King Arthur: man or myth?

Site of King Arthur's grave at Glastonbury Abbey

The legend of King Arthur has been around in one form or another for almost 1500 years, and has been constantly adapted and rewritten to suit the times – but was there ever a 'real' King Arthur, and if so when did he live?

The name 'Artorius' was common in Rome, and would therefore have been in currency in occupied Britain. Certainly there is a real historical figure in Britain, Lucius Artorius Castus, who led the VIth legion on an expedition to Armorica in the middle of the 2nd century – too early for 'our' Arthur – but it does prove that the name was known there.

King Arthur's grave among the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey

The monk Gildas, writing c.540, tells of the many battles against Saxon invaders that culminated with the siege of Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon) after which there was peace – which is borne out by the known history of southern England where the Anglo-Saxon penetration of the south-east was stopped at about 500AD and did not resume until some 50 years later. Gildas called our hero Ambrosius Aurelianus. He may well have been a genuinely historic figure and the prototype for Arthur although, confusingly, there's a reference in Geoffrey of Monmouth's history to a Aurelius Ambrosius, rather than Ambrosius Aurelianus, and he is portrayed as an earlier king than Arthur, who comes later.

An important reference to Arthur, although a somewhat oblique one, is found in the Welsh elegy, Gododdin, attributed to the late 6th c. poet Aneirin and dated about 600 AD. It reads: 'he glutted black ravens on the rampart of the city, though he was not Arthur' – in other words, this hero did valorous deeds even if he wasn't quite up to scratch! There is also proof that several people were called Arthur in the latter part of the 6th c; they lived in the Celtic areas of the British Isles. In fact, I found a reference 'that Aedan mac Gabrain, king of Scottish Dal Riada, who had British connexions, christened one of his sons Arthur about 570 AD' – which apparently was odd, since he was heading a massive attempt to drive the English out of Northumbria at the time.

So the name of Arthur was around, but he was a Celtic / Welsh Arthur and nothing to do with the pesky English maybe! Certainly he featured in the Welsh triads, in the Black Book of Carmarthen (where we read of the wonder of Arthur's death and the mystery surrounding his burial site) and also in The Spoils of Annwfn from the Book of Taliesen – the poet being another legendary figure from the 6th c. who supposedly underwent several transformations during his life. Arthur is also featured in tales such as Culhwch and Olwen, and Rhonabwy's Dream, both found in the Mabinogian (possibly dating from early 11th & 13th c. respectively.)
The anonymous author of Historia Britonnium, known as Nennius, writing in the 9th c credits Arthur – or a 'dux bellorum' – with fighting alongside the kings of the Britons in 12 major battles, leading to the victory at Mount Badon.

Arthur is also mentioned in the 10th c Welsh Annals where, at 'The Battle of Badon, Arthur bore the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights, and the Britons were the victors.' This battle is said to occur in the Year 72 (518AD?) A second reference, for the Year 93 (539AD?) describes the battle of Camlann 'in which Arthur and Medraut perished, and there was plague in Britain and Ireland'. Medraut was an early name for Mordred. Unfortunately the account doesn't say whether they were enemies or fighting on the same side.

It seems clear that stories of Arthur were in wide circulation before 1136, when Geoffrey of Monmouth's fabricated History of the Kings of Britain, the first coherent account of Arthur, was written – and which incidentally he dedicated to the Empress Matilda's half-brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester. But William of Malmesbury 's Chronicles of the Kings of England was written some years earlier than that. In it, he follows Gildas and Bede in crediting Ambrosius Aurelianus with defeating the 'presumptuous barbarians', but adds that he did so with the 'warlike Arthur' at his side. The chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, also repeats the story of Arthur who defeated the invaders in 12 battles culminating in Badon, and 'always with the image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders and with the aid of Jesus Christ.'

Geoffrey of Monmouth focuses on Arthur's many wars: against Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Gaul, and finally his ill-fated attempt to take on Rome. It's interesting that at about this time there really was a man, a historical figure who was described as the King of the Britons, 'who took an army to Gaul in 468 AD and advanced into the central part of the country. Betrayed by a Roman governor and defeated by the Visigoth king Uric, he withdrew with a remnant of his army into the nearby domain of the Burgundians, probably early in 470 AD. In two places he is referred to as 'Riothamus', the Latin form of a British title for a high king' and a word that has some resemblance to the name of Arthur. (Geoffrey Ashe, Mythology of the British Isles, p 195.)

There are sites associated with Arthur all around the British Isles as well as in France – including an Avalon in Burgundy, which perhaps also gives credence to the fate of this King of the Britons. There are also many sites in Brittany including the Foret de Paimpon, thought to be the ancient Forest of Broceliande where many of the knights had adventures, and which still promotes Arthuriana, including the site of Merlin's tomb.

If we're going for an historical Arthur, his birthplace at Tintagel is quite feasible; it was certainly an important dark age trading centre at the supposed time of his birth, and may well have been the stronghold of an important family or king. Geoffrey of Monmouth places Arthur's seat of power at Caerleon, an old Roman garrison, and there's still a grassy amphitheatre to be seen there that may have given rise to the notion of a 'round table'. For my money, South Cadbury Castle is the most interesting site, even though in reality it is just a high grassy hill now – but I think I saw a ghost up there on the green ramparts! Evidence suggests that it was once a mighty hill fort, the biggest and best defended in Britain and certainly a credible site for a powerful warrior king – even one such as Riothamus, King of the Britons. It is said that Arthur and his knights ride the 10 mile causeway that links South Cadbury to Glastonbury on midsummer nights. You can certainly see Glastonbury Tor rising in the distance – also known as the Isle of Apples, Avallonia, the last resting place of the real or legendary King Arthur.