Arthur of the Britons

Arthur of the Britons

by Mansel Jones

Arthur was a warlord of the late fifth and early sixth centuries who defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Badon, a victory that heralded a fifty year period of relative peace. Although sources for Arthur are scarce, he is mentioned in the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and a number of early medieval poems, including Y Gododdin. And yet many modern historians choose to write Arthur out of history. Why should this be?

Historians who dismiss Arthur as an historical figure point to Gildas’ sixth century polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). In De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, Gildas records the Battle of Badon and yet makes no mention of Arthur by name. That said, Gildas does not mention any leader by name at the Battle of Badon, thus allowing the possibility that Arthur was the leader of the Britons. Those historians arguing against the existence of Arthur also point to the fact that he is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, c890s, or in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, c731. However, given that Arthur was a hero of the original Britons and the developing Welsh nation it is little wonder that his name was ignored.

The earliest literary references to Arthur can be attributed to Welsh and Breton sources. In these sources Arthur is portrayed as a peerless warrior who protects Britain from the Saxons and from monsters, including giant cats, ferocious dragons and divine boars. In these tales Arthur also appears as a sort of superhero living in the wilds of the landscape and, in the Welsh tradition, as someone who can bridge the gap between this world and the Otherworld or Annwn. Clearly, these tales are just that, stories, but for millennia stories have been written, reshaped and based on real events and real people. Arguably, the same holds true for Arthur.

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A Victorian image of Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler (1864 – 1918)

Several poems attributed to the sixth century poet Taliesin also refer to Arthur. These poems include ‘Kadeir Teyrnon’ (‘The Chair of the Prince’), making reference to ‘Arthur the Blessed’, ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ (‘The Spoils of Annwn’), which recounts Arthur’s expedition to the Otherworld, and ‘Marwnat Vthyr Pendragon’ (‘The Elegy of Uther Pendragon’), a poem that refers to Arthur’s valour.

Another early Welsh text includes a poem found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, ‘Pa gur yv y porthaur?’ (‘What man is the gatekeeper?’) Arthur is denied entry to a fortress and a dialogue develops between himself and the gatekeeper. During the dialogue Arthur recounts his deeds and the deeds of his men, notably Cai and Bedwyr.

Cai and Bedwyr, and a cast of over two hundred men, also feature in the Welsh prose tale, Culhwch and Olwen (c. 1100). Culhwch and Olwen is included in the Mabinogion and the story tells of Arthur and the assistance he offers to his kinsman, Culhwch, as the latter attempts to win the hand of Olwen. In the story Culhwch has been set a series of apparently impossible tasks, including the hunt for the great semi-divine boar, Twrch Trwyth.

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Hunting the boar, Twrch Trwyth

If the stories of an Otherworldly Arthur appear too fanciful, then we can look to Welsh battle poetry. The Welsh battle poem, Geraint, was written in the tenth century and the poem describes a battle at a port-settlement, possibly modern-day Portsmouth. Geraint, the son of Erbin, was a sixth century king and the praise- poem written in his memory mentions Arthur: ‘In Llongborth I saw Arthur, brave men hewed with steel. Emperor, ruler of battle’.

In another battle poem, Y Gododdin, which is attributed to the sixth century poet Aneirin, one stanza refers to a warrior who kills many of his enemies. The warrior’s bravery is acknowledged ‘although he was no Arthur’. Surely these poems place Arthur’s name in history? However, what if the poets were writing about another Arthur? This is possible, but if so, where did the name Arthur originate from?

As with everything about Arthur, the origin of his name is a matter for debate. Some historians believe that ‘Arthur’ derives from the Roman name Artōrius, while other scholars suggest that the Welsh arth (bear) and gwr (man) offer a solution to his name. Dr John Morris makes the excellent point that the name ‘Arthur’ was almost unknown in the early fifth century and yet by the sixth century the name had become very popular amongst the Britons, Arthur ap Pedr, a Prince of Dyfed, born c575 A.D. serving as an example. What gave rise to this phenomenon? Possibly, a generation of parents naming their sons after the man who had resisted the Saxon advance?

