This is the Ninth-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!
But who was Arthur?
Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.
ORIGINS OF ARTHUR
If King Arthur was indeed an historical character, we must place his life somewhere between the last decades of the 5th century, and the first decades of the 6th. He occupies a place as leader of the British resistance against the Anglo-Saxon invaders following Ambrosius Aurelianus (mid-to-late 5th century) and before Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), in the 540s.
The name Arthur, itself, is the subject of some debate. It doesn’t appear in usage among the Britons (or any other Celts) till after the mid-6th century. John Morris argues that the name Arthur, appearing as it does suddenly after this time among Scottish, Welsh and Pennine princes; and the absence of the name in usage at any time earlier, suggests that in the early 6th century the name became popular amongst the indigenous British due to the celebrity of some great warrior-hero who bore that name: the historical/legendary Arthur (1).
The Brythonic/Celtic word for bear is “Arth”, or “Artos”. One theory is that the name “Arthur” derives from this root . Gildas the Monk refers to “the Bear”, or Artos; possibly in reference to Arthur.
Another possible source of the name may have its roots not in the Celtic languages, but in Etruscan! A Roman officer stationed in Britain in the 2nd or 3rd century bore the name Lucius Artorius Castus; whose family’s origin may have come from Etruria, in Italy. The family name may have lived on in Britain after his departure; if he perhaps sired children with a local woman.
Unhelpfully, Gildas’ references to “the Bear” are, at best, oblique. Though he writes primarily of the events following the life Arthur, Gildas also mentions such events as the Battle of Mount Badon (or, Badon Hill); an event before his time but fresh in the minds of himself and his contemporaries.
The Battle of Badon is named by later writers as Arthur’s crowning victory. Yet in mentioning Badon, Gildas omits to give credit to Arthur (or Artos). In fact, it has been argued that Gildas’ wording could be construed as crediting the victory at Badon to Ambrosius Aurelianus. In any case, if is was indeed Arthur who led the Britons to victory over the Saxons at Badon, why does Gildas’ fail to name him as the hero of that day?
According to Gildas’ biographer, Caradoc of Llancarfan, Gildas’ brother was one Huail/Hueil ap Caw; a Scot or Pictish warlord from the area near Dumbarton Rock in Strathclyde (though alternate theories place Caw and his warlike son’s stronghold to the east, near modern Glasgow). Huail was an opponent of Arthur, refusing to acknowledge his leadership. A pirate, he was captured and executed by Arthur in North Wales. Gildas, away on Christian mission in Ireland at the time, was grieved by the news and bore towards Arthur an eternal grudge. For this reason, perhaps, he deliberately and steadfastly refused to acknowledge or even name Arthur in his commentary. The chronicler Gerald of Wales even claims that Gildas destroyed “a number of outstanding books“, presumably in monastic libraries, which praised Arthur!
With Gildas, the nearest contemporary, obstinately silent as to the existence of Arthur; historians are left only with accounts from later sources (Bede, Nennius, Annales Cambriae, Geoffrey of Monmouth, etc). Trying to piece together the disparate chronicles and legends and to come up with a coherent theory for a “historical Arthur”; has been the cause of much spent ink, particularly in the last four decades.
Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, in their book, King Arthur: The True Story (1992) concluded that the true identity of the historical King Arthur was a Welsh prince, named Owain Ddantgwyn (“White Teeth”).
This tenuous identification rests solely on a reference in Gildas’ to a certain contemporary Welsh prince named Cynlas; who Gildas states was “charioteer of the Bear”. In ancient Celtic Britain, chieftains rode into battle in chariots, often driven by their eldest son. Though chariots had long been obsolete in Romano-Celtic Britain, the title of “Charioteer” (chariot driver), may well have continued in usage among the Celtic nobility as a ceremonial one; designating perhaps a chieftain’s heir; his right-hand man; constable; or even bodyguard commander.
Phillips and Keatman assumed that the name “the Bear” (Artos) was Arthur’s nickname, rather than his proper name. Then assuming further that as his charioteer, Cynlas must have been his son and heir; the authors then used existing genealogies to arrive at the “true” identity of Artos the Bear: Cynlas’ father, the Welsh prince Owain Ddantgwyn (2).
Thin thread from which to hang such a weighty theory.
Even accepting the premise that “the Bear” for whom Cynlas was “charioteer” is, indeed, Arthur; there is no reason to assume that he was Cynlas’ father. Without knowing the true significance of the title “charioteer” in 6th century Romano-British society, the relationship between Cynlas and Artos the Bear is wildly speculative.
Another equally specious theory would place Arthur after Gildas, rather than before. This “Northern Arthur” theory identifies Arturius, son of Aidan, king of the 7th century Dalriada Scots, as the model for Arthur! Aidan supported the Britons in their local fights in the north against Angle and Pictish enemies. The documentation for the existence of this Scottish prince comes from the 7th century AD manuscript, known as the ‘Vita Columba’, written on the remote island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland. While Aidan’s son was indeed a prince named Arturius, to identify him as the historic Arthur solely on their shared name is, at best, a stretch. Morris’ point seems pertinent here: that this Scottish prince was likely named after the famous hero, rather than being the hero.
While some theories have Arthur a northern British hero, others place him in the southwest of Britain.
Geoffrey Ashe placed Arthur in the Sub-Roman British kingdom of Damnonia; with Camelot, Arthur’s legendary stronghold, at South Cadbury Castle, in Somerset. Excavation (primarily by Leslie Alcock) has revealed that in the Arthurian period South Cadbury was reoccupied and fortified. It may indeed have been a stronghold of a powerful south British warlord.
In King Arthur: the truth behind the legend (2000), Rodney Castleden makes a strong case for a Cornish-based Arthur. The ubiquity of Arthur name-sites and related places in the southwest, and particularly in Cornwall (the Camel River and Slaughter Bridge, possible site for Arthur’s last battle, at Camlann; Tintagel, where in the legend Arthur was conceived; and Arthur’s Table, near Land’s End, to name a few), suggest a strong connection.
Cornwall, in post-Roman Britain, was the western half of the strong Sub-Roman British kingdom of Dumnonia. Dumnonia has much to recommend it as a possible base of power for Arthur. Its eastern regions bordered (and perhaps included) the Salisbury Plain, where as discussed previously Arthur’s predecessor and possible kinsman, Ambrosius Aurelianus, had his chief stronghold (Amesbury). This also bordered the “debatable lands” between those under British control and that of the emerging Saxon kingdoms of Sussex and Kent (and, soon, Wessex). Whoever led Dumnonia, would perforce have been a prince in the forefront of the war against the Saxon invader.
Another alternative identification for Arthur sinks his roots more deeply in Roman history. C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor have suggested in recent scholarship that the archetype for the Arthur legend lies in the life of Lucius Artorius Castus, a 2nd/3rd century Roman officer. They deduced that this Roman officer’s name and exploits lived on in the memories of the Britons long after his departure from the island (in the early 3rd century?); later attaching themselves to an unknown hero or heroes who led the British resistance against the Saxons.
Though Lucius Artorius Castus had a successful career in Roman service, his exploits were hardly the stuff of legend. Far more celebrated Roman commanders, such as Agricola or Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig in Welsh) would seem more likely candidates to have their name and exploits handed down to future generations, than this rather obscure figure; whose only real recommendation is the similarity of his name to the hero.
While a direct link seems highly improbable, a connection between Lucius Artorius and the Sarmatian cavalry that were stationed in Britain at the time of his posting is possible. While it is not known for certain if Lucius Artorius Castus actually ever commanded these Sarmatian feoderati, Littleton and Malcor attempt to make that case.
What is highly likely is a connection between the 5th-6th century Arthur and the descendents of these Sarmatian warriors; and/or northern British cavalrymen who fought in the Sarmatian style. That they provided the nucleus of his mounted strike force seems likely, as will be discussed later. That their customs and legends bled into the Arthur myth seems a certainty.
There are many tantalizing similarities between Sarmatian culture and legends and pieces of the Arthurian legends; too many for mere coincidence.
