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King Arthur, did he exist, and who was he


This article is quite long, and is in four sections besides this introduction. First I want to look at historic information relating to King Arthur, who wrote about him and when. In the second section I want to attack the question from a different way, and look at who can be shown to have been around at the relevant time and what does this tell us. Thirdly I want to share with you my theory, however I also invite you to look at the information and come up with your own. Finally in the fourth section are links to go and look up further, some other information on this topic, in some cases written from a different perspective.

Generally I have not made a big thing about the bias that existed in some texts, or concepts of supporting Normans being in Britain, or the Christianisation of all material they could lay their hands on as this is expected, I just tend to have ignored these parts. I have also not included information on a collection of stories relating to French chivalry, that precedes the work undertaken by Geoffrey, and may have been the motivation, documenting early kings here as great as theirs, although these works probably had a  greater impact on the writers who embellished or extended the story, introducing Lancelot and the like. I have concentrated instead on the two main characters Alfred and Merlin. Some of the other characters that became a part of the story, exist in early welsh stories, but this doesn't really help, in that some will say Geoffrey borrowed them for his own ends, others that it proves a line up with other works.

On reading through another fact I have not mentioned, although perhaps obvious to anyone who has taken an interest in family or local history, let alone ancient history is that standardised spelling did not exist in older times, and it was only well after the development of the printing press, when there was a quiet point that printers started to print dictionaries, and introduced standardised spelling, before this words were often changed to fit print lines, and in a lot of family history even going back only a few generations, you come across a lot of variant name spellings, as those who wrote the records, such as church appointees, often came from a different class and often a different area, and was recording phonetically, what they heard in a different dialect to where they were brought up.

1. So how much can be relied upon

Between the point the Romans left, and 1066 we have very poor records, some isolated texts, some books from Wales and a number of accounts that are difficult to know exactly when they were written, and nearly everything coming from monks and the like, who could hardly be thought to have a completely neutral viewpoint, in addition to which the church has a history of suppressing and destroying any work, book or idea that was not what they wanted to hear. The church worked with the state (king and rulers), and was often a major landowner and master, so inclined towards actions or concepts that would assist. This has led some to feel that the book by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that introduced King Arthur may have been a work towards this end. Others go along the route that there is no smoke without fire and something at least existed.

In the period when Arthur is said to have existed, there were alliances, various kingdoms, perhaps some overlapping claiming sovereignty at the same time or for the same ground, we have a lot of dealing and intermarrying, the merging of kingdoms and a lot of  bits of information that some have created into time lines, and called history. An additional problem is that we don't know how long this period was as the calendar as we know it was started at an arbitrary date, and has no relation to the actual time to have passed, but based on a guy computing several astronomical cycles multiplying them together and considering that he was starting the second of these cycles, so placed 0 or 1AD as a set distance before.

We do know some information as to the way society worked in the later part of this period, and I have covered some of this while looking at how the history to how counties came about. We also know that when the Romans left, that there were many cross bred people, part Briton part Roman, who were in a difficult position, and most stayed here, while at the same time anti Roman (payback) was a problem. For this reason there were a number of people who moved about and had stories that involved them not having a biological father.

There is a great similarity between the stories of Arthur and Christianity, in both cases only snippets exist from anywhere near the time, the main accounts are all written at least several hundred years later and may be based upon earlier lost works, and both involve stories of magical ability. There are more similarities than this connected with uncles, the lack of a public father and the like, but I had better not go into that as I am likely to upset some. Christianity has a clearer more consistent picture because a little later all texts that differed from the chosen view were suppressed and many destroyed, including earlier ones.

The main accounts we have of Arthur are from stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth, some say he was a lying monk and made them up. We don't know a lot about his early life, but he is thought to have grown up in Monmouth, South Wales, some say his father was called Arthur, and that names often ran down in families so he could have been told of a historic past in his family, and later decided to document these. In his twenties he was a Canon at Oxford, he was a member of the staff at Oxford for at least the next twenty years, in which time he did a range of teaching, writing and translating. 'The Prophecies of Merlin' appear to have been a series of ancient Celtic prophecies which, at the request of Alexander of Salisbury, Bishop of Lincoln, Geoffrey translated into Latin.

Around 1136, when Geoffrey set about writing his 'History of the Kings of Britain' dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Waleran, Count of Mellent said to be a translation of an 'Ancient book'. At the time, his work was accepted as a true history covering mostly the Welsh areas for a period from 1100BC to 689AD. Merlin (who he had written about previously) is shown as an advisor to King Ambrosius and King Uther, and the largest and most influential are the chapters covering the reign of King Arthur. Parts of Geoffrey's work seem to line up with ancient Celtic mythology, others could line up with other works including, Gildas, Nennius, Bede and also the Mabinogion. There are also hints that he had access to at least one other work unknown to us today. His 'King Tenvantius of Britain,' for example, was unknown to historians until archaeologists began to uncover Iron Age coins struck for a tribal leader in Hertfordshire named Tasciovantus, which perhaps argues against the idea that he simply made it all up. Some people consider the several copies of a Welsh version of Geoffrey known as the 'Brut y Brenhinedd' to be his original 'Ancient book'. However, the 'Chronicle of Saint Brieuc' makes reference to several of Geoffrey's characters apparently from a source called the 'Ystoria Britannica'. Nothing is very clear.

Late in 1150, Geoffrey found other source documents concerning the life-story of the bard, Myrddin (alias Merlin). There were differences with what he had in 'History of the Kings of Britain'.  Rather than hide this, Geoffrey wrote the 'Life of Merlin,' correctly placing its events after the reign of Arthur, but with a questionably long lifespan, but perhaps not if you allow for calendar errors. The following year, Geoffrey was elected Bishop of St. Asaphs, and was consecrated by Archbishop Theobald at Lambeth Palace in February 1152. Clearly at the time he was respected, or some would say rewarded for his work.

We have earlier sources on Arthur's activities in 'Historia Brittonum', written by the monk Nennius in the 9th century. This tells of 12 battles, and their locations, although today these are difficult to fit to known locations. He seems to have covered a lot of territory from Scotland and Wales to various locations in England.

Earlier than this Gildas, a sixth-century monk wrote 'De Excidio Britannia', On the Ruin of Britain, a book attacking the destructive Saxons who were overrunning the land. Gildas is believed to have existed about the same time as the historical Arthur, and Gildas's work names Badon Hill as a great British triumph over the Saxons, one of the major battles other works attribute to Arthur. Perhaps showing such a battle existed. Bede, the famous eighth-century monk who wrote 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People' also mentions Badon Hill. Annales Cambriae,  'Annals of Wales' (10th century) mention both Arthur, Mordred spelt Medraut, and Camlann In some editions, this work is partnered with Nennius, who I don't know much about.

William of Malmesbury is often quoted by historians, this 12th-century monk wrote 'Gesta Regnum Anglorum', or Chronicles of the Kings of England, and this also mentions Arthur and Badon Hill by name.

The story of Arthur has grown since, including the work of Wace, the Anglo-Norman author of the Roman de Brut, being written in 1155, which many think is a romanticized account based on the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, with some helpful additions, and this introduces the Round Table. The first stories to appear in English was in the form of a 16,000 line poetic work by Layamon in the 12th century, this also featured both the round table and Merlin.

A Frenchman, Chretien de Troyes, developed the story further introducing a Camelot and Lancelot. He was also the first to attach special significance to the Grail as a cup. Before, it was thought to be a dish or platter. Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century translation and compilation, known as Le Morte D'Arthur, set the basis of the stories that are around today.

The medieval kings of England were deeply involved with the stories about their legendary predecessor King Arthur. A historical poem about Arthur, Robert Wace's Brut (History of the British), was dedicated to Henry II, and its probable that plays on the themes were regularly enacted.

Late 13th/early 14th-century, Edward I began to hold round tables, utilising the title from King Arthur's time, a tournament at which everyone took an oath of good behaviour and brotherhood while participating. Edward personally arranged events at Nefyn in Wales in 1284 and at Falkirk in 1302, and took part in a number of others. These festivals led to the commissioning of a physical round table for a great tournament at Winchester in 1290.The event was a grand occasion to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of Edward's son and two of his daughters. The table can still be seen today in the great hall at Winchester Castle, a later king had the legs chopped off and it hung on the wall.

There is evidence at one of the round table events, probably the Winchester event in 1290, that the king and knights re-enacted  the stories of Arthur, as well as a feast and more. Lodewijk van Velthem a Dutch poet described what occurred, it began when a squire spattered with blood appeared, demanding that the king should take revenge on the Welshmen who had rebelled and injured him. Soon afterwards, another squire appeared, bound hand and foot to his horse, declaring that the Irish had done this to him, and that the Irish king had commanded him to issue a challenge to Lancelot to meet him in single combat. Next the 'loathly damsel' who appears in the story of Perceval and the Grail rode into the hall. Her message was that Leicester and Cornwall had rebelled, and that Perceval and Gawain should go to quell the disturbances............

William the Conqueror we know, was initially based at what is now Old Sarum, it was here that the English nobles had to go to swear allegiance and also where the instructions originated for the Doomsday Book Project.  He was also responsible for the founding of Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world. By the beginning of the reign of Edward 3rd, allegiances were less secure and in 1344 Edward 3rd decides to create a round table building, 200ft across, and to hold 300 knights, after the legends of King Arthur, in effect capitalising on the concepts to pull people together. Although there are some records of the planning and construction of this, a large building 10 metres high, a little like cloisters with a hollow centre for plays and the like. No evidence existed until 2006 when it was found under lawns at Windsor Castle by the Time Team TV Programme. The idea was that there would be a knighthood of the round table. After military success he later formed a smaller order, and it's likely that the large building was never actually finished.

So did King Arthur exist, clearly those around in 1100-1400 thought so, and they were far nearer the time than we are, and clearly an Arthur was brave and did exist. Most legends or stories have some basis, even if a bit exaggerated or garbled. In some cases several characters have become one or one has become several. Geoffrey didn't make everything up, and some of the detail some accused him of has more recently been proven to be true.  But perhaps we could attack this question in a different way, by identifying who the real characters could have been.

2. Another possibility

Lets look at who the real characters could have been.

To cover this fully would need a book, and to cover it with some proof in  a page is a little of a challenge, but here goes.

Arthur seemed to have connections with a British victory over the Saxons at the battle or seige of Mons Badonicus or Badon Hills, possibly in Wessex. The earliest account of this battle comes from the Celtic monk-historian named Gildas, who died in AD570, recorded in his De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, about the battle in Mons Badonicus (Badon Hills, in Wessex).

Gildas did not mention Arthur, the monk had indirectly associated the victory to the leader Ambrosius Aurelianus, in the earlier paragraph:-

"...that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, kind been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.

After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Bath-hill, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity."

The Ruin of Britain   by Gildas (c. 6th century)
Edited by J. A. Giles,  Six Old English Chronicles, Henry G. Bohn, London, 1848

St Bede the Venerable wrote in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Ecclesiastical History of the English People"), in AD731, about the arrival of the English people (Saxons and Angles). Bede recorded that the Saxons and Angles were led by Hengist (Hengest) and Horsa, arrived in Britain (AD449) at King Vortigern's invitation. Bede also recorded that Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman warlord, won his first decisive battle against the Angles at Badon Hills, in AD493. Once again, Ambrosius Aurelianus appeared as the Briton resistance leader against the invaders rather than Arthur.

The earliest reference to Arthur, assumes we know who he is and comes from 'Y Gododdin' written by Aneirin a 6th century Welsh poet.

It just says, referring to a warrior in the poem  as being brave  "but he was no Arthur".

He charged before three hundred of the finest,
He cut down both centre and wing,
He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,
He gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.
He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
Though he was no Arthur.
Y Gododdin
by Aneirin (c. 6th century)    Translated by A.O.H. Jarman

He is not actually talking about Arthur, but another warrior who couldn't match Arthur in battle. There is no detail of who this Arthur was. It is said a poem existed in the 6th century, Gododdin was actually preserved as extant work, in the manuscript called Book of Aneirin, in c. 1250.

According to the Welsh historian Nennius, who flourished in the early 9th century, this victory (at Badon Hills) was associated with Arthur. Nennius wrote in his Historia Brittonum that eleven other victories were ascribed to Arthur, but he was more of a British warlord or general, than a king. Nennius pushed the date of the battle of Mons Badonicus, to a later time, in AD516. This was the first mention of Arthur in the historical context.

"Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at te City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty."

Historia Brittonum   by Nennius (c. AD 796)
Edited by J. A. Giles, Six Old English Chronicles, Henry G. Bohn, London, 1848

The fact that he was chosen to be leader 12 times for 12 battles, could suggest a selection by a consortium of leaders, who elected one to lead the battle rather than a king of kings. In this period electing someone to roles was commonplace, and it may be that different groups of knights/warriors came together from different areas, controlled by a king and they then between them elected the commander for the battle. When it says he killed 940 people, at the Battle of Baden, this probably relates the the kill total associated with the band that was a part of his team or squad, so perhaps points towards the collective of groups approach, with elected commander for the battle only.

