02 Jun


The title really should be ‘Arthur: King, Commander, both, or neither’, but it’s not quite as catchy.

Those not au fait with the Arthurian subject and the search for an historical 5th or 6th century figure will just assume Arthur was a king. The first you might have been aware of an alternative view would be the last King Arthur film, if you saw it.

The flip side of the coin is those who do study the subject and believe he wasn’t a king because the 9th century document, the Historia Brittonum (in all its various versions), doesn’t make it sound as if he was a monarch but only a “leader of battles”.  Some will also say that the early Welsh stories of Arthur never call him a king, but as we will see, they do far more than that.

For the sake of this discussion we will assume there was a late 5th century figure called Arthur who fought at the Siege of Badon.

The main problem, as I discussed in the Arthurian poetry blog, is knowing where the battle list in Historia Brittonum originated from. If it was from a poem, whether oral or written, it may not have been made explicit within it that Arthur was a king, whether he was or not. There are examples in later mediaeval Welsh poetry where the bard extolled the virtues of his king in verse but does not say he was a king, because he knows his audience is already aware of this fact. If we didn’t have the relevant genealogies we wouldn’t know they were kings either, and could come to the conclusion that they may just have been military leaders of some kind. The same could have happened to Arthur.

As for the early Welsh stories of Arthur not saying he was a king, we only have to look to the story of Culhwch and Olwen (c. 10th century) to see that he was called a pen tyrned: a leader/chief/head of rulers/princes/kings. They seem to be making him out to be is some overlord or High King. It is certainly not making him out to be just a leader of battles. The Welsh poem, ‘The Elegy of Geraint’ (c. 9th to 11th centuries), even calls him an “ameraudur”. This could literally be translated as “emperor” but it is also possible it means “commander” or “general”.

Of course, it can be argued that this was only down to the later storytellers wanting to make him into a character closer to the rulers of their own day. This is a very valid point. However, whoever gave Arthur the above title chose an unusual one. For example, they didn’t call him a Gwledig; which seems to have been the highest accolade for someone in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries: Emrys Wledig, Macsen Wledig, Urien Rheged (Wledig) and many more. There was only one poem – attributed to Taliesin but most likely a later bard – that calls Arthur by this appellation. (See THIS blog.)

The other reason why Arthur is assumed not to have been a king is because there are no (reliable) royal genealogies that name him. Those that do are either derived from the stories or could very well just be made up. (See THIS blog)

There were, of course, great swathes of eastern and central Britain that were lost to the Anglo-Saxons where any ‘King Arthur’ could have resided. The downside to this argument is the fact that all subsequent princes given the name are in the west, nearly all in Hiberno-British held areas or those of Hiberno-British descent. (See THIS blog)

At the time Arthur is supposed to have flourished there may have been a very blurred distinction between a powerful commander and a king. There’s also no certainty that the British would use a commander to lead their battles, even though this is what was happening in Europe This may depend on the state of the ex-Roman diocese of Britannia at this time. It is possible from both archaeological evidence and that given by the 6th century saint, Gildas, that some of the old provinces of Britannia still existed. If they, one one, did, having an overall military commander might have been the answer to stop any of the rulers that made up the province from taking the lead and using this power to their own advantage.

Nor can we determine what kind of commander he might have been; if he was one. By that I mean the general jumping to the conclusion that he had to have been a cavalry leader. He does not have to have been this. At the head of mounted warriors, yes, but they need infantry too, and many mounted warriors would fight on foot. It is thought that cavalry, of the Early Medieval style, were of use only in certain circumstances and were probably mainly used as weapons platforms – that is, high speed javelin throwers – or to cut down a retreating foe. We should keep in mind that, unlike in the glory days of the empire, horses were a little harder to come by and you were going to do whatever you could to safeguard your mount. There is also no British Early Medieval evidence of heavy cavalry.

Of course, a military leader could also be a dangerous figure and there’s no reason why such a person could have tried to make himself the overall ruler. Many powerful military leaders throughout history have gone on to assume political power. If Arthur was or went on to be some kind over over-king, it’s very doubtful that he would be given such a position. He would have won it through military power. That is unless there was a similar system to Ireland, which we have no existing evidence of.

Gildas tells us that Britain had rectores; this was the Roman term for a provincial governor, but it doesn’t mean that that’s what they were by the early 6th century. It could have been a bishop by Gildas’s time. He also tells us, through Biblical comparisons, that the five kings he verbally attacks in his polemic were steering their ‘pharaoh’ to destruction.

“I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh …” (DEB Ch. 37) 

This ‘pharaoh’ could have been the rectore, he could have been a military commander or even over-king. Of course, he could be the devil.


Can any conclusions as to what Arthur was be drawn form this? I don’t think so. The period, the evidence from Gildas and what was happening on the continent could mean that Arthur fulfilled any of these position, or even all at various points in his life.

