The Arthurian Legend
Home The tales of Arthur are   moralistic, being developed by three clergymen, Gildas, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth. scroll
King
Gildas writing during the 500-600's, and thus a possible contemporary of Arthur, mentions Medraut (Mordred) and Myrddin (Merlin) but not Arthur. Being a member of the Christian clergy we cannot discount the possibility that Gildas, as an upholder of Christianity against the pagan invaders, was denouncing  the sins of the British while promoting Christianity in Britain. An early form of what we now call religious propaganda, ironically much used later by the clergy during the medieval period to control morality. The Welsh Celtic Christian monk Nennius 
in 830 A.D. wrote the
Historia Brittanum 
which is the first publication to contain a mention of the hero Arthur
The Round Table- See the latest hypothesis - Chester ampitheatre August 2012. But then why not Caerleon which also had a legionary fortress and a well exhibited ampitheatre.
There are at least  two Roman legionary fortress ampitheatres in Britain, those of Caerleon and Chester. There is also thought to be another at York,but not yet discovered.
See 'Toime Team' and the Chester Ampitheatre - a parody concerning its lack-lustre exhibition.
 
 Nennius's 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)  
vi) Bassas 
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.

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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
About AD 950-1000 the Annales Cambriae recorded Arthur's victory at Mt. Badon and also referred to the Battle of Camlann [in Rheged / Reget] in AD 537 "in which Arthur and Medraut fell" 

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]:


In the 1190's Hugh de Morville of Cumberland & Westmorland is said to have taken the local story of Arthur in written form to the Continent when he replaced King Richard of England as a hostage of the Austrians. This work influenced Ulrich Von Zatzighoven who in turn influenced Chretien de Troyes
who wrote Morte D' Arthur which reintroduced Arthur into Britain as a medieval romance. Marie Capet the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitane and Louis VII Capet was a patron of Chretien de Troyes who at Marie's suggestion composed the romance of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.18 Both Marie and Queen Eleanor wanted a 'Court of Love' and set down the rules for such, this led to the Romantic period in Europe and paved the way for courtly manner and even some of today's attitudes of how men should behave towards women. Arthur Plantagenet, son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, son of Eleanor and Henry II of England was named by Constance of Brittany, his mother, after King Arthur, who in legend was King of the Bretons. Arthur Plantagenet was probably killed by King John to remove him from contention as a future king of England.

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.
It was from Geoffrey of Monmouth's works that 
Chaucer (ca. 1340-1400) mentioned Arthur:-
"In old dayes of the King Artour
Of which that Bretons speken gret honour,
All was this land fulfilled of faeries:
The elf-queen with hire jolie company
Daunsed full of te in many a grene mede;
This was the old opinion as I rede.
I speke of many hundred yeres agoe,
But now can no man see non elves mo".

The story of Arthur found its way to France during the "Chivalrous Period" and returned to England through Malory (Mallory) written in the vernacular.
Sir Thomas Malory wrote the work Le Morte d'Arthur concerning Arthur in the 1460's which was published by William Caxton in 1485, but a question remains- who was Thomas Malory? He could have been: 
i) A Welshman or 
ii) A person living at Newbold Revel in Warwickshire who was a criminal  & who appears to have written "Le Morte d'Arthur" whilst in Newgate prison. No original MS. was ever found, only Caxton's printing which was a translated work from a French MS. in Dick Whittington's library in Greyfriar's monastery. 
iii) In 1934 W.F. Oakeshott located a Mallory MS. at Winchester College. 
iv) In 1966 William Matthews discovered another Thos. Mallory MS. 
The discovery of this MS. suggests Thomas Mallory was the son of William Mallory of Hutton, Yorkshire and Dionisia of Studley Park near Fountains Abbey, nr. Ripon, Yorkshire. From this lineage it was shown that Mallory died before 1485. Thomas Mallory drew upon French texts written in a northern English regional dialect (English was gradually becoming standardised) 
At Ribston Hall, Wetherby, Yorkshire, a MS. was found in 1945 and bought by Cambridge University. It had been found in a trunk with a charter and other documents of the Mauleverer family who owned the estate and intermarried with the same Yorkshire families as the Mallory's of Hutton & Studley.
chalice The MS. contains the "History of the Holy Grail"* and "Merlin" This version of Merlin corresponds very closely to Mallory's translation. 
*The chalice used by Christ at the last supper supposedly brought to Glastonbury by Joseph after Christ's death. Joseph may have visited on occasions on tin trading excursions with Jesus as a boy but this may be the monks of Glastonbury again trying to create a myth. One fact we can be sure of is that there was a British ('Celtic') monastery at Glastonbury. Some believe that the Rosslyn Templar Chapel  at Rosslin  in Scotland houses the chalice beneath its floor. However, the idea of the 'Holy Grail' was introduced by the French writers and is thus a late addition to the refracted British oral folk history.


