The Black Knight attacking King Pellinore. Illustration for Stories of King Arthur (Ward Lock, c 1910).
King Arthur is one of the most famous names in history, and his name still evokes visions of fantasy, chivalry, bravery, and more even today. Arthur remains a pop culture fixture around the globe, made famous in various Arthurian tales written by writers like Chretien de Troyes. Arthur came to embody the ideals of the Middle Ages: strength, chivalry, bravery, and more. Along the way, his Excalibur sword, the Holy Grail, his queen, and more have all become household words.
Arthur has long been identified as a folk hero, and there are countless tales that comprise the Arthurian legend, but was there an actual person that the original stories were based on? People still search for the seeds of truth in the Knights of the Round Table, and the historical figure that inspired the Arthurian tales.
Of course, as with all great myths, and even those with a kernel of truth behind them, there is no “real” Arthur. Arthur is now comprised of the works written by diverse storytellers, most of which have built upon the ancient stories and possibly history. It is from there that a primordial seed of myth remains at the heart of all the retellings. At the same time, Arthur’s story is one of transformation, as he is brought from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and more modern times. And that story also includes the famous contemporaries in his stories and other important historical figures, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, the imprisoned Sir Thomas Mallory and Walt Disney.
When looking for the historical and mythical Arthur, scholars try to understand how the Arthur of these tales and of others like Disney’s Sword in the Stone and Monty Python and the Holy Grail came to be. What are the origins of the Arthur legend and what can they tell people about the past? What is the historical basis for King Arthur, if any?
On the high sea cliffs of Cornwall’s North Coast there is a place steeped in legend, weathered by centuries, and, as is so often the case in such places, encrusted in tourist nick-knacks: the ruins of Tintagel Castle, the legendary place of the conception of King Arthur. Visitors arrives in the village of Tintagel – until recently named Trevana – and perhaps parks in the Middle Ages Parking Lot and walks by the Merlin’s Slot Machines and numerous shops with wizard-shaped candles and glass dragons. This is the Arthuriana of today. It is both amusing and tacky, but Tintagel Castle and the legends born there have far deeper layers beyond the plastic swords and Disney knock-offs.
Entering the historic site brings people to the next level of Arthur’s story. Looking at the interpretative signs, visitors quickly realize they are hardly the first to look back on Arthur and his knights. This castle was rebuilt once before, during the Tudor Age of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, in a far grander style than its original form. It is predominantly these 15th century walls that tumble dramatically down the cliffs and sit amongst tough heather plants, back by the dramatic slate-gray sea. This grandiose construction served one purpose: to demonstrate that the Tudor Kings positioned themselves as the foretold return of Arthur, who they imagined to be the paragon of their elaborate code of chivalry and the first great king of their lands.
At the same time, there is a deeper history to Arthur and a more ancient Tintagel yet. This Arthur was a mighty warrior, maybe a mythical being who perhaps led the Celtic people of Britain’s Dark Age in a glorious and ultimately unsuccessful defense of the island from Germanic invaders. That castle remains here too. A simple post-Roman fort guarding a harbor leading to rich sea routes, its crumbled walls served as the foundations for the Tudors’ construction.
There are two ways of exploring the origins of Arthur. The first is to scour the historical and archaeological record for potential candidates who might have been the “real” Arthur. These historical figures emerged after the collapse of the Roman Empire and might have served as the original template. Historians may then attempt to track how various peoples throughout history have built upon, elaborated or simplified the story.
Given all the time that has passed, a second method involves ignoring the question of whether there was a “real” Arthur and instead treats the entire Matter of Britain as a mythological cycle. This is done simply by analyzing the literature itself. What does the Arthurian Cycle tell people about humanity? How is it connected to other myths, and is there a connection to a shared human “mono-myth”?
