In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part One

07 Mar

(Updated: 31.5.12)


In these blogs I’d like to share my thoughts on my approach to looking for an ‘original’ historical Arthur.  This I have mainly been doing for an idea for a screenplay I’m working on.  I have written three already but haven’t been totally happy with any of them, so I’m going back to basics and doing more research.  This has certainly come out as a much longer piece than I intended, which is why it’s another multi-part blog.

King Arthur was Irish!?

No, I don’t think he was Irish, but I wanted to start, not with his mention in the 9th century Historia Britonnum, but with the known Arthurs (yes, plural) of the 6th and 7th centuries (all Hiberno-British (British/Gael mix) or in Hiberno-Brittanian or Cambro-Irish areas) and try to work forward and back from them.

What, I questioned myself, might have given rise to the kings of these areas giving their sons the name,whilst the Britons and even later Welsh wouldn’t. as well as the mention of Arthur in the northern British 7th century (plus later additions) collection of poems, Y Gododdin? I realise there can only be possibilities and probabilities in the argument, but I‘m attempting, though I may not succeed, to find an hypothesis that is a probable one, or certainly a believable one.  Of course, just because something is more probable and believable, doesn’t make it the truth.

Assuming, just for the moment, that one of these Arthurs/Artúrs wasn’t the ‘original’, which some argue one was, I’m starting with Occam’s Razor, whilst keeping in mind that such a device might well be blunted by the stubble of time.  This ‘razor’ would probably first say that he has to be one of these known figures, but it could also say (if it was a double bladed affair) that they were given the name because, if there was an ‘original’ Arthur before them, they were of the same ethnic origins as he, or there was some identification with him by them.  This is not to say he was Irish (Hibernian/Scotti) per se, but possibly of mixed race in an Hiberno-British region, or a region of such descent.  Such a person, of course, could have been born at one of several locations on the western seaboard from Cornwall to Clydesdale or Kintyre.  We know through inscribed stones that there were Hibernians or Hiberno-Britons on the islands of Britain, especially in what is now southwest Wales, and there are two 5th and 6th century ‘Irishmen’ known as far east as Roman Wroxeter (Viriconium Cornoviorum) in modern day Shropshire, and Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) in Wiltshire:

  • Wroxeter: CVNORIX | MACVSM/A | QVICO[L]I[N]E, ‘Cunorix son of Maqui Coline’ (c.460-475, Wright/Jackson/1968)
  • Silchester – EBICATO[S]/[MAQ]I MUCO[I--], ‘of Ebicatus, son of the tribe of … ‘ (c. 500-700, Fulford/Clarke/1999 or 350-425, Fulford et al 2000).

We’ve no idea who these gentlemen were or what they were doing there, but they were there.  They could be warriors, they could be monks.

There is very little to go on when searching for Arthur before the Historia Brittonum – ‘History of the Britons’ (H.B.) ca 828. and the Annales Cambriae – ‘Annals of Wales (A.C.) ca 970, but there are some clues.  Let’s start with a reminder of (or an introduction to) who these ‘other’ HIberno-British Arthur’s were and, firstly, where the Hiberno-Britannian/Cambro-Irish regions lay.

Arthur (Artur/Artúr/Artuir) names of the Hiberno-British regions

The main regions where early Hiberno-Britannians, Hiberno-Britons or Cambro-Irish were resident were:

The Western Isles and western Scotland.

Northwest Wales

Southwest Wales

South central Wales

Southwest Devon

Northwest Cornwall

Only one of these regions would see their language remain: those of western Scotland. Those in Wales left the most traces through inscribed stones (especially in the southwest) and some place names. Cornwall has a number of Irish saints. Cumbria and Lancashire seem to be Hibernian free and this could simply be because the Isle of Man lay between, which they did colonise, or because of the strength of the kingdoms there. The same could be true for what is now Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland.

The map right shows only roughly where these Gaels might have been in the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries. They may not have extended so far we in the north at the time. The difference in pink to red it the extend of settlement or, in the case of southwest Wales, the extent of Latin/ogham inscribed stones.The map also shows where the old British provinces might have been.

There are, of course, different theories to the existence of Goidelic (Early Gaelic)  [1]speakers in Britain and these range from settlers/raiders from Ireland to there having ‘always’ been Goidelic speakers in these regions. The jury’s still out, but most favour an influx.