Arthur's birthplace:
Tintagel:
The Arthur Stone 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.'
 
Tintagel 1 Tintagel 2

Merlin 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."

 

Tintagel gateway with some image reconstruction

Castles reputed to be Arthur's:
Pendragon Castle at Mallerstang, Cumbria
Uther Pendragon in folk history was the father of Arthur. Cumbria was a Welsh-British haunt & this is a reputed castle of Arthur. Saxton's map of Westmorland (1576) shows the forest of Mallerstange  and Pendragon Castle at the eastern boundary of the forest on the river Eden. 
The Parish church is built on the site of a Saxon church which contains relics including the "Loki Stone" from the 700's. Loki was the Norse god representing a bound devil, this is one of only two known in Europe13
Castle Hill (Camulodunon) an Iron Age hill fort near Almondbury, Yorkshire. The name may identify with "Camelot" but 'Camelot' is a later French addition to the Arthurian tales. Cam is also found in the Roman Camulodunum for Colchester and means "crook bank". Castle Hill was a Brigantian hill fort of the Iron Age Celtic Welsh Britons which was attacked and probably overthrown by the Romans. 
Richmond Castle in Yorkshire, where tradition  says King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table sleep15. Prior to the medieval castle this was a possible site for the Romanised Brigantes to survive after the Romans left Britain. 
Cadbury Castle in Somerset, another Iron Age hill fort over-run by the Romans early in their occupation of Britain shows evidence of occupation in the 500's. This does not prove that Arthurian adherents resided here but the archaeological evidence coincides with the time period for Nennius' version of events.

Eamont Bridge, Cumbria here an earthworks is named the "Round Table". Later in 927 Aethelstan received the submission of the Scots and Northumbrians here

Yeovil in Somerset revealed during excavations a large settlement of the 500's that has been described as a possible contender for Camelot, Arthur's legendary court. But we must recall that Camelot is a later French invention. reintroduced into Britain.

A Scottish castle near Ayr.

Cybwr in South Wales.

Brittany, France. 

Burial sites for Arthur have been suggested at Arthuret, Glastonbury, Bridgend, Caer Melyn & Baschurch.

Arthuret [Arthur's Head]:
In 1990 an American historian, Professor Norma Goodrich  of Columbia University, New York, claimed to have discovered the burial place of Arthur in Scotland near the English border, at Arthuret, the Roman Castra Exploraturum. [now in Cumberland / Cumbria] Arthuret is near Camboglanna [Birdoswald but more likely Castlesteads] where it has been suggested Arthur fought his last battle. Prof. Goodrich believes she has traced the court of "Camelot" to the ruins of a Scottish castle near Ayr
According to information collated by the late Professor N. Chadwick of the University of Wales the name Arthuret means "Arthur's Head". This was deduced after studying 6th century Irish & French epics in which the hero's head was generally buried with the face to the foe. A high point of land near the Church of St. Michael and All Angels in the parish of Arthuret is consecrated ground9. Im March 1319 Gilbert de Ebor[aco] is known to have been presented to the church at 'Arturet' which lay in the diocese of Carlisle. [C.P.R., March 1319, p. 318.] Christopher Saxton's map of Westmoreland (1576) gives the name as ARTRUTHE which if phonetically spelled would sound more like "Arthur"14