Although they sound completely different, these two approaches are not actually mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible and maybe even probable that there was a historical figure or figures who inspired the Arthurian legend. At the same time, Arthur´s durability across time is certainly due more to his mythological components, his relationship to ancient stories, and to the universal human story. By tracing both the historical and mythological origins of Arthur, it’s possible to see where they differ and where they converge, which forms a more comprehensive (and complex) body of stories that comprises King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
In 1991, historian Thomas Charles-Edwards wrote, “[A]t this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur…the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him.” Indeed, when searching for the historical figure who Arthur is based upon, a decent place to start is with the acknowledgment that such a person may never have actually existed. It was quite common for writers in the Middle Ages to conflate fictional and historical figures. For example, in Dante´s Inferno, historical and legendary figures mingle together frequently. In England, medieval chroniclers turned the twin Saxon horse gods of Hengest and Horsa into historic warlords who they claim led the Saxon invasion of Britain, and those figures also bear striking similarities to other mythological figures concocted by other European peoples.
That said, while it is possible that Arthur has no historic origins, it is also very possible that he does. Naturally, many scholars (of both the professional and armchair varieties) have speculated over who these figures might be, and there is still heavy debate on the topic.
The most prominent figure among these theories is Ambrosius Aurelianus, also known as Emrys Wledig in Welsh. The chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Ambrosius was the second son of Emperor Constantine, and that as a child he was sent to live in Brittany to escape King Vortigern of Britain. As a young man, Ambrosius returned to a Britain in chaos amidst the collapse of Vortigern’s control and the hordes of invading Saxons. He battled Vortigern and is said to have won control over the western regions of Britain, including those that are still the most Celtic today. Vortigern called increasingly upon Saxon allies as the two battled for control, and eventually Vortigern fled, leaving Ambrosius as “King of the Britons.” After the death of Vortigern, Ambrosius pushed the Saxons back to the north of Britain, where they remained for the rest of his life.
Ambrosius’s role as a defender of the Britons was recorded by his contemporary, St. Gildas, in De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). This is important, because Gildas does not mention Arthur. This fact can be interpreted in various ways. It can be taken as evidence for the Ambrosius connection, for the non-existence of a historical Arthur, or simply as an oversight, since he does not mention Vortigern either. Historians are almost certain that Vortigern existed.
Describing Ambrosius, St. Gildas wrote around 540 A.D., “That they might not be utterly destroyed, the remnants (of the British) take up arms, and challenge their victors to battle under Ambrosius Aurelianus. He was a man of unassuming character, who, alone of the Roman race, chanced to survive the storm in which his parents, people undoubtedly clad in the purple, had been killed. Their offspring in our days have greatly degenerated from their ancestral nobleness. From that time the citizens were sometimes victorious, sometimes the enemy…up to the year of the Siege of Mons Badonicus.”
Another important and well-respected historian of the Dark Ages was Bede the Venerable, who also mentions Ambrosius but not Arthur. He wrote his Ecclesiastical History in 731 and describes Ambrosius in this way: “They had at that time for their leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man of worth, who alone, by chance, of the Roman nation had survived the storm, in which his parents, who were of the royal race, had perished. Under him the Britons revived, and offering battle to the victors, by the help of God, gained the victory. From that day, sometimes the natives, and sometimes their enemies, prevailed, till the year of the siege of Badon-hill, when they made no small slaughter of those enemies, about forty-four years after their arrival in England.”
Based on these sources, Ambrosius is well-placed to serve as the origin of Arthur. He is a nobleman who disappears and returns to take up his appointed role as the defender of the Britons, and during his reign, the Saxons are held back. The Britons rally behind him, and he is known for his moderation and wisdom. Moreover, his name “Aurelianus”, while not exactly “Arthur”, is similar enough to the legendary king that it’s easier to imagine the evolution of his name into Arthur than it would be with a name like Vortigern.
With that said, there’s a major problem in this theory. The primary recorder of the life of Ambrosius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, also records the life of Arthur in great detail, and is quite clear in his writings that they are two different people. Geoffrey of Monmouth specifically states that Ambrosius’s father and Arthur’s father (Uther Pendragon) were both sons of King Constantine, a descendant of the Roman overlords. He also wrote that Arthur was born after Ambrosius’s death. Since Geoffrey is one of the most important chroniclers of Arthur’s life, at least of those that survived the Middle Ages, his writings must carry some weight.
