Aspects of King Arthur
In this essay and accompanying audio lecture Professor Roland Rotherham speaks about the legendary King Arthur. Who was he? Where did he come from? What was his warband fighting for? And what are the links between Arthurian lore in Britain, and Arthurian lore in France?
Arthur, Warlord and King: Investigating the legend
Throughout the ages many legends have grown around many heroes, some of these fascinating people can clearly be categorised as ‘Myth’, in other words they are stories without a basis in fact but every now and again one hero emerges in that which we can call ‘Legend’, that is to say a story that has been based on a factual person or events in history. One of these characters is the man who will become known as King Arthur and who’s stories are as vibrant now as when they were first told a thousand years ago.
In our search for Arthur it is first necessary to identify the period in history in which he is supposed to have operated, this is the same for any investigation, for if we do not know ‘When’ how can we ever find out ‘Who’ and ‘How’ ?
So, our search must start in the island of Britain at the time when the Roman Empire is starting to withdraw back to its capital, Rome, the mother of empires. As with many great powers before and since, the Romans had over stretched themselves and their territories where so vast that it became more and more impossible to administrate. This and the fact that the Roman central government and it’s emperors where increasingly corrupt and dissolute made the task even harder.
Rome had been the conquerors of most of the known world and had held it in their power for over four hundred years ! This was an incredible feat. To give you some idea of the time scale let us imagine that the Roman legions are leaving right now, today, that means that they would have arrived and taken possession when England was ruled by the great queen Elisabeth 1st and Holland was ruled by William of Orange, truly an enormous occupation, indeed, probably the longest occupation of any nation by another in history.
This then gives us our starting point, something around the year 400 ad. We can only imagine the chaos that was left as the legions withdrew taking with them not only troops but also the support for those troops that was essential for the running of the empire. Such groups as horse trainers, builders, armourers and leather workers, bakers, brewers and even teachers for the children, in fact the whole substructure of the empire travelled with the army, as it withdrew so did everyone who relied on it for their income.
In Britain the country was divided into small independent kingdoms, each with it’s own ruler. When Rome had arrived they decided to keep the small kingdoms separate as it made a divided people easier to handle. So it was that each ruler of each kingdom tried to obtain more power than his neighbours, (Such is the human way), and soon the country was busy fighting itself with each little king and warlord trying to get more land and power by fair means or by foul.
The people who inhabited the land by this time however were not the same Celtic race that Rome had subdued, they were in fact a mixture of Celt and of the Romans who had lived there for so long. Given such a period of time it is only normal that the two people would eventually form marriages with locals and then their children would also marry and so on. This left Britain populated by a people who were Celtic in many aspects and yet very Roman in others. Also, remember that many of the Romans who had arrived were not Italian Romans but members of the Roman army from the other lands they had conquered, Spanish, German, Ethiopian, Belgian, indeed, almost any nationality, because serving as a Roman soldier or member of it’s administration gave you Roman citizenship and this was highly prized as with it came many benefits including deals on land purchase and a pension, a pretty good deal all in all.
It is hardly surprising therefore that while the country was divided between itself, in the constant struggle for power, that other nations would start to cast their eyes on the island of Britain with a view to obtaining it for their own uses.
It has been suggested in some of the stories told that the Saxons, a Germanic people, where invited into Britain by a man called Vortigern, a supposed ‘High King’ to help him as mercenaries, or paid soldiers, who he refused to pay and they, accordingly, took land and towns by force to make up for his treachery. The truth is a little different I’m afraid. Certainly there was a man called Vortigern and he did indeed hold a position similar to ‘High King’ having obtained some of the smaller kingdoms for his own but as to the Saxons arriving in Britain at this point is where truth is different from the stories.
The truth is that Germanic people started arriving in Britain, in particular on the east coast and south east coast, during the latter years of the Roman occupation. By the time the 5th century had arrived they had certainly spread but most of this was due to the original settlers being pushed further inland by more invaders from their own country. The majority of the early Saxon settlers were in fact Frieslanders from the north German coast and from northern Holland, they were followed by Jutes from Schleswig Holstein and then later by more people from the main body of the German people as the Huns and Goths pushed them out of their own heart land.
After a while because of the sheer volume of people arriving into Britain it was not long before the Saxons were in control of most of central and eastern Britain and a good deal of the south too. This then is the country of Arthur and the state of the country during his life.
We can get a very good idea of the state of things at this time by reading a book called ‘The Ruin of Britain’ by a monk called Gildas. He was actually writing within just a few years of these events and his is one of the few accounts that survive from this period.
He tells us of the fighting and the treachery of the little kings and also of the arriving dangers but he also tells us of the fact that there is no real hero to save Britain, just another land grabbing warlord who wants his share of the spoils of war while fighting the Saxons. Could this be Arthur ? if it is he is less than complimentary about of the kings and mentions the great warlord as a ‘Tyrant’ but never mentions his actual name. Most confusing and annoying too as his document is the only one from the period that could give us definite answers. So if we want more clues we must look elsewhere and see where our search will take us.
The first time we actually come across the name ‘Arthur’ is in the book ‘The Historia Brittonum’ written by the monk Nennius around the year 800 ad. He compiled a number of histories and placed them into one volume. But, even he does not call Arthur a king but a ‘Leader of battles’ who fought with the British kings. If we look at the name Arthur it might give us a clue as to why we can not find him listed as a king in his own right and that is because the actual word ‘Arthur’ is NOT a name but a title and means ‘The Great Bear’, therefore we are looking at a name he was known by and not a name he was christened with.
Nennius does give us some excellent information in his work however as he describes people and events that we can place actual dates to and that means we can get even closer in our search for the ‘Real’ Arthur.
He tells us of twelve battles that are listed in his book as the ‘Campaigns of Arthur’ and these battles together with the names of their locations gives us a marvellous view of the area of fighting between the Britons and the Saxons. He tells us that the 1st was at the mouth of the river called Glein, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th were on another river called the Douglas in Lindsey. The 6th was on the river Bassus, which we now know was in South Staffordshire near to the ancient city called Lichfield and the 7th was in the Celyddon Forest (Celyddon Coed). The 8th was in Guinnion Fort where he is supposed to have fought with the image of the Virgin Mary on his shield and the 9th was in the City of the Legion, (Present day Chester). The 10th was by the river Tryfrwyd and the 11th on Agned Hill. The final and 12th battle was his greatest victory and was on Mount Badon. After this final encounter Britain had peace for almost 40 years and they say that in all twelve battles he was victorious.
This man called Arthur was surely, indeed, a hero of the greatest quality if he was so victorious and could ensure a period of such prolonged peace that the Saxons were too afraid to launch another campaign against him for such a long time. But one thing remains a strange fact, he did not ‘Drive the Saxons out of the country’ as we are sometimes told, he just stopped them advancing any further than they already had.
Alright, now we know something of Britain at the time of Arthur and we also know something of his military campaigns but what about the actual man himself. If we actually met the man known as Arthur, or to be more accurate ‘The Arthur’, what sort of person would we be looking at and what could we expect as his background and training. What kind of man would this hero be? Well let’s see if I can try and show you.
To commence our picture we have to travel to the north of Britain in the area that borders ‘Hadrian’s Wall’, that fantastic structure that was built by the Romans as the very northern-most border of the empire. Here we would find a tribe of people called the ‘Alani’, a nation that fought for the empire of the Roman’s as cavalrymen, so expert were they in the use of the horse in battle. The Alani originally came from the steppes near modern day Russia and they developed a highly sophisticated culture centred around the horse.
We also know that the Alani carried a dragon banner into battle and this again is something that is attributed to Arthur. They have left their name in many areas of the north of Britain in such towns as Alanbridge and Alancote. Keep in mind that when the legions left in the early 5th century they left those who had settled locally and who had become ‘Romano British’ and chose to remain behind when the body of Rome left.
Therefore, in the north of Britain we have a group of men who have married local girls and whose descendants served in the cavalry with the legions and were trained in the Roman way of fighting from a horse, this is something that the Saxon is not used to doing being mainly foot warriors.
During the middle of the 5th century we know that these cavalry troops and their families where offered land if they would move from the north and settle in the land known as ‘The Welsh Marches’, or the area that now separates England and Wales. Many of them took this opportunity to relocate and moved to their new lands on the promise that they would provide mounted warriors to help with the Saxon problem.
From this group of people then we may see the origin of Arthur’s race. A mix of Eastern European Romans and local Celts. The Arthur may even have had slightly almond shaped eyes and his skin may have been a pale olive in colour. It is reasonable to assume that he would have been reasonably tall for the period (Around 5 feet 8 inches), and more than likely he would have been muscular and without an amount of body-fat due to the fact that he and his people led such an active life.
My personal view is that he would wear either a beard or even a large moustache as both of these were popular with Celt and Alani.
His clothing would have been almost Roman in appearance and would have been comprised of a helmet with cheek and neck guards and more than likely a plume of horse hair cascading from the top of the helmets crest. The body armour may again have been almost Roman in design with a leather jerkin covered in brass or bronze scales. We should expect him to be using breeches probably of wool or again of leather and these would be tucked into knee-high boots laced up the front. During warm weather a type of long legged sandal could also be used. Around his shoulders would be a woollen cloak and at his side he would be carrying a short stabbing sword very similar to the ‘Gladius’ in pattern but perhaps a little longer. He would, without exception, have carried a shield and this may have carried an early Christian symbol such as the ‘Chi Rho’ or even, perhaps, the image of the Virgin as we have been told. His equipment would have been finished with a spear and then our warlord would have been ready for any occasion.
The men following him would have been dressed in a similar fashion and so with this gathering of fearsome warriors we have the very start of the body of troops that legend will turn into ‘King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table’.
As to the ‘Round Table’ itself, this may have originated with the men meeting at one of the old Roman amphitheatres that remained in Britain at this time, a particularly fine one being at Caerleon, where, we are told, Arthur held his court. Indeed, Caerleon is mentioned by a 12th century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, as being Camelot itself.
From the areas around Wales and in the South West of Britain the warlord, the Arthur, would have commenced his campaigns against the Saxons and ride into legend as the greatest hero of them all.
The campaigns fought by this war leader however are now being investigated as being not a series of counter attacks but perhaps as being a series of engagements fought with the aim in mind of buying time for the Britons as they started to engineer their great evacuation of Briton across the stretch of water, now known as the English Channel, into a new home territory which would become known as ‘Brittany’, literally ‘Little Britain. This may be one of the reasons why that beautiful country has so many Arthurian legends, because it was to there that the leaving Celts made home just after the time of the Arthur and during the valuable period of peace that his military campaigns had bought. Perhaps they were, after all, merely a delaying tactic to buy time for his people.
The next mention of Arthur that we get is in the early 12th century and in a book entitled ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’ by Geoffrey of Monmouth who we mentioned earlier. In this work we are finally confronted with ‘King’ Arthur and from then on he has never been known as anything else. Geoffrey wrote his work as a serious history but upon reading it we very quickly find out that it is history as seen through the eyes of legend, and yet there are tell-tale glimpses of fact that come through the story that give us tantalising pieces of history from the era that has become known as the ‘Dark Ages’.
But was any of this relevant to our ‘Historical’ Arthur? Well it just may have been. By using the very few documents that survive from the period we can collect names and dates that are verifiable with known history and by using these we can put together a possible identity of our warlord Arthur, for crowned king he never was.
It is possible though that his people, the Alani, who had settled in the Welsh Marches and in the South West of Britain, had over a period of time gathered to themselves such large areas of land that they appointed their own overlord, who would have been to all intents and purposes a prince and here we may find our Arthur.
The main area of Alani population is now known as Powys and here we find the seats of power of their war lords or princes. In Llangollen we can even see a remarkable stone monument called the ‘Pillar of Eliseg’, on this we are told was inscribed the family tree of the dark age princes of Powys and their descendants. By using these names and matching them to dates in other documents and dates in which they are mentioned we can draw a fairly accurate picture of which princes were ruling where and when during this time. We can even point at one prince in particular as being the possible Arthur, a warlord by the name of Owain Ddantgwynn.
But even though we can match him by place and date it is still not proof positive that he is our man. That is the aspect of this period that I have found most interesting, you can get so close and then when you think you have reached your goal something or someone appears in the picture and throws you completely of track. Let us just say that at this moment it is POSSIBLE that Owain Ddantgwynn may be one of the candidates to be the historical Arthur.
No matter who he was, it is the emergence of the legends and their endurability that has gained a place in history for this particular hero and whether or not he existed as a king or a warlord the importance of his legends became so strong that many factual kings and leaders based their own ideals on those of the stories that arose around this dark age leader of battles. that legend turned Arthur into the epitome of virtue and his war band into the immortal ‘Knights of the Round Table’.
How the legends came to be will be the subject of another study paper, however, this one must end here as it is only possible to give you the briefest of outlines in the space allowed. I do sincerely hope though that you will take the opportunity to read further on this fascinating subject as it is still one of the great unsolved mysteries that still exists in our modern world.
Good hunting !!
History of Britain, Nennius Phillimore Publications. 1980 onwards.
King Arthur, The True Story And The Marian Conspiracy, G Phlips & M Keatman Sidgwick and Jackson 1985 onwards.
The Age Of Arthur, John Morris Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1989 onwards.
Camelot And The Vision Of Albion, Geoffrey Ashe various publishers 1975 onwards.
The Elements Of The Grail Tradtion, John Matthews Element Books1990.
The Household of The Grail, John Matthews Aquarian Press 1990 onwards.
The Grail, The Truth Behind The Legend Godsfield Press 2005 onwards.
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