The central figure of interest in this period of history is the man known as Arthur. He was the mighty military leader who led the kings of Britain into battle against the Saxons as they tried to progressively conquer more and more of the island. While not described as such in the earliest records, he is regularly referred to as a king himself from the 11th century onwards. His campaigns against the Saxons were said to have held them back for a considerable amount of time, resulting in a period of peace from foreign invasions that continued for several decades after his death.
In this article, we will take a look at the various different things that are known, or at least claimed by the sources, about this character, as well as what historical facts we can discern.
Among the most prominent questions about Arthur, perhaps the most important is the matter of whether or not he really existed at all. While not being universally accepted, there is general agreement that he was a real person – or, to put it another way, that there was a historical figure at the heart of the myths and legends that we now have.
While it is true that there are some scholars who support the theory that Arthur was actually a figure of legend or folklore who became presented as a historical figure in later records, their reasons for such a conclusion are very questionable.
For example, one of the reasons for concluding that Arthur did not exist is the fact that he is not mentioned in the one surviving contemporary source from sixth century Britain, Gildas’s De Excidio. However, Gildas does not mention the majority of individuals involved the historical events to which he refers. Notably, he does not mention, much less name, anyone between the time of Ambrosius (one of Arthur’s predecessors according to the later records) and his own time, which was several decades after the Battle of Badon (later claimed to be Arthur’s final victory against the Saxons).
In contrast, the fact that the name ‘Arthur’ appears to have suddenly become popular among royal families in the decades after Arthur’s supposed rule does lend support to the conclusion that he was real. And, indeed, someone must have been leading the British armies between the time of Ambrosius and the time of Gildas’s writing.
This fact, combined with the sudden popularity of the name, does indicate that a prominent military figure by the name of Arthur was the leader of the Britons during the time in which the legendary Arthur was supposed to have lived.
For a fuller analysis of Arthur’s historicity, see the article ‘Was King Arthur Real?‘
Arthur’s parentage is generally quite consistent in the legends. He is said to have been the son of Uther (or ‘Uthyr’), the previous king before Arthur. Upon acquiring the throne, Uther took the name ‘Uther Pendragon’, in reference to a dragon that was seen in the sky at the time of his succession.
In the earliest record of his life, which is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (HRB), Uther is said to have been the son of Constantine the king of Britain (generally held to be Geoffrey’s version of Constantine III, a usurping Emperor in Britain at the beginning of the fourth century). He was the youngest of three sons, the older two being Constans and Ambrosius. Uther eventually became king after his two older brothers died.
There is a Welsh poem known as Arthur and the Eagle or Dialogue of Arthur and Eliwlod which, while not predating Geoffrey of Monmouth, is considered to have been uninfluenced by him. This is significant, for this poem also makes Arthur the son of Uther (spelt ‘Uthyr’ in this Welsh poem). There is even a reference to ‘Uthyr Pendragon’ in one of the earliest Arthurian tales, Pa Gur. Although this does not specifically describe Uthyr as Arthur’s father, it mentions the two men in association, as does another Welsh poem, Marwnat Uthyr Pen.
Thus, there is good reason for concluding that Geoffrey of Monmouth did not invent the idea that Arthur was the son of Uther. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Arthur’s father historically was called Uther, but it does at least leave open the possibility.
As to whether Arthur’s father genuinely was the king who reigned before Arthur, much depends on whether Arthur was actually a royal individual. It is regularly claimed that the Historia Brittonum precludes Arthur from having actually been a king. This is a reasonable interpretation, but the words do not necessarily require that.
Furthermore, it could be the case that Arthur was not a king at the time of the Saxon wars, but later became one (this possibility is supported by the fact that the HRB describes Arthur as having a ceremony in which the ‘crown was put on his head’ after the completion of the Saxon wars). In any case, now let us examine Arthur’s mother.
One of the most famous Arthurian stories involves Arthur’s mother. This is the incident involving Gorlois the duke of Cornwall and his wife Igerna (often spelt ‘Igraine’ in later versions). Uther was enamoured by Igerna’s beauty, so he became determined to take her for himself. While Gorlois and his men were occupied fighting Uther’s men elsewhere, Uther himself sought Igerna in the tower in which she had been secured. Using magic to disguise himself as Gorlois, he gained entry and slept with Igerna, thus causing Arthur to be conceived.
Thus, according to this account of Arthur’s life, which is found in Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur’s mother was Igerna. This is generally consistent in the various different versions of the legend (however, in Welsh, Arthur’s mother is usually known as ‘Eigyr’ or ‘Eigr’). And what do we know about her? Well, apart from the fact that she was the wife of Gorlois, there are a number of details that the sources tell us.
There is some peculiarity regarding her origin. The sources are clear that she was the daughter of Amlawdd Wledig, a man about whom little is known other than that he was the father of a number of different individuals. He was allegedly of the dynasty of Brittany, a descendant of Conan Meriadoc, the legendary founder of that country.
However, the Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen alludes to Arthur’s mother and indicates that she was the sister of a certain Gwrfoddw Hen. This man possessed the same name as a historical king of Ergyng, who could be the same person. If so, this would indicate that Igerna was actually of the dynasty of Ergyng.
What of Arthur’s siblings? In the HRB, Uther and Igerna have another child, Anna. She is several times said to have been the wife of Lot of Lothian, the father of Mordred and Gawain. However, there is some confusion regarding this, for Geoffrey of Monmouth in one place refers to Lot as having married the sister of Ambrosius (Arthur’s uncle), by whom he had Mordred and Gawain. Yet, elsewhere, Mordred and Gawain are repeatedly referred to as Arthur’s nephews, not cousins. So it seems that the one reference to Lot marrying the sister of Ambrosius and thus fathering those two sons was merely an error on the part of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
In Welsh sources, the name Anna is sometimes exchanged for ‘Gwyar’, especially in the context of her son Gawain (known as ‘Gwalchmai’ in the Welsh sources). In later versions of the Arthurian legend, her name is generally given as ‘Morgawse’.
