March 29, 2020

A Historical King Arthur

Sword in the Stone
Image by Matt Rogers 
I don't know how popular or not King Arthur mythologies are in the US, but they are rather prevalent here in Europe.

Of course, Europe is the seat of the medieval knight, and chivalric tales have been sung by troubadours, poets, and writers in every part of the old continent (and still are, as I saw that the British TV series Merlin is now available on Netflix* or Amazon). And I know that they've found a certain echo in America too (with a bunch of Hollywood (or similar) films such as First Knight, King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven, cartoons such as The Sword in the Stone and Quest for Camelot, and literature such as Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court).

Yet, even then, I still get a lot of blank faces when talking about Arthurian mythology to many of my compatriots. I wonder, would this be different if King Arthur had been a real person?

Morgana Pendragon vs. Luther in Merlin

I've recently cracked open The Element Encyclopedia of the Celts by Rodney Castleden which I found tucked away in my library** so here are some portions of the author's explanations as to why Arthur may have existed after all:

  • King Arthur as Great King. This title (or rather that of dux bellorum) might have been conferred to him (despite his questionable parentage, his prowess was renowned) so he could lead a joint war force against the Saxons.
  • There are two dated references of our hero in the Exeter Annals:
    • 516 - Battle of Badon, "in which Arthur carried the cross of our lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights, and the British were victors."
    • 537 - Strife of Camlann, "in which Arthur and Medraut perished [or fell]."
  • Gildas, a 6th c. monk who wrote, among other things The Ruin of Britain doesn't mention him by name directly (which some deem to mean Arthur couldn't have existed), but he also had a tendency to use nicknames to talk about people already famous in his era. And one of these nicknames was "the Bear" which, in Welsh, is "Arth."
  • The Easter Annals imply that King Arthur fought most of his wars against the Saxons in the 6th c. between the two battles mentioned above. Possibly as the King of Dumnonia (which covered territory now covered by Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset).
  • Killibury as Arthur's main castle:
    • Welsh tradition holds that Arthur's primary court was at Kelliwic (aka Killibury) (mentioned in Three Tribal Thrones of the Island of Britain, and the poem Culhwch and Olwen).
    • King Arthur by
      Charles Ernest Butler
    • An old name for Castle Killibury is Kelly Rounds, and an Anglo-Saxon charter mentiones a place called "Caellwic."
  • Tintagel Island - it was not a permanent settlement, but rather a place for special occasions: "The footprint carved into the living rock at the island's summit marks it as the coronation place ... This was where Arthur drew his power from the stone."
  • King Arthur had to travel a lot around his kingdoms to defend them against the Saxon invaders, to keep the peace, and to grow his subjects' loyalty toward him.
  • What about Camelot? The name might be derived from the Celtic war god's name, "Camulos." So perhaps Camelot was the name for a war gathering, and therefore moved whenever Arthur and his knights moved.
  • Arthur's final battle:
    • Likely place was Pont ar Gamlan (a place at the confluence of two rivers in northern Wales). The Gamlan river flows into one of these not too far from there too, and its name is very similar to the final battle's name (Camlann).
    • In Welsh, cadgamlan means "a complete massacre.
    • This place is far from the Saxons to the east of Arthur's territory, but all the tales point to Arthur's demise coming instead from internecine wars: Arthur was betrayed by someone close to him (some say his nephew Modred or Medraut).
    • This location implies Arthur was on his way north to the territory of king Maelgwn in Anglesey who might be the one who betrayed Arthur. Maelgwyn is actually one of those people that Gildas condemns in his writings for murdering his own uncle to become king.
    • King Maelgwyn won the High Kingship after this battle, and King Arthur disappears from history ever since.
    • "If Maelgwn was indeed responsible for the death of Arthur and for bringing the Arthurian peaceto an end, Gildas's extraordinary hatred and condemnation of Maelgwn's many-sided wickedness becomes understandable. Arthur was behnid the golden years of relative stability and justice between the Battles of Badon and Camlann, and those years came to an end with his final defeat."
  • What become of Arthur's body?
    • Welsh tradition: He was mortally wounded at the last battle and carried elsewhere to die. And the people close to him didn't want to spread panic amongst his kingdoms until a successor was found.
    • Cornish/Breton tradition: He survived the battle and was taken elsewhere (Avalon?) to be treated. This could also be likely, as "it was common for Dark Age kings to retire when they became physically incapable of fighting through age or infirmity. They withdrew from public life completely by entering monasteries." (After all, Avalon is supposed to be a Holy Place.)
    • If Arthur's reign ended the day he lost his final battle, but he still survived a few more years in secret confinement, it would explain why there are some inconsistencies for Arthur's death (537, the date of the Battle of Camlann, or 539 as mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth).
The Last Sleep of King Arthur by Edward Burne-Jones