This blog is not as in-depth as I normally make them but my work load has made this impossible. I’m hoping that through time, and comments from others, we’ll add to this debate.

Thanks for reading,



About these ads

Posted by on June 2, 2011 in King Arthur


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

17 responses to “ARTHUR: KING OR COMMANDER?

  1. David

    June 2, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks for this post, it was very informative. So many Arthurian scholars become almost dogmatic on certain points, while I’m left wondering how sure we can really be about him. While I want to know as much as possible about the historical Arthur, I also appreciate the perspective that points out how there are many possible theories, and all must be taken with a grain of salt.

    I haven’t commented on your blog very much, but I do keep tabs on it, and will read and comment more in the future.

  2. badonicus

    June 3, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Thanks David, glad these blogs are informative.

    You’re right, there can be no dogmatism above Arthur because there simply isn’t enough evidence about him … if an Arthur of Badon actually existed.

    I look forward to your future comments.

  3. badonicus

    June 3, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Thoughts on this blog have been taking place over at the King Arthur Open Group at Facebook:

  4. Pabo Post Prydain

    July 18, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Hi Mak,

    A scholarly piece, but think you make a number of dangerous assumptions – not least that Arthur was involved at Badon at all. The HB says he was, as do the Annales, but those were written hundreds of years after the events they describe – not unlike someone today setting out to write a historical account of the 1745 Jacobite uprising based on a song he heard a chap in the pub singing. The only vaguely contemporary account – Gildas – explicitly names Ambrosius and implicitly puts him in charge at Badon. Pro-Arthurians seek to argue an implied gap of a generation between Ambrosius and Badon, but I see nothing in the text which really requires that.



    • badonicus

      July 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm

      Thanks for the comment 3P. I don’t assume Arthur fought at Badon or he definitely exitsed and reading other blogs will clarify that. If I do, I might say, “Let’s assume for the moment the was an Arthur of Badon fame”. This blog might have given the impression that this is what I think but it’s one of a long line. As for your other observations, I would suggest reading the other blogs if you have the time, but I do think that Gildas’s text can be read in a way that suggests there was a gap between Ambrosius and Badon. There also a possibility they were both at Badon, or Arthur wasn’t at Badon but still existed … and the list goes on. Thanks.

      • Pabo Post Prydain

        July 18, 2011 at 4:22 pm

        Hi Mak,

        Fair enough. I know the Gildas passage you are referring to (or, at least, I think I do!) and I know that some argue extraneous dating helps fix both the so-called “Saxon Revolt” and Badon. The ensuing apparent gap of a generation allows Arthur to succeed Ambrosius, but I do often see a little wishful thinking in that argument. Let’s face it – Gildas is happy to name kings (and to allude to others) and he seems pretty clear that Ambrosius is the man to thank for the British fight back.

        I don’t know if debate is encouraged here – and I don’t have a facebook account.



  5. badonicus

    July 18, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    I do encourage debate here, but it’s a shame you haven’t got a Facebook account as there’s a very good King Arthur Group there. There’s also Arthurnet for the more academically minded.

    Many, including me, see Gildas using Ambrosius because of his Roman name. He’s having a good go at the Brits. He’s already said that another Brit, ‘The Proud Tyrant’ (most likely Vortigern) made a mess of things and it took one of the ‘last of the Romans’ to save them. Unless it fitted his polemic purpose why would he need to mention him? and his audience would know exactly who was the victor at Badon anyway. He hardly mentions anyone and he only mentions those five kings because he’s having a go at them. He also says that these five a steering the ‘Pharaoh’s chariot’ astray, leading some to think there was a power above them.

    I (and others) could be wrong, but I can say with all honesty that even if there was no Arthur I’d say someone else was the actual leader/victor at Badon from the way I read the text. In fact, if you place Arthur’s supposed battles where some like Christopher Gidlow place them, they’re all in the north apart from Badon. As I explore in another blog (All Quiet On The Eastern Front?) if Arthur was indeed of the north, someone else was winning in the south, and also keeping the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ (militarily and/or culturally) in at bay.

  6. Pabo Post Prydain

    July 19, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Hi Mak,

    The problem with this is that “Roman” and “Briton” are pretty much synonymous terms by the early 5th, especially in the south. Gildas might be lamenting the loss of the formal Roman administration and the rise of the warband, but these weren’t mutuallly exclusive concepts – the one probably arose out of the other (at different speeds in different places, I grant you) and those in charge may have carried Roman or Brythonic names, or indeed both, including Ambrosius/Emrys. Furthermore, Gildas has nice things to say about Vortipor’s dad, whose name is a mix (Agricola Lawhir, if memory serves, which it might not) and Cuneglasus’ dad, whose name only survives in Brythonic form (Owain Ddantgwyn). Assuming, of course, that the genealogies pass muster……

    Gidlow has done some good research, but with the possible exception of Rutland, one can almost place the battles in any county/region one cares to choose – as indeed, many have done.



