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,
SINCE WRITING THIS I HAVE DONE ANOTHER RELATED BLOG, WHICH COVERS THE SUBJECT IN EVEN MORE DETAIL. CLICK HERE TO READ IT.