The much later romance Le Morte d’Arthur, by Thomas Malory, gives Arthur a sister named Elaine, who married a king named Nentres of Garlot. While this seems peculiar and unfounded at first sight, it seems that there is actually a reference to this in the 12th century HRB. There, Geoffrey comments that a Breton prince named Hoel was the son of Arthur’s sister, though he does not mention which sister it was. The father of Hoel was Budic of Brittany, who would thus have been the husband of Arthur’s sister.
In Welsh sources, meanwhile, Hoel’s father is named ‘Emyr Llydaw’, a title thought to mean ‘Emperor of Brittany’. It could well be, then, that ‘Nentres’ is a corruption of ‘Emyr’. If so, then Malory’s ‘Elaine’ the wife of Nentres was likely the unnamed sister mentioned in the HRB, the one who married Budic (Emyr Llydaw) and gave birth to Hoel.
A much more famous sister of Arthur is Morgan le Fay. She goes through what is perhaps the most pronounced evolution of all Arthur’s sisters throughout the Arthurian legends. In her first appearance, in Vita Merlini (another work by Geoffrey of Monmouth, giving more detail to Arthur’s demise), she is said to have been the chief of nine magical sisters in Avalon, or the Isle of Apples. She receives Arthur with the intention to heal him, though the outcome of this is never stated. Nonetheless, she seems to be a benevolent character.
In somewhat later works, such as those of Chretien de Troyes, she is portrayed as Arthur’s sister (usually his older half-sister, the daughter of Gorlois and Igerna). Eventually, certainly by the time of Thomas Malory in the 15th century, she ceases from being the benevolent figure she originally was and is portrayed as a bona fide enemy of Arthur’s, attempting to overthrow him.
Another sibling of Arthur’s is Madoc. He is a shadowy figure, appearing only in very few Welsh texts. For example, he is referenced in the aforementioned Arthur and the Eagle poem, where he is made the father of Arthur’s nephew Eliwlod. In the Book of Taliesin there is also an elegy for him, though this does not reveal any specific details about him other than that his death was somehow associated with the earth trembling and the world darkening.
Although this does not explicitly feature in the traditional Arthurian romances, a number of sources attribute three wives to Arthur. The most obvious example of this is found in the Welsh Triads, which gives Arthur three wives, all named Gwenhwyfar (the Welsh equivalent of ‘Guinevere’). In contrast, the traditional Arthurian romances tend to only give Arthur one wife named Guinevere.
In any case, the names of the fathers of these three wives are given, and they are: Cywryd Gwent (or ‘Ceint’), Gwythyr son of Greidiawl, and Ogrfan (or ‘Gogrfan’). Virtually nothing is known of the first of these, other than that he was presumably from Gwent, if ‘Gwent’ is the correct form rather than ‘Ceint’. The second father is particularly interesting, for he may be identical to a character named ‘Withur’ in the ninth century Life of St Paul Aurelian. This Withur was the count of Leon in Brittany, while the later romances possibly make Guinevere’s father a ruler in Brittany (if the identification of Carohaise with Carhaix in Brittany is correct).
The father of the third Gwenhwyfar is the one who appears most often in the legends. Partly due to this reason, it is likely that he was the most famous of the three fathers. This is supported by the fact that there are a number of places which seem to have been named after him, such as a location near Oswestry in Shropshire, as well as Knuckles Castle in Powys. These place names also help us to locate him, indicating that he lived somewhere near the eastern border of mid-Wales.
Arthur was said to have had a number of children. According to the Welsh sources, his sons were Amr, Duran, Gwydre and Llacheu. The first of these is mentioned in the Wonders of Britain, so if any son of Arthur really existed, it is likely to be this one. Peculiarly, and without explanation, he is said to have been killed by his own father. It was his grave that was the focus of the Wonders, for it was said to change size whenever it was measured.
Some researchers claim that Amr was the basis for Arthur’s usurping enemy Mordred, since he too is said to have been Arthur’s son. However, the sources that make this claim long post-date the sources that describe Mordred as Arthur’s nephew, so it is very unlikely that Mordred was originally Amr, who is definitely described as Arthur’s son in this ninth century record.
Almost nothing is known about Duran other than that he died in battle, possibly at Camlann. Gwydre also died in battle against Twrch Trwyth, according to the Welsh Culhwch ac Olwen.
Llacheu appears more frequently in the legends and poems than the other sons of Arthur, but he too is said to have been slain in battle – possibly at Llongborth, a battle at which Arthur was said to have been present, though this is not completely clear. In the later romances, his name becomes ‘Loholt’ or variations thereof.
Thus, while the sources are by no means totally reliable or necessarily clear as to their meaning, it seems apparent that all of these sons of Arthur died before the end of their father’s own life. In fact, the only one of Arthur’s sons mentioned in a Welsh source whose fate is not revealed is Kyduan, or Cydfan. He is mentioned in Culhwch ac Olwen and is said to have been Arthur’s son by a woman named Eleirch.
Though they do not appear in any Welsh source, Le Petit Bruit (written at the beginning of the 14th century) portrays Arthur as being succeeded in his kingdom by three sons: Morgan the Black, Adeluf, and Patrick the Red. Whatever historical basis these sons have is unclear.
The accounts of Arthur’s early life vary depending on which version of the legend is followed. While the earliest account of Arthur’s life since birth is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HRB, one version of the earlier Historia Brittonum contains a peculiar bit of information about Arthur’s childhood. In this version, Arthur is said to be termed ‘map uter’, which we are told means ‘terrible son’, due to Arthur having been cruel from his youth.
This is unlikely to provide us with a genuine insight into the man’s childhood, because that explanation of ‘map uter’ is almost certainly a mistake derived from the name of Arthur’s legendary father, Uther Pendragon (‘map’ is a form of the Welsh word for ‘son’). In which case, this information is not useful at all.
The HRB does not give us a great deal of information concerning Arthur’s youth, but the information it does give is in contrast to that which was claimed by the Historia Brittonum. Geoffrey claims that Arthur was a youth of ‘unparalleled courage and generosity’ and had a ‘sweetness of temper’ along with ‘innate goodness’. So allegedly, he was a boy of considerable virtue.
His father Uther died, according to this source, when Arthur was 15 years old. The narrative suggests that Arthur was crowned king virtually as soon as Uther died, which would mean that Arthur was a very young king. Nonetheless, the account implies that he immediately campaigned against the Saxons, who by this time had subdued the entire northern half of Britain. This is consistent with the claim that even as a youth he was notable for his courage.
