Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!
This is the tenth-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.
THE POSSIBLE ORIGINS OF ARTHUR
Heretofore we have been on fairly firm ground, presenting the history as currently understood, and well-considered theories as to the situation in Britain during the turbulent 5th century. With Voritgern and his antagonists, the Saxon leader Hengist and Horsa, early in the century we are for the most part dealing with written (if sketchy) history. This is also true, to an extent, with the figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus. The myriad of Arthur skeptics are much more accepting of these figures and events surrounding them than they are of a historical basis for Arthur.
With good reason: Gildas , the primary near-contemporaneous source for events in the 5th century fails completely to mention Arthur. We have suggested in earlier installments of this series why this might be the case. But his omission of Arthur in his history is problematic, to be sure. Going forward, we are forced to refer to later sources, the earliest at least two centuries after the event. That, and the scant archaeological record that supports activities that may relate to Arthur. Thin tissue, indeed.
But our purpose here is not merely to shrug and admit that we can no nothing definitively, and thus any speculation is fruitless. Instead I am attempting to build a working theory that fits what little we do know, and makes logical sense. Someone led the British resurgence in the late 5th and early 6th century, that halted and reversed the westward advance of the Anglo-Saxons and led to the victory at Mount Badon. Victory in war is not achieved without dynamic leadership. It is our theory that Arthur was that leader.
Sometime in the last decades of the 5th century a new leader emerges among the Britons. He is Arthur (or Artos), perhaps Romanized as Artorius. His name might have been either 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 leader of the British in the latter half of the 5th century (see Ch. 6). If a nephew, it is likely to have been by marriage: Gildas states that Ambrosius “alone” of his family survived slaughter during the terrible years of the “Saxon Terror”. We have no information regarding Ambrosius’ wife, only that he had grandchildren living in Gildas’ time (the third of fourth decade of the 6th century). Though Ambrosius was almost certainly a southern Briton, whose power-base was possibly in the Belgae territory around Amesbury; it is not contradictory to suggest that Arthur could have been raised in the north, from whence may have come Ambrosius’ spouse. It was here that a strong cavalry tradition existed, both among the north British nobility, and perhaps among the descendants of Roman cavalry units stationed on or behind Hadrian’s Wall (including Sarmatian horsemen, as discussed in earlier installments of this series, at Ribchester in Lancashire). It is possible, though admittedly a stretch, that Arthur was even related to descendants of the Roman officer Lucius Artorius Castor; who may have sired a family while Britain in the late 2nd century. Alternatively, Ambrosius’ exile in Armorica (Brittany) as a young man could have resulted in marriage to a daughter of the Alani people, some of which were settled in Armorica by Flavius Aëtius when Magister Militum (“Master of the Soldiers”) of the West. Arthur could then have been of Armorican-Alan blood. Either origin would give Arthur familiarity in his childhood to the Sarmatians or the Alans, and perhaps even kinship. Though such contact or kinship is ultimately unnecessary to explain Arthur’s success as a cavalry leader (the British nobility prided themselves upon their excellence as horsemen), it is a tantalizing theory nevertheless.
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” (Domnonée) . 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 (though neither men were ever kings there).
RISE TO POWER
With all this in mind, let us paint a speculative narrative, attempting to bring to life Arthur and describe his rise to prominence:
He first serves 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, sword and javelin from horseback with equal skill. In early Welsh sources, he is described as a large and powerful warrior.
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 or Cai the Tall (Arthur’s foster-brother in some versions, including Mallory) and Bedwyr Bedrydant (“Bedwyr of the Perfect Sinews”), one-handed champion. These are heroes in their own right, and are celebrated in Welsh poems of later ages.
In the tenth century poem Pa Gur, Cei is described thus:
“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 but raid and skirmish by relative handfuls. Here Arthur and the sworn brothers of his Teulu (the Welsh word for military household) built up around themselves a legend that would endure in much embellished form to the present day.
Not all the fighting was against the “Sassanach” (Saxons). 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, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, each vying for dominance of the island. During the last decades of the 5th century the Saxon menace has grown. Saxon settlements dot the whole of eastern Britain, now called by the Britons the “lost lands of Logress/ Lloegyr”. In the south the “Saxons” have founded enduring kingdoms: the Jutes in Kent, under the son (or, more likely, the grandson) of Hengist, Osic/Æsc; and to the west of this, the kingdom of the South Saxe (Sussex). This last is ruled by the ruthless and successful Saxon leader, Ælle, who in the last decade of the century has loosely united the Anglo-Saxons 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 old, and the eastern horizon grows ever darker, the aged leader comes to rely ever more on Arthur to lead his Comitatus against the encroaching enemy. The very Romanized Ambrosius perhaps names Arthur his Magister Equitum (“Master of Horse”), commander of his mobile cavalry force and second-in-command. Or perhaps he uses the same title once held by the Roman commander of the island’s mobile comitatensis, the Count of the Britons. It is Arthur who leads Ambrosius’ armored band of lancers on large, swift horses, responding to hilltop beacons warning of dark sails on the horizon or war-parties raiding along the frontier.
The late, great Angus McBride’s magnificent image of a party of north British cavalrymen give us a strong impression of what Arthur and his Combrogi (companions) may have looked like, patrolling the “debatable lands” between Briton and Saxon.
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 the roots of Roman civilization had sunk the deepest, 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 descendants of military commands have evolved and established a patchwork of petty-kingdoms.
Southern and central Britain in the time of Arthur, late 5th/early 6th century.
In Wales, Votadini immigrants from beyond the Wall migrated into and founded the Kingdom of Gwynedd; a strong buffer against Irish raids and settlement in north Wales. To the south and east of Gwynedd, the Ordovices in the west and the Cornovii of the Midlands 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 Midlands two kingdoms emerged on either side of the Pennines. To the east, around the old Roman fortress city of Eboracum (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 realms had some military capability of their own; usually centered around the court of the king and composed 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, depending upon the wealth and holding of the individual lord they served; with as many as 900 recorded in the service of a north British prince in the 430s. This military structure continued into 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 men in 1282.
In war, these small bodies of professional fighting men (usually cavalry, though possibly mixed infantry and horsemen) could be augmented with civic militias from the local towns; garrisons from the decaying Wall forts (now no more than local 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 descendants of the 2nd century Sarmatian settlers in Lancashire).
Ambrosius’ role as war leader (possibly “Supreme King”, or even “Imperator”; see below) of the Britons 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 (see Part 7), the Saxon threat caused these petty-kings to cede more than usual amounts of authority to Ambrosius, and later to 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 both take his place as Ambrosius’ successor, and to unite his (reluctant) 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 or Imperator.
War is coming, and Arthur, Dux Bellorum, stands on the verge of legend!