Nennius also recorded the episode of Vortigern and Hengist, but added a new person associated with Vortigern, Ambrosius. This Ambrosius is not the same Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned in the works by Gildas and Bede. This Ambrosius was another name for the prophet, whom Geoffrey called Merlin. The story of Vortigern and Ambrosius (Merlin), the falling wall and the two sleeping dragons is very similar to Geoffrey's work 'Vortigern in Life of King Arthur'.

From the Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales) written in the 10th century, Arthur won the battle in Mons Badonicus (Mons Badon) and some other victories as well. The Annales also mentioned in a short passage that Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) falling in the battle of Camlann (537).

Geoffrey set the year of Arthur's fall a little later on, 542. Also, Geoffrey has another character featured Aurelius Ambrosius, an uncle of Arthur.

Some think Geoffrey had turned Ambrosius Aurlianus into Aurelius Ambrosius, an uncle of Arthur. If so this would tell us who Arthur was.

The Romans are said to have left Britain in 410AD, but not all went, especially the mixed Anglo Romans, for the next period it would have been a mixed culture involving Roman law, education, culture and way of life.

The Roman name for Arthur would be Artorius.

Artaius or Artaios is the Gallic god of the bear, a name similar to Artorius. The Romans had identified this god with their Mercury. In Latin, Arto means "bear". So Arthur like other Welsh characters, could be derived from ancient Celtic god in Gaul (France). The female form of Artaius is Artio, the bear-goddess.

One suggestion is the name Arthur is derived from a nickname for the commander, as powerful or something as a bear. Of course the bear could have just been his standard, that his own group of men fought under. 

If we believe the dates, then someone being left behind by the Romans in 410 is not going to be around in 542.  However the system of AD dates was not invented until 525AD, it started being introduced into western Europe in the 8th century and it took many more centuries before it was used completely. Bede the Venerable is said to be the first to use it and the first work he completed that used it was in 731. Astronomers looking for stars to match new testament biblical events place the year AD1 at a variety of dates but 18 years away from zero is the furthest, but they have started looking for the nearest occurrence that might fit the imagined date, rather than from a blank page viewpoint, in addition the books we know as the new testament were written several hundred years after the events they document. All events dated before the introduction of the AD system were based upon years of specific rulers, or popes, and as the listing of these is incomplete and there are overlaps etc, we are unable to fix these dates, we also don't in most cases know how writers in older periods worked out their backdating to put in specific dates. Therefore the dates within this period are not all that helpful or even put events in the right sequence.

According to Geoffrey there was a king Ambrosius Aurlianus born in AD403, also known by several other names. According to Geoffrey, when he was still a young child, his teenage brother, Constans' short-lived reign came to an abrupt end. With his father executed and his brother murdered, little Ambrosius, along with his brother, Uther, was bundled up and taken across the Channel to the safety of the court of his cousin, Budic I of Brittany, where he grew up. He came back to Britain, won many battles, and many other writers cover this, placing him firmly in this period. Ambrosius is credited, by Geoffrey, with the building of a monumental stone circle, the "Giant's Ring", but we don't know what this was.

His stated year of birth was 7 years before the Romans left, allowing some time for other events to follow, he could not have been a small child as Geoffrey suggests, if his dating is correct.

So who was he, well he is said to be the second son of Emperor Constantine, (375-411), and in the 4th century,  several roman generals, became for short periods Emperor of Britain,  and according to Geoffrey this happened and he became High-King as Constantine Waredwr, which means the Deliverer. Another story I have read about Emperor Constantine and his royal offsprings in Britain, but can't lay my hands on at this time, involved a Roman Emperor of a far larger area of Europe who had a dream and searched out a princess in his dream, who turned out to be the daughter of a welsh high king, and the princesses father made him the next in line, allowing him to become king, I can't remember the rest, but he ended up a sort of king of kings for all of England. This account may not have been in a history book but one of Celtic tales or something.

A separate character Myrddin Wyllt, born around 540, after being involved in a battle in 573 went mad and went and lived in the forest with the animals. He then made many prophecies, and these are covered in a lot of early welsh literature, and other stories developed from this. It is probably that material connected with this, is the early work Geoffrey undertook and the first Merlin he covered. So is probably unconnected with our search at this point.

