King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Twelve

17 Mar


English: Scanned from frontispiece of Ab Ithel...

Annales Cambriae

Everyone’s conclusions to this are going to be different, depending on many different factors: how long you’ve been studying the Arthurian subject, how much you’ve read, your culture, your beliefs, your personality.  My conclusions, in a sense, don’t matter, it’s how these blogs have affected your views on the subject.

The original question I posed was:

Can it be deduced with any certainty or probability that the Arthur depicted in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, said to have fought at the first battle of Mount Badon, was based on a historical character of the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries or an earlier mythical or folkloric figure? or that he could have been both?”

Can there be any certainty that he was a historic figure that fought at Badon? As long as there’s disagreement on the validity of the H.B and the A.C., no. (Perhaps some individuals can be certain, but it’s hard to see there ever being a consensus, unless there’s some miraculous find to prove he existed). Could he have been purely mythical or folkloric? Yes, but I cannot see how there can be any certainty of it. Could he have been both? Yes, but there can be no certainty about that either. Yet many people are certain of one or the other.

Page from the Book of Aneurin , MS c. 1275. Fr...

Y Gododdin

Probability is another matter. If the probability question where to do with the weight of evidence and the odds of existence to none-existence, then the odds would (probably) be against his existence. But this depends on the interpretation of the evidence in the first place. For example, if you think the Welsh material probably came from a mythical figure you will have a different outcome to if you think the material probably came from Arthur of Badon, or his name replaced a mythical figure. The same goes for the information in Y Gododdin, the Historia Britonnum and the Annales Cambriae. If you think these sources valid you have a totally different outcome to if you don’t. If you think they’re valid, historical documents, then he existed. Even if it’s only the H.B. that can be taken as valid (if not accurate) then he existed. But if you don’t … So, we probably can’t use probability!

For me, there is no firm conclusion to be had, but I hope I’ve, at least, added something to this debate. It cannot be proven that there was a historical, 5th century Arthur, that’s impossible to do, but I hope these blogs have shown that, if there was one, there’s no reason his name couldn’t have come about by the same means argued for the 6th and 7th century Arthur/Artúrs by Higham et al; or that, if his name (and some stories) did derive from folkloric or mythical sources, or there was also a mythical (or historical) character(s) of similar or the same name, why later confusion, even by the 9th century or before, would arise. In essence, Higham’s and Green’s argument for the naming of the other Arthurs can be applied to an early Arthur. Why? Because it appears (to me) that this Arthur of Welsh folklore or myth bears little or no resemblance to the Arthur in the H.B.. One’s a Saxon fighter, the other isn’t. One fights giants and the Otherworld, the other one doesn’t appear to. One supposedly was a leader of battles for kings of Britain, the other one wasn’t. One fought at Badon, the one of the early tradition didn’t. However, this doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a Saxon fighting Briton who got turned into this fantastical character, just as Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Urien were used in stories that had nothing to do with their actual lives. These stories alone prove that this happened and this is too often ignored.

From how I interpret the evidence, we cannot rule out a historical figure who fought at Badon being the ‘original’ and the later legends and topographical and onomastic sites merely being a distortion in response to folk culture and internal and external political events. That’s probably the simplest answer, but the simplest answer isn’t always the right one. Nor can we rule out that there was no ‘Arthur of Badon’ … but it is also possible that there were two totally independent mythical and historical characters that were merged and confused, or even a mythical figure whose name was changed to Arthur, be that earlier than the 6th century or after. The problem arises as to why a purely British folkloric or mythical figure would be given a Latin name (rather than a Latinized name), be that Arturius or Arturus. It would have to be yet another unique case. But that also doen’t mean it couldn’t have happened. (‘Arthur’s Wain‘ – The Plough – could be an indication that Arcturus became Arturus).

What it means, to me at least, is that it cannot be stated categorically that Arthur of the 5th century was historical, but neither can it be stated categorically he was purely mythical or folkloric. But it’s possible that the name was all of these things. However, if Arthur cannot be categorically stated to have been real from the evidence we have, then other Early Medieval figures who are considered historical without question should be treated in the same way.

(I’ve italicized ‘possible’ twice above as that is, in the end, all we can use).

Hywel Dda

Whichever historical Arthur you go for, whether that be one who was at Badon, Artur ap Pedr or Artúr mac Áedán, you have to come up with theories that explain the anomalies between them and the sources. You either have to come up with reasons why Arthur of Badon doesn’t appear in genealogies or near contemporary sources or why one of these other Arthur’s were said to be at Badon; and how, if their respective royal houses knew they were THE Arthur, they didn’t make political mileage from it. Neither Demetia/Dyfed or Dalriada appear to have done so … although the MacArthur/Campbells tried to do so later (See THIS blog). Adomnán makes nothing of Artúr, only his father Áedán. Hywel Dda of Dyfed could, perhaps, have slipped it into to his Laws somewhere that they were the descendants of the great Arthur, but he didn’t. If any of them did try and do so, it’s been suppressed or lost.

So, has my 65% leaning towards a historical Arthur changed? Yes. It may have gone to up 67% now. Why? Because of re-looking at the H.B. battle list and the use of Arthur here. Unless there was something in the Welsh tradition about a Saxon fighting Arthur it doesn’t make sense, to me at least, that he would be used if he was the same as the Welsh folkloric figure we know of today. Of course, stories of a mythical Arthur who fought Saxons might have been around and they’ve been lost, but we can only look at the evidence as it is.

What I may consider now more than before I started these blogs is the possibility of an independent mythical figure alongside the historic one(s). A figure that was, at some point in history, given the name Arturius/Arthur/Arturus, but who may have started life under another guise.

Having said all the above, I want to finish by quoting Christopher Gidlow from his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’ (2010):

“It is worrying just how convoluted, how complex, the arguments against Arthur are. Faced with the mass of evidence, opponents are forced to imagine an unknown British god called Arthur (with a convenient taboo against naming him), or landscape features named after other Arthurs of earlier history or mythology whose importance to the inhabitants is nowhere attested. These chimerical Arthurs have left legends which have, for inscrutable reasons, been attached to a military figure of the fifth or sixth century who, if he existed, cannot possibly have borne the name Arthur. Whatever name he had must, despite his importance, have become irretrievably lost. The author of the Historia Brittonum has for his own purpose for the Britons, uniquely put this composite figure in a narrative which otherwise only features major figures already placed in this time period. All other references to Arthur as a historical figure derive from this single source. The counter-argument, that Arthur was a real person who fought the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, who later attracted legendary tall tales, has the advantage of simplicity and requires fewer unknown steps and sources.” (p.193)

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



Arthurian Probability Test

King Arthur, Merlin, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, and Guinevere decide to go to their favorite restaurant to share some mead and grilled meats. They sit down at a round table for five, and as soon as they do, Lancelot notes, “We sat down around the table in age order! What are the odds of that?”

Merlin smiles broadly. “This is easily solved without any magic.” He then shared the answer. What did he say the odds were?

I’ll give the answer soon!

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9 responses to “King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Twelve

  1. Howard Wiseman

    March 17, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks for this series, Mak. One question I always have wrt to the HB is “what about Vortimer”. There is no other evidence for him, and one might well suspect that he was invented to turn the Kentish list of Hengist’s victories/draws into a list of British victories/draws. So is he a counter-example to the HB only containing “major figures already placed in this time period”. Nevertheless my level of confidence in an ‘istorical :-) Arthur c.500 is around the same as yours (though I’ve never tried to quantify the probability to the nearest percent!)

    Speaking of probability, I think Merlin’s answer should be 1/12 (or 1:11 if we are talking odds). Or is there some trick?

    • badonicus

      March 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to read it Howard.

      The Vortimer question is a good one and, as you say, there are some who think he was constructed for the H.B.. It’s hard to prove or disprove but certainty worth pointing out.

      I don’t know how accurate my ‘istorical percentage is, but it’s (probably) somewhere near that. :)

      No, the Merlin question isn’t a trick, and I’ll post the answer tomorrow or Monday.

    • badonicus

      March 17, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      I meant to ask you: do you think this blog added anything new to the debate or was I just saying everything that had been said before? I value your opinion.

    • badonicus

      March 21, 2012 at 9:13 pm

      Sorry Howard, forgot to give the answer: It is indeed 1/12 (or 1:11 if we are talking odds)! Congratulation! You when absolutely nothing I’m afraid, but kudos!

  2. Tim

    March 21, 2012 at 11:20 am

    This has been a useful series of posts, Mak, not least because you’ve assembled pretty much every worthwhile bit of data in one place. In the final chapter you’ve laid your cards on the table without sticking your neck out too far. No certainties in this debate, as you point out, but I think you’ve justified your cautious support for a historical Arthur rather well.

    • badonicus

      March 21, 2012 at 7:53 pm

      Thank you so much for the comment Tim, I really do appreciate it and it makes it all worthwhile.

  3. Howard Wiseman

    March 21, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    I agree with Tim. Personally I had come across almost all of the material before (some because of your other blog posts Mak!) but it is good to have it all in one place, and to see that the arguments in favour of an historical Arthur are rather stronger than those against.

    Re Vortimer, I’d like to know why (except of course that I do know why) there aren’t dozens of blogs and websites and books devoted to the question “Was there an historical Vortimer”. e.g. I’d like to see if one restricts to pre-Galfridian sources, is there more evidence for an historical Arthur or an historical Vortimer? The passage in the HB about Vortimer is as long as that about Arthur. And Vortimer has a genealogy recorded far earlier than Arthur does, and has a territory in south Wales named after him. Finally, in my view Vor-timo-ri(us) is a far better candidate for Rio-tim(us) than is Arthur, so *perhaps* we even have a contemporary record of him.

    Vortimorius, Rex Quondam, Rexque Futuris !

    • badonicus

      March 21, 2012 at 7:55 pm

      Thanks Howard, much appreciated and you’re absolutely right about Vortimer! Maybe I’ll look at that next too!

  4. badonicus

    May 21, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Much has been going on in the past 14 months, mainly work, but also turning these blogs into an ebook. The work has gotten in the way of this a little, but soon I will have the time to give my full attention to it.

    It has greatly expanded on what is in the blogs and some conclusions and thoughts have been modified. I won’t give away if my percentage for Arthur existing has increased or diminished as I want to save that for the book, but it has … changed.


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