Why the Hiberno-Britannians (descendants thereof or inhabitants of these areas) of the 6th and 7th centuries might give their princes the (generally accepted) Insular Latin derived British name Arthur (Gaelic Artur/Artúr/Artuir) two or three generations after Arthur of Badon’s supposed death, whilst the British/Welsh did not until the 15th century (Henry (Tudor) VII’s son) has been debated many times. I am of the opinion, based on the evidence as I see it, which I’ll show in the coming chapters, that if they were named after an ‘original’ Arthur, who wasn’t one of these, it was for a very good reason and a reason that was more than just taking a fashionable name or that of a mythical god [2] or folkloric figure [3], or because the Brittonic/Brythonic speaking Britons wouldn’t take the name out of respect or awe for Arthur of Badon. It didn’t stop them using the names Constantine or Caradoc (or variants thereof) on numerous occasions as well as mythical names such as Brân.

However, why those who were once his (or elements of the Britons’)  supposed enemy would take the name is the main question, whether Arthur was also an Hiberno-Briton or Hiberno-Britannian himself or not. But we don’t think with a 6th century warrior’s mind and perhaps his unsurpassed martial prowess was enough; or, they were not his enemy at the time, or not all the time, but allies against other Scotti or the Picts. After all, we actually have no evidence that those of the west of Scotland were the enemy in the late 5th century, or, at least, not to the Britannians below the Wall. (Bede says they didn’t arrive in western Scotland until 500 AD, but the archæological evidence disagrees).

It may be odd for all the Hiberno-Britannias to have been the enemy at the time with regards to Arthur, considering they may have named their princes after him, yet those of the Cambro-Irish regions of southwest and northwest Wales seem to have been the enemy, or some of them, if the stories of (St.) Tewdric (c.Early-6th century) expelling Irish from southwest Wales and Cornwall are true[4] and if Cunedda (c.Early-5th century) from Manau Gododdin (southwest Fife, Scotland) did indeed fight against those of northwest and southwest Wales[5]. Even if he didn’t, a later ‘Welsh’ king called Catguolaun Lauhir (Cadwallon Long Hand) of Venedos/Venedota/Venedotia (Gwynedd) supposedly did[6] … not that Venedotia existed in the 5th century.[7]

But there were Hibernians and there were Hibernians: raiders and settlers … and, possibly, Goidelic speaking Britannians. What we are not told is if these figures fought against Scotti raiders with the aid of settled Cambro-Irish, who were either laeti (warriors with family, settled in the area) or feoderati (federates fighting under their own leaders, not necessarily here to stay).

The Hibernian Dalriadians (of Dál Riataof the Western Isles of Scotland did become the enemy of their British ‘cousins’ yet they still continued to take the name … and still the ‘royal’ Britons weren’t using it as far as we can tell.

A simple answer, and one Richard Barber (The Figure of Arthur, 1972) came to, is that the legendary Arthur is based on one of these. (Barber obviously had a very sharp Occam’s Razor!)This certainly makes more sense than Arthur being Ambrosius Aurelianus (Reno, 1994), Riothamus (Alcock, 1975), Vortigern, or even Catellus = Cattigern = Vortigern = Riothamus=Arthur (Pace, 2009). However, he can only be one of these other Arthurs, who we are exploring, if he was not of the 5th century but of the 6th or 7th and did not fight at Badon.

(I doubt the above alternatives for many reasons but mainly because there is neither evidence that the name ‘Arthur’ was an epithet[8], or that Riothamus[9] or Vortigern[10]weren’t personal names).

Why the name Arthur?

First a cautionary note from Juliette Wood:

 “Too often a priori [11] considerations of the importance of Arthur distort such considerations [of why other princes were given the name] (Bromwich 1963, 1975/6: 178–9; Padel 1994: 24; Green 2007) but the quest for a historical Arthur surfaces still in popular writing.” (A companion to Arthurian literature, 2009, p.123)

There may indeed be a priori elements when it comes to this, but I’ll try not to do so.

The use of the name Arthur by the Hiberno-Britannians/Cambro-Irish is explained as follows in Bart Jaski’s paper, ‘‘Early Irish examples of the name ‘Arthur’ (Journal of Celtic Philology, 2008):

 “That a British name is found among members of an originally Irish dynasty can be explained by ties of marriage. The sources suggest that Áedán had a British grandmother, mother and wife, and such connections may have been common among other members of the ruling families of Dál Riata. In this way, British names could be adopted by dynasties with Irish roots.” (p.94)

This may, of course, explain the giving of the name, but not why the Britons don’t appear to have used it. (It may also not be a British name per se, but a British version of a Latin name). However, there could be other reasons behind the name being used, which I’ll explore in the coming blogs, starting with Artúr (Arturius) mac Áedán of Dál Riata (Argyle, Scotland). Born ca 570.