Glastonbury:
In the cemetery of the monks on the Isle of Avalon, twelve miles from Cadbury Castle. According to Gerald of Wales there were two stone pyramids with much eroded inscriptions on them. A skeleton lay buried  between these two pyramids at a depth of 16 feet. The skeleton lay in a hollow oak coffin. Two thirds of the coffins length was taken up by what was purported to be Arthur's body and the lower third contained his second wife Guinevere retaining traces of blonde hair. At the head of the coffin lay a lead cross under a stone with the inscription 
According to Camden:
"HIC JACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTHURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA" 
According to Leland
"HIC JACET ARTURUS, FLOS REGUM, GLORIA REGNI, QUEM MORES, PROBITAS COMMENDANT LAUDI PERENNI" 
According to Ruben
HIC JACET ARTHURIS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS 

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 King Arthur

The general thesis is that Arthur (Latin: Arthurius) was a Romano-Briton of the 500's who welded the Romano-Britons, 
 and Welsh Celts against the Anglo-Saxons after the withdrawal of the Roman armies, and that he may have existed in fact & deed. 
His successes in battle were first popularised by wandering troubadours. 
i) Portchester in 501 under King Ambrosius aurelianus, Arthur may have lost a battle here, near Portesmutha [Portsmouth]. 
Hadrian's Wall ii) The Battle of Camlann 537 A.D.2 This site is identified as the Roman fort of Camboglanna  (Birdoswald or Castlesteads, Cumbria) 16on Hadrian's Wall. The Roman name Camboglanna or "crook bank" which may identify with "Camelot"* lies near Birdoswald on a stream called King Water draining from near Midgeholme Moss, alternatively even miles east  at Castlesteads on the Cambeck.
Arthur is supposed to have died here in 537 fighting the Saxons3
Later in 573 A.D. the Battle of Armterid was fought a few miles to the N.W. of Arthuret2
[*note: The term "Camelot" is an invention of the French poet C. de Troyes in the 1100's]  

King Arthur the film 

                            The Welsh origins:
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.


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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. 
[# note: Uthr = terrible; Pendragon = head dragon] 
The dragon is part of the Welsh flag today. flag
The Votadini took control of Gwynedd and the Cunedda family became the kings. 
Archaeology verifies that N.W. Wales was colonised by warriors from Gododdin in the 460's, Votadini pottery discovered in Gwynedd dating from the early 400's had been recovered. 
The identifying family prefix Cun- (Welsh=Cyn-) of the Cunedda family are found on tombstones and in the genealogies of Gwynedd. 
The Gododdin, a poem now in the Public Library in Cardiff was probably composed in the early 600's. One passage praises the courage of a hero saying "although he fought bravely "he was no Arthur". This war poem was written by the Vodadini suggesting he had been a member of their tribe.
Powys
Cuneglasus was king of Powys at the time of Gildas (ca. 545). Powys comprised the present regions of Central Wales & the West Midlands, the state of Powys adjoined Gwynedd. Cuneglasus was descended from Cunedda. In the 400's Viroconium (Wroxeter in Shropshire) was the capital of Powys. In 1967 an inscribed stone was discovered commemorating king Cunorix (Cunedda family). This stone was dated to ca. 480 i.e. he died about this time, this indicates that the Votadini were ruling then. 
From archaeological evidence it is known that Viroconium was wealthy & powerful at this time. By the 430's Viroconium was being rebuilt in a highly sophisticated fashion. A massive winged mansion was built, this could have been a palace of post Roman chieftains. The city was not abandoned until 520 A.D. There was no threat from the Saxons for perhaps 20 years and Powys did not fall to the Anglians and Saxons until the 650's. It is possible Cunorix may have been succeeded by Arthur, but Geoffrey of Monmouth says Arthur died in 537 at the Battle of Camlann. 
Modred:
Also called Maglocunus popularised as the evil Mordred Arthur's treacherous nephew or son who killed Arthur in the battle at Camlann according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Annales Cambriae records that Arthur & Mordred did fall at the battle. 
Five miles east of Dolgelly is a remote, bleak valley called Camlan it lies on the old border of Powys & Gwynned. 
A poem7 written ca. 850 now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, mentions Arthur & Cynddylan being "heir of the Great Arthur". It states that the body of Cynddylan was buried at the "Churches of Bassa". It may be that Arthur was buried earlier here. Today this is called Baschurch a village nine miles N.W. of Shrewsbury.
On the edge of the village is "The Berth" a fortified hillock surrounded by marshland and linked to the mainland by a gravel causeway. In an archaeological excavation in 1962-3 pottery from the 500's was uncovered. Most of the Berth has not been excavated, it has been suggested that one of the mounds may contain the remains of Arthur8