Some are superficial, such as dragon standards: the Sarmatians used the draco-windsock as a standard. (However, we must not put to much store in such a connection. The “draco” standard was used by the late Romans, and need not be attributed to a Sarmatian connection.) Arthur, known as “Pendragon”, used a similar standard in the legends. The chief British warlords after Arthur are called “Great Dragon of the Island”; perhaps a title adopted by later British and Welsh High Kings in emulation of Arthur.
A somewhat more intriguing connection is the similarity of the “Sword-in-the-stone” legend: Arthur pulls the sword of the king from a stone; thus symbolizing his rightful claim to the throne. In Sarmatian religious practice, swords thrust into the ground were part of religious observance.
The strongest connection between the Sarmatians and the Arthurian legends, however, lies in the striking similarities between Arthur and the Sarmatian legendary hero, Batraz.
In the Arthur story, the sword is pulled from the stone. In the Sarmatian tradition, the hero Batraz pulls his magical sword from the roots of a great tree. At his death Arthur commands his close companion, Bedivere, to cast his sword into the lake. This is mirrored in the Sarmatian legend of Batraz: As he lies mortally wounded, Batraz too orders his magical blade cast into the sea. Like Bedivere in the Arthurian myth, Batraz’s companion is reluctant to lose such a wonderful sword and lies to his master twice before finally casting the sword into the water. In both legends, an enchanted lady (the “Lady of the Lake” in the Arthurian legends) catches the sword and takes it beneath the waves.
That the Sarmatian settlers in northern Britain retained their national legends, and these in time spread amongst their Celtic neighbors and comrades-in-arms seems a plausible explanation for these similarities. More of this later, but it seems likely that the Sarmatian legends of Batraz merged with those of the Romano-British hero that we know as Arthur; fusing together over the centuries that followed Arthur’s death.
If we accept that there can be, at this stage of archeology and scholarship, no certainty of a historical Arthur; we can at least build a plausible theory of who Arthur may have been, within the working premises already established.
Sometime in the last decade(s) of the 5th century, a new leader emerges among the Britons. He is Arthur/Artorius/Artos; and his name might either have been a nickname (“the Bear”) or his given name. In either case, his exploits as a war leader soon catapulted him into a position of primacy among the Celtic warlords.
Arthur is perhaps a kinsman (nephew?) of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Riothamus (“Supreme King”) of Britain (see Ch. 6). If he’s a nephew, it is likely to have been by marriage: Gildas states that Ambrosius “alone” of his family survived slaughter by either Vortigern or the Saxons. Though Ambrosius was almost certainly a southern Briton, from the Belgae territory around Salisbury; it is not contradictory to suggest that Arthur could have been raised by a northern branch of (Ambrosius’ wife’s) family. Perhaps (and this is a stretch) Arthur was even related to descendants of Lucius Artorius Castor; Ambrosius marrying a daughter of that house, Arthur’s aunt. Alternatively, Ambrosius’ exile in Armorica (Brittany) as a young man could have resulted in marriage to a daughter of the Alans; and Arthur could then have been of Armorican-Alan blood. Either origin would gives Arthur proximity in his childhood to the Sarmatian-Alans; and perhaps even kinship.
It should not be ignored that Arthur is linked by Geoffrey of Monmouth with the royal house of Dumnonia. During the dark days following the Saxon Terror, many of the Britons who fled to Armorica were from Dumnonia. They founded there a “Lesser Dumnonia”. Arthur could have been related to the royal house as a son of an exiled Dumnonian royal. This would not contradict a familial connection with Ambrosius, himself perhaps connected to the Dumnonian royal house.
WE can further conjecture that Arthur serves first in his uncle Ambrosius’ mounted Comitatus; perhaps among Alani kinsmen or childhood companions; or (if north British) neighbors and boyhood friends of Sarmatian extraction. Like them, he is a horseman born-and-bred! He handles lance and sword, bow or javelin from horseback with equal skill.