Princely genealogies list Arthur and many members of his family. You could argue that the creators of these genealogies were looking for nothing more than an association with success, a link to a prosperous dynasty. This may be so. However, the belief in Arthur’s success must have been real to these people for them to claim association with Arthur in the first place and many of these people lived only a few hundred years after Badon and so were far closer in time than we can ever be. It is a modern myth to suggest that because we are more ‘advanced’ and ‘civilised’ than the people of the eighth and ninth centuries it follows that we also know more about the past than they ever did; these people lived within generations of Arthur and obviously his name resonated with them.

Genealogies associated with Arthur list Uther as his father, Eigyr as his mother, Madog as his brother and Gwyar as his sister, with Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain in the Norman tradition) as his nephew. Furthermore, the genealogies from the thirteenth century Mostyn MS. 117 claim that Arthur is the son of Uthyr, the son of Custennin, the son of Cynfawr, the son of Tudwal, the son of Morfawr, the son of Eudaf, the son of Cadwr the son of Cynan, the son of Caradoc, the son of Bran, the son of Llŷr. Genealogies and pedigrees were very important to medieval Welshmen, in terms of status and land ownership, and even if some of these pedigrees are false, the people who compiled them clearly attached a great deal of importance to Arthur.

Medieval pedigrees and genealogies also offer us a glimpse into Arthur’s family. His first wife, Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere in the Norman tradition) is well known, but a far more interesting character is Arthur’s second wife, Eleirch, or Eleri, the daughter of Iaen. Eleri’s story forms the centre-piece of my novel, Pendragon.

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Guinevere, a stained-glass window by William Morris

Arthur also features in many early medieval texts and vitae (lives of post Roman saints). One of the most famous of these texts is the Historia Brittonum, a ninth century Latin document, which has been attributed to the Welsh cleric Nennius. In the Historia Brittonum, Nennius lists twelve battles fought by Arthur culminating in the Battle of Badon, where Arthur defeated the Saxons in the decisive encounter of the British- Saxon war.

Another text that mentions Arthur is the Annales Cambriae, which dates to the tenth century, though its contents are probably based on a chronicle dating to the eighth century. The Annales Cambriae links Arthur with the Battle of Badon and it also mentions the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) fell, c537–539.

In the Life of Saint Gildas, written in the early twelfth century by Caradoc of Llancarfan, Arthur is said to have killed Gildas’ brother Hueil and some historians believe this is the reason why Gildas did not mention Arthur in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.

In the Life of Saint Cadoc, written c1100 by Lifris of Llancarfan, the saint offers protection to a man who killed three of Arthur’s soldiers and Arthur demands a herd of cattle as compensation for his men. Cadoc delivers the cattle as requested, but when Arthur takes possession of the animals they turn into bundles of ferns.

The Legenda Sancti Goeznovii, a hagiography of the Breton saint Goeznovius, which dates from 1019, includes a brief section that mentions Arthur and Vortigern. Arthur is also mentioned in the vitae of Carantoc, Illtud and Paternus.

Unless there is a remarkable discovery, it is unlikely that we will find a document directly linking Arthur with Badon and the events of the fifth century and so we are compelled to rely on secondary sources. From an historian’s point of view, this is not ideal, but much of our recorded history is based on secondary sources and if we were to remove these sources from the record then we would have an insubstantial view of the past.

Clearly, there is a gap in the fifth century historical record and common sense suggests that Arthur fills that gap. To deny the man who did so much to preserve a way of life for the Britons is churlish. It is also unfair, unfair to the man and to his cultural background. What is undeniable is that each generation recreates Arthur in its own image and the words each new generation of historians write about Arthur say as much about those historians and prevailing social attitudes as they do about the past.

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Mansel Jones has been researching and writing about medieval history for the past forty years. He is an acknowledged expert in his field and academics and universities seek his views. He is the author of A History of Kenfig, Pendragon and Tangwstyl. You can discover more about Mansel’s books here: Amazon

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