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)

 
            Runic Script
Griffin 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.  Union Flag
St. George's Flag The personification  of St. George may be based on St. Michael. St. Michael was born in Cappadocia of Christian parents. He became an officer of high rank in the Roman Imperial Army and may have torn down Nicomedia Diocletian's edicts against the Christians which were fixed to church doors. In 303 he suffered martyrdom. During the Crusades he is reported to have appeared to Crusaders with a red cross. In 1222 The Synod of Oxford made him the patron Saint of England. This red cross of St. George appeared on the English flag and was retained on the British union flag. 


 

                  

Can we discern fact from fiction?

By 1100’s the folk tales of Arthur were known in Western Europe, especially in Brittany.19 Some of the persons mentioned in folk tales and/or history are:

Vortigern 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.

Aurealius Ambrosius 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.

Uther Pendragon has been described by Geofferey of Monmouth as the father of Arthur.30

After 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 Uther’s forces.

The 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.

Ygarnia  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.

Arthur 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.

Having 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’.

Arthur 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.

Evidence for Arthur’s actual existence is thin on the ground. There are no historical references to him by:

  1. Gildas who was writing about a generation after Arthur is considered to have been active. However, he does mention Aurealius who he said defeated the Saxons at Mons Badonicus, Mount Badon, a place never successfully located but perhaps Bath Hill near Bath..
  2. Bede writing in the 700’s again stated that it was Aurealius who won the battle of Mt. Badon over the Saxons.

A 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.

The 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. 

Most 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?

William 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 defeating the ‘barbarians’ at Mt. Badon  but this time with the additional assistance of the ‘warlike Arthur.’

In 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.

By 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.

 

Castlesteads

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.


   

Bibliography:
  1. The History of the Britons- Nennius 
  2. Ordnance Survey map of Dark Age Britain 
  3. History Today 1988 
  4. History Today February 1987 
  5. Moncreife.The Highland Clans  p200 
  6. The Real King Arthur- London News 1992 p69 
  7. Song of Llywarch the Old (Canu Llywarch Hen) 
  8. Phillips, Graham and  Keatman, Martin. King Arthur: The True 
      Story.  Century 1992.
  9. Guardian Weekly 26th June 1990. 
10. Guardian Weekly 25th March 1991.
11. History Of The Kings Of Britain- Geoffrey of Monmouth (12th 
      Century) 
12. Guardian Weekly 27th September 1998 
13. In Britain, August 1994, p.13. 
14.Christopher Saxton's 16th Century Maps, William Ravenhill, 
      Chatsworth Library, 1992. 
15. A Dictionary of Place Names, West Riding, Bingley 1822. 
16. Bruce J.C. Handbook to the Roman Wall. Andrew Reid 
      & Co. 1957 
17. Hill, Helen. The Realms of Arthur. 1970
18. Meade, Margaret. Eleanor of Aquitane. Hawthorn Books. 1977.                                                                                                              19. Douglas, Sara. The Betrayal Of Arthur. Pan Macmillan. 1999.

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.