In battle he and his comrades are covered in armor of scale or mail, wearing conical helmets sporting horsetail crests. Arthur’s comrades (the Welsh word is Cymbrogi, meaning “Compatriots”, “Sword Brothers”, or “Comrades-in-arms”) spend many a day-and-night in the saddle, forging unbreakable bonds of fellowship and camaraderie. These are the archetypes of the “Knights of the Round Table”, perfecting their warrior skills in countless minor skirmish and foray into enemy lands.
In the later Welsh poems and annals, two names appear most often as Arthur’s closest companions: Cei/Cai the Tall (Arthur’s foster-brother in some versions, including Mallory) and Bedwyr Bedrydant (“Dedwyr of the Perfect Sinews“), one-handed champion. These are heroes in their own right, and are celebrated in Welsh poems of later ages.
“Prince of the plunder,
The unrelenting warrior to his enemy;
Heavy was he in his vengeance;
Terrible was his fighting.”
The same poem describes Bedwyr:
“They fell by the hundred
Before Bedwyr of the Perfect-Sinew…
Furious was his nature
With sword and shield.”
This is a period of “small war”, in which creeping Saxon settlements and incursions into the “debatable lands” separating the two races must be constantly beaten back. These are not great battles for the most part; but raid and skirmish by relative handfuls. Here Arthur and the sworn “knights” of his Teulu/Comitatus built up around themselves a legend that would endure to the present day!
Not all the fighting was against the “Sassanach”. Celtic culture celebrated cattle reaving, maiden stealing, vendetta and vengeance; most often against neighboring districts and clans. The earliest tales of Arthur include stories of personal feuds; quests far-and-wide for magical or sacred items; and women kidnapped and rescued (most notably Arthur’s own wife, Gwenhwyfar; who according to Caradoc of Llancarfan was kidnapped by Melwas, king of the “Summer Country” and held prisoner at his stronghold at Glastonbury).
A showdown, however, is brewing between the two races, vying for dominance of the island. During the last decades of the 5th century, the Saxon menace has grown ever larger. Saxon settlements dot the whole of eastern Britain (the “lost lands of Logress/ Lloegyr”). In the south they have founded enduring kingdoms: in Kent, under the son of Hengist, Osic/Æsc; and to the west of this, the kingdom of the South Saxe (Sussex). This last is led by the ruthless Saxon leader, Ælle; who in the last decade of the century has united the Saxons loosely under his over-lordship, being proclaimed “Bretwalda”. (This title, the equivalent of “High King”, may actually be a bastardization of the Welsh Brit Gweldig; “High King/Emperor of Britain”.)
As Ambrosius grows older, and the eastern horizon grows ever darker, the aged leader comes to rely ever more on Arthur to lead his Comitatus against the enemy. Perhaps he names Arthur his Magister Equitum (“Master of Horse”), commander of his mobile cavalry force and second-in-command. It is Arthur who leads Ambrosius’ armored band of lancers on big, swift horses; responding to hilltop beacons warning of dark sails on the horizon or war-parties raiding along the frontier!
Arthur steadily builds a reputation as an effective war-leader, as well as an extraordinary warrior. In possibly the earliest literary reference to Arthur, by the Welsh poet, Aneirin (c. 6th century) and recorded in the Y Gododdin; a warrior is praised for his valor, “but he was no Arthur“.
Roman Britain in the late 5th century was becoming increasingly tribal. Three generations after the Roman withdrawal, Rome’s legacy of civil rule was in decline. The Eastern and southern parts of the Island, where Roman civilization had sunk the deepest roots, had been lost or turned into an embattled frontier zone. In the west and north, where the tribal system had never disappeared; and particularly in the north, which had always been heavily militarized, new tribal confederations and the decendants of military commander have established a patchwork of petty-kingdoms.
In the southwest, as already mentioned, the Durotriges and the Damnonii (and perhaps the Cornovii of Cornwall) have formed the kingdom of Damnonia. In Wales, Votadini immigrants from beyond the Wall founded the Kingdom of Gwynedd; a strong buffer against Irish raid and settlement in north Wales. To the south and east of Gwynedd, the Ordovices in the west and the Cornovii in the east joined to form Powys (one of whose founders may have been Vortigern, High King of Britain from the mid-420s till the 450s). The original boundaries of Powys extended from the Cambrian Mountains in the west to the modern West Midlands region of England in the east. The fertile river valleys of the Severn and Tern are found here, and this region is referred to in later Welsh literature as “the Paradise of Powys“. South Wales was home to the truly petty-kingdoms of Dyfed, Gwent (tribally the Silures), and Glywysing.
In the mid-lands, two kingdoms emerged, on either side of the Pennines. To the east, around the old Roman fortress city of Eburacum (York), rose the kingdom of Elmet. On the western side of the Pennines lay Rheged.
North of the these lay the kingdoms of Hen Ogledd (the “Old North”): Gododdin in the east (comprised primarily of the warlike Votadini tribe); and Strathclyde in the west. These were amalgamations of tribal groups (such as the Votadini and Brigantes) with military garrisons and districts around the Wall. Legend has that the sons of Coel Hen (“Old King Coel”), perhaps the last Dux Britanniarum commanding the Roman garrisons in the north, founded these kingdoms.
All of these petty-kingdoms had some military capability of their own; usually centered around the court of the king and comprised of his Teulu. These household troops were synonymous with the comitatus of Germanic warlords and the Bucellarii of late Roman/early Byzantine generals. Their numbers must have varied wildly; with as many as 900 recorded in the service of a north British prince in the 430s. This military structure continued in Medieval Wales. In the 11th century, the normal size of a prince’s Teulu was 120 men; Llywelyn ap Gryffydd had a Teulu of 160 in 1282.
In war, these small bodies of professional fighting men (usually cavalry) could be augmented with civic militias from the local towns; garrisons from the decaying Wall forts (now no more than tiny militia forces themselves); or (in the far north or the mountains of Wales) tribal warriors. Rome had long disarmed the peasantry, Diocletian’s reforms making the bearing of arms or military service illegal to all but the families of soldiers already in the army. Thus it is unlikely that the bulk of British farmers in the more civilized (Romanized) areas had any involvement in war, other than as victims. But in the “uncivilized” regions of Wales and the north, the warrior ethos lived on, particularly among the Votadini and those descendants of the various military garrisons (such as those of the 2nd century Sarmatian settlers).
Ambrosius’ role as Supreme King was to aid these petty-kingdoms when they were threatened beyond their ability to defend; or to lead them in coalition against Island-wide, existential threats to all. These petty-kings were suspicious of any interference in the internal affairs of their kingdoms; and jealous of any other’s fame or increased power. When not faced with foreign enemies, they were as likely to fight each other! To be first-among-equals of this temperamental lot was the best that Ambrosius or any other warlord could hope for.
As the fame and success of Ælle united the Saxons under his leadership at the end of the 5th century, the Saxon threat caused these petty-kings to cede more than normal amounts of authority to Ambrosius; and later his chosen successor, Arthur. But not altogether willingly, and never without reservation and resentment. The struggle for supremacy between Arthur and the petty kings of Celtic Britain; ending ultimately in civil war and betrayal are all themes that run throughout the Arthurian legends. These reflect perhaps the real historical tensions that developed as Arthur strove to take both his place as Ambrosius’ successor, and to unite his (unwilling) fellow Celtic leaders against the common enemy.
While the revered Ambrosius (called by the later Welsh chroniclers, Emrys Wledig, or Ambrosius Imperator) still ruled, Arthur could not succeed to his uncle’s title. For the young warrior who was in fact if not name the leader of the coalition forces, a new title was found: Dux Bellorum.
Nennius gives Arthur this title, meaning “Leader of Battles”, or “warlord”. The petty-kings were loath to acknowledge him more. He is the warlord of Britain, not yet High King.
(1) Morris, John. The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, P.116. Butler and Tanner, Ltd (1973).
(2) Phillips, Graham; Keatman, Martin. King Arthur: The True Story. Arrow Books, Limited; New Ed edition (1993)