Written Sources for the Historical Arthur

The winter/spring session of The Wordstapas is open for registration. Our first meeting is January 31st. We will be reading The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff, as well as some ancient Irish poetry. An auditing option is available for those who cannot join the live meetings due to commitments or time zone differences. Register here, or contact Nicole with any questions.

I have finished reading the first two books in Howard Pyle’s series on King Arthur.  The Story of King Arthur and His Knights relates Arthur’s birth, the finding of Excalibur, the winning of Guinevere, and the establishment of the Round Table.  The Story of the Champions of the Round Table introduces Launcelot, tells the story of Tristram and Isolde, and the adventures of Percival.  There are two more books in Pyle’s series, The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur.  Both of these I have yet to read.  For now, I have begun to pick away at the historical evidence for Arthur’s existence.

It is generally agreed that if Arthur existed, it was between 400 and 500 A.D., after Rome had left Britain and while the Angles and Saxons were beginning to settle on the island.  Sources from that time period are tricky to unravel.  In “Reusing”: An Anglo-Saxon Guide to Plagiarism, I wrote about how chroniclers and historians alike were apt to copy one another’s work and had less regard for historical fact than we do now.  Descriptions of marvels were regularly scattered amongst, and mixed into, what we would like to call historical events.  Writers were free to manipulate facts and dates to suit their purpose.  Chroniclers took dates from historians and historians took dates from chroniclers, neither of whom necessarily made historical accuracy a priority.

There are a scant few sources that mention the name Arthur—three to be precise.  I will go through them briefly, with more to come later as I learn.

Historia Brittonum “History of the Britons” was written around 828 A.D., possibly by a man named Nennius.  In the text is a list of twelve battles of Arthur dux bellorum “leader of battles.”1  An appendix to the Historia, titled Mirabilia “Wonders of Britain,” includes two more mentions of Arthur.  The first is in reference to Cabal, “who was the dog of the soldier Arthur,”2 and whose paw-print is stamped in a magic stone.  The second is the tomb of Amr, “the son of Arthur the soldier,”3 who was killed and buried by Arthur himself.

Annales Cambriae “Annals of Wales” was written down around 1100.  Under the date 516 A.D. it says, “The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.”4  Bede mentions “the siege of Badon-hill”5 in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and scholars generally agree that it was historical.  The second reference to Arthur in the Annales is under the year 537 A.D.  It says, “The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”6  This rings close to the legendary version we have now:  A final battle in which Arthur kills Mordred, his nephew (or son/foster son in some texts) and Mordred wounds Arthur, who is then sent to Avalon.  But the Annales does not mention the relationship between Arthur and Medraut and does not say they were on opposing sides.  This was likely added later.

Y Gododdin “The Gododdin” is a Welsh poem, generally supposed to be set around 600 A.D., but possibly written down much later.  It is a lament for the overwhelming defeat of a warband called The Gododdin.  It names many warriors, one of whom it is said,

He thrust beyond three hundred, most bold,
He cut down the centre and far wing.
He proved worthy, leading noble men;
He gave from his herd steeds for winter.
He brought black crows to a fort’s
Wall, though he was not Arthur.
He made his strength a refuge,
The front line’s bulwark, Gwawrddur.
7

This is at least proof that a figure named Arthur was known of at the time, but it is possible that he was already legendary at the time.  It could be like saying “but he was not Beowulf.”

Although these documents present seemingly exciting proof that a man named Arthur existed at some point, it is important to remember that all these sources were written at least 300 years after Arthur is supposed to have lived.  Three hundred years is a long time, time enough for a story-loving nation to gather and connect all manner of legendary and mythological material around one battle leader.

Notes:

1Historia Brittonum, Chapter III, translated by J.A. Giles

2The Wonders of Britain, “Cabal’s Cairn,” translated by J. Morris

3The Wonders of Britain, “Amr’s Tomb,” translated by J. Morris

4Annales Cambriae, translated by James Ingram

5Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Chapter 16, by Bede, translated by A.M. Sellar

6Annales Cambriae, translated by James Ingram

7Y Gododdin, Stanza CII, translated by Joseph Clancy

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