    • badonicus

      July 19, 2011 at 2:33 pm

      Gildas makes a great distinction between Romans and Britons:

      15. The Britons, impatient at the assaults of the Scots and Picts, their hostilities and dreadful oppressions, send ambassadors to Rome with letters, entreating in piteous terms the assistance of an armed band to protect them, and offering loyal and ready submission to the authority of Rome, if they only would expel their invading foes …

      17. And now again they send suppliant ambassadors, with their garments rent and their heads covered with ashes, imploring assistance from the Romans, and like timorous chickens, crowding under the protecting wings of their parents, that their wretched country might not altogether be destroyed, and that the Roman name, which now was but an empty sound to fill the ear, might not become a reproach even to distant nations …

      18. The Romans, therefore, left the country, giving notice that they could no longer be harassed by such laborious expeditions, nor suffer the Roman standards …

      20. Again, therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to AEtius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follows:-“To AEtius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons.”

      In Gildas’s eyes at least, the Romans were those who ruled Britannia but no longer did, hence why Ambrosius is one of their last. They might be mutual concept to us, and they probably were no different from those on the continent but, judging by Gildas, they no longer saw themselves as Roman and when Gildas talks of Romans he most definitely means Roman.

      Gildas does indeed have good things to say about Vortipor’s father, although he may have been known by his Latin name, but he doesn’t have a good word for Cuneglasus’ father; in fact he doesn’t mention him. The point is him not using a British name when it served his purpose, so he could say it took a ‘Roman’ to save the Britons … yet again.

      As for the battles, yes, they could be anywhere … well, some of them could be.


  7. Pabo Post Prydain

    July 19, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Hi Mak,

    Cuneglasus and Maelgwn were cousins (both were the grandsons of Enniuan Girt) and Gildas tells us that Maelgwn usurped his uncle who was a good chap. Of course, the uncle might not have been old man Cuneglasus, but the genealogies only mention two brothers, in which case Owain of the pearly gnashers is arguably the uncle in question.

    Gildas is notoriously shaky on his Roman history – look at his views on the date and purpose of Hadrian’s Wall. In his own mind, he may have drawn a distinction between Roman and Briton, but there is no evidence that such a distinction had any practical validity by 410 – or indeed for a long time before that. I suspect that like leader writers for the daily mail, he harks back to a Golden Age that never was. He associates Ambrosius with the old civil order which was pretty well gone by the time Gildas was writing and which had been replaced – especially in the north and west – by the warbands of Powys, Gwynedd, Strathclyde, Rheged, Elmet and so on. It is hardly surprising that an educated fellow like Gildas would be largely unimpressed with the average petty king backed by his warband.



    • badonicus

      July 19, 2011 at 4:04 pm

      The words ‘can’ and ‘worms’ come to mind here! LOL. There is something very seldomly mentioned in this debate over just who Mailcun usurped, and that’s that Gildas calls his uncle ‘avunclus’, which can mean ‘maternal aunt’.

      Gildas’s perspective was, of course, from his own time’s viewpoint … but that’s all we have. I don’t think there was a such a distinction in 410, but as Britain went for independence and we get on for the mid 5th century there probably was more of a distinction … and that’s not to mention the distinction between those of the south east and those of the rest of Britannia.

  8. Pabo Post Prydain

    July 21, 2011 at 9:56 am

    But Gildas calls the uncle “the King, your uncle” and goes on to talk about HIS soldiers, which does rather suggest Maelgwn usurped a man, not a woman.

    I’d agree with your second paragraph. As you know, my theory is that we are told quite clearly that the victor of Badon was Ambrosius and that there is nothing in Gildas which requires an alternative reading. Arguably, at least three of the remaining battles in HB are memories of battles which other sources attribute to folk other than Arthur (Urbs Legionis, Bregoiun and Celidon). The bulk of the rest are too obscure to allow comment either way.

    Given that none of the surviving genealogies (most of which are Welsh or belong to the Hen Ogledd) claim Ambrosius and given also his apparent Roman credentials as fawned over by Gildas, one can tentatively postulate that Ambrosius operated in the (once) wealthier areas of south or east. I prefer the south, as I think that AS immigration in the east may have been largely peaceful.

    The issue here is that if we take Badon away from a historic Arthur, we don’t really have a historic Arthur at all. What we perhaps have is a mythical hero of story and song who, for whatever reason, is given a veneer of historical fact and is made responsible for dimly remembered events which occurred many generations previously.

    What do you think?



    • badonicus

      July 21, 2011 at 4:59 pm

      I wasn’t suggesting Maelgwn usurped a woman, but his mother’s father, who could have been a king.

      On the rest of it, I think we’ll will have to just agree to differ. All my thoughts on what you ask are contained in these various blogs. The only thing I will add is if Gildas had not mentioned Ambrosius or his book had been lost we’d think he was a legend too.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 108 other followers

%d bloggers like this: