Sunday, May 05, 2013

“King Arthur”
The Man who is Probably a Myth

Dying Arthur and the Ladies of Avalon

The following is a slightly reworked version of two comments I posted on the site Skeptical Humanities.1 I have slighting modified it and added references and expanded it a bit.

King Arthur has been in my opinion a great obstacle in the way of studying post-Roman Britain. People spend their time trying to figure who he may have been rather than tell us anything useful about the time period.

I personally think that what is important about the period is not King Arthur but the Arthurian fact. The Arthurian fact was that the initial Anglo-Saxon drive to conquer England was halted for over a generation with the conquest of part of Britain and even that portion of Britain ceded to the Anglo-Saxons seems to have been permeated by independent Briton enclaves throughout this time. When the conquest was resumed it was piecemeal and slow and took over a century to accomplish and certain parts of Britain were never conquered by the Anglo-Saxons. (Wales and Scotland).2

It is the Arthurian fact that needs to be stressed not “King Arthur”. Now Gildas mentions in his account an Ambrosius Aurelianus leading the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons during the initial stages of their counter attack against the Anglo-Saxons. The account seems to imply that he was replaced later and another unnamed leader won the battle of Badon Hill, (probably either Bath or Liddington). This is of course disputed, and Ambrosius could have been the leader. It is possible he had a nickname of Arthur. Gildas in a later part of his book refers to a place he calls the “bear’s” fortress is that an Arthurian reference? (The root of the name Arthur, "Arth" means bear.) I don’t know? It does appear to be too much of a stretch.3

The quote about Ambrosius Aurelianus and events shortly after and during his lifetime goes as follows:
After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions, as eagerly as bees to the beehive when a storm threatens, and begged whole-heartedly, “burdening heaven with unnumbered prayers”, that they should not be altogether destroyed. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps o=alone of the Romans had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented and battle went their way. 
26. From then on battle went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in this his people the Lord could make trial (as he tends to) of his latter-day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up tell the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth; as I know, one month of forty-fourth year since then has already passed.
But the cities of our land are not populated even now as they once were; right to the present they are deserted, in ruins and unkempt. External wars may have stopped, but not civil ones.4

This is the best historical information we have concerning the “Age of Arthur”, and frankly it although it appears that although it is probable that Ambrosius was only the leader at the beginning of the counter attack it is likely that given Gildas’ Latin that Ambrosius was in fact the leader at Mount Badon. So is he Arthur? Well unless he was nicknamed the “Bear” it’s possible but not likely.

Gildas’ refers to a man he names Cuneglasus – Red Butcher, later in the same book as:
Why have you been rolling in the filth of your past wickedness ever since your youth, you bear, rider of many and driver of the chariot of the Bear’s Stronghold, despiser of God and oppressor of his lot,…5
As indicated above it probably too much to think of the quote of this referring to the person we call “Arthur”. Still it is interesting and becomes more so when we consider that other people had the “Bear” term “Arth” in their names at about this time.

It is of interest that in the late 5th and early 6th centuries there was a number of people with names similar to Arthur like Arthwys ap Mar who apparently resided in the kingdom of Elmet, an Arthfael ap Einudd who was King of Glamorgan. We have an Artuir ap Pedr, (who lived c. 550-620 C.E.), and was King of Dyfed. It is possible that the Arthurian stories in the Welsh collection The Mabinogion, given the geography of said stories really originally at least meant him. Artuir mac Aeden the son of Aeden King of Dal-Riata who was killed in battle with the Picts in 596 C.E. is another possible Arthur. There is finally a Arthrwys ap Meurig King of Gwent he appears to have lived c. 610-680 C.E., although some date him a century earlier. (The dates are based on analyzing Welsh Genealogies which is not an exact Science by a long shot). He apparently won some victories over the Anglo-Saxons. There was also in the late 5th and early 6th century a shadowy figure known as Arthwys of the Pennines. And of course in the late Roman Empire there were those Roman Generals who in a bid for empire used Britain as a base and invaded the mainland. Hence those stories of Arthur invading the continent.6

The other important “early” source for “Arthur” is the mention of “Arthur” by Nennius. In his account Nennius say concerning “Arthur”:
At the time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain. On Hengest’s death, his son Ocha came down from the north of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle. 
The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Lindsey. The Sixth battle was on the river called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the Celyddon Forest, that is, the battle of Celyddon Coed. The eighth  battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his [shield,] and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The ninth battle was fought I the city of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the bank of the river Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns.7
The problems with Nennius are massive, he seems to have put together a hodge podge of materials from all sorts of original sources without much discrimination. However that is a matter for discussion at another time. Further it looks like originally the above was simply a list of battles. Probably the list was of Celtic victories up to and including Mount Badon during the Celtic counter attack. In fact it looks as if Arthur was added to the account later. Certainly the descriptions of his activity in two of the battles read like folklore and also read like interpolations into the battle list. It is interesting to note that the prominence of the battle Guinnion Fort is greater than Mount Badon supposedly the crowning mercy.8

However right after that Nennius gives us the following:
When they were defeated in all their campaigns, the English sought help from Germany, and considerably increased their numbers, and their brought over their kings from Germany to rule over them in Britain, until the time when Ida reigned, who was the son of Eobba. He was first king in Bernicia, that is, in Berneich.9
This is certainly a powerful bit of evidence for the Arthurian fact. Basically the Anglo-Saxons were stopped and peace reigned for a time. The reference to the kings of the Anglo-Saxons, i.e., their dynasties coming over after the initial stopping of the invasions is interesting and frankly likely true.