In the later legends, Arthur’s early life is rather different. He is taken as a young child into the household of Sir Ector, the father of Kay (known as ‘Cai’ in early Welsh traditions, and likely a genuine associate of the historical Arthur). His true identity as the heir of Britain is not revealed to him.
One day, Kay forgot to bring a sword to a tournament and so asked Arthur to bring him one. The youth stumbled across the sword in the stone, and not knowing anything of its importance, he took it for his brother to use. This resulted in his identity as the heir of Britain being revealed, after which he was crowned king.
King Arthur’s Reign
Arthur’s reign, by all accounts, was extremely eventful. As well as his numerous battles against the Saxons, which we will come to shortly, he appears in various Lives of different saints. One in particular seems to be set during the early part of Arthur’s reign.
In the Life of St Cadoc, the circumstances leading up to the birth of the titular saint are described. Cadoc’s mother, Gwladys, was the lover of Gwynllyw. He was pursued by Gwladys’s father, Brychan, before Arthur intervened and allowed the two lovers to get married, from which marriage Cadoc was produced. Arthur also appears much later on in the Life, which indicates that he had been quite young when the events involving Gwynllyw and Gwladys took place.
In later accounts of Arthur’s life, there is a dramatic event that occurs at the start of his reign. The Vulgate Merlin, from the 13th century, claims that a number of powerful kings refused to accept Arthur as their overlord, causing a civil war. However, with the help of Merlin, the newly-appointed young king was able to defeat the rebels and bring them into an alliance with him. Some of these kings then became famous knights of Arthur’s court, such as Urien and Angusel.
This incident is not mentioned at all in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Arthur’s life, nor any previous Arthurian source. Its historicity is thus seriously questionable. However, there is not anything implausible in the events themselves, for there was a considerable amount of inter-tribal warfare before the Roman period, so it would not be too unlikely for the same instability to arise after the Romans had left.
But apart from this initial resistance to his ascension to the throne, what can be said for the state of Arthur’s reign in general? We can trust that a large part of it was centred around warfare against the Saxons, partly because of Arthur’s designation as ‘the Soldier’ in the Historia Brittonum. But in addition, the Life of St Goeznovius reports that Arthur held back the invading Saxons and actually drove them out of the country – it was only after his reign ended that they were able to push their way through the island again.
We will analyse these Saxon wars in the following section, but for now, what was Arthur’s reign like when he was not at war? Geoffrey of Monmouth presents quite a consistent picture regarding the man. As we saw previously, as a youth he was allegedly full of courage, generosity, and innate goodness.
This character profile did not change on the other side of his Saxon campaign, for he was said to have ‘introduced such politeness into his court’ that people from distant regions found it worthy of their imitation. His generosity is again emphasised, Geoffrey saying that ‘the fame of his munificence spread over the whole world’.
Interestingly, this description of Arthur’s character is even reflected in one version of the Historia Brittonum, which describes him as ‘the magnanimous Arthur’. From this consistency within the HRB and the similar description contained in the Historia Brittonum, it might be concluded that this is a genuine, authentic tradition concerning the man.
On the other hand, Arthur’s appearances in the Lives of the Saints seem to point in the other direction. For example, in the aforementioned Life of St Cadoc, the next time Arthur appears is when he is pursuing a man who killed three of his soldiers. During this pursuit, Arthur gets into conflict with Cadoc, who is providing refuge for the man.
This is generally taken as indicative of strife between Arthur and the religious institutions of the day. However, it could be argued that in this specific instance, Arthur was acting just as the average king would, and not in any shockingly aggressive or ignoble manner for the era. On the other hand, other Lives give weight to this argument against Arthur’s character, as they present him as impetuous and haughty. For instance, the Life of St Padarn reports an incident in which Arthur sees Padarn’s marvellous tunic and desires it for himself, thus getting into a conflict with the saint.
Despite what the Lives of the Saints say about Arthur, it must be acknowledged that they are essentially propaganda pieces for the saints to whom they pertain. It is not surprising that they represent other individuals, such as the contemporary kings of those saints, as antagonists to the ‘heroes’ of the accounts. Arthur is by no means the only king portrayed in a negative light in the Lives.
In contrast, the accounts which simply attempt to present a history of the period during which Arthur lived, such as Historia Brittonum or Historia Regum Britanniae, are likely to give a more accurate version of Arthur’s character. On this basis, it seems reasonable to conclude that, at least according to the available information, the portrayal of Arthur as a noble and moral individual is likely to be accurate, at least according to the standards of the time.
There is also some contemporary information that supports the idea that Arthur’s reign was notable for its moral prosperity. Gildas, writing just one generation after Arthur’s time (if Arthur really was the historical victor at Badon) laments at how the generation that lived after the Saxon wars, not having experienced those troublesome times, pushed aside ‘ all the laws of truth and justice’. He claims that ‘not so much as a vestige or remembrance of these virtues remained among the above-named orders of men’ (that is, the kings, magistrates, priests, clergymen and the common people).
So according to this contemporary source, the land had been a much more moral and virtuous place in the period of the Saxon wars – the very period in which Arthur’s reign is placed. Thus, with all the evidence in favour of it apart from the Lives of the Saints, which are admittedly particularly biased sources, we can conclude that Arthur’s reign most likely genuinely was famed for its virtue.
On the same basis – the testimony of Gildas along with the majority of other information – we can surmise that Arthur’s reign was particularly orderly. According to HB and HRB, he was the head of an alliance of British kings against the Saxons. While there is no direct confirmation of this from earlier sources, Gildas does claim that “kings, public magistrates, and private persons, with priests and clergymen, did all and every one of them live orderly according to their several vocations,” and he then contrasts that with the political situation of his day (in the same breath as speaking of the deterioration of virtues and morals).
While we cannot be sure that this is not just baseless rhetoric on the part of Gildas, it does show that the available evidence is consistent in claiming that, whoever was the most powerful king of Britain in the generation prior to Gildas, he apparently had an organised and virtuous realm.
Conquests in the British Isles
While Geoffrey’s HRB seems to imply that Arthur began his conquest against the Saxons immediately after his ascension to the throne, this is not necessarily the case. No statement regarding the passing of years occurs during the account of Arthur’s Saxon wars, and the narrative gives the impression that it all took within a short space of time. This being so, we would be forced to accept that Arthur was still in his mid-to-late teens when he finally defeated the Saxons.
There are a number of reasons why this seems unlikely. One reason is due to some information contained in the 13th century Hanes Gruffydd ap Cynan. This is all it has to say about Arthur:
“Arthur, King of the Kings of the Island of Britain, and an eminent renowned hero, wrought twelve notable battles against the Saxons and the Picts: in the first of them he was vanquished and a fugitive because of treachery in Caer Lwytcoed (this place was Dinas y Llwyn Llwyt): in the other contests he was victorious, and deservedly paid in kind his oppressors, the Saxons and the Picts, although he was an old man.”
According to this source, Arthur was ‘an old man’ when he defeated the Saxons (and the Picts). This is completely incompatible with the implication of the HRB that Arthur was still a teenager when he defeated his enemies. The romance tales generally follow suit in portraying Arthur as very old by the time he died, which certainly would not have been the case if he defeated the Saxons as a teenager (his apparent death is dated in the Welsh Annals to just over 20 years after his triumph over the Saxons).
Additionally, the fact that Arthur is given a number of adult sons during his reign in the Welsh sources, and even a grandson in one source, further suggests that more time passed between his ascension to the throne and his Saxon wars than the HRB implies.
In fact, the Welsh Dream of Rhonabwy presents Arthur’s son Llacheu as being an adult warrior at the time of the final battle against the Saxons. This would mean that, at this time, Arthur would have had to have been close to 40 years old at the least.
Although no single source contradicting Geoffrey of Monmouth’s narrative is perfectly reliable, the sum of all this information concerning Arthur strongly indicates that he was not just a teenager when he initiated his campaign against the Saxons. Furthermore, the HRB inaccurately reduced the passage of time when relating the historical events concerning Carausius’s usurpation of Britain and Gaul during the third century. His seven-year-long reign was presented as if it lasted for almost no length of time at all.
Therefore, the implication in the HRB that Arthur immediately set out to wage war on the Saxons after ascending to the throne can be safely dismissed in favour of the various other pieces of information which indicate that Arthur was actually at least middle-aged at the time of his Saxon wars.
These Saxons wars are certainly the most historical part of Arthur’s life, for they are described in the earliest historical account of the warrior’s life. In the Historia Brittonum, written in c. 830, there is a passage which describes how the Britons were led by Arthur against the Saxons in 12 battles. These battles took place over nine different localities, since four of the battles occurred at just one location.
- First battle: River Glein
- Second to fifth battles: River Dubglas in the region of Linnuis
- Sixth battle: River Bassas
- Seventh battle: Wood of Celidon
- Eighth battle: Fort of Guinnion
- Ninth battle: City of the Legion
- Tenth battle: Trath Tribruit
- Eleventh battle: Mount Breguoin (alternatively called Agned)
- Twelfth battle: Mount Badon
Over the years, numerous researchers have proposed countless different suggestions for the exact locations of these nine battle sites. There is still no consensus on the vast majority of them. The only one for which there is general agreement is the Wood of Celidon, which is generally held to be identical to the Caledonian Forest in southern Scotland.
Interestingly, this location is consistent with the general political situation presented by Geoffrey of Monmouth. At the outset of the Saxon war, he describes how the invaders had subdued the entire northern half of the island, ‘from the Humber to the sea of Caithness’. Thus, if this information is accurate, we would wholly expect to find the majority of the nine battle sites in the north of Britain.
This conclusion is also supported by the fact that, according to the HRB, a result of the Saxon invasions which Arthur was attempting to counter was that Urien, Lot and Angusel were driven from their kingdoms. These three brothers were all rulers of kingdoms around the north of England or the south of Scotland, so this is consistent with Geoffrey’s aforementioned statement regarding the part of the country that the Saxons had subdued. While this does not necessarily mean that this is definitely where the battles took place, the internal consistency of the account is notable.
As well as the Wood of Celidon, there is general agreement that the first battle site, the River Glein, was somewhere in the north. The two most commonly proposed locations are the River Glen in Northumberland or the River Glen in Lincolnshire. Of these, the second is not north of the Humber, but it is not necessarily the case that Arthur only clashed with the Saxons within the area that they had managed to subdue (according to Geoffrey).
The next location is the river Dubglas. This was said to have been in the region known as ‘Linnuis’, though even this is not readily identifiable. The most likely conclusion according to most scholars is that this refers to Lincoln, known in Roman times as Lindum. A region named after this city would be termed ‘Linnuis’, exactly as it appears in the Historia Brittonum. However, there is no record of any river called ‘Dubglas’ in this area.
An alternative possibility which is still in the north is an existing River Douglas in Scotland, by an ancient Roman fort associated with the name Lindum. Just as with the Lindum in Lincolnshire, this would have produced the regional name ‘Linnuis’.
Despite the fact that this Scottish river actually possesses the name ‘Douglas’ (derived from ‘Dubglas’), whereas Lincoln does not, the latter location is supported by the fact that Geoffrey portrays Arthur as reaching the River Dubglas on his way to York. Perhaps there was a river by this name in that area, but there is simply no longer any record of it.
The third battle site, Bassas, has proven to be very elusive and no one has been able to present an especially convincing case for it so far.
We have already addressed the fourth battle site, Celidon, so to move onto the fifth site, this is one for which there is quite an old tradition. In fact, the tradition is present in one version of the Historia Brittonum itself, which claims that the battle was fought in the area of Wedale in Scotland. The ‘castle of Guinnion’ would be the Roman fort in that area. Given that this tradition dates back to at least the early 13th century, it is worthy of consideration.
However, many other suggestions have been made concerning this battle site, given that the name of the fort appears to simply mean ‘white fort’. There are numerous places around the country that could fit this name and that even have extremely similar existing names. So, there is very little consensus on this issue.
The next battle site, City of the Legion, is generally held to either be Caerleon in south Wales, or Chester, near the border of north Wales. These are the only two locations in Britain that are definitely known to have held the name ‘City of the Legion’.
Chester might seem more favourable due to being a more northern location, thus being closer to the other battle sites. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth does claim that the Saxons sailed away from Britain after the battle of Celidon but then returned, arriving in Devon. Thus, a southern location (such as Caerleon) is not necessarily objectionable.
There are a number of other places in Britain at which Roman legions were stationed for short periods of time, but given that there is no definite record of any of these places actually being named ‘City of the Legion’, Caerleon and Chester are held to be the only viable candidates by most scholars.
The seventh battle site, Trath Tribruit, is almost certainly not located in the south of Britain. It is mentioned in a slightly later Arthurian source, the Welsh poem Pa Gur. This mentions Tryfrwyd (a Welsh form of ‘Tribruit’) in the context of several northern locations, such as Edinburgh. It is thus very likely that Tribruit was also in Scotland. A number of scholars have identified it with a location on the Forth.
The penultimate battle site is a curious one, because there are two different names by which it is known in the various manuscript versions. One name is ‘Agned’, while the other is ‘Breguoin’. The first name has proven to be extremely difficult to attach to any locality in Britain, just like Bassas. However, the other name is much more promising. Breguoin seems to be a form of the name ‘Bremenium’, which was the Roman fort of High Rochester in Northumberland.
The final battle is the one that has been analysed the most: Mount Badon. This is the only battle for which there is universal agreement as to its historicity, because it is mentioned by the near-contemporary Gildas. In contrast to most of the previous battle sites, this is generally placed in the south west of the country. Geoffrey of Monmouth implies that it is Bath, as does one version of the Historia Brittonum. Other common candidates include any of the fortifications with the name ‘Badbury’ in that part of the country, such as Badbury Rings in Dorset or Badbury in Wiltshire.
Various less supported sites have been suggested, such as Mynydd Baedan in south Wales, Bowden Hill in Scotland, or Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire. The Dream of Rhonabwy supports a location near the Severn, such as Mynydd Baedan or arguably Bath, but this source is not considered historically reliable by scholars. Unless new evidence comes to light, it seems impossible to identify with absolute certainly the location of this final battle between Arthur and the Saxons.
In the HRB’s account of Arthur’s life, the king travelled north to subdue the Picts and the Scots, who were causing trouble in the region of Alclud in Scotland. After re-establishing peace there, he voyaged to Ireland to reduce that country under his power. While there is no record of these events elsewhere, it is worth noting that several other Arthurian sources do claim that he fought against the Picts and the Scots. For example, the aforementioned Hanes Gruffydd ap Cynan mentioned Arthur fighting against the Picts.
Conquests on the Continent
After this point, a significant portion of the HRB is devoted to a series of events which scholars believe have no factual basis at all. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur became aware of the fact that leaders over ‘the whole world’ were in fear of him and were preparing themselves for war against him. Ironically, this is then said to have motivated Arthur to subdue all of Europe.
He started by invading Norway and restoring his brother-in-law, Lot, to the throne of that country. Interestingly, this reference to Lot points towards a particular explanation for how this story may have a basis in fact. Lot was historically the king of an area of southern Scotland, probably Lothian. There is no basis to conclude that he had any sovereignty over Norway. However, the Welsh word ‘Llychlyn’ was often used to refer to Norway, or Scandinavia in general. Significantly, it was also used (at least some time before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s era) with reference to Scotland, due to the intensive Scandinavian settlement of that country.
This fact, combined with Lot’s historical connection to Scotland, strongly indicates that the ‘Norway’ in this story is a mistake for Scotland, due to confusion over the word ‘Llychlyn’. Viewed from this perspective, there is nothing at all improbable about Arthur assisting Lot to recover his throne in the north of Britain.
The next part of the account is much more inexplicable from a historical perspective. Arthur is said to have sailed over to Gaul and started subduing that country. It was governed by a Roman tribune named Frollo, who went out with an army to meet Arthur. Unfortunately for the Roman tribune, the majority of the youth of Gaul, including most of Frollo’s army, joined Arthur.
Frollo is said to have fled to Paris, which Arthur then besieged. After some time, the two men agreed to settle the matter by means of a jousting battle, which Arthur prevailed in, slaying Frollo. Over the course of nine years, the British king subdued all the various provinces of Gaul, dividing the country up between his men. At this, he returned to Britain.
The next event described by Geoffrey is a grand feast of Pentecost which Arthur holds at his court at Caerleon-upon-Usk. He invited all his allied kings, princes and noblemen to join him, and he also used this opportunity to hold a special coronation, where Archbishop Dubricius placed the crown upon his head.
Word then came to Arthur that the Romans were demanding that he present himself at Rome before the Senate to have justice executed upon him because of his conquest of Gaul. This infuriated Arthur, impelling him to head out for Rome, but for the purpose of conquest, not penitence.
After some skirmishes between Arthur’s men and the Romans partway through Gaul, the two opposing sides met, with a vast company of allied nations, at a valley called Siesia. Initially, Arthur was not present at the actual battle, staying in the rear quarters. However, he eventually appeared on the battle lines and led his army to victory, defeating the Romans. Despite this victory, the battle proved to be devastating for Arthur’s side, resulting in the deaths of such major associates as Bedivere and Kay, along with others.
It is interesting to note that in later versions of the Arthurian legend, such as that found in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur is actually made the Emperor of Rome after defeating the Romans. Nonetheless, this is not present in the earliest surviving version of the story, which actually claims that Arthur never reached Rome.
There has been extensive speculation about what may have been the historical basis for this legend. Such a story does not explicitly appear before the 12th century HRB, leading many to assume that Geoffrey created it from his own imagination. However, a number of scholars have noted that Geoffrey does not seem to have entirely invented any major part of Arthur’s life story, but merely embellished the information he did have.
For example, much of Geoffrey’s account is seen, albeit in extremely condensed form, in the Historia Brittonum and the Welsh Annals. It seems inconsistent that such a large portion of his account of Arthur’s life – about half, in fact – would be without any foundation at all.
Some scholars (notably, Geoffrey Ashe) have theorised that the origin of Arthur’s Gallic campaign comes from the activities of Riothamus, a fifth century king of the Britons who fought against the Visigoths in Gaul. This event took place in c. 470, and there is one primary record of it, in the writings of Jordanes. This theory has gained a considerable amount of popularity over the years, but most scholars remain unconvinced.
In truth, it is difficult to see how Riothamus’s battle in 470 could have led to this account of Arthur’s conquest. The two are on such extremely different scales that it seems highly unlikely for one to have led to the other. Riothamus merely fought one battle against the Visigoths, which he lost, whereas Arthur was said to have conquered all of Gaul and successfully waged war against the Roman Empire. Notably, Riothamus was actually an ally of the Romans.
A more extensive consideration of this theory could be undertaken, but these are the main objections that suffice to place extreme doubt on its plausibility.
Another theory is that this part of the Arthurian tale comes from the activities of Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman general in Britain in the second century. There is an inscription which reveals that he battled against the ‘Arm_____s’, which could be a reference to the Armoricans in Gaul. On the other hand, most scholars today generally accept that the word on the inscription originally read ‘Armenios’, referring to the inhabitants of Armenia, well away from Gaul.
Additionally, even if Lucius Artorius Castus did battle in Armorica, we still have the glaring problem that he was actually a Roman officer, which in no way corresponds to Arthur fighting against the Romans.
More plausibly, many scholars suggest that the inspiration for Arthur’s European conquest were the activities of Magnus Maximus, a Roman general in Britain who usurped the Empire in 383. His activities do bear some significant resemblances to those of Arthur in the HRB, and he is known to have become a Welsh hero, being mentioned in numerous Welsh records and placed at the head of a number of pedigrees.
If there is any historical basis to this story at all, then it is very likely to be found in the usurpation of Magnus Maximus, from 383 to 388. However, what can be definitely established is that the actual Arthur, of the sixth century, never conquered Gaul and warred against the Roman Empire.
We now return to a more securely historical event in Arthur’s life. This is the battle of Camlann, mentioned as early as the tenth century in the Welsh Annals. The entry there reads:
“The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.”
‘Medraut’ is more commonly known in English as ‘Mordred’. According to the HRB, Arthur left Mordred, his nephew, in charge of Britain while he went away to wage war in Gaul. However, after he defeated the Romans at Siesia and started to continue on his way to Rome itself, he received news that Mordred had seized the throne of Britain for himself and had also married Guinevere, Arthur’s wife. At hearing this, Arthur returned to Britain to recover the throne.
Of course, none of this extra information is present in the Welsh Annals. It does not mention the cause of the battle, nor whether Arthur and Mordred were even on opposing sides. It has been argued by some that Mordred likely was not actually an enemy of Arthur, on the basis that he appears in a number of Welsh sources (such as the Triads) as one of Arthur’s men.
However, this does not really contradict the HRB, since he is definitely portrayed as one of Arthur’s faithful men prior to his usurpation of the throne. There does not seem to be any real objection to the idea that he was Arthur’s enemy at Camlann, though admittedly, the earliest evidence for this is late.
Arthur and Mordred are said to have first clashed swords when the latter opposed the former’s landing in Britain at the port of Rutupi. This is in Kent, and it is exceedingly unlikely that Arthur would ever have been present there in the sixth century, for it was thoroughly in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons. This is probably a mistake for some other location.
After Arthur fought his way ashore, the two armies eventually met at the valley of Camlann (according to the HRB, this was in Cornwall, though there are many theories as to its real location). There, a terrible and bloody battle was fought, resulting in the deaths of many of Arthur’s men. In fact, Geoffrey’s account states that ‘many thousands’ were slain that day.
Mordred, however, was the true loser of the battle. He himself was said to have been slain by Arthur, and all of his best men were as well. His army was defeated. One of his men who was said to have perished in the battle was Cheldric, a Saxon leader (for Mordred was said to have allied himself with the Saxons). It is possible that this Cheldric matches Cerdic of Wessex, who is said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have died in 534. This is quite close to the date of 537 given for Camlann in the Welsh Annals.
On the other hand, it was speculated in the article on Cerdic of Wessex that Cerdic may actually match the earlier Cheldric, the one who was slain just after Badon. There is no way to be certain about the matter.
In the Welsh Annals, it is strongly implied that Arthur died. The word it uses does not literally translate to ‘died’, but it means ‘fell’, as is shown by the English translation above. This certainly could imply a death, but it does not necessarily require one. According to the HRB, Arthur was severely wounded and was famously taken away to Avalon to be healed. If anything at all like this really happened – if Arthur was badly injured and had to cease from being king – then this would certainly constitute a ‘falling’.
We may never be sure what really happened to Arthur, if the battle of Camlann is historical. However, it is very likely that he did die at least shortly after the battle, if not at Camlann itself.
Interestingly, the words of Gildas shed some very interestingly light regarding the possible historical context to this battle. As we examined earlier, he claims that those in the previous generation lived ‘orderly according their several vocations’, and lived according to certain ‘laws of truth and justice’ as well as ‘virtues’, consistent with how the legends portray Arthur’s reign.
However, he makes the point that those laws of truth and justice were pushed aside by those who grew up after the Saxon wars, because they had not experienced the hardships of that period. He relates this as an explanation of the current civil wars that were afflicting the country. Thus, according to Gildas, the era of the Saxon wars was full of kings and others living orderly and virtuously, but then when a new generation arose after those Saxon wars, this order was cast aside, bringing in the current era of civil troubles.
This is remarkably consistent with the Arthurian legend. Camlann in placed, according to the Welsh Annals, 21 years after Badon, the climax of the Saxon wars. This is about one generation later. More specifically, the HRB describes Gawain, Mordred’s brother, as being twelve years old a little over twelve years after Arthur’s victory at Badon. Thus, Gawain was allegedly born shortly after this victory. No information about Mordred’s age or year of birth is given, but we can probably assume that he was more or less the same age as his brother.
The significance of this is that this would make Mordred of the generation who grew up after Badon, or after that ‘troublesome time’, as Gildas terms it. Gildas attributes the casting aside of the orderly arrangement of kings and noblemen to that very same generation. Therefore, the historical facts according to the only contemporary source we have are perfectly in agreement with the idea of Mordred rising up and plunging Arthur’s orderly kingdom into civil war, from which it never really recovered.