Another potential candidate is Riothamus, a name (or possibly a title) meaning “Great King.” He is listed on the roll of Kings of Britain. Riothamus appears to have been a real person, or at least the Roman diplomat who wrote to him in 460 A.D. thought he was. Riothamus appears to have been king of the Celtic peoples of Brittany as well as Britain, and he was called across the Channel twice to lead military campaigns in Gaul. Most notably, this is the same time that Geoffrey of Monmouth would later say “Arthur” was fighting in Gaul. It is this overseas emphasis in Riothamus’s biography, combined with Geoffrey’s similar emphasis (lost in most later retellings), that supports the theory Riothamus is the historical Arthur. Riothamus has recently had a strong proponent in a scholar named Geoffrey Ashe, who championed that connection in his book The Discovery of King Arthur (1985), but his evidence has not silenced the debate on the issue.
An interesting alternative proposal was that the name “Arthur” did not signify a person but a title, and that it meant “The Bear King”. The word “art” means bear in many Celtic languages, including both Welsh and Cornish, and this theory is reinforced by two pieces of early evidence. The Y Gododdin, an 11th century Welsh poem, refers to a warrior who “glutted black ravens [i.e., killed many men] on the rampart of the stronghold, although he was no Arthur” (a reference which could, admittedly, mean a name as well). Then there is also the Artognou stone, found in Tintagel, which could translate to “Famous Bear.”
The written record of the Dark Ages, which is spotty at best, will never fully answer the questions about the nature of Arthur’s origins and whether he was based on a real man, but there are other sources of evidence that scholars can rely on. While archaeology can tell historians much about the broad sweep of history, its ability to pinpoint the locations and events of specific individuals, especially in the deep past, is limited. Arthurian archaeology has focused upon the excavation of sites which have been passed down as being linked to Arthurian tales in the oral record.
The first and most recognizable site is the ruins of Tintagel Castle on the Cornish coast, where Arthur is said to have been conceived and born. Excavations performed at the site in the 1980s and ‘90s have shown that there was a Dark Age fort at the site during the appropriate period, and that it was particularly wealthy for the region, which indicates that it was possibly the home of a local king or chieftain. This leaves open the possibility that the written reports that survived the Middle Ages are accurate, though it does not confirm anything. A wrinkle emerged in 1998 when the caretakers of Tintagel, a government body called English Heritage, announced that they had found a piece of slate which read: “Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has made [this].” Further analysis led some to believe that the author was claiming descent from Coel Hen (the famous “Old King Cole”) of York, also one of Arthur’s claimed ancestors. The claim that this was proof for the Arthurian connection led to a storm of controversy which has not yet fully died down. This evidence is still fairly slim, but it increases the possibility that Tintagel is actually connected to the historic king.
Another well-known piece of evidence for the reality of Arthur emerged in 1191, when the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found a tomb containing a man and a blonde-haired woman. The tomb was inscribed: “Here lies entombed King Arthur, with Guenevere his second wife, on the Isle of Avalon.” This was a blessing for the monastery, which had recently suffered a devastating fire, because the remains served to restore it to a position of prominence and gave it a lucrative source of pilgrim revenue. It also served as a useful piece of political propaganda during a period of Welsh-English struggle. As one writer noted, “The alleged discovery of Arthur’s tomb, then, was propaganda that the English could use against the Welsh, proving to them definitively that their savior was permanently deceased and would never return to liberate them.
Due to these reasons, as well as a lack of any evidence (both bodies and inscription disappeared), modern scholars strongly doubt the veracity of the Glastonbury find. However, the area around Glastonbury remains a place rich in Arthurian connections, especially due to the belief that the Holy Grail – a key part of the Arthurian Cycle – is located there.
Another important archaeological site is the most likely purported location of Arthur’s court at Camelot: the Cadbury Hill Fort. Like Tintagel, Cadbury has an association with Arthur in oral history which actually appears to pre-date the invention of Camelot by romantic literature in the 12th century. Archaeology at the site in the 1970s revealed the existence of a Dark Age hill fort. This was not a “castle” as people imagine them today, as such structures did not exist at the time of Arthur, but it was still an impressive fortification. Like Tintagel, the impressive fort indicates the presence of a prominent leader, if not a king. In fact, this is one of the most elaborate strongholds of the period ever found, giving credence to claims that the great warlord Arthur lived there. Again, this does not mean that the powerful leader had to be Arthur, as there were other major figures of the period that could have financed and needed such a structure. Ambrosius Aurelianus and his enemy Vortigern both fit the bill, as does Riothamus and Arthur’s legendary father, Uther Pendragon.