Who Was King Arthur?

Nicholas J. Higham—

Chapter 56 of the History of the Britons, written in North Wales in 829-30, presented Arthur as a warrior who, with divine aid, led the Britons to victory against the Saxon (i.e. English) invaders.  

‘Then in those days Arthur fought with the kings of the Britons against them [the Saxons] but he himself was the commander of battles. The first battle was in the mouth of the river which is called Glein. The second, and third, and fourth, and fifth [were] on another river, which is called Dubglas, and it is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was on a river called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the wood of Caledonia, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle [was] in the castle of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of St Mary the perpetual virgin on his shoulders, and on that day the pagans were put to flight, and a great slaughter was upon them through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of Saint Mary his holy virgin mother. The ninth battle was fought in the city of the legion. The tenth battle was waged on the bank of the river called Tribruit. The eleventh battle occurred on the mountain which is called Agned. The twelfth battle was on the mountain of Badon, in which there fell in one day nine hundred and sixty men from one charge [of] Arthur; and no one slew them except him alone, and in all battles he was the victor.’

This is the earliest account of our hero’s deeds and the principal foundation on which his legend later developed. In the mid-tenth century, the Welsh Annals used either this or a closely related source for its entry on Badon. In the 1130s, Geoffrey of Monmouth built on both of these to create his highly fictitious History of the Kings of Britain, which Wace then translated into French in the 1150s, introducing the Round Table in the process. Layamon converted this French ‘history’ into English two generations later.  Guinevere stems from Celtic story-telling c. 1100, but the story of her abduction and rescue was re-shaped and massively developed by the French romance poet Chrétien de Trois in the second half of the twelfth century; it is to him that we owe the introduction of Lancelot, the Grail, and Camelot. The ‘sword in the stone’ and ‘sword in the lake’ were added into the story as it developed around 1200.

Modern commentators agree that we should dismiss everything from Geoffrey onwards as fiction. But should we credit Arthur’s story in the History of the Britons as potentially true? On that, opinion is divided. Some dismiss even this Arthur as a figure of legend or myth, but many writers have sought to locate his battles and write him into history. Badon is often considered a great and culminating victory won by the Britons which heralded in a time of peace—the ‘Age of Arthur’ if you will.

So, does the History of the Britons provide us with genuine evidence for the British Dark Ages? A major problem is that its author was more than three centuries distant from the period, so about as far removed from Arthur’s career as we are from the ‘South Sea Bubble’ of 1720. Obviously, oral testimony cannot be relied upon across so long a period. The question is, therefore, did our author have reliable written sources near in time to these events? Our answer must be almost certainly not. There is no trace in his account of a near-contemporary account of these wars other than that written by Gildas, but he named only one conflict, Badon, and never even mentioned Arthur. It has often been suggested that Arthur’s campaigns derive from a battle-catalog-type poem in Old Welsh, of the kind which survive praising King Cadwallon of Gwynedd. That some of the battle names rhyme (Dubglas/ Bassas; Celidon/Guinnion) might be thought to support this hypothesis. Even so, there seems little likelihood that this poem—if it ever existed—was written close to the events by someone who was well-informed. Wars do not as a rule feature rhyming battle-names, so this looks like poetic licence. And several names seem to have been ‘borrowed’ from other texts: Badon was the only British victory named by Gildas, though it was a siege in his account, not a battle; the ‘city of the legion’ may be the early-seventh-century battle between the Northumbrians and the Welsh at or near Chester, which the Welsh lost; and Tribruit is probably Traeth Trywruid, a battle named in the Old Welsh poem Pa gur, which has it fought by Arthur but against a Welsh-named opponent. This looks very much like an author collecting up various battles from a variety of pre-existing texts, including Briton on Briton conflicts and British defeats, then re-cycling them as Arthur’s glorious victories. There is a likelihood of plagiarism, therefore; we cannot rely on these battles having anything to do with Arthur. The probability is that this is fiction; as such it should be set aside, not used as the basis for reconstructing the history of the period.

How does such thinking fit with the remainder of this work? Looking at other passages confirms that its author was frequently cavalier in his descriptions of past events. The closest parallel to the British-Saxon conflict in which Arthur featured so prominently is the resistance offered by the Britons to the Romans. For these events our author used the work of the early fifth-century, Spanish/Roman writer Orosius, whose history rested on earlier accounts, right back to the description of his two expeditions to Britain, written by Julius Caesar himself. But there are major changes in the Welsh work that reflect its author’s determination to depict a courageous British people resisting all-comers—something which was notably absent from earlier accounts. Here is Caesar’s first expedition to Britain, in chapter 19:

Then Julius Caesar…. came to Britain with sixty keels, and landed in the Thames Estuary, where his ships suffered ship-wreck, while he was himself fighting with Dolabella, who was the proconsul of the British king, who was himself called Bellinus, and he was the son of Minocannus, who had occupied all the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and Julius returned without victory, his soldiers killed and his ships broken.

There is nothing about the Thames in Orosius—Caesar actually landed on Kent’s east coast—but this wording parallels the British-Saxon war in this account, which feature battles in and around Thanet. Even the personal names are bogus. Orosius followed Caesar in calling the British king Cassivellaunus. Bellinus is a garbled reading of Orosius’s reference in a separate passage to ‘Minocynobelinus, son of the king of the Britons’, who surrendered to Emperor Caligula two generations later and on the Continent. He has been lifted out of this passage, fictionalised and re-used in an entirely different context. And Dolabella occurs nowhere else as a British leader; he was apparently ‘borrowed’ from Orosius’s reference to the Roman aristocrat of that name, Cicero’s son-in-law. This Dolabella was no military commander and certainly never led British forces against Caesar, though he was at least of the right generation. We might add, the Tyrrhenian Sea is the western Mediterranean; its islands were far, far beyond the reach of any Iron-Age ruler in Britain, be that the made-up Bellinus or his supposed father.

Why these names? Perhaps because both contain the stem ‘bell-‘, recalling Latin bellum (‘war’ or ‘battle’), so wrapping each of these supposedly British heroes in warlike rhetoric. Why the Tyrrhenian Sea? To claim for the British ruler far greater powers than he actually wielded, building up the British as a imperial race. Clearly, British resistance to Roman invasion as portrayed in the History of the Britons must be discounted as an account of what actually occurred wherever it is unsupported by earlier testimony.

So, what was our author seeking to gain from falsifying the past? Well, to be fair, he did not see himself as an historian; he termed his work a sermon (sermo), not a history as such at all. It was only later that it acquired the title by which we know it today. Like any good sermon, this one was primarily about the present and near future, not the past. History is subordinate herein, used to set out a particular vision of the relationship between God, His British people, and their ‘foreign’ enemies (the Saxons/English).

The work is therefore much better read as reflective of religious thinking and racial politics in its own day. It was as recently as 768 that the British Church had given up its long opposition to Catholic practices and accepted the Roman dating of Easter. Welsh intellectuals were engaged thereafter in rewriting the past in such a way as make connections between the Britons and Romans. Our author sought to reveal the Britons as great warriors, equal to the Romans and even their partners in important respects.

We are provided, therefore, with an extraordinarily inaccurate account of Roman Britain. Augustus, we are told, was the only Roman emperor to whom the Britons paid taxes (even though Britain was not actually inside the Empire during his reign); these payments ceased in the time of Claudius (when they actually began), and were henceforth paid instead to ‘British emperors’ (Britannici imperatores). Following a mistake by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, the History of the Britons highlights the baptism of ‘Lucius, the British king, with all the under-kings of the whole British people’, following envoys sent to the Roman emperors and Pope Eucharistus (there was no such pope). This is historical fiction on the grand scale which seeks to link British Christianity very closely with Rome from a very early date.

Thereafter, British clerics are depicted as cooperating closely with Rome. Saint Germanus features strongly but the key figure is the British Patrick, who was sent as a missionary to Ireland ‘by Celestine the Roman pope and an angel of God named Victoricus’ (both names come from a ‘Life’ written in Ireland but Victoricus was a man therein). Then the conversion of the Northumbrian king Edwin is the work not of the Roman bishop Paulinus (as Bede) but a British priest called Rhun, son of King Urien of Rheged.  These were morale-boosting stories in Wales early in the ninth century but they are no more historical for that.

At the time of writing, insular politics were dominated by the very recent rise to dominance of the West Saxon King Ecgberht, whose supremacy was acknowledged by the Welsh in 830. The History of the Britons never mentions the West Saxons but offers negative pictures of the Kentish, Mercians, and Northumbrians. Hengest and his brother Horsa, leaders of the first Saxons to arrive, were said to have descended from a god who was ‘not the God of gods, amen, the God of hosts but one of their idols who they worship’. Saxon (i.e. English) paganism was being contrasted, thereby, with the very early and very ‘Roman’ conversion of the Britons. The Saxons of the present descended from treacherous pagans, who gained power not through success in war, but trickery. The ‘historical’ chapters close with the Mercian king Penda, who ‘was the victor through devilish art; he was not baptised and never believed in God.’ Orosius’s great work was entitled ‘History against the Pagans’; in early ninth-century Wales our author adopted the same theme enthusiastically in writing against the English barbarians who had conquered so much of Roman Britain.  

Alongside, our author was laying claim to a special status for his own lord, Merfyn of Gwynedd, promoting him in the present as the senior king of the Britons and their national leader. Ambrosius was granted a stronghold in Gwynedd, ‘for it will always be safest from the barbarian peoples’—the Saxons/English of course. This came to him ‘with all the western kingdoms of Britain’ and Ambrosius was termed ‘Embreis Guletic’—‘Emrys the Overlord’. Maelgwyn of Gwynedd was depicted as ‘the great king among the Britons’ and it was his ancestor, Cunedda, who had expelled another set of barbarians, the Irish, from Wales (chapter 62). This work was supportive, therefore, of Gwynedd’s aspirations to superiority throughout the Celtic West—so leadership of the other Welsh princes in the present.

Wider exploration allows us, therefore, to see Arthur as a character in a rhetorical work that was never intended as a conscientious attempt to describe the past. Our author’s truths centered not on what had actually occurred in the distant past but on political and religious concerns in the present. His work was conceived in Biblical terms, as the relationship between God and His people. He was looking to British salvation from the Saxon menace in the present, which could only be won with divine support. As he said, ‘the Britons once occupied and ruled all [Britain] from sea to sea’. Now, though, ‘Britain is occupied by people from outside and its citizens expelled [until] God shall aid them [the Britons]’. The Saxons had prevailed by weight of numbers and treachery. Their success must represent the will of God, for ‘who can struggle against God’s will, even should he try? For God does whatsoever He wishes and He rules and He steers all nations’. But our author was looking towards the time when God would relent and His British people seize back what was justly theirs. And that time was coming, soon.

We must let go of the History of the Britons, therefore, as a source for sub-Roman history. Arthur, its most prominent Dark-Age figure, should be considered just one of the many fictional heroes created by its author to support his central message: the Britons had courageously resisted invaders in the past, each time winning Britain back; his hope was that they would do so again, just as soon as God restored His protection to His British people.

Nicholas J Higham is Professor Emeritus in History at the University of Manchester.

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