Merlin Ambrosius, is the Merlin in the King Arthur stories that made everything happen. Merlin's traditional biography casts him as born of mortal woman, sired by incubus, the non-human wellspring from whom he inherits his supernatural powers and abilities. Merlin matures to be able to foretell many things and work some magic, he engineers the birth of Arthur through magic and intrigue. He appoints Arthur King through the sword in the stone. Later, Merlin serves as the king's advisor. He is also the only non knight to have a seat at the round table. He was also the creator of the round table, and defined its associated code of chivalry, although the basic principles and concept of chivalry predates this by a long time.

Quite a bit of the stories/legends build on others, such as the sword Excalibur, which was known as the welsh sword  Caledfwlc,.and the Irish sword Caladbolg or Caladcholg, in each case with magical properties. "Excalibur" has a Greek origin, Ex-Kylie-Pyr or "out of a cup-fire". This corresponds to the theory that the Holy Grail can be used to draw down the Sun (or moon perhaps) in order to make a special type of fire. Excalibur, is a "brand of light". Brand is another word for Sword. There are similarities with Aaron's Rod, just as only Aaron or Moses could make their rod flower, into flame, so Merlin arranged that only Arthur could pull Excalibur from the stone. In some versions there are two swords the one pulled from the stone and a later one called Excalibur, coming from the lady of the lake, connected with the magic associated with water.

3. Now for my theory, what will yours be?

My theory is that Ambrosius Aurlianus existed, and was well educated, as a younger man he led in battle very successfully, but he could see from other goings on that the life of a king was inclined to be short, so he chose instead to work, by bringing together others. Eventually he got older, and would not have been able to continue in this way, he had a young follower/commander Arthur (possibly nephew), who was brave in battle and would carry out his instructions, and he made him king, while retaining the real power. By creating the round table, of equals, he was able to get everyone to work together. The early Christian church was into spells, and other forms of magic, and was successful because it wrapped itself around and included other religions, beliefs, celebrations and the like, and much of the earlier Celtic history was included. Mixing Roman engineering ability and knowledge with knowledge he acquired while in Brittany, after his brothers overthrow, would in his time have made him a wizard.  The sword in the stone can be easily explained by simply understanding balancing stones, two large cut stones when balanced and a warrior (adult) stands on them, will tip together trapping the sword, while when a lighter person stands on them, the stones don't tip and the sword is able to be withdrawn.

If I were to take you back now in a time machine, you would not be able to speak their language, none of the names would make sense to you, and it is likely that you would be surprised by what you found out about the way their society ran. It was democratic, peaceful, people moved about freely, traded, and people had a quality life. If you were to ask for King Arthur, you would not be understood, and so names we know any period character by is largely irrelevant. It is likely you would get to meet Ambrosius Aurlianus or perhaps we should call him Merlin.

Merlin is also the name now of a small falcon, Britons smallest bird of prey. Its small weight and size enables it to hover in the air, watching and like other falcons is extremely fast. Now if you were to combine the ability of the Merlin with the strength of a bear, you would have an unbeatable combination. Merlin are not that common, but if you mix them in with other falcons, the Peregrine, Kestrel, and Hobby, you can see that people could easily feel that a power was keeping a watching eye on them, as we may do with the surveillance camera today. Later of course falconry become the sport of kings. Falconry interestingly is thought to have first been introduced in Britain around 400AD. Perhaps our clever magician saw the benefits of being able to make a bird of prey come to him and also could have trained birds to undertake other tasks. Some years back the Israeli army trained pigeons to land on defined targets, allowing them to aim weaponry before they had tactical air support. Trained birds could tell you about approaching armies or about people hidden spying on you. An owl is also a bird of prey, and able to operate in the dark, and may be connected with how wizards and owls become connected in legends.

My own research in the past has been more connected with Merlin, than King Arthur, but here I hope it helps to explain how I feel the characters and stories of King Arthur developed.

Take a look yourself, look at what other think and make up your own mind.

4. sources for further research, and other views on this topic

King Arthur

Ambrosius Aurelianus (also included in some of the above)

See Also:

King Arthur introduction page and related locations.

King Arthur, did he exist, and who was he. 

The Magic of Merlin

Abbey and Religious Buildings Section for all articles, lists and location guides on Abbey's, Cathedrals, Churches, Holy Wells etc.


By: Keith Park Section: Heritage Section Key:
Page Ref: king_arthur_who Topic: Heritage  Last Updated: 02/2011

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