(There is a Post Script to all these blogs about the pronunciation of the name Arthur, but it’s worth reading it first. Click HERE).

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections,



[1] There was much less of a difference between Goidelic and Brittonic in the Late-5th century to what there is now between Gaelic and Welsh.

[2] Green, 2007. Thomas Green doesn’t just argue for a mythical god figure in his book ‘Concepts of Arthur’.

[3] Higham, 2002

[4] They may not be since they seem to come form the famous 18th century forger Iolo Morganwg.

[5] If this isn’t an origin myth

[6] Cadwallon supposedly defeated the Irish on the Isle of Anglesey in 517AD.

[7] No one’s certain when Venedota came into being but an inscribed stone at Penbryn still refers to it being the land off the Ordovices in the 6th century. Later it is called Venedos in a stone from Penmachno. The change may have happened when its focus changed from the mainland to Anglesey. (Dark, 2000, p.178)

[8] As you’ll see later, there’s no known etymology in Brittonic or Goidelic to make the name Arthur or any evidence the used animals as epithets.

[9] We know there was the very similar personal name Riocatus.

[10] The Goidelic version of the name Vortigern is well attested in Ireland.

[11] A priori: Latin for “from the former” or “from before”, and in this instance refers to knowledge that is justified by arguments of a certain kind.

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34 responses to “In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part One

  1. Howard Wiseman

    March 9, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    A minor point. although Pace does have Arthur = Vortigern = Riothamus, he does not have Arthur = Ambrosius.

    Rather he has
    Arthur = Catellus = Cattigern = Vortigern = Riothamus
    Ambrosius = Vortimer = Amr later called Medraut

    Not that I think that makes it more plausible.

  2. badonicus

    March 9, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks for the correction Howard.


  3. Rick

    April 24, 2011 at 1:58 am

    I enjoyed this. Keep me posted of your next writings on the subject of Arthur.
    There is another character in Medieval history that has intrugued me: Roland. History doesn’t say much about who he is or where he came from or his orgins. He was just a feared warrior that protected Charlmagne’s back. I heard that when he died in combat he was pierced with a hundred arrows and spears and still the enemy fled in terror of him. What do you know of Roland?

  4. badonicus

    April 24, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks for the compliment Rick. You can automatically be informed when I’ve posted again if you subscribe (top right menu).

    I don’t know a great deal about Roland, other than what you mentioned. I know the Normans were big fans of him and sung about him before the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Must try and discover more.

    Have you looked at the other posts yet?

  5. Robert C. McArtor

    September 29, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    I am Robert C. McArtor, a surprisingly untalented man who edits Arthur’s Table, the quarterly newsletter of the Clan Arthur Association, USA. (The MacArthur Chief, John Alexander MacArthur of that Ilk, is at this moment touring Kansas.) Is your writing copyright? I have the urge to use some of it in our modest “homey” publication from time to time but need your permission. Thank you, Bob McArtor

  6. badonicus

    October 9, 2011 at 8:03 am

    Hi Bob. I would be very happy, and honoured, for you to quote from my blogs, as long as I could see the article in question before it was published?

    Best wishes,


  7. badonicus

    October 30, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I updated this blog today with correction, clarifications and additions.



    • badonicus

      December 31, 2011 at 1:26 pm

      Updated this blog today, but especially Part Four.

      • Dane Pestano

        June 27, 2012 at 4:33 pm

        There is only one answer to the conundrum of the name ‘Arthur’, used by the Irish and not the Britons. It was English. The Scotti/Irish were allied with the English(Saxons) from way back into the 4th century. The Arthur material comes from the northern material in the HB (mixed in with the Anglo Saxon Northumbrian material), and probably had its origin in Strathclyde. The answer is to deduce what name the English made into their Latin version Arthur and whether it had changed to this form by the late seventh century when the name Artur is first witnessed.

      • badonicus

        June 28, 2012 at 2:59 pm

        I’ve come a across that theory before Dane, and Stuart Laycock forwards in in his book ‘Warlords’. Whilst I can see how the English connection would work for the Picts or those of Dalriada, as they had Northumbrians in exile with them, I’m not sure how it works for Demetia. Even the Dalriadans don’t appear to have had this contact unti in the Late-6th and the the first Dalriadan Arthur was supposedly born in the 560s or 570s, unless he was the son of Coaning as you suspect. Any thoughts?

      • Dane Pestano

        June 28, 2012 at 4:25 pm

        Why would it have anything to do with Demetians? The English did not come into contact with them early enough to influence them. However in the north it was a different matter.

      • badonicus

        June 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm

        Well, if the argument is that the Gaelo-Brits got the name from the English, then why was Arthur ap Pedr of Demetia named so?

      • badonicus

        June 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm

        Laycock puts forward ‘Eadhere’.

      • Dane Pestano

        June 28, 2012 at 6:19 pm

        Arthur ap pedr appears in very late pedigree material does he not? Why would he be considered or even taken seriously?

      • badonicus

        June 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm

        There are far later pedigrees than those in the 8th century Expulsion of the Déisi (Section 11) taken seriously, even if it is an origin myth. (Of course the copy it exists in is much later). There are a great many figures that can’t be said to have existed if that is the case. I’m sure there are many pedigrees we can’t trust, but I’m not sure if this one can be singled out.

      • Dane Pestano

        June 28, 2012 at 11:53 pm

        The expulsion of the Desi genealogy is probably a late addition to the tale as its based on the Welsh version which is itself late. Rethoir is just the Q celtic form of Pedr. Some conclude the genealogies and whole story are invented. (John MacNeill, Patrick C. Power, T. F. O’Rahilly, and Séamus Pender) I would concur with this assessment.

      • badonicus

        June 30, 2012 at 11:58 am

        You’re absolutely right, of course, Dane that not all scholars agree on the validity of the document, and I should point this out both on this blog and the ebook – which goes into far more detail. As you know there are plenty of scholars who do think there may be some ‘truth’ held within it. I think it may indeed be a ‘fiction’ in most senses, but that doesn’t necessarily rule out the pedigree … even if it isn’t completely;y accurate.

        As for the names, they would have to have come from Welsh as that’s where their information would have to have originated from. They would have to be, say, 6th to 8th century spellings of the names, which they appear to be, unless you have learned otherwise? They certainly appear in the earlier A version, which is the one dated to the 8th c.

        It’s not quite the same as the Welsh genealogy as that makes their descent from Magnus Maximus. What I think should be noted, is that the Irish names disappeared quickly as soon became British, and there would have to be a reason for this.

        I’ll have to try and get a hold of the author’s works you cited so I have a better understanding of their arguments.



      • Dane Pestano

        June 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm

        The form ‘Arthur’ is a post 9th century form, so its deffo a later addition, probably based on the Welsh. What other evidence is there for this arthur ap pedr apart from the genealogy?

      • badonicus

        June 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm

        Well, it’s not written as Arthur in ‘Expulsion of the Déisi‘, it written as Artuir so we don’t know what it was taken from. The later Jesus College MS 20, 12 used Arthur but that’s no indications of any earlier spelling. You’re right that there’s no other evidence for Arthur ap Pedr apart from the two genealogies, but that goes for an awful lot of ‘historical’ figures.

      • Dane Pestano

        June 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm

        Yes, Artur/Artuir was always the irish spelling through time, hence one of the HB glosses is thought to be from an Irish hand. So they would have made it Artuir from Arthur, just as Rethoir from Pedr. I think we could dismiss Arthur ap pedr even more easily than Dumville dismisses Arthur the saxon killer.

  8. wademk

    March 9, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    Some “names” were honorifics – like titles, acquired by leaders that honoured their character. These (as far as I know) were never repeated in the culture that bestowed them. e.g. Vortigern, Arthur, Taliesin, Aneurin, Myrddin, Gildas. The Romans occasionally had similar honorifics e.g. Germanus. Actual personal names by contrast sometimes recur within dynasties, e.g. the many kings called Geraint and Hoel of Kernow.

    Do you find it interesting that Arthurs occur in Ireland after 550CE but not before?

    • badonicus

      May 19, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      Yes, it is interesting that it occurs in Western Scotland, southwest Wales and Ireland after 550 and I cover that in these blogs, and go into more detail in my forthcoming ebook.

      Vortigern, or rather its Goidelic equivalent, was used in Ireland on several occasions and as for the name Gildas, it doesn’t even appear to be British.



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