One of the most intriguing questions about Arthur is the matter of his identity. Who really was he? There have been countless theories about this, and no consensus at all has been reached. Let us examine the main theories that have been proposed, starting with the two we have already briefly considered:
According to Jordanes, Riothamus was the ‘king of the Britons’. However, it is impossible to know for sure whether the ‘Britons’ he was referring to were those of Britain or those of Brittany. It has been claimed that Riothamus must have been based in Britain (like Arthur) because he is said to have come to the state of the Bituriges (in Gaul, where he fought against the Visigoths) ‘by way of the ocean’. This suggests to some that he came from outside Gaul, thus meaning that he must have been the king of the Insular Britons.
However, the statement that he came to the state of the Bituriges by way of the ocean does not necessarily exclude the possibility that his starting point was also in Gaul, for it may be that sailing was simply the fastest mode of transport between the two locations. His starting point could easily have been Brittany.
In reality, the fact that Jordanes felt compelled to include the statement that Riothamus came by way of the ocean could be taken to suggest that he was not based in Britain. If he had been based there, then it would have been obvious that he must have sailed to his destination, or in fact, to any part of Gaul. So the fact that Jordanes included that statement could be taken as evidence that Riothamus was actually the king of the Britons in Brittany. If so, then his similarity to Arthur is seriously weakened.
Furthermore, it is claimed that ‘Riothamus’ was simply a title, its meaning being ‘Highest King’. While this descriptive title would aptly apply to Arthur, many names of this period were rich in meaning, without actually being titles. The fact that ‘Riothamus’ was actually the man’s personal name is indicated by the fact that a letter to him from Sidonius Apollinaris addresses him by that very name.
Thus, it is most likely that Riothamus was simply Riothamus, and that he was a king of the Britons in Brittany. However, this theory does still have its supporters.
Lucius Artorius Castus
As we have already seen, this Roman officer was based in Britain during the second century. He was stationed at York, as the Praefectus of the Legio VI Victrix. This location has some Arthurian connections (for example, the HRB portrays Arthur as celebrating Christmas at York after his victory against the Scots). Furthermore, his name ‘Artorius’ could easily have evolved into ‘Arthur’ (many scholars believe that this Latin name really is where ‘Arthur’ originates from).
However, recall the evidence discussed earlier for Arthur’s historicity. There is good evidence that a war leader named Arthur did live in the sixth century, just as the legends say. At best, Lucius Artorius Castus could be the origin of just one part of the legend. The part that is most commonly attributed to him is the invasion of Gaul, which we have already examined. In view of the better connections to the Arthurian legend that are to be found in Magnus Maximus’s campaign (and even in Riothamus’s), there is no reason to give any weight to this explanation of Arthur’s European campaign.
On the other hand, there is additional evidence that is generally given to support Lucius’s connection to Arthur. According to proponents of the theory, he was in Britain during the late second century, after 175. That was the year in which 5000 Sarmatians were said to have been transported to Britain. Later in the Roman period, we find records of Sarmatian troops, supporting this and indicating that they were used by the Romans.
The reason this is significant is that the Sarmatians may have had tales which were very similar to the tales of King Arthur, and if Lucius was active in Britain with the Sarmatians under his control, this could indicate that their tales would have found themselves attached to him, a man with the name ‘Artorius’. The similarity between the two groups of tales is discerned by existing tales that exist among the Ossetian people, first recorded just a few hundred years ago. It is assumed that these tales, among a people who are related to the ancient Sarmatians, accurately reflect the legends held by the Sarmatians themselves more than 1500 years previously.
These assumptions are quite large, and it may well be that the transmission of stories actually went in the other direction, from Britain to Ossetia. After all, the Ossetian tales were only recorded a few hundred years ago, leaving plenty of time for this transmission to happen. On the other hand, it may be that they did travel from Ossetia to Britain, but centuries after Lucius’s time.
Notably, most of the similarities that the Ossetian legends have with the Arthurian legends concern elements that appear in the Arthurian lore relatively late, after the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Really, there is no reason to conclude that the similarities between the Arthurian legends and the Ossetian tales reveal anything significant about Lucius Artorius Castus. Even if the late elements of the Arthurian tales that do share similarities with those from Ossetia are the result of the Sarmatians coming to Britain in 175, there is no reason to conclude that they would have found themselves attached to Lucius Artorius Castus.
In addition, most scholars believe that the Roman officer had left Britain in the 160s, having travelled to Armenia. This would mean that he was already gone by the time the Sarmatians arrived.
Thus, it is very unlikely that Lucius Artorius Castus had anything to do with King Arthur.
Artuir mac Aedan
Arthur has many associations with the north of Britain. Nennius’s battle list is one example, and the allied kings of Arthur listed in certain Welsh tales as well as HRB support this notion. On this basis, some have theorised that Artuir mac Aedan, an Irish prince of Dal Riada in Scotland, was the historical Arthur.
Artuir was active in the sixth century, but not as a contemporary of Arthur. He lived in the late-sixth century, after Arthur’s time according to the majority of interpretations. He was also never king, though admittedly this does tie in with interpretations that claim Arthur was never actually a king (mostly on the basis of Nennius’s words). However, he does not seem to have even been an important or powerful individual.
For example, in the Annals of Tigernach, Artuir is listed last among his father’s sons who died that year. In the Annals of Ulster, Artuir is not mentioned in this entry at all. The lack of prominence given to him certainly argues that he was not the powerful, famous war leader Arthur. This, combined with the fact that he lived so much later than any interpretation of the evidence regarding Arthur would allow, strongly argues against him being the historical Arthur.
Rather, it appears that he was merely one of the several royal individuals who was named after Arthur.
A theory advanced by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman is that Arthur was a historical king named Owain Danwyn. He was the father of Cuneglasus, one of the kings to whom Gildas directed some comments. It is actually these comments that have been taken as evidence that Owain was Arthur.
Gildas refers to Cuneglasus as “the guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear.” Just what this means is difficult to ascertain, but Phillips and Keatman believe that it indicates that Cuneglasus’ father, Owain, was known as ‘the bear’. Given the possible connection between the name ‘Arthur’ and the Welsh word for ‘bear’ (which is ‘arth’), this is taken as evidence that Owain was Arthur.
The case is transparently thin already, and there are a number of glaring errors in the theory as a whole. For example, Phillips and Keatman claim that Owain was the king of Powys, whereas the genealogies are clear that he was the king of Rhos.
Their interpretation regarding the meaning of ‘the receptacle of the bear’ has also been criticised. Other scholars would consider this to indicate, not that Cuneglasus was the son of ‘the bear’, but that he lived at the fort of Din Arth.
In all, there is not really much to recommend this theory. If their interpretation of the ‘receptacle of the bear’ is wrong, and it simply refers to Cuneglasus’ residence at Din Arth, then the entire theory is without any foundation at all. It is not a theory which has many supporters.
Arthwys ap Mar
A more promising theory is that a man named as ‘Arthwys’ in the genealogies was the historical Arthur. He appears in the Descent of the Men of the North, a Welsh tract concerning the genealogies of certain northern princes. Again, Arthur’s legendary connections to the north of Britain come into play here, and it is not implausible that he could have been from the north (however, Arthur’s connections to Wales, particularly the south, are very strong and should not be ignored).
Very little is known of Arthwys. The primary pieces of information that can be discerned about him is his place in the genealogies, which would place him in the period from c. 470 to c. 540, which is a very good fit for most interpretations of Arthur’s chronology. It would certainly accommodate the dates given in the Welsh Annals for Arthur’s battles, as well as the dates most scholars give to Gildas.
On this basis alone, the theory has a certain appeal. Arthwys lived at the same time as Arthur and ruled a part of Britain in which Arthur was apparently very active, and his name is also quite similar to ‘Arthur’ and may be a corruption of it.
Some of the other evidence for Arthwys being Arthur is the information concerning his relatives. For example, Simon Keegan, the main proponent of this theory, claims that Arthwys’s wife was Cywair, a Welsh saint. He sees a similarity between this name and that of Arthur’s legendary wife, Guinevere (or ‘Gwenhwyfar’ in the Welsh sources).
Additionally, it appears that Arthur’s cousin Culhwch (from the tale Culhwch ac Olwen) was alternatively known as Einion. Interestingly, Arthwys is recorded as having a brother named Einion, whom Simon Keegan believes is the same person as the legendary Culhwch.
While this theory is very appealing, it is not without its problems. For one thing, Arthwys does not appear in all the genealogies. In fact, the only early genealogy that he appears in is the one already mentioned, The Descent of the Men of the North. While the genealogies do sometimes omit certain individuals (so this would not necessarily mean that Arthwys did not exist), it would be very peculiar for them to have done so with an individual who was as famous and mighty as King Arthur.
Nonetheless, this theory has a fair amount to recommend it, and Arthwys can likely be considered a plausible candidate for the historical King Arthur.
Athrwys ap Meurig
One more notable candidate for the historical Arthur is Athrwys ap Meurig, a king of Gwent and Glywysing. This theory relies on the connections that Arthur has to south Wales, which are admittedly very strong. Athrwys had dominion over Caerleon-upon-Usk, one of Arthur’s main courts according to the legends. And one possible match for Arthur’s court of Gelliwig in Kerniw is a location in Gwent, again falling within Athrwys’s realm.
Some of the evidence presented to argue that he was the real Arthur is the fact that his family members allegedly match certain family members of Arthur. For example, both Arthur and Athrwys are described as having a sister named Anna. Furthermore, Culhwch and Olwen attributes a maternal uncle to Arthur named Gwrfoddw Hen. A king of that name is recorded as having ruled over Ergyng, which is where Athrwys’s mother came from.
Another similarity between Athrwys and Arthur is seen from their predecessors. The story of Uther’s death is intriguingly similar to the story of the death of Athrwys’s grandfather Tewdrig (whom Athrwys is listed immediately after in the earliest Welsh king lists). They both involve the old king leaving the kingdom in the hands of their son (in Tewdrig’s case) or son-in-law (in Uther’s case), before returning when this new ruler was struggling against the Saxons. The old king aided the Britons to victory, but then his condition deteriorated and he died by a spring a few days later. For much of the aforementioned, he was carried in a cart.
Another familial similarity is the fact that Athrwys had a son named Morgan, who succeeded him. This would match Arthur’s son Morgan in Le Petit Bruit, though admittedly this is a late source. Additionally, Arthur’s son ‘Adeluf’ in that version could be derived from Athrwys’s historical son Ithel.
The theory as a whole is very appealing, but it relies on Athrwys actually having been a contemporary of Arthur. While this is argued by Wilson & Blackett, Barber & Pykitt, and Caleb Howells, the current academic consensus is that he lived in the seventh century. This is supported by such scholars as Peter Bartrum and Wendy Davies.
One of the main pieces of evidence that Athrwys lived in the seventh century is the fact that the Welsh Annals record the death of ‘Ffernfael ap Ithel’ in 775, and Athrwys had a great-grandson by that name. This would definitely place Athrwys in the seventh century, if the identification of the ‘Ffernfael ap Ithel’ of that entry with Athrwys’s great-grandson by that name is correct.
On the other hand, one piece of evidence that he actually lived in the sixth century is the fact that the Life of St Cadoc claims that Tewdrig, Athrwys’s grandfather, was the great-great-grandfather of Cadoc, a saint who was born in the early sixth century. If this is true, then Athrwys must have been born in the early sixth century at the latest.
There is conflicting evidence, and there will probably continue to be debate for some time about which chronological scheme is supported by the majority of the evidence. Nonetheless, there remains the distinct possibility that Athrwys was a contemporary of Arthur. In which case, the aforementioned similarities would seem very significant. Of course, this is if we can accept that ‘Athrwys’ could be a corruption of ‘Arthur’ (perhaps through the Latin form ‘Arthurus’), which most scholars reject.
In summary, despite the apparent problems with the theory, we can say that Athrwys ap Meurig is one of the leading candidates for the historical Arthur, along with Arthwys ap Mar.
Caleb Howells is a writer from the south coast of England. He has spent years researching various different myths and legends from around the world, with his primary area of interest being the legends of King Arthur. In May 2019, Caleb published King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe, outlining his theories on the origin of the legend.