There can be few characters from history or legend who have captured the imagination quite as much as King Arthur. The story of the noble warrior king who led his knights against the forces of evil and ultimately was doomed to betrayal by those closest to him has been told and retold many times since the Twelfth Century when it was first set down in detail.
Many historians have searched for clues to try and answer the question of whether Arthur was a real historical figure, or merely a legend. There are no surviving accounts from the time when he was said to have lived – the late fifth and early sixth centuries – that would undeniably prove his existence. Some historians today believe there was a prototype for Arthur – a successful warlord who may not necessarily have been a king but a ‘leader of battles’ or a hired sword – in the immediate post-Roman era. Bernard Cornwell’s excellent novel, The Winter King, adopts this point of view.
The period that followed Roman Britain has been labelled The Dark Ages because of the lack of surviving written records that tell us what happened in the three hundred years before Anglo-Saxon colonists had established kingdoms, been converted to Christianity, and began recording their deeds in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. There are tantalising glimpses offered by monks writing in that period – most notably Nennius, Gildas, and Bede the Venerable, who make scant mention of kings and battles, instead recording the history of the early Christian church. Gildas, writing around 550 AD, hinted at troubled times:
‘The poor remnants of our nation… that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then left alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive.’
There are other mentions of a Romano-Briton leader or high king named Ambrosius (‘the divine’) Aurelianus in the fifth century who led the opposition to encroaching Saxon, Scots and Irish incursions. Clearly, it was a troubled time for the Britons, left exposed by the removal of Roman protection. However, there is no physical or archaeological evidence for who the leaders were, where battles took place and when. It has been suggested that the legend of King Arthur is a composite of the feats of a number of Briton leaders over a broad period stretching from the mid-fifth to the mid-sixth centuries, embellished by bards over the years until written down in 1136 AD by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book, The History of the Kings of Britain.
Historians have dismissed Geoffrey of Monmouth as more of a fiction than historical author, as there are mentions of dragons, giants and sorcery mixed in with fanciful accounts of ‘made up’ kings and assorted characters who may have crossed over from classical literature. However one contemporary historian, Miles Russell (writing in History Revealed magazine) mounts a defense of Geoffrey’s work. He has examined Geoffrey’s claim that the inspiration for his work was based on an ancient book ‘in the British tongue’ and found that it may have some credence (despite the source text never having been found or mentioned by any other). To support his theory he uses as an example Geoffrey’s telling of the coming of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC – an account that has similarities to the ‘official’ Roman version but differs in some details and is told from a British point of view.
It is feasible that tales of the great and good survived well into the Middle Ages, transmitted from generation to generation by word of mouth. It is also possible that Geoffrey had sight of a written account of these tales that has subsequently been lost. Geoffrey’s purpose in writing his History of the Kings of Britain was to convey to his readers that there is a linage of noble kings whose exploits were more interesting than those of the Saxons and Normans who followed. To do this, he brought together a disparate mass of source material, including folklore, chronicles, church manuscripts, king-lists, dynastic tables, oral tales and bardic praise poems.
The information was patchy, garbled and no doubt contradictory by the time Geoffrey undertook his research, so in order to create an uninterrupted narrative flow, he exercised considerable editorial control – massaging information, filling gaps and smoothing out inconsistencies. In so doing, he hijacked certain characters and stories from different time periods and rearranged them in such a way that they created a continuous line of monarchs stretching from pre-Roman times to the seventh century AD. By this act of deliberately falsifying a linage of kings and dropping in classical tales, he has undermined the validity of his own work in the eyes of historians.
One such ‘missing’ source appears to be a narrative of the heroic escapades of Briton tribes in the south and central part of the island – the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni, to be precise. This gives Geoffrey the story of the coming of the Romans from a Briton perspective and of ensuing resistance. There is also source material from Welsh bards that describe events in the West that includes reference to Ambrosius Aurelianus and the many battles of King Arthur, without giving further detail. These give fleeting narratives presented from the perspective of native Britons as opposed to the accounts we are more familiar with of the triumphs of invading powers that form the bulk of our history.
Miles Russell concludes that if you accept that Geoffrey was a diligent compiler of information but with a creative mind for filling gaps, then the elements of his epic work can be unpicked and rearranged into its corrects time settings and appreciated as a valuable insight into early British history. The History of the Kings of Britain, long dismissed as a fanciful work of fiction, can therefore be reappraised and treated as a serious source for understanding early Briton society and their response to the Roman and Saxon invasions.
As for the story of King Arthur – told in detail for the first time by Geoffrey – it has been too easily dismissed as not being grounded in history due to its scope and implausible elements, although it should be noted that many of the fantasy elements were added on later by other writers.
In Geoffrey’s account, we get an enthusiastic narrative of events after the Romans left Britain, starting with Archbishop Guithelin of London pleading with King Aldrien of Armorica (Brittany) to claim Britain as his kingdom and provide protection for the people from barbarian raiders. Aldrien declines, but agrees to send his brother, Constantine, who is briefly king before being deceived and murdered by a noble called Vortigern who seizes the crown. Vortigern employs Saxon chiefs Hengist and Horsa to lead his army, then there is the appearance of sorcerer Merlin, who advises the king to re-site his tower to avoid rock falls caused by two dragons fighting in a cave beneath it. Then the sons of King Constantine, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uther, defeat Vortigern in battle and Ambrosius become king, followed in time by Uther (who takes the name ‘Pendragon’ after seeing a dragon fly across the sky on his coronation day).
Then there is the Arthur story – he is conceived at Tintagel Castle, born from the union of King Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, Duchess of Cornwall, who is deceived into thinking Uther is her husband Gorlois. With Gorlois dead, Uther marries Ygerna and they have a second child, Anna.
Arthur becomes king at the age of fifteen, defeats the Saxons at York wielding a sword called ‘caliburn’, rebuilds London, and marries Ganhumara (‘Guinevere’) who is from a noble Romano-Briton family. Arthur establishes his court at Caerleon in Wales, forms an alliance with his nephew, King Hoel of Brittany, and they inflict further defeats on the Saxons at Lincoln and Bath before crushing a combined force of Picts (Scots) and Hibernian (Irish) tribes at Loch Lomond. They then attacks Ireland, the Orkneys, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and parts of Gaul (France), forcing the people to pay them homage. He lays waste to fields, slaughters the population of these places and burns down their towns – the exact opposite of a chivalric king. Geoffrey’s Arthur is an arrogant, aggressive and brutal warlord who kills and takes what he wants.
But Geoffrey’s story does not end there – Arthur is summoned by the Roman emperor to face charges of war crimes and responds by raising a large army, sailing to Gaul, and meeting the Roman army in battle, defeating and killing the emperor. Arthur’s mind is set on capturing Rome, but he is forced to return home at news that his nephew Mordred has taken his queen, Ganhumara, and seized the kingdom. In a bloody civil war in which thousands die, both Mordred and Arthur fall in battle – Arthur’s body is taken to the Isle of Avalon. Arthur is succeeded by his cousin, Constantine of Cornwall.
This is a summary of Geoffrey’s account in his Historia, and it is an intriguing thought that he MAY have taken it from a lost manuscript. Later generations lightened the blood-soaked narrative, adding more sorcery, the romance of Camelot, chivalric heroes (the knights of the round table), the quest for the Holy Grail, an evil foe in Morgana, and a doomed love triangle involving Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.
Despite the fanciful tale of Arthur taking on the might of Rome, there is still the possibility that Geoffrey’s account was largely based on genuine source material that offers a glimpse of native Briton resistance to foreign invaders in the fifth and sixth centuries. Geoffrey’s King Arthur could not possibly have done all those things – he is most certainly a composite of several characters, including Ambrosius Aurelianus, who has better credentials as a noble leader who led the Britons to early victories over the Saxons.
Further weight is added to the notion that Arthur was not one but many individuals by Alistair Moffat, in his recent book Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms. He argues the case for Arthur being a warlord based in the Scottish borderlands north of Hadrian’s Wall in the years after Roman evacuation, referring to literary sources, historical documents and interpretations of place names to build a compelling and intriguing case for a Scottish Arthur. Add this to the Welsh chroniclers’ Arthur, and you have a folk hero claimed by three home nations.
Clearly, there was organized resistance to invaders, and tales of bravery told by chroniclers and bards from the Briton resistance point of view – and perhaps missing texts. Arthur is the embodiment of this oral tradition from the fifth and sixth centuries, offering us intangible glimpses of deeds in a period wedged between the gloating records of Roman and Anglo-Saxon conquerors.
In my historical book series, A Light in the Dark Ages, I have attempted my own alt-history of the period starting with the departure of the Romans and building to the coming of King Arthur, putting flesh on the mythical bones of early kings Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uther Pendragon.
AUTHOR PROFILE – TIM WALKER
Tim Walker is an independent author based in Windsor, UK. Tim’s background is in marketing, journalism, editing and publications management. He began writing an historical series, A Light in the Dark Ages (set in the Fifth Century), in 2015, starting with a novella set at the time the Romans left Britain – Abandoned. This was followed in 2017 with a novel – Ambrosius: Last of the Romans, and the third installment, Uther’s Destiny, has just been released in March 2018.
His creative writing journey began in July 2015 with the publication of a book of short stories, Thames Valley Tales. In 2016 his first novel, a futuristic/dystopian thriller, Devil Gate Dawn was exposed on the Amazon Scout programme prior to publication. Both titles were re-launched with revised content, new covers and in print-on-demand paperback format in December 2016.
In January 2017 his first children’s book, The Adventures of Charly Holmes, co-written with his 12-year-old daughter, Cathy, was published. In September 2017 he published a second collection of short stories – Postcards from London.