In fact it is this relative abundance of names with the Arth or “bear” meaning as indicated above that requires some explanation. Why? is an interesting question to ask. I suggested two possibilities above. Naming after a famous person or the name was simply fashionable. The idea that it possibly represented people naming their children after a, then, well known historical figure is certainly possible. More likely the name simply became popular because at the time people liked it and later the popularity of the name then helped to create the mythic figure of a “King Arthur” at this time.

Well what does it all mean? In my humble opinion there was no one Arthur but a collection of Arthurs and other historical figures, along with folklore who were fused together to create one King Arthur. In other words “King Arthur” is a literary construct. However there were “Arthurs” during this time period leading armies into battle. Some of those were combined confabulated and further fused with other figures from later and earlier times to produce “Arthur”. My personal opinion is that Ambrosius Aurlianus led the Britons at Badon Hill. If we ever found a reference to Ambrosius being called the “Bear” that would clinch Amborsius being not “Arthur” but one of the historical figures on whom the character was based.

As it is, although finding a real “King Arthur” is a fun game it is second to the task of elucidating and understanding the Arthurian fact, that the conquest of Britain was stopped and when resumed was piecemeal and slow. Elucidating / understanding that is important in understanding the history of medieval Britain, and it appears that some real historical “Arthurs” played a role in that but there was no “King Arthur”. (Unless of course we find Geoffrey on Monmouth’s “Welsh Book”).10

Geoffrey is the source of the modern myth of “King Arthur”, in his fantasy he contended that he used sources including a “Welsh book”. The book has never shown up. If it did it would possibly transform our understanding of the whole question of ‘Arthur” and the Arthurian age. As it is it is all too likely that the Geoffrey made up the “Welsh book” just like he made up his own book. Although the book is probably one of the most influential  pieces of literature ever.11

As a side issue what also needs to be further explained is the process by which England was made Anglo-Saxon. It appears that although there was significant settlement from Jutland and Northern Germany, the native population was not displaced. In fact the ancestry of the modern day English in England seems to be on both the Male and Female side more than 80% “Celtic”.12

I put the name “Arthur” in quotation marks precisely to mark that I think Arthur is myth.. My point is simply that people with names with the bear term “Arth” existed at the time. I rather doubt that “King Arthur” is anything but a literary construct but I think real historical events were grafted onto this literary construct. Certainly there seems to be in the late 5th and early 6th century a more than usual concentration of names with the “Arth” in them has the first syllable. This is obviously something that needs explaining. The idea of an overall Briton Leader with the name “Arthur” or a variation of it leading the Britons into battle with the Saxons is doubtful in the extreme. Although we can’t exclude the idea and in fact there is evidence for it that some Briton / Celtic leaders with the ”Arth” in their names fighting the Saxons. The only likely candidate is Ambrosius and I suspect that he was not nicknamed “Arthur”, but his actual accomplishments were usurped by the literary construct “Arthur” in legend. Some have compared Beowulf with Arthur but that is not a good comparison given that “Arthur” is much more firmly grounded / attached to actual historical events. It is of interest to record that Beowulf means bee-wolf which refers to a bear. Although I agree it doesn’t make “Arthur” historical. After all Isaac Asimov’s novel Pebble in the Sky, which talks about an attempted revolt by Earth against a Galactic Empire in the far future is clearly modeled on and makes references that show significant borrowing from the actual historical events in the Roman Empire during the period 1-150 C.E., but it doesn’t make the novel history or the characters historical, it merely makes them based on historical models. In the case of Pebble in the Sky, the clear historical similarity is with Palestine and the three Jewish revolts of A.D. 66-73, 115-117, 132-135 and their aftermath. Also Asimov’s whole Foundation series is clearly drawing on a parallel with the fall of the Roman Empire and the dark ages.13

So in the end "King Arthur" is a fiction drawing on history.

1. Here.

2. Ashe, Geoffrey, The Arthurian Fact, in Ashe, Geoffrey, The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, Paladin Books, London, 1971, pp. 27-57.

3. See Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, London, 1899, Part 1, s. 24-25, on the internet at Here. See also Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, Phillimore and Co. LTD., London, 1978, (It includes the original Latin and a translation into English.), Part 1, s. 25-26, pp. 27-28.

4. Gildas, 1978, Part 1, s. 25-26, p. 28.

5. IBID, Part 2, s. 32, p. 31.

6. Ashley, Mike, The Mammoth Book of King Arthur, Carroll & Graf Pub., New York, 2005, pp. 282-306. In fact the sheer number of possible “Arthurs” makes it clear that the person that emerged in folklore is not a “real” person but a conglomerate of mythic and real people.

7. Nennius, British History, Phillimore and Co. LTD., London, 1980, s. 56, p. 35. This edition contains the Latin original and English translation.

8. Morris, John, The Age of Arthur, Phoenix Press, 1973, London, p. 37, Morris, John, Introduction, Nennius, pp. 1-8,  Jones, Michael, The End of Roman Britain, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1996, pp. 269-272.

9. Nennius, s. 56, p. 36.

10. Thorpe, Lewis, Introduction, in Of Monmouth, Geoffrey, The History of the Kings of Britain, Penguin Books, London, 1966, pp. 14-19.

11. IBID, pp. 19-31.

12, Sykes, Bryan, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2006, pp. 277-288.

13. Asimov, Isaac, Pebble in the Sky, Doubleday, New York, 1950, and Foundation Trilogy, Foundation, Gnome Press, New York, 1951, Foundation and Empire, Gnome Press, 1952, Second Foundation, 1953.

Pierre Cloutier

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