persons of the supposed Arthurian period, this being that there have been no known archaeological remains found from this time. However, the battle of 'Camlann' of 537 may still locate the site of the battle in the near vicinity. This battle site is perhaps commemorated in the name 'Conqueror's Bank' [see map above] to the S.E of the fort site.
20. Geoffrey of Monmouth. History of the Kings of Britain.
21. Gildas. De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
22. William of Malmesbury. Chronicle of the Kings of England.
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|Copyright © Tim Midgley, 1999, revised 16th August 2013.|