But perhaps people's lack of enthusiasm these days with regards to King Arthur versus, say, Robin Hood, has nothing to do with how historical or not he was, but with the fact that his mythology has a rather sad ending?

After all, according to Rodney Castleden, "a distinctive feature of the Celts is dwelling on defeats; there is wailing, keening, lamentation, and nostalgia. A. L. Rouse commented, "It was the hero of the losing side, King Arthur, who imposed himself on the imagination." Arthur became a symbol of the glory of Britain as it once was and might yet have been, but for its destruction by the Saxon invaders. He was the perfect symbol of a kingdom and a culture lost."

And this attitude is, however poetic, not a very American trait...

What about you? What is it about Arthurian mythology that you like?

*I have yet to watch it...
**That's the trouble with purchasing LOTS of books all the time, you kind of lose track of what you do, or don't, have in your own library. Still, considering I am still within the Morgana Trilogy world which was inspired by such tales (in fact, I am currently working on a prequel at the behest of some awesome readers), thought I'd read it from cover to cover :)


  1. The Element Encyclopedia of the Celts is a very handy little book with tons of different types of entries on items that touch on the Celts. From historical characters, to mythological creatures and people, and religious, political, societal items and facts. It is very well-researched, and sometimes includes some particular views and theses of the author which I find make this work even more interesting!
    It's separated into six parts:

    1. Celtic People and Lifestyle
    2. Celtic Places
    3. Celtic Religion
    4. Myths, Legends, and Stories
    5. Symbols, Ideas, and Archetypes
    6. Celtic Twilight and Revival
  2. Chivalric romance tales mostly centered around Ancient Greece (Trojan War, Alexander the Great), France (Charlemagne and his knight Roland), and British (King Arthur, the Holy Grail epics): Wiki


  1. Excalibur

    The sword was steel most likely brought to Britain from Noricum (Austria) by a Roman officer. There was also some meteorite ore in Noricum; this “gift from the gods” yielded steel-nickel alloy tougher than steel alone. The officer would have commanded a unit of mercenaries from Sarmatia, east of Noricum. After earlier Roman-Persian wars, the Sarmatians had adapted the Persian cataphract style (we call knights). The steel sword seemed magically strong to the still bronze-age Britons and Saxons. Being thinner than bronze swords, it probably emitted a tone when swung, making it a "singing sword". On the officer's death, he was interred in the manner common in Britain at the time: laid a shallow peat bog lake with his weapons. The acidic peat was chosen because it preserved the body. The sword would be wrapped in oil cloth. Later, knowing its value, the widow brought the new king to the lake, went in and retrieved the precious sword and presented it to him. We know the king by his family name and the kings Arthur with descendants of the Sarmatians were probably the strongest force in post-Roman Britain. They would rule from a castle of Roman design, coated with white plaster - a shining bastion on a hill. Several Arthurian legends were drawn from Sarmatian folklore.

  2. South Cadbury hillfort would have been his seat. It was reoccupied and refortified in the late 5th century and is larger than any other hillfort of the era. Being in Somerset it would be under the control of Dumnonia, the region is surrounded by natural barriers that would restrict an invaders movements.

    You're mixing up your Gildas references. He does refer someone as a bear, but that king is ALIVE at the time of its writing nd one of the five he condemns alongside Maelgwn - other speculation is this person could be a son or nephew.

    The lack of reference in Gildas is easy to explain: he writes exclusively about leaders. Which Arthur was not. It is not until Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1135 that he is called a king. Welsh works simply call him a soldier, Nennius writing in the 9th century calls him a "dux bellorum", military commander, 'who led the